Alexis Oltmer recalls how her current exhibition at CEPA Gallery originated three years ago on a visit to Emerald Beach on Lake Erie. "I started to notice tiny, little (plastic) particles that were every single color in the rainbow. I was just really overwhelmed by them," Oltmer recalled. "When I got home I felt really bad about the fact that I hadn't done anything about that." For Oltmer, it's been angst turned into art.
Oltmer returned to the beach. Many times. And not just with a camera. Eventually, she brought others.
Through forty cleanup efforts, she has collected, photographed and documented the plastic discovered on the beach, among its protective boulders, behind the piles of driftwood.
"I've become very intimate with it." She dismissed a question of how she disposed of the plastic. It--all of it--remains in her possession, though a significant portion of her collection is on display as part of For Future Generations: A Plastic Pollution Study of Lake Erie. The exhibition runs through February 15. Oltmer is scheduled to hold an artist's talk on that final day at CEPA Gallery.
Expect her to have plenty to say.
"The main point behind the show is to not make people sad, it's to share with people that they can be empowered," said Oltmer, who also works as a commercial photographer at New Era.
"There is hope and you do have power to create change or inspire people or evoke questions."
Emerging from Oltmer's passion has been #PlasticFreeBuffalo. Some groups volunteered to help with the cleanups while others provided financial support. According to Oltmer, the Global Warming Art Project grant funded the project. Administered by Art Services Initiative of WNY, donors included Ben Perrone and the 'Environment Maze.'
Beyond photographs, grids and bags of plastic debris collected at the beach are sculptures Oltmer calls "fossilized plastic pollution." The translucent molds of resin contain collected items as random as plastic flowers, toy animals and an E-Z Pass from the New York State Thruway. The sculptures are mounted on driftwood, of course.
Following the CEPA exhibition, she will finalize three beach cleanups in the coming months. Oltmer doesn't see any end in sight. She'd like to take the exhibition to other communities along the Great Lakes.
"I'm looking for other ways to create new work from this plastic to keep the conversation going."