The Treasure of Trash: An Interview with Activist Artist Ethan Estess
Commercial fishing lines. Plastic bags. Microplastics.
Artist Ethan Estess transforms trash into its own kind of (eye-opening) treasure: large-scale art installations that incite awareness of the impact of today's growing ocean pollution across sea creatures and humans alike.
Raised on the shores of Santa Cruz, CA, the marine scientist first tried his hand at art after his hobby for making surfboards was banned at university. Ethan then combined his love for the ocean by repurposing trash from its waters.
"I realized I could tell stories through reclaimed materials and get people to care about the environment," he shared. "This was a big pivotal moment for me."
As Ethan believes, the role of the artist isn't to provide answers—but to get people to start asking questions.
"I like to try to draw people in with work that's visually engaging and 'beautiful,' and then upon closer inspection people are like, wait, What is that made of? Where did it come from? Why is that a problem? That kind of questioning and emotional whiplash—the reaction of, Oh it's beautiful, but also, Oh it's sad—that's my aesthetic and that juxtaposition of materials and beauty," Ethan said.
Falling in Love with Oahu
When he first came to Oahu, Ethan was like tourists—just a surfer enjoying the incomparable (and as he says humbling) waves. This changed when he decided to volunteer on a beach cleanup with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii while on a regular surf trip.
"Volunteering with thousands of people on these huge beach cleanups really opened my eyes to the scale of the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans," said Ethan. "I learned that if I threw away a bottle in Santa Cruz, with the currents there's a good chance it will end up on Hawaii's shores."
Now, one of the main statements Ethan hopes his work makes is around where our seafood comes from.
"When people think about plastic pollution, we think about straws and bottles and cigarette butts," he said. "Those are all major issues, but the other side is that a lot of debris comes from commercial fisheries that are operated irresponsibly. Once someone dives into learning more, they see that supporting local sustainable fisheries is the best option."
Making Waves at Outrigger Reef
Ethan's latest project, a mural called "Coming Home," was recently installed in the lobby of the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort. Using materials donated by the Center for Marine Debris Research and with support of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, the piece represents all that Ethan's work inspires. And it wouldn't be possible without support from the local Oahu community
"The number one thing I've learned about working in the islands is that it's not a big place, so you have to walk with respect," Ethan shared. "It's crazy how supportive people have been—and that something as simple as volunteering with a local nonprofit while here as a tourist opened me up to this issue. And now I have friends on Oahu than i do in California."
Follow in Ethan's Footsteps
Make it a fun and meaningful adventure by doing your own "volunteer vacay" with an opportunity like Outrigger's Malama Hawaii Experience, which lets guests get a 3rd night free or volunteer with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. Check out the Goddess of the Sea or the varied exhibits at The Bishop Museum (where Ethan had a prior installation, The Plastic-free Pipeline). Book your stay for an art (and activism) filled vacation soon!
If you crave a more immersive and intimate experience with the world's oceans, only an adventure that sprinkles your soul with salt water will do. There's always something happening on the world's most iconic beaches.