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Stanford artist marks pelican population’s rebound by creating sculpture from trash

By Katy Ashe | 18 May 2011

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Related News: Stanford artists promote green living at Vision eARTh showcase

Stanford student Ethan Estess created a sculpture of the California brown pelicans to promote conservation and celebrate the birds' removal from the endangered species list. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Estess)

The constructed brown pelicans undulate as fishing line winds around spinning metal bars, somehow causing the life-size plastic representations of seabirds to flap their fully articulated wings.  They appear to be gliding across the surface of the ocean, carefully dipping with the contour of non-existent waves.  They are suspended from wooden supports, counterbalanced by empty bleach bottles, powered by the awful screeching of a motor.

Stanford University is hosting its first annual arts and sustainability open-air festival, Vision eARTh. A living part of the ocean appears to have arrived in the heart of campus for the occasion, using only materials scavenged from dumpsters.  Little kids holding their parents hands point up at the swirling mechanical creatures in wonderment.  Groups of passersby pause indefinitely, mesmerized by the fluid motion of the recycled plastic bits.

The crafty artist behind the piece, Ethan Estess, stands watchfully at the side of his ten foot high sculpture.  After several months of collecting the parts for the sculpture from dumpsters, and a gruelingly intricate assembly, his artwork is on public display for the weekend.

“The best part is just chatting with people from all walks of life,” Estess said. “Everyone sees [the sculpture] differently, and I get to have 500 discussions about the same thing.” He engages onlookers easily with a friendly surfer charm. Though Estess is studying environmental sciences at Stanford University, he says he has always found time for sculpture as well.

The vision for his piece, Dumpster Diver — California brown pelican, came last year while sitting on his surfboard offshore his hometown of Santa Cruz.  While watching the flight of California brown pelicans across the ocean surface, Ethan remembered a story his parents used to tell him as a child.

When his parents were in their youth in the 1970s the California Brown Pelican was nearly impossible to spot along the coast — the birds had been all but eliminated by the pesticide DDT.  Still in widespread use at that time, DDT was destroying many bird populations by weakening their eggshells to the point of collapse.

“In a single generation they got completely rocked,” Estess said.

In 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the California brown pelican a critically endangered species. But due in part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a published attack on the chemical industry published in 1962, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972.

The California brown pelican slowly began reappearing along the Pacific Coast, and in 2009, the federal government removed the birds from the U.S. Endangered Species List.

“People recognized an environmental problem because of Silent Spring,” Estess said. “They came together, and they stopped it.”

Through his art, Estess hopes to share this story of near-collapse and rebound. He believes the sculpture’s motion represents recovery of the species more than the flight of individual birds.

“The sine wave is a really good analog for disturbance and resilience,” Estess said. “We decimated the population and they came back.”

Though a scientist by training, Estess also recognizes himself as part of a rapidly emerging movement of environmental artists aiming to improve the way humans interact with the natural world. He plans to continue pursuing a career in science, finding the quest for new knowledge too exhilarating to abandon. Still, he said he has no intention of leaving sculpture behind.

“The reality is that people don’t make decisions based off of scientific papers,” Estess said. “You need to change culture to change behavior. Art is one of the ways you can do that.”

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