Watershed Cleanup Event Unites University and Local Communities, Environmental Science, and Art

An interdisciplinary community event, “What’s in Your Watershed?,” raised questions about the impact of environmental devastation as well as the important role art can have in exploring this impact at the individual and community levels.

November 16, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Jennifer Vela ’23 and Sam Walls ’23, marine biology majors, at the cleanup event.
Jennifer Vela ’23 and Sam Walls ’23, marine biology majors, at the cleanup event.
This is part of the planning team, from Left to right: Prof. Jackie Gleisner, sTo Len, Dr. Jean-Paul Simjouw, Dr. Amy Carlile, and Dr. Karin Jakubowski with special bags for collecting trash that could become art.
This is part of the planning team, from Left to right: Prof. Jackie Gleisner, sTo Len, Dr. Jean-Paul Simjouw, Dr. Amy Carlile, and Dr. Karin Jakubowski with special bags for collecting trash that could become art.

Jake Puff ’23 and several of his fellow Chargers recently picked up trash along the waterfront in New Haven. He and one of his classmates collected about one and a half bags of garbage, waste that could now have a second life after being picked up as litter.

The coastal cleanup event brought Chargers and members of the local community to the Long Wharf waterfront to not only remove trash, but to add to their understanding of environmental science – and their appreciation of art. The event, dubbed “What’s in Your Watershed?,” combined environmental education and advocacy through the lens of art.

“This was a great way to promote art and science education, as the event highlighted some of the major issues surrounding trash and the environment,” said Puff, a graphic design major. “The connection to art was also an important and interesting way of displaying the impact and volume of trash within our environment.”

‘The value of interdisciplinary collaboration’

sTo Len, an artist based in Queens, NY.
sTo Len, an artist based in Queens, NY.

Hosted by the University’s Citizen Opportunities for Accessing Science Training on the Sound (COASTS) program, the New Haven Climate Movement, and Save the Sound, the event brought more than five dozen members of the University community, local high school students, and community members to the waterfront.

Several University professors, including Amy Carlile, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Biology and Environmental Science Department, helped collect trash. They also educated participants about sources of watershed pollution, discussing topics such as the harmful impact of microplastics and cigarette butt disposal.

“I hope folks saw the value of interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Dr. Carlile. “When people from different backgrounds come together with a common goal, we can accomplish a lot. Engaging people on environmental issues using art is very effective. It’s important to get the greater community involved and to get the next generation of scientists inspired. It was wonderful to see so many young people involved and interested in preserving our blue backyard – the Long Island Sound.”

‘I can be a catalyst’

sTo Len examines trash collected at the event.
sTo Len examines trash collected at the event.

sTo Len, a printmaker and installation, sound, and performance artist based in Queens, NY, helped turn the event into one that also embraced and celebrated art. He uses his work, which marries art and ecology, to raise awareness about the impact of pollution. The cleanup enabled him to advance that work as he used the trash collected in New Haven in his solo exhibition, To Dissolve into the Hydrocommons, One Drop at a Time. It is on display in the University’s Seton Gallery until December 9.

Funded by grants from the International Association of New Haven and the Connecticut Sea Grant Arts Award Support Program, Len’s exhibition examines the themes of environmental decay and the interconnectedness of global ecosystems. He hopes it inspires his audience to examine their own environmental impact while also helping people discover new places nearby that they might not know.

“Any time you get a group of people together, it can be super inspiring and empowering,” said Len. “I know folks learned new things about microplastics and saw this pollution in a different light with my work.

“Several people I talked to told me they had never been to Long Wharf before,” Len continued. “But they said they were going to start going there. That’s the best. As a non-local, sometimes I can be a catalyst for people to check out places that may have gone under the radar.”

‘Visual and poetic’

Dr. Jean-Paul Simjouw, Ph.D. (right), an environmental science and marine biology lecturer, with participants.
Dr. Jean-Paul Simjouw, Ph.D. (right), an environmental science and marine biology lecturer, with participants.

For Len, environmental education is personal. As part of the event, he spoke to participants about the devastating impact industrial waste has had in Vietnam, a country where he has familial roots, and something he saw firsthand while visiting. The prints he created documented oil that had been spilled in the water, shedding light on an environmental crisis that had not been widely reported in the media.

It’s stories like these that, says Jacquelyn Gleisner, M.F.A., illustrate the importance and impact of the work of artists. One of the event’s organizers, Prof. Gleisner hopes Len encouraged participants – and inspires viewers of his exhibition – to think critically.

“sTo Len’s methods for imparting information are visual and poetic,” said Prof. Gleisner, practitioner in residence and director of the Seton Gallery. “Art and science can work together to enhance and strengthen their separate vantage points. Also, artists today employ many surprising and innovative techniques for creating meaningful works of art. In this case, sTo Len used debris and trash collected from Long Wharf to make an index of black and white prints that are displayed alongside the collected objects.”

‘A closer look’

Students collect trash along the waterfront in New Haven
Students collect trash along the waterfront in New Haven

The cleanup was the first large-scale community outreach event hosted by COASTS, which is supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Long Island Sound Futures Fund. Over the summer, COASTS began training a group of local community members to be citizen scientists, and they will be helping with future outreach events. There are three more planned as part of the “COASTS through the Seasons” series. The next event, planned for February, will featured citizen scientists’ projects and focus on sustainability.

For Puff, the graphic design major, this most recent outreach event was as enlightening as it was interdisciplinary. It united the University and the local communities, while bridging science and art in one thought-provoking event and exhibition.

“Attending this event gave me a closer look into artist sTo Len’s work and process,” he said. “It was cool to see some of the trash that was picked up included alongside the artwork in the exhibition at Seton Gallery.”

Dozens of Chargers and members of the local community collected trash as part of the cleanup event.
Dozens of Chargers and members of the local community collected trash as part of the cleanup event.

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