Marina Debris: Giving Voice to the Sea
Turning waste into an artistic ecological statement.
Walking along the shoreline of Australia’s Coogee Beach you might see a lithe brunette picking up trash. Stop and shake her hand. This one-woman art phenom is collecting materials for her work the way a painter might buy acrylics at an art supply store. Marina DeBris, a moniker chosen for maximum effect, uses ocean garbage to remind us all we’re not the only ones using this planet and it’s time to stop choking it with our bad habits. Her mission in life is to change those habits for the good of us all.
DeBris was born in Detroit with the soul of an artist and the talent to back it up. After studying at Indiana University she continued developing her skills at the Rhode Island School of Design. Discovering a penchant for metal arts she worked diligently with an eye toward becoming a goldsmith. At RISD she discovered graphic design, which involved crafting marketing materials the old-school way using her hands. She moved to NYC after art school and worked for Massimo Vignelli & then Corporate Annual Reports. In this pre-computer era everything was done by sketch and paste ups; using sharp knives to cut letters individually, and occasionally leaving the office with pieces of type in her hair (or you could say spray mount in her lungs). It was this hands-on method that DeBris loved most.
In 2000, DeBris felt the West Coast calling, as many New Yorkers do. The thought of living by the sea with constant sunshine was too tempting to resist. Daily jogs on Venice Beach are the stuff of dreams for many. But sometimes dreams can be very different than reality as Debris would soon discover. During these jogs Debris kept tripping over trash coughed up by the ocean. Scanning the coastline at the water’s edge, she heard the ocean’s voice loud and clear and wanted to do her bit to fix the problem. She began collecting trash up and down the beach and storing it in her garage. Every day she’d return to find more ocean garbage washed ashore. DeBris realized she could not solve this problem alone. In a flash of artistic brilliance, she knew just what to do. The year was 2009.
Fashion + Trash = Trashion
In image-obsessed Los Angeles it would take something very relevant to grab headlines and raise awareness about the epic problem of ocean garbage. DeBris teamed up with Heal the Bay and 5 Gyres, groups raising environmental awareness. She would create fashion from all that garbage collected in her garage. It would be smelly, dirty and unchanged. She would use her materials the way she found them, the way the ocean sent them back. This served to underscore both the severity of the problem and the issue she took with our collective wasteful habits. She wanted to shock people awake. It was more effective than she ever could have imagined, thanks to her innovative approach.
Art with Irony and Purpose
DeBris made corsets from plastic straws; skirts from disposable lighters and hats from discarded plastic toys. One gown features a flowing skirt whose fabric is actually potato chip bags. Other outfits are artfully pieced together from bottle caps, ribbons, fishing lines and chunks of broken plastic. The undeniable irony of her work got loads of media attention, enough to grab headlines and interviews where DeBris could reveal the true mission: changing the way we treat the earth.
We’re Not Just Hurting Ourselves
Imagine a 3.5-million-ton trash pile floating off the coast of L.A. Now imagine you’re a sea turtle trying to avoid it.
This is the monumental problem DeBris wants us all to solve together. During her career developing trashion she discovered the real cost of our carelessness to ocean creatures that had nothing to do with our awful habits. She saw sea turtles with plastic rings around their waists, birds missing wings because a discarded fishing line had torn them off and fish dead from eating bits of hard plastic. DeBris moved beyond trashion to develop even more pointed art installations. She hoped to awaken a passion for change on a global scale.
Again, DeBris succeeded. Her name is now synonymous with thought-provoking, environmentally conscious works. Her installation “Inconvenience Store,” featuring wash-up items found on the beach and professionally repackaged for pretendretail sale won the Allens People’s Choice Award at the 2017 Sculpture by the Sea event in Australia, as well as the Waverley Council Mayor’s Prize and Sydney Water Environmental Subsidy. It will also be on display at the upcoming National Geographic show “Planet or Plastic” in Melbourne Australia.
Washed Up Doesn’t Mean Finished
Continuing her career as an ocean “activist,” DeBris cataloged her artwork on WashedUp.us, the website run by her own company. She also worked as director at Green Communications Initiative where local artists bring awareness to environmental issues. DeBris’s main focus is to change our collective buying habits. She wants to see an end to the single use plastics clogging our oceans and encourages us all to shop responsibly. This means buying products in reusable or byo containers or even edible ones. It’s a tricky one because unless they go to industrial or garden compost, it ends up in landfill releasing methane. She encourages byo or no containers when possible, reuse packaging, glass, forest certified paper, compostable if they are going to compost facility only, recyclable last resort.
Creating for a Better World
Currently residing in Sydney, Australia, DeBris continues her art mission on local beaches, including the world-renowned Bondi Beach. She walks along the shoreline collecting ocean trash, doing her part. Her ultimate dream is to run out of art supplies completely and find the beaches natural and pristine upon her arrival. Until then, she will give voice to the ocean and every creature living in it.