Tofino debris artists earn exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature

“It’s a huge, huge, honour.”

Two West Coast artists headed out to Ottawa last week to set up a unique art exhibit comprised of locally collected marine debris.

Tofino local Peter Clarkson has been creating art from marine debris since 2000 and his work caught the attention of the Canadian Museum of Nature, who reached out to him to commission a permanent art installation within its ocean exhibit.

“I grew up in Ottawa and it’s a museum I visited often as a kid so it’s a full-circle for me,” Clarkson told the Westerly News.

“As a kid, I never would have imagined that I’d have a chance to put something I created inside…It’s a huge, huge, honour. The Museum of Nature is a Canadian institution and a world leader in natural history.”

Upon receiving the invitation, Clarkson reached out to fellow Tofitian artist Dan Law to put something together.

Law and Clarkson have been friends for nearly 20 years and recently began working together on projects, notably a shared marine debris exhibit currently on display at the Ucluelet Aquarium.

“Dan brings a lot of his own skills to the table that are very complementary,” Clarkson said. “Working with him gives me a lot of confidence.”

Law told the Westerly News collaborating with Clarkson is “like being in a teen garage band.”

“It’s really, really fun,” he said. “I’ve always been a fan of Pete’s art…I love the material that he works with and I love the stuff he does.”

The piece the pair put together for the national museum is titled ‘Catch of the Day’ and portrays a large fishing net full of trash collected from local shores.

“It’s going to be suspended from the ceiling and it will look like a giant net being trolled through the water but, instead of fish, it’s collecting pieces of plastic,” Clarkson said. “Within it, there will be pieces of plastic, everyday items that we find every day on the beach…We’re going to rig the whole thing up so it’s all suspended and comes sweeping down from the ceiling right to eye level.”

Law hopes the piece will inspire its viewers to change their routines by showing them the types of debris that’s cascading onto local shores.

“They get to pick out individual things like barrels and pallets, but they also get to pick out water bottles and toothbrushes and that brings home the reality that most of the garbage in the ocean comes from houses on land,” he said.

“It primes the pump for a deeper engagement.” – Pete Clarkson

“It’s one way of bringing people in, giving them an experience and allowing them to see things and feel things in a way that’s out of context. Or, to see it in a way that’s different than they normally would experience the world and, therefore, they can understand it, perhaps for the first time”

Clarkson agreed.

“Art has an amazing capacity to touch people emotionally and, when you engage people at an emotional level, it goes very deep into their psyche,” he said.

“It opens up a lot of different things. Not just feelings, but you start reflecting. It primes the pump for a deeper engagement.”

He added he had not set out to become an advocate for change when he began creating art from debris, but he’s been excited to see the conversations his work has evoked.

“The fact that it’s readily available material, all the colours and shapes and textures and the different history of the material, all speaks to me and has proven to be a great outlet for my creative inspirations and creative impulses,” he said.

“I didn’t start it to become an environmental advocate, but it turned out in the process that it was a fantastic opportunity to become an environmental advocate because it spoke to people without pointing the finger directly and knocking them over the head about the issue. The more I saw that, the more exciting an opportunity it became.”

‘Catch of the Day’ includes tributes to two late West Coasters, Bob Redhead and Barry Campbell, who Clarkson said “dedicated their lives to natural history and the conservation of nature,” and were both valuable supporters and mentors to him.

“That will be our little remembrance of those characters,” he said. “It’s a fitting honour.”

He added that he and Law are confident their work will offer a solid reflection of their hometown’s values.

“We’re proud West Coasters and we’re proud to have such a big audience to engage in this issue. We take a lot of responsibility for that to do ourselves proud, the community proud, the issue proud and all the people who care so much about the ocean.”