Reimagining the Tufted Puffin

Angela Haseltine Pozzi's nonprofit turns litter from Oregon beaches into 'beautiful and horrifying' sculptures of wildlife harmed by plastic pollution.

For two years the Tufted Puffins of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge have nested under the still gaze of Cosmo, a silent sentinel of sorts. Perched on a cliff called Coquille Point, he resembles the clownish seabirds—only Cosmo stands six feet tall and is made of marine debris.

“There’re quite a few combs and brushes in there,” says Angela Haseltine Pozzi, founder and artistic director of Washed Ashore, a nonprofit in Oregon. She also incorporated a frenzy of flip-flops, countless cigarette lighters, and other detritus collected from local beaches. Cosmo is one of 80 flotsam sculptures that she and her team have built to educate the public about plastic pollution, which can harm marine habitats and wildlife. “We make them beautiful and horrifying,” she says.

Pozzi founded Washed Ashore in 2010, several years after losing her first husband to cancer. She sought comfort in the small coastal town of Bandon, where she could walk the shore. “There was a day when I saw this wrack line of plastic in the high-water mark as far the eye could see, like a mosaic,” she recalls. “I realized that there were a lot of other people on the beach picking up things, but they were picking up shells and agates. They weren’t picking up garbage. And I thought, how am I going to get those people to pick up this stuff?”

As the daughter of artists and self-professed scrounger, Pozzi saw artistic opportunity in that littoral junk. “I’ve always respected and known what the power of the arts can do,” she says.

Over the past decade, Washed Ashore has processed about 28 tons of garbage, mostly plastic. Volunteers generally collect the litter, and a staff member later cleans it with vinegar, soap, and water. The treated trash is then sorted into color-coded bins. “It’s labor-intensive craziness,” Pozzi says. Lately the group has expanded its focus on marine life to include upstream animals, such as the critically endangered California Condor. “We’re trying to get the message out that a lot of the garbage is coming from the rivers to the oceans,” Pozzi says. 

Choosing which species to build depends on Pozzi’s own interest, commissions, and the rhythms of ocean circulation. Sometimes her team must wait months for the tide to spit out rubbish of certain colors so they can complete a project. White, blue, and black refuse is common, however. “We can always do black birds,” she says.

Assembling a creature can take up to a year. Volunteers are essential to the process, which entails wire-stitching pieces of litter onto wire mesh, then screwing that layer onto larger plastic hunks attached to a stainless-steel frame. For Cosmo, durability was critical. Stationed on a lofty seaside path, he must withstand whipping 120-mile-per-hour winds. And as with each species she creates, capturing Cosmo’s hallmark traits was key. For instance, Tufted Puffins have striking pale eyes. “There was a plastic bucket that came in that was exactly the right color,” Pozzi says. And the signature tufts are strips from a buoy. Like John James Audubon, she says, “I like to be scientifically accurate but also expressive.”

This story originally ran in the Summer 2020 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.