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Turning an Environmental Menace into Meaningful Art

You won’t offend Sara Norine if you say her stunning new ocean jelly (more commonly known as jellyfish) artwork above The Florida Aquarium gift shop is trash. Indeed, that is the point of her vivid creation. The fiber artist transformed thousands of feet of “dirty, stinky” monofilament line, collected along local waterways, into the luminous ocean jelly, which is 18 inches in diameter and six feet long.

The rendering not only captures the creature’s delicate beauty, but, as Norine says, “tells a story.”

Community engagement is essential to Norine’s art, and she finds it fitting that the work conveys the wonders of nature and the perils of waste.

When the Aquarium requested the gift shop artwork, in order to gather the materials needed for the piece she envisioned, the St. Petersburg resident participated in a number of cleanups with Tampa Bay Watch and Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, where the amount of monofilament collected was overwhelming. She also collected discarded monofilament on her own.

“It’s everywhere,” she says. “All you have to do is rub your heel in the dirt next to the water, and you’re going to uncover monofilament. And when you learn about the impact, it’s just disheartening.”

The plastic line, alas, poses a grave threat to wildlife, frequently entangling and killing birds and other marine creatures, including turtles. The Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program, for instance, reports a dead turtle was found that had ingested nearly 600 feet of monofilament.

The late Rich Paul, the former manager of Florida Audubon’s Coastal Islands Sanctuaries, used to tell of observing a lone flamingo in Tampa Bay for years – until discovering its corpse hooked and entangled by abandoned fishing line. Such senseless causalities are all too common among coastal birds

Monofilament is virtually indestructible, taking more than 600 years to decompose, according to Tampa Bay Watch.

Norine admires Tampa Bay Watch’s effort to curb fishing line pollution. The nonprofit group places PVC tubes at docks, piers and ramps, where people can throw away the line. The organization’s members then collect it and send it to a company that recycles the line into fishing equipment such as tackle boxes or underwater marine habitat. (Braided fishing line cannot be recycled, but can be repurposed for twine and other uses.)

“Intrigued and inspired,” Norine sought to recycle monofilament that had been polluting local waters into a jelly she would create through “yarn spinning,” her preferred form of artwork. That proved a staggering challenge.

Hooks, sinkers and debris had to be cut from thousands of feet of line, which then had to be cleaned. She accomplished this by laying it in her backyard to be washed by the rain and baked by the sun.

Norine describes the complicated ordeal of turning the monofilament into “yarn”: Two people holding six strands of line would stand 180 feet apart, with another person maintaining tension in the middle. At one end, a person would wind the lines with an electric drill until everyone met in the middle. This resulted in “yarn” 60-to-80-feet long that Norine then had to shake from a high-rise building to “get out the tangles.”

If that wasn’t daunting enough, Norine says monofilament “has no memory” and immediately returns to its former shape, making weaving incredibly arduous.

However, the former librarian has been spinning since childhood and is not one to be discouraged, though she admits the ocean jelly was her most challenging project. She estimates using tens of thousands of feet of monofilament for the jelly, which took more than two months to complete. Norine found monofilament did have one advantage. It comes in different colors, which she could utilize.

Turning trash to art is nothing new for the artist-educator. She has used tossed items many times to make clothes and artwork. She has taught children to embroider a “fabric estuary” that expresses their concern for the ocean with debris from local waters. Her “Trashion Fashions” and other innovations can be found at her website: saranorine.com.

Friends and students helped complete the jelly, and all found turning an environmental menace into meaningful art enlightening.

“I believe everybody is an artist,” Norine says, “and using found objects creates an immediate connection with people.”

She hopes that The Florida Aquarium visitors will experience a similar connection to her ocean jelly and take to heart its powerful message about our thoughtless threats to a fragile ocean.

Story by Joe Guidry, Former Opinion Editor, The Tampa Tribune.