Man Finds Art in Debris Washed Up on Brooklyn Shores

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We walk by litter every day. One creative Brooklynite takes a more thoughtful approach to flotsam.

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Willis Elkins of Green Point searches the shorelines of Brooklyn for interesting refuse. He stumbles upon a frame for a manmade beehive at Bushwick Inlet Park. (Photo by Ryan Book)

Willis Elkins reaches into a gap in the rocks at Bushwick Inlet Park in Williamsburg. He pulls out a rectangular wooden frame, with spare bits of honeycomb caked around its edges. It’s the remnants of a domestic bee hive.

“You find all sorts of things when you’re out here,” Elkins says, standing near the edge of the East River. “There’s plastic bags and styrofoam cups, and sometimes stuff like this.”

Elkins, a Greenpoint resident, collects flotsam, or litter and objects accidentally released into waterways, and recontextualizes it for art shows. By collecting and assembling bits of themed refuse, including lighters and pens, he both demonstrates the aesthetic potential for objects cast aside by society, and provides a subtle look into the side effects of material culture. The Brooklyn Arts Council will feature his collection of  nurdles, plastic pellets melted down for later production, in its show “Sea Drift,” beginning in March.

Elkins’ arrangements may not resemble pieces in traditional mediums, but the art world has begun to embrace refuse as art, or as it’s sometimes called, “upcycling.” The Brooklyn Museum recently opened a special exhibit on Ghanian artist El Anatsui, who assembles huge installments of aluminum, copper wire and other scrapped materials. In 2008, German artist HA Schult’s “Trash People,” a collection of figures assembled from waste, made an appearance in New York City during 2008.

A member of the North Brooklyn Boat Club, Elkins  noticed all of the litter that would gather on shores unblocked by seawalls and mastheads. Places like Jamaica Bay, a shoreline with little human visitation, was full of flotsam. The unknown history of the objects piqued Elkins’ curiosity.

“The broader issue that I liked was the mystery of it,” he said. “How did it get here? Where did it come from?”

One object that Elkins found in large quantities was lighters. For Elkins, they represented the human element in flotsam.

“There’s something about the lighter that’s more personal,” he said. “That was someone’s. That was in somebody’s pocket.”

Elkins collected huge quantities of lighters, assembling them by where he found them and by color. Friends often asked if any still worked. The question helped inspire his “Pen Project.”

By collecting washed pens and replacing the cartridges, Elkins assembled a collection of fully functional writing tools, reflecting a theme of recycling. Some are simple fixes. Others are more artistic, like a yellow highlighter refitted with a blue ink cartridge.

Despite showcasing his work in art shows, Elkins sees himself less as an artist and more as a sociologist. He’s teamed up with friends to carry out research projects, such as analyzing the diets of New Jersey natives based on litter in the waterways, and mapping refuse across the Bulgarian countryside during a summer spent in the nation. He’s compiled all of his projects on his website, outerspacecities.com.

Claudia Gerbracht, a curator at the Brooklyn Art Council describes Elkins’s work as an “example of a personal ritual, a physical manifestation of his time spent in and around Brooklyn’s waterfront.”

Outside of pseudo-academic studies, Elkins simply enjoys some of the unusual artifacts he stumbles upon. Some highlights include a collectible astronaut statuette and derelict jet skis, but Elkins’s all-time favorite is a small plastic frog.

In 1992, a container of plastic bath toys spilled into the Pacific Ocean and began making landfall along the West Coast of North America. Oceanologists drafted a model to predict where the toys would end up for years to follow. None had ever been found on the Atlantic Coast until Elkins found his frog. He has his doubts about its authenticity, but still cherishes the toy.

“They’re very distinct looking. They have a very angular design,” he said. “I don’t think it’s from the container spill because it’s in really good shape, but it’s fun to think it’s from the original spill.”

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

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