Walking on the beach in Deer Isle, Maine, artist and Pacific University alum Emily Miller had an idea.
She had taken a two-week basket stitching course in the small lobster-fishing town where her grandparents live, and she was making baskets "here and there" using cotton sash cord, she said. But every night when she returned to her grandparents' house, she would see "ghost nets" — fishing nets lost at sea that had washed ashore.
"I'm thinking, 'Why am I using this anonymous material for this process,'" Miller recalled, "'when I could be using this fishing rope?'"
That idea was the beginning of Miller's latest exhibit, called "Ghost Net Landscape," which will be on display at Pacific University's Kathrin Cawein Gallery, 2043 College Way, through October.
The exhibit features several baskets Miller made from lost fishing nets, but during the exhibit's opening reception on Monday, Oct. 7, most of the spaces meant to hold art were empty. That's because Miller is planning to host about 300 Pacific students and others who want to come pick rope out of a pile of ghost nets to make their own pieces with Miller. She will be in the gallery Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. helping people make their own art.
Miller got much of the rope for the exhibit from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which collects ghost nets across the coast, and a group of volunteer beach cleaners in Kauai, where she's from.
"They haul tons off the beach every month," Miller said. "They're currently collecting 10,000 pounds a month. I didn't realize how big the problem was and I thought that's what I want to bring to a gallery exhibit, the huge pile, to get that impact."
Miller, who majored in studio art at Pacific, always cared about environmental issues and was interested in conservation, but she never envisioned she would be able to blend sustainability and her artwork. By allowing people to use materials that endanger aquatic wildlife and pollute the oceans to create something new, Miller has found a new kind of fulfillment in her work, she said.
"I can't solve this problem," Miller said about the growing about of trash in oceans around the world. "Nothing I do will make the Pacific garbage patch go away. But a basket is something that humans have always created to hold more than you can otherwise. So I think it's sort of a subconscious way of me saying, well I can't do everything, but here's what I can do."
She said people who came to her exhibition when it was at a gallery in Portland's Pearl District were excited to participate because they similarly had feelings of hopelessness when it came to environmental issues. Miller said she hopes it inspires people to continue reacting to environmental degradation with art and innovation.
Miller is primarily a painter, but she said she plans to center other future works on recycled materials and interactivity.
"I haven't figured out how that fits into painting yet but I'm interested to see where it goes," she said.
Miller has a timelapse camera pointed at the pile of rope in the Cawein Gallery. In the closing reception on Oct. 29, she plans to show the video of the pile of rope being reduced.
"At the end, it's going to be, 'OK, this is what we've made,'" Miller said.
Several of Miller's professors came to the opening reception Monday. They were delighted to welcome Miller back, not only because of her success, but also because she is taking on issues that are important to many Pacific students.
"We have a lot of students that are from Hawaii and around the Pacific Ocean," said professor Terry O'Day. She said many students pick ocean conservation when she encourages them to come up with issues on which to focus their art.
"They've actually experienced walking on the beach and finding animals tangled up in nets. It means something to their hearts. They're so identified with it."
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