Last fall, during one of painter Jackie Ranney’s twice-daily walks while picking up trash on the beach, her son handed her a piece of fiberglass, woven on one side and green on the other.
“I was like, ‘This is really kind of beautiful’ — it was weathered and softened around the edges, and the color was worn,” said Ranney, 41. “When it’s not on the beach, when it’s not a pollutant in the ocean, I thought, ‘I could transform this.’”
That piece of fiberglass spurred Ranney’s latest collection, “TArt,” or as her website defines it, “fine art from beach trash.” Each piece in this collection is made using the myriad of debris that she finds washed up on the Massachusetts shoreline, which is on her doorstep in the coastal town of Hull. She amasses and repurposes materials ranging from multicolored bottle caps to fishing rope to dock foam.
Ranney has fought for ocean conservation causes everywhere she’s lived, protesting against an oil rig being put up off the coast of Dublin and volunteering for sea turtle rescue in South Carolina. This collection, she said, melds the creativity of her lifelong painting career and her activist verve for marine preservation.
“I wanted to bring those issues to light and help people to see beautiful art and find ways within themselves to be involved in ocean conservation,” said Ranney, who studied fine art in high school at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick. “If we’re going to enjoy the oceans, then we have to be able to give back, because they need our help.”
Ranney also includes leftover paints and construction materials, like plaster, from when her Hull home was built. She builds the frames herself out of OSB boards, generally considered a sustainable type of wood.
She admits that the concept was difficult to execute at first — “my first painting emerged and it was so ugly,” she said with a laugh — but soon, she was making profiles, landscapes, and abstract pieces out of everything from combs to shotgun shells, all blending together in a sort of mixed-media pointillism.
“I knew it was something that I had to kind of push on and keep working with — I just felt it in my bones,” she said. “I just kept doing it and doing it until something emerged that looked less like my son’s messy craft project.”
The 4-feet-by-6-feet “mi playa su playa,” which uses a leftover foam insulation board as a canvas, depicts what looks like a bird’s-eye view of a beach scene. But upon closer inspection, the water is made from plastic bags. The umbrella-like figurines are bottle caps. The sand is helium balloons.
“Everybody knows the expression ‘mi casa, su casa,’” Ranney said. “I like the idea of thinking of the ocean as a place that is something that we love to protect and take care of.”
This piece, like the rest in the collection, is layered. “There are actually probably five layers below that, and I decided as I go, whether each layer is going to be the top layer,” Ranney said. “The more layers I have, the more I get to use in each painting, and the less ends up in the trash.”
This tiering technique also creates what Ranney describes as an “underpainting,” where some materials poke through the layers atop them, and others are buried completely.
“Different textures can come through in different ways,” she said. “The layering, to me, really adds depth and a volume to something that’s mostly two-dimensional.”
Not all of the pieces in “TArt” are as abstract. The geometric “Blue Dock” shows a grid of 143 teal pieces of dock foam screwed into the canvas, with a red heart forged from a child’s flip flop in the bottom right. “The Look” depicts a “mummy scolding,” as Ranney put it, with the bridge of her nose made from an army action figure and a pair of swimming goggles fastened to her chin.
To adhere the litter to the canvases, Ranney uses plaster and flooring adhesive from bygone construction projects, plus glue. “It’s like doing a mosaic, in some respects,” she said.
Included somewhere in many of the paintings, which take about two weeks to make, are lists of every salvaged material. In “Flow,” an abstract tropical scene, the lengthy catalog is scrawled underneath the leaves of a tree made from strips of thick plastic. In “mi playa su playa,” the list is painted in light blue into the crest of the wave.
“Kids and adults have kind of taken to using it like a scavenger hunt, like Where’s Waldo,” Ranney said. “It’s kind of a cool interactive thing, and it gets people talking.”
And getting people talking is at the forefront of “TArt.” Ranney understands that many people aren’t aware of the extent of the environmental issues plaguing our oceans, and others are under the impression the problems are too lofty to tackle. She pointed to the Boston Harbor cleanup in the 1980s as evidence of the power of environmental advocacy.
“If more people call their elected officials and partake and are just aware of what’s happening,” she said, “then it really can change policies that have a really massive effect.”
The collection, which now contains more than 20 paintings, is ongoing, and Ranney wants to experiment with more sculptural work as it develops. She is currently looking for gallery representation, but is selling the paintings privately. Eventually, she plans to donate a portion of every sale to an ocean conservation organization, such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth.
“It’s always great to have exposure as an artist, but it’s really so important to me with what I’m doing that it creates conversation around what individual people can do,” Ranney said. “Sparking a conversation is the first step to creating movement.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com