In the dark theater, on a dimly lit stage, a 32-foot-long gray whale made of plastic bags looked so lifelike, it seemed to be gliding through the depths of the ocean.
As visitors came to see the one-day exhibit of “The Plastic Whale Project,” the iconic shape and colossal size of the subject prompted the same reaction – no matter what their age.
“When I walked in and saw it I went, ‘Whoa – that’s pretty life-size scale,’ ” said 10-year-old Liam Queneau, who visited the unusual art piece that took center stage at the University of Montana’s Dennison Theatre on Thursday afternoon.
“And then I said, ‘Wow.’ ”
Made from more than 9,000 plastic bags and created by 900 children and adults in Thurston County, Wash., the sculpture was originally part of an outreach program to engage the public in understanding plastics in our environment, explained Carrie Ziegler.
Ziegler spearheaded the project during her professional work with Thurston County Solid Waste, and brought it to completion with her vision and her after-hours life as a studio painter, muralist and sculptor.
“As an artist, it was a logical step for me to incorporate art and creativity into the educational program,” Ziegler said during a rare quiet moment when a viewer wasn’t asking her about the dramatic whale.
“When I thought about how to educate people about plastics in our environment and to reduce the use of plastic bags, I wanted something a lot of different people could be involved with,” she said. “Then I learned about trash in our oceans – and the Gyre.”
What is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – or Gyre – is a vortex of human debris, mostly plastic, that collects where currents collide in the central North Pacific.
“It’s more like a garbage soup, where the top 30 meters of ocean is filled with plastics that don’t biodegrade,” Ziegler said. “In size, it’s about as big as two states of Texas.”
With the awful reality of the gyre fresh in her mind, she remembered the story of a gray whale that washed up on a Thurston County beach in 2010.
When biologists did a necropsy on the whale, they found in its stomach a host of disturbing non-biodegradable items, including more than 30 plastic bags, tennis balls and a pair of sweatpants.
Ziegler said connecting the two made artistic sense, which was how she decided the whale would be the subject of her community project, and plastic bags would be the medium.
Consider this, Ziegler said as she explained the sculpture to viewers flowing around the whale – which seemed suspended in air, but was actually firmly anchored to the ground by four shopping carts.
“The skin of the whale is made of plastic bags that were braided together by more than 400 schoolchildren,” she said. “And on the skin is a map of the Pacific Ocean and the Great Pacific Gyre.
“In the United States, the average use of a plastic bag is 12 minutes, and each person uses about 300 to 350 bags a year.”
At 32 feet long and weighing about 250 pounds, the sculpture is smaller than its real-life counterpart, but it is made to scale, Zeigler said.
The whale’s eye is made from plastic bottles, its teeth from the handles of plastic forks and spoons. On its right side, the whale’s respiratory system emerges, made from plastic cups and milk jugs.
“I think it is absolutely spectacular,” said Austin Roos, a UM student. “It really incorporates at lot of interesting elements and it definitely inspires discussion about our direct influence on the environment.
“The use of mapping on the side of the whale, showing how plastic leaves land and enters the ocean to amalgamate in the middle of the ocean is really powerful.
“I really, really enjoy this piece.”
Although the exhibit lasted only one day due to an unusual shipping arrangement, the whale’s short visit was worth the undertaking, said Barbara Koostra, who as director of UM’s Montana Museum of Art & Culture was responsible for making the event happen.
“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to offer something that is both an art piece and an education piece,” Koostra said.
“It was kind of a last-minute opportunity, and we knew it was a powerful exhibit, so we wanted to do something different to display it,” she said. “Our galleries are always booked out so far in advance, but the Dennison Theatre wasn’t being used so we thought putting it on stage would be a really theatrical way to present it.”