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Styrofoam Cloud, Lake Ontario, 2019. Photo: John Healey.

Plastic Beach: The ugly beauty found in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway through photos by John Healey

By Sonya Gankina on November 13, 2020

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In this new, award-winning exhibition, Ottawa photographer John Healey demonstrates a juxtaposition of beauty and unsightliness. The Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG), School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO), and the Ottawa Arts Council have joined to co-present Plastic Beach, an exhibition of work by Healey, the recent recipient of the 2020 Project X Photography award.

Among four pieces at the OAG, two are in the spotlight: A portrait of a man and a photo of a cloud, two beautiful images. On closer look, the cloud (Styrofoam Cloud) is made out of styrofoam abandoned in Lake Ontario, and the portrait (Michigan Man After Arcimboldo) is a carefully arranged composition of bottle caps and other plastic debris found in Lake Michigan.

Michigan Man after Arcimboldo, Lake Michigan, 2019. Photo: John Healey.

Styrofoam Cloud, Lake Ontario, 2019. Photo: John Healey.

The pieces draw the eye with their artistic composition and the expert placement of shadow and light. The images invoke a sense of sad understanding of the extent of human actions on the environment.

In this interview, meet the photographer behind the lens and dive deeper into the seaway pollution that Healey highlights in such a masterful and artistic way.

Apt613: How did you get started with photography?

John Healey: I grew up in a traditional Canadian family of six, in the ’70s along the St. Lawrence River. Our house was filled with beautiful art and plenty of books, and I was encouraged to explore from a very early age. Growing up in this environment was fundamental to my creativity.

Personally, art has never been that far away from me. It’s always been in my mind. I had a long career in marketing of home electronics, which fed my family, sustained me, and allowed me to grow.

Photography was always a hobby for me until 2006. At that point, I started to really think about what I wanted to say with my work, and in 2009 I started to communicate with my camera. After that, photography became my obsession and a real passion. I was taking a lot of courses at the School Of The Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO) and met Michael Tardioli – he taught me how to think when taking a photo.

Plastic Beach won the Project X Award from SPAO. Photo: Sonya Gankina.

What inspired you to focus on environmental pollution left by humans in nature’s habitats that is featured in this exhibition?

My inspiration for this project came in two waves. I had published two projects before starting Plastic Beach and they were both inward-looking, defining who I am as an individual and how I see the world. For my next project, I was going to explore a similar concept and asked Amy, my wife, what she thought about the idea. She suggested that instead, I take an outward-looking approach, focusing on the environment. Amy works at the National Gallery as the Head of References and possesses a wealth of knowledge of the arts. Her suggestion spoke to me.

Our conversation coincided perfectly with a trip to Lake Superior Provincial Park in 2018. I always try to reduce camping gear and hike into backcountry campsites. Here, the beach was 10km away from any roads and very remote. I was struck by how much pollution was on this hidden beach.

Growing up along the St. Lawrence, we were always taught to protect it. Leaving something on the beach never occurred to us.

I usually pack out garbage that I find in nature and throw it out later, but this time I wanted to take it home and see what was there. I knew I was onto something. The type of garbage I was picking up, I was seeing in other places and wanted to explore what things were left on the beaches.

From the Plastic Beach exhibit at OAG. Photo: Sonya Gankina.

What is the story you want to tell?

I want to bring awareness to the issue of pollution in the Great Lakes and the seaway and inspire change. I want people to change their actions.

When I got home from that defining trip, I started choosing more locations to collect garbage and began doing research on how garbage moves in the Great Lakes. I read an article by Dr. Matthew J. Hoffman at Rochester Institute of Technology and learned that garbage flows through the seaway very differently than in the ocean.

I want people to change their actions.

In the St. Lawrence River, garbage flows with the currents and gets trapped along the shoreline. I decided to visit all the Great Lakes and the shoreline along the St. Lawrence to see if there was consistency among the garbage I found. What I was finding was quite random: U.S. military ration bags, 6-foot construction insulation plastic sheets, toys, glasses, water jugs, milk jugs, and caps. After a lot of research, I learned just how badly we have treated the natural waterway over the last 300 years, and it’s amazing that it still offers life to us.

Then, I had an idea to say “This is very different from what you think garbage is.” I want you to think it’s quite beautiful but in fact, we are not looking at beautiful things, we are looking at garbage. The Styrofoam Cloud and Michigan Man After Arcimboldo are the pieces representing exactly this notion.

Michigan Man After Arcimboldo hanging at the OAG. Photo: Sonya Gankina.

If you could think of one thing that we all can do to be more green, what is it?

Packaging is a big thing. Consider how much of it is not necessary and use alternatives to plastic, like reinforced paper or cardboard. At the grocery store, find vegetables that are not wrapped in plastic or foam and put them in your reusable bag.

I also found countless plastic water bottles and caps. There are many solutions to take that out of the equation – use reusable water bottles, travel mugs, wax paper cups.

Remember to also vote with your wallet, tell a small business to use compostable reinforced paper containers instead of plastic ones, and continue to create demand for eco-friendly products.

I want people to see what I see and see what’s out there. This is the driving motivation behind Plastic Beach – to prevent more plastic beaches in the future. Other artists, Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky, explore similar concepts with beautiful nature landscapes and industrious ruinous scenes respectively.


Plastic Beach online events include an artist talk video with John Healey (pre-recorded) available on YouTube and Virtual OAG. An Instagram Live chat with John Healey and OAG Deputy Director and Chief Curator Catherine Sinclair takes place today, Friday, November 13, at 4pm. The exhibition runs until November 25, 2020 at the Ottawa Art Gallery, 10 Daly Avenue.  Admission is free but an appointment is required.

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