Going Green / Fight plastic pollution
At home, in art, and on the beach
Alexis Oltmer just wrapped up a solo show at CEPA Gallery called For Future Generations: A Study of Lake Erie Plastic Pollution.
photos by stephen gabris
Environmentalist and artist Alexis Oltmer grew up in a house built on protected wetlands adjacent to a state highway in Endicott, New York. As cars zoomed by, she was often outside, listening for tree frogs, canoeing, or playing in the dirt. It was that duality—the fast pace of industry and the stillness of nature—that shaped her and continues to impact her art and activism today.
“There’s so much about the environment that fascinates me, and there’s so much more we can learn from it,” Oltmer says, sitting in her home art studio in Buffalo’s Cottage District. From an early age, she learned the importance of protecting our natural environment—and how nature can sometimes fight back. Known as the birthplace of IBM, Endicott is still the site of ongoing cleanup efforts forty years after the company discovered that the hazardous chemicals it used for decades had leached into the groundwater beneath its facility.
Meanwhile, Oltmer’s childhood home had always been prone to minor flooding but, in 2011, her family lost their house in the record flood that plagued many communities around the Susquehanna River. (Her parents have since moved about forty-five minutes away to the top of a hill.) “The flood taught me that we cannot control nature, and you have to be prepared, and you have to be willing to help people,” Oltmer says. “It’s had a huge impact on my life.”
Today, despite the flood, Oltmer is a self-proclaimed “lover of water” who works to protect our waterways by raising awareness about plastic pollution through beach cleanups, petitions, and her artwork. She just wrapped up a solo show at CEPA Gallery called For Future Generations: A Study of Lake Erie Plastic Pollution, and is now preparing to travel the show to other Great Lakes cities with funding from the Global Warming Art Project grant administered by Arts Services Initiative of WNY.
Oltmer started the project after visiting Emerald Beach in December 2016. Hoping to decompress and reflect in the wake of the presidential election, she and a friend spent a day at the beach at Erie Basin Marina and were amazed by the amount of pollution on that small stretch of shoreline. Oltmer quickly decided to do something about it.
In the ensuing weeks, Oltmer revisited the beach more than forty times, each time cleaning up and documenting the plastic debris through photographs and data. She then shared the data with the Alliance for the Great Lakes and, with the photos, curated several large-scale grids, each with forty photographs from a single cleanup.
Taking it one step further, Oltmer—after properly disposing of the trash she collected—took the oddest and most eye-catching plastic debris she found to create fossilized sculptures using resin and molds from rocks she’d collected over the years. The final, clear-coated fossils serve as colorful reminders of the everyday objects that pollute our main source of fresh drinking water: bottles and bottle caps, fishing lures, children’s toys, combs and hair clips, packaging, shards of coffee cup lids and other single-use products, and much more. There are even teeth from a vampire costume, an E-ZPass, and pieces from fake plastic plants.
“They kind of remind me of I Spy books,” she says. “How do I get people to think about these everyday objects that are washing up on the beach? I wanted to showcase them as fossils, because the majority of this will take thousands of years to break down.”
Plastic pollution is a critical issue in all bodies of water, particularly the Great Lakes, which account for about twenty-one percent of the world’s fresh water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A 2016 study by the Rochester Institute of Technology found that nearly 10,000 metric tons—or twenty-two million pounds—of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year. Other studies have put the plastic pollution entering the ocean at more than 100,000 metric tons annually from the US alone.
Once the plastic enters the water, it wreaks havoc on ecosystems, killing millions of animals—including marine life, birds, and even land-based animals—annually, according to National Geographic. Plastic microfibers have been found in municipal drinking water and microplastics can make their way into our food chain and our soil.
“Plastic has done a lot of great things. I’m not a ‘no plastic’ person and understand it’s extremely important in medical practices and whatnot,” Oltmer says. “But when plastic was made, no one was thinking about how this would impact us down the line. It was more let’s get through [World War II] and make things that are cheap, easy, and accessible for people.”
Oltmer has taken many steps to reduce her plastic use, from carrying a reusable water bottle and to-go mug, to using cloth napkins and rags for cleaning, to avoiding plastic packaging whenever possible (see more tips here). The biggest lifestyle change, she says, was deciding to only purchase clothing and other textiles made from natural materials, like cotton. (Polyester, acrylic, nylon, and many other synthetic fibers are all plastic-based.)
“A small purchase, a small change, goes a long way,” she says. “Consumption culture has shifted everybody, for the most part, to this cheap, fast, easy lifestyle, where you have a hundred-pack of napkins ready at any time, and paper towels and disposable everything. I would like to resist that type of culture as much as possible.”
Oltmer has also taken her activism online and into the community, by creating #PlasticFreeBuffalo and partnering with local organizations, schools, and groups to organize beach cleanups. “I just want people to feel empowered and know they can create actual change,” says Oltmer. “It starts with basic lifestyle changes to reduce the amount of plastic we consume.
“This is an issue where we as a community can create change on the local level by creating new policies or looking at other cities and seeing how they do things,” she continues. “If we put up a big enough stink about anything and we come together and demand change, it’s going to happen.”
For more information on For Future Generations and upcoming beach cleanups, visit alexisoltmer.com and follow @PlasticFreeBuffalo on Instagram.