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College of the Atlantic student creates art from trash

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BAR HARBOR - When College of the Atlantic student Phinn Onens helped to necropsy a leatherback turtle last summer, what he found changed his academic trajectory. Onens, a senior at COA, was devastated by the cache of plastic in the turtle's stomach. Having studied marine conservation and education, he sought a visceral way of teaching others about the extent and deadly nature of plastic debris in our waters. His solution? Art.

For the past month, Onens has been assembling a sculpture made entirely of the plastic he found on Mount Desert Island's beaches. The sculpture will be unveiled at 5 p.m. on March 13 in the college's George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History. It will remain on display in the museum for several months.  

The material for his sculpture was gathered during journeys to Hulls Cove, Sand Beach and the Shore Path of MDI three or four times most weeks since November. Each time he went, Onens would return with new trash, filling at least four plastic bags with lobster gear, hubcaps, disposable utensils, plastic toys, bottles and more on each excursion.

'I had thought the beach of the national park would be more pristine,' he says. 'But that was only because I hadn't been searching for it beforehand.'

This week, Onens expanded the creative output, hosting the Tremont Middle School seventh and eighth grade science classes in the Dorr Museum. He had already been to the school to talk to students about marine conservation. At the Dorr, the students used the recycled material which Onens had carefully washed, sterilized and recorded to make their own assemblages.  

Onens' desire, he says, 'is to have an impact. I want the sculpture to be pleasing, I also want people and children to look at it and see the objects.' He's hoping that people will begin to understand that the toothbrush, bottle, yogurt container, whatever, that fell out of someone's hands at the dock does not disappear. While his sculpture is a benign place for the trash to land, too often, he says, it is mistaken for food by an animal, or becomes a trap that some hapless creature cannot escape.  

For more information about the Dorr Museum and Phinn Onens' sculpture, contact the museum at (207) 288-5395 or  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . The museum is open by donation from Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. An opening reception for the sculpture will be held Wednesday, March 13 from 5 to 6 p.m.

College of the Atlantic was founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enabling students to actively shape its future. A leader in experiential education and environmental stewardship, COA has pioneered a distinctive interdisciplinary approach to learning human ecology that develops the kinds of creative thinkers and doers needed by all sectors of society in addressing the compelling and growing needs of our world. For more, visit


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