Judith Selby Lang & Richard Lang: 2009 AHN Awardee

“Sometimes beauty can be a call to action. Here the call to action is to follow some simple rules of planetary housekeeping, but in a larger sense, the call to action is to follow those strange voices of inspiration, of compulsion, for the real opposite of beauty is indifference…. Sometimes, it feels like the problems are just too big, insurmountable, but we each can begin right where we are with just one small stretch of beach, just one small place on this planet.” ~ Judith Selby Lang & Richard Lang

The Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2009 AHN Awards to the husband and wife team Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang. For the past ten years, they have been collecting trash together on Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California and turning it into playful and powerful works of art that raise awareness about ocean pollution. They have created everything from sculptural wall art to digital prints, a wedding dress, jewelry, a mobile car sculpture and more.

The Arts & Healing Network applauds their long-term commitment to the practice of collecting trash and turning it into treasure. We also admire their creativity spirit and variety of visual work they have generated from discarded beach plastic. Their work combines fun with a thoughtful message about ocean pollution, recycling and creative re-use.

We look forward to their forthcoming book, Shore Stories: Two People, One Beach, Ten Years. To learn more about their work, visit their website or their blog.

Below is an e-mail interview by Arts & Healing Network Director, Mary Daniel Hobson with Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang from August 2009:

Mary Daniel: Do you believe art can be a catalyst for transformation?

Judith & Richard: A casual diversion, an amusement, turns to an enthusiasm, turns to a life’s work. At first glance, our beach plastic project may seem to be about evidence gathered to address the impact of detritus. The evidence, in this case, gleaned from just one beach - Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore.  But, it is about more than that.

It is the story of being witness to how a creative life is lived. It’s not about creative arts, per se, but it’s also about the implications creative energy has for any endeavor. To follow one’s enthusiasms leads to a multi-forking path, useful to any aspect of living: business, child rearing, farming, preaching, race car driving, duck hunting - the theme of our story is one of human inventiveness. It is about how the simple act of picking up someone else’s trash landed us on national TV, with money in our pockets to continue the work we love, to begin a marriage, and to lose ourselves in a compelling vocation. All of this forged in the crucible of trying to make a visual blight into something good to look at. So, yes, it is about art making. But, we wish to stress that in this era of everything standing in for everything else, a world made meaningless by the glut of meanings, something of consequence happened. Bending over, picking up, bending over, one piece at a time. Several tons of plastic collected - one piece at a time.

Our deepest held conviction in this project is to make the work beautiful. Not beauty in dialogue with its apparent opposite ugliness, because the facts are ugly, but beauty that can hold the gaze of the viewer long enough to interrupt the mind-numbing drone heard daily regarding the dire state of the planet. Sometimes beauty can be a call to action. Here the call to action is to follow some simple rules of planetary housekeeping, but in a larger sense, the call to action is to follow those strange voices of inspiration, of compulsion, for the real opposite of beauty is indifference.

Mary Daniel: The theme uniting all the Arts & Healing Network Awardees this year is WATER. Please talk a bit about how your work is inspired by healing the waters of our world. 

Judith & Richard: “The river is within us, the sea is all about us,” says T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets. The inner waters of our souls are as vital as the water of the planet. By allowing the creative flow-paying attention to the “small voices” - artists nourish and replenish the inner waters. If we’re lucky, the work we do goes deep enough to touch the common aquifer and add to the spring.

When we gazed upon those first photographs of earth transmitted back from space, we wondered why the planet was ever named EARTH. Given the land-to-ocean ratio we thought it far better to call the place SEA. Seventy percent of our planet’s surface is covered with ocean with depths that scale far deeper than the height of Mt Everest. It is a vast frontier. Ocean currents are the pulse blood driving the winds and the weather. Nutrient rich upwellings and estuaries produce equivalents to agricultural zones. Yet, sadly, each year, three times as much trash ends up in the world's oceans as the weight of fish caught. In the United States, an estimated 29 million tons of plastic is thrown away annually and since only a small percentage is recycled, much goes to the landfill and much goes to the oceans.

We live in West Marin, California, not far from the Pacific Ocean. We appreciate fresh air and exercise and have, by proximity and by predilection, found Kehoe Beach, a perfect place to enjoy both. In the winter, buffeting storms at sea flush out great quantities of plastic depositing it in swags entangled with the seaweed. The beach is a mess. Because there is so much trash we could not really pick it all up so we have learned to be discerning. We call what we do “curating” rather than cleaning. We hope by advertising the beach as a great place to gather free art supplies others will get the drift and be out there with us vying for the best stuff.  We express the fun in the finding, that way things get cleaned up and we all get some interesting art to look at.

Mary Daniel: Please share one book, person, or resource that has deeply inspired you in your creative work.

Judith: Artist Jo Hanson’s daily sweeping of a small stretch of sidewalk in front of her San Francisco home became the method and the media for her personal as well as public environmental art/life. Her accumulations of scraps and tidbits of detritus into notebooks, legendary journals that document the trash in and over time have inspired my own collecting of the common. Her commitment to place (her sidewalk) and her diligence (that she did it everyday), are qualities that I have taken to heart. I want to show what just two people, committed to one beach over years can accomplish.

Richard: I grew up in a small mid-western town dominated by a river: a frozen blanket in winter, a wide brown place of summer fun, sheets of ice crashing ashore in the spring melt, and catfish to eat. An early book was a high school reading of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. The character Doc from the book (based on the real-life Ed Rickets who wrote the definitive book on the inter-tidal zone) was an inspiration for his generosity of spirit and curiosity. I didn’t get to real tide pooling until I moved to California in 1974. Marine Biology was my first love.

Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists wishing to create positive change in the world? 

Judith & Richard: Do something you like to do. Do it for a long time. Everyday. The ball is always in your court. Personal responsibility is primary. Look at all situations without bias, then assign meaning. Ask.

Sometimes, it feels like the problems are just too big, insurmountable, but we each can begin right where we are with just one small stretch of beach, just one small place on this planet. With all of the catastrophes in the world we are so happy to be able to continue to find real joy in life - the creative moment gives us the best pleasure we can imagine.

Mary Daniel: Is there anything else you would like to say or share? 

Judith & Richard: You never know what you are going to find. Not only have we found hundreds of pounds of plastic on that one beach we have found each other. Kehoe Beach was the site of love at almost first sight where we had our first date and where we discovered our passion for each other and for picking up plastic detritus. What are the chances of meeting someone who already liked to collect trash and make art out of it? Happily, it was our luck in 1999 and Kehoe Beach became the destination for our regular beach combing. For ten years we have combined our love of each other and our love of nature with our interest in science to produce an on-going series of art works about the oceans and the environment. While the content of our work has a message about the spoiling of the natural world by the industrial world, our final intent is aesthetic and celebratory. When we began we could not have imagined what has transpired. But we now can see what can happen with two people with one beach in ten years.

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