One man’s trash, another man’s artwork: artist Mark Olivier transforms beach waste into eclectic art

lawn art
Ruby Sapia/Staff

North Berkeley is best known for Gourmet Ghetto, with world-renowned chefs such as Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and its quiet, charming residences planted in the oak woodlands of the Berkeley Hills. But what you might not expect out of such a charming neighborhood is its beach trash art.

Any wanderer of the streets of North Berkeley might notice this sea sewage art that has seemingly drifted into the front lawns of many residents around town. Between the fig trees and flower gardens near Colusa Avenue, one might spot a life-sized pangolin built out of hat bills, or maybe a not-so-subtle 6-foot surfing turtle made of life preservers and Styrofoam.

These designs are all of the careful craftsmanship of local artist Mark Olivier. Though not a formally trained artist by trade, Olivier has been collecting trash on the shores of the East Bay — beaches extending from the Bay Bridge to the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge — on his walks with his dogs and constructing these huge, multimaterial sculptures for years.

Olivier was inspired to pursue this massive side project when he noticed the washed-up waste accumulating on the shoreline.

“I started noticing all the trash and stuff washing up, and I looked and one day I said to myself, ‘You know, someone should do something about this,’ ” Olivier said. “Then in the next sentence in my head, I was like, ‘Hey, asshole, you should do something about this.’ ”

repurposed trash art

While his self-deprecating realization has comic undertones, it speaks to pressing issues of environmental degradation, calling attention to the current environmental crisis.

Though Olivier says his work was not explicitly aimed at making any political statement about litter or the environment, the nature and size of his work has undoubtedly attracted the attention of his neighbors and shed light on the scale of this issue. The breadth of his portfolio and the immense stature of his pieces has communicated to many of his viewers that ocean waste is a critical and intensifying problem. In addition to obvious damages to marine environments — considering there 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic residing in our oceans, 13 times more pieces than the number of stars in the Milky Way — this accumulating ocean debris also poses direct risks to human health, as this waste has begun to enter our food system. Though we all see pictures and videos of landfills and heaps of detritus, we are rarely confronted with it in the way that Olivier is presenting — at the doorstep of our very own backyards.

Though we all see pictures and videos of landfills and heaps of detritus, we are rarely confronted with it in the way that Olivier is presenting — at the doorstep of our very own backyards.

Olivier has been collecting trash every Saturday for the past 15 years. Since he first began collecting, he has made dozens of large installations, some of which have been featured in public spaces and venues, including the “How Berkeley Can You Be?” parade in 2005 and in storefronts such as the McGuire Real Estate office on College Avenue. Neighbors and spectators too have admired the work in his yard so much that they have commissioned him for pieces and bought his sculptures. In fact, the work currently staged in his yard is still for sale.

“Most of the people I’ve talked to love my stuff,” he shared. “There’s a lot of people in the neighborhood who come by regularly, and when they have out-of-town guests they bring somebody by to see what’s developed.”

Because he cannot fit all of his collected trash in his driveway and working space, Olivier estimates that he has brought about 6 to 8 tons of beach trash to the landfill. When I asked him if the interior of his home was also decorated with these trash sculptures, he laughed.

lawn art

“I have a friend who makes a joke out of it that if we happen to be outside and someone asks, ‘Well what does the inside of the house look like?’ and he’ll always say, ‘Oh it’s worse!’ ”

Though Olivier does not let his yard installations into his home, he does think of them as his children, not choosing favorites from his variety of pieces.

Like most artists, Olivier’s portfolio demonstrates certain underlying themes and common elements. But his pieces also take a vast array of forms, from animal assemblages to boats, machines and abstract figures, each appealing to different audiences. He explained that while his samurai pieces were created for the town parade, his masks were created for his clients who like their elemental and simple visage.

When asked if he lets the material inspire the art or the art dictate what material is used, he said that it works both ways.

“Sometimes I’ll look at what I have and say something like, ‘Gee, I really have a lot of lighters. What can I do with lighters?’ Or sometimes it’s more accidental. … The flying boat in the front yard was inspired by a floaty that I found that’s usually used on the side of a canoe. I looked at it and I thought, ‘That looks like the hull to a flying boat.’ So I started extrapolating from there for the inspiration.”

“In the past 60 years, the consciousness to what happens to all of our plastics and how it’s getting in the ocean and getting in the food chain has really come to the floor. So (my art) resonates with a lot of people that way.”

— Mark Olivier

There are certain materials, such as hats, rope and cigarette lighters, that Olivier collects in bulk because they densely populate beach shores. With this mass collection of the same material, Olivier looks for common shapes and patterns in order to utilize them collectively. To point to just a few, you can see his cigarette-lighter dragon or the motif of hat bills that construct many of the scales and armor of his Native American-inspired pieces.

Out of other specialty trash articles, he carved a picture from the heap. With his carpentry skills, Olivier has been able to construct these large works with his power tools. And with nine years of practice, Olivier has developed new skills of building armature and base structures underneath the epidermis of his pieces. Though he never imagined building a side career out of these beach trash reinventions, he has been unable to stop this work since its genesis.

Olivier’s expansive collections are inspired by his humble mission to cleanse our shorelines of the industrial excrement, trash and debris from the ocean and remind us that “our” trash does not simply end at our own waste bins, but instead at the greater outdoors. In giving this beach waste a public stage, Olivier’s pieces remind us that waste is not a “you” problem; it is an “us” problem.

lawn art

“I just started picking stuff up as I was disgusted by the amount of trash that was on the beach. So I started collecting it,” Olivier said. “In the past 60 years, the consciousness to what happens to all of our plastics and how it’s getting in the ocean and getting in the food chain has really come to the floor. So (my art) resonates with a lot of people that way.”

While Olivier’s portfolio clearly has an environmental benefit in addition to being whimsical and fun, these commodity carcasses unfortunately have done a majority of their damage by the time they reach the shoreline — killing marine life and toxifying ocean water along their path to the shore. Olivier’s work prevents further damage, but the solution does not end here; his work reminds us that litter is not resolvable by the single individual — it is the concern of the larger community.

Though Olivier claims that these sculptures had no political aim, their very existence makes a statement about the intensity of human pollution. These sculptures seem to stand in resilient silence, yet their collective voice is a powerful one; in all of their whimsy and charm, they are a vestige of a greater environmental concern and remind us to do our part in cleaning up our home and preventing further destruction, no matter how large or small our impact may be.

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected]