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Christmas tree made of ocean trash turns heads at Vancouver Aquarium

One man’s trash is another man’s… Christmas tree?

A Christmas tree built entirely out of marine debris is getting double takes from visitors to the Vancouver Aquarium this month.

Tofino artist Pete Clarkson designed and built the unique art installation, which took three days to assemble and required four tonnes of debris collected by volunteers from last year’s shoreline cleanup of the West Coast Trail.

“The idea was really to try to educate people about the problem of marine debris, but also bring some colour and some smiles into their lives at the same time,” Clarkson told Metro. “Art is a great medium for that.”

Clarkson, who works as a park ranger, is well known for his one-of-a-kind creations made entirely out of garbage that washed up on Vancouver Island beaches.

A self-taught artist, Clarkson said he grew up in a family of artists but struggled to find a medium he enjoyed.

He said he first started experimenting with marine debris after moving to Tofino 15 years ago. Clarkson said he noticed the endless amounts of marine debris littering beaches, and was drawn to the objects.

“There was something about the material that really attracted me— the colours and the way they were worn by the environment,” he said. “It just struck a chord and I started collecting some of these things.”

Since then, Clarkson said he has worked hard to fine-tune his craft.

“It’s a fantastic raw material to use,” he said. “Because it’s garbage, it’s allowed me to be quite fearless in my experimenting.”

No object is too bizarre or boring for Clarkson, who has used everything from bath toys to wood from shipwrecks in his creations.

“One of the funniest things was an umbrella handle,” he recalled. “There was no umbrella— it was just the classic umbrella handle and it was quite faded.”

To his surprise, Clarkson said he later stumbled across several more umbrella handles, which sparked a desire to try to find out where they had originated. Some research revealed that more umbrella handles had been found on beaches across the coast.

Clarkson said he eventually solved the mystery when he learned that a cargo ship had lost a container of umbrellas near Hawaii.

“That was really cool,” he said. “I’m really fascinated by the history. It adds so much more to the object than just an unknown umbrella handle.”

When a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, Clarkson’s work took on a more sombre tone when his usual beachcombing revealed many personal items lost in the tragedy.

Along with others in the beachcombing community, he said he has worked to try to return items, travelling to Japan to track down the original owners.

“It never ceases to amaze me the things that we find in the ocean and how connected you are to those objects and the people who may have had them before,” he said. “It just shrinks the world right down.”

Last summer, Clarkson teamed up with the Vancouver Aquarium for the first time, designing and building a totem pole made out marine debris with a goal of raising public awareness about ocean pollution.

This year’s Christmas tree is no exception, he said.

He said he hopes the installation brings holiday joy to visitors, while also helping educate them about marine debris.

"We collected four tonnes of material from one of Canada's most beautiful spots," he said. "It just shows you the extent of this problem."

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