More than 22 million pounds of plastic pollute the Great Lakes each year. But Michigan artist Deborah Hecht turns the beach trash she collects on Lake Michigan into artistic treasures.

When metro Detroit-based artist Deborah Hecht’s son Sam was in kindergarten, his teacher asked each student in the class to describe their parents.

“My mother hates waste,” he said.

“It’s true — I always have,” Hecht agreed, as she told me the story inside her studio that’s filled to the brim with artwork made of “trash.”

Credit: Erica Zazo

Hecht describes her work as assemblage, meaning she repurposes “found objects” of all kinds — from broken pottery to non-functioning electronics to scraps of wood and metal — by turning them into art. 

Five-foot-tall sculpture people with kitchen appliances for body parts and antique table legs for limbs greet you near the studio’s front door. Mosaics made of colorful smashed teapots and broken plates adorn the walls. And her newest creative endeavor, a series she calls Beach Trash, is prominently displayed throughout her space. 

The Great Lakes of plastic

Our Great Lakes shorelines are littered with debris. A research study by the Rochester Institute of Technology found that plastic makes up 80% of all trash on Michigan’s beaches. Even more shocking: 22 million pounds of plastic end up in the Great Lakes each year, with nearly half of the total found in Lake Michigan.

“Every summer, we spend two months at our place up north near Northport in Leelanau,” Hecht said. “I walk the beach every day — which unfortunately, there’s not much beach to walk on now since it’s washed away — but I always pick up trash along the way.”

Credit: Erica Zazo

Over the last three years, Hecht has collected more than five 30-gallon bags full of trash — most of which are filled with plastic. 

“I’ve always picked up balloons — there are just so many balloons, and it really is a mystery to me,” she said. “But in 2017, I started to notice there was much more trash than balloons. Straws, lighters, bottle caps, ribbons, ropes, fishing hooks and Tiparillo [cigar] tips — by the zillions!”

After collecting the trash, she brings it home to wash and sort. And then, she starts creating.

Trash turned treasure

Deborah’s Beach Trash collection is a vibrant and impactful series of mosaics, each made up of intricately placed pieces of trash that she hand-collected on the beach at Lake Michigan.

The eccentric collages of plastic, metal, broken electronics, rubber and ribbons, and more, swirl into beautiful and creative images. Deborah hopes her art inspires people to be more mindful of their consumption and the waste they produce.

“While I hope they are drawn into the compositions and colors and arrangement, I am even more hopeful they’re aware of what it is they’re looking at and how big a problem waste in the Great Lakes has become,” she said. “By doing something with the trash I’ve collected, maybe people can be more aware of the carelessness and instead, do whatever they can to help keep it out of the water.”

Credit: Erica Zazo

Visit Deborah Hecht’s art studio and gallery — which also goes by the name of THINGS — in the northwest suburbs of Detroit, where she displays her creative works and collection of antiques and vintage furnishings.

Article written by Erica Zazo