Karen O’Dowd is a cutting-edge artist who, for the past 17 years, has used ‘found objects’ as a basis for her work. Like others in this genre, O’Dowd uncovers beauty and creativity in items not normally considered art elements, some of which are often designated as junk or recycled materials. Touring her Royal Oaks working studio, it is impossible not to be captivated with the originality and intricacies of the completed pieces that fill the available walls. The pieces are at times abstract, most often quirky. Then there are also the ‘art-in-waiting’ items on the counters; collections of cast-off materials that will eventually become treasured creations displayed in someone else’s’ home or garden.
Not surprising, her search for items that could be incorporated into her art led her to become passionate about ‘recycling, upcycling and repurposing.’ She had used reusable bags for decades, knew not to buy bottled water, and was conscious about properly disposing of recyclable materials. But it was less than a year ago that a statistic changed her life even further. It said: By 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh sea life. “Once reading that I kept reading, she said, “and, every aspect of this plastic issue steamrolled into other horrific consequences. A year ago, I had no idea that plastic ‘lived’ 500-1,000 years!”
It was also disheartening to learn that the land mass of plastic in the ocean was twice the size of Texas and that a million birds and over 100,000 marine animals die yearly because of plastics. Frightening was also the description that 93% of Americans over 60 tested positive for BPA (bisphenol A), an industrial chemical often used in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles.
When her research confirmed that 91% of plastic produced was not recyclable, O’Dowd knew she had to do something. “I’ve been pretty environmentally conscious all of my life,” she said. “I’m very aware of social issues and know that we can choose to ignore or do something about it. I’m 68. I spent a lot of time at city councils, county and state meetings and commissions, boards, and testimonies. I’ve marched, sent letters to the editor. But I felt at this point in my life, I can change my habits and see where that led.”
What it led to was creating art pieces highlighting the issue and offering to do a talk to her Royal Oaks Garden Club about how to reduce the plastic footprint. Marcia Fidis, president of the club, suggested a workshop spin-off with the local Girl Scouts (Troop 961). The Girls Scouts would learn the information that O’Dowd had put together, and she would use her talent to help them create ‘fishes’ made from plastic bottles, which would then be attached to a 30-inch ‘nest’ made of items not recyclable in Talbot County. These items included composite ‘plastic’ bags, plastic utensils, broken plastic sunglasses, plastic straws (picked up from tables at restaurants), non-recyclable plastic pots, pump mechanisms from beauty products, etc. As the project began to come together, O’Dowd learned that this would also allow the Scouts to earn ‘Earth Day’ and ‘Using Resources Wisely’ badges. It was a win-win situation for all.
But, the collaboration didn’t end there.
It’s now evolved to include the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Through the end of May, the Plastic Nest sculpture will be mounted outside the entry doors to the Steamboat building. It will coincide with both the Sea Glass Festival exhibit and Community Day, which will be the public launch of the single-use plastic-free initiative on CBMM’s campus.
O’Dowd has to be pleased. Her workshop is touching and involving a new generation of future consumers; her talks to groups is bringing awareness of what can be done now. She hopes that others follow her recommendations or come up with their own solutions. “Be aware-it’s everywhere,” she cautions.
For now, O’Dowd follows her counsel. At home, she keeps a large canister on her sink (similar to a counter compost container) where she throws non-recyclable plastic. Once filled, it is moved into a large duffle bag. She hopes that within her lifetime she or industry will find some use for it. “If nothing else,” she says, “it’s a big reminder of how enormous this problem is, how much I need to try to purchase as much as possible with no plastic. Hopefully, we will enact legislation prohibiting or at LEAST limiting single-use plastic. Other countries have done it.” No doubt, until that day, O’Dowd will use her voice and her art as a reminder.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.