Recycled art: Students combat plastic waste by creating ‘coral reef’

Pipettes and other lab refuse have been repurposed in a colorful underwater landscape at the Moody

From outside the glass-walled room in the Moody Center for the Arts, the newest student art project on display looks like a coral reef rendered in Minecraft: rectangular, bright blue “bubbles” suspended from the ceiling, spindly “anemones” and oddly articulated “sea worms” inching across giant, purple mounds of “coral” that rise from the floor like brick dwellings.

Jones College senior Alex Rovner

Jones College senior Alex Rovner (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Upon closer inspection, the blocklike units of construction are discarded pipette boxes and other plastic laboratory waste in a rainbow of colors — all of it obtained over the course of a semester from Rice’s own labs across campus.

“Not Coralated: Consumption and Conservation” is a collaboration between Jones College senior Alex Rovner and second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr. They met working in the lab of Adrienne Correa, assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, where they developed an abiding interest in coral reef ecosystems. In fact, that’s where Howe-Kerr is doing research now: the Moorea Coral Reef near Tahiti, where she’s studying the role of viral infection in coral bleaching and disease.

“I’m going to medical school so I’m not going to study coral reefs for my entire life, which is a plus since I get very seasick,” joked Rovner, an environmental science major.

And so, here in the Moody Center, Rovner and Howe-Kerr have built a coral reef on land that’s accessible for anyone to visit.

After taking an Art and the Environment class two years ago that was co-taught by Correa and Lina Dib, an artist and lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice, the two students were inspired to keep creating art— an impulse which caught Rovner by surprise.

Second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr

Second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr

“Growing up I was always a super science-and-math guy,” he said. “I didn’t hate art but I couldn’t do it at all.”

An intro-to-drawing class his sophomore year confirmed that he couldn’t accomplish what he considered “traditional” art. But seeing the work that came out of Correa and Dib’s course that same semester — including wax molds of dying coral reefs created by Howe-Kerr, for which she held a candlelight vigil — changed his mind about what art is and could be.

“That was my first experience with art in general, because I’m not an artist at all in my opinion,” Rovner said. “One of the fallacies I had growing up is that art is this thing in a museum that you go look at and costs a million dollars.”

What he did not imagine art to be was piles and piles of plastic waste — waste which often ends up in the oceans, where it has to begun to destroy coral reefs around the world. A recent four-year study from Cornell found that reefs have become heavily contaminated with plastic, which clings to coral and can often abrade it, inviting in harmful bacteria and pathogens. The likelihood of disease, the researchers reported in Science magazine, increases from 4 percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic.

Rovner was taking a light load of only three courses his senior year and so, before Howe-Kerr headed to Moorea, the two former classmates brainstormed an art project — this time for themselves — in which they’d ask labs across campus to donate any plastic waste they would have otherwise thrown away.

“We thought it would be really cool if we could use all the lab waste that we create and make it into something meaningful,” Rovner said.

Rovner and Howe-Kerr created sea worms, anemones, starfish and other marine life from pipettes and plastic waste. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Rovner and Howe-Kerr created sea worms, anemones, starfish and other marine life from pipettes and plastic waste. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Each department and lab they approached was receptive, with the biology department even offering to store the pipettes and boxes they collected along the way. But after those labs were shut down over winter break for renovations, Rovner and Howe-Kerr scrambled to find new storage space — not to mention somewhere to exhibit their final piece. Another former professor, Richard Johnson, who serves as Rice’s director of sustainability, suggested getting in touch with the Moody Center.

“They were super receptive,” Rovner said. “They had this open room in the Media Lab and said, ‘Yes, it’s all yours.’”

And, as fate would have it, all of the Moody Center’s spring exhibitions were also focused on ecology and the environment, making “Not Coralated” a natural fit.

By early January, all the materials were moved in and construction of the reef was underway. The pair worked throughout Spring Break hot-gluing bits of plastic to create everything from a 6-foot-tall coral mounted atop a chicken wire frame to tiny, spiny urchins and an ocean-hued sea turtle swimming across one corner of the reef. They laid it all atop borrowed banners from Correa’s lab that showed underwater photos of reefs from the Florida Keys to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the Texas Gulf coast. The glass walls of the Media Lab room lend the entire scene an aquarium-like effect.

“It worked out really well,” Rovner said. “The room ended up being perfect for what we were trying. I was afraid it would look barren and we wanted it to look lush and colorful.”

Yet despite the tremendous amount of plastic-based marine life in the room, Rovner said there’s much, much more where that came from.

“What you see here is probably about 30 percent of what we collected,” he said. “There was no way that we could use all of it.”

The entire piece rests on banners showing coral reefs from Florida to Texas. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The entire piece rests on banners showing coral reefs from Florida to Texas. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

As a final statement, one of the last pieces they created for the reef was a small school of plastic fish that spell out a single, plaintive request along a wall: reduce.

The pair finished the project in a “mad dash” on a Friday afternoon. Howe-Kerr left for her long research trip to Moorea that following Sunday morning. Rovner will graduate next month and plans to return home to South Carolina for medical school. And though creating a piece of art is not how the self-proclaimed “science-and-math guy” imagined he’d spend his last semester at Rice, he couldn’t be happier about it.

“It’s definitely something I never thought I’d be doing at Rice,” Rovner said of the ambitious project. “But I looked at it like how kids use Legos.”

“You just have a big thing of Legos and start building and see what happens,” he said. “And it turned into a reef this time.”

For its part, the Moody Center was excited to showcase one more piece of art that highlights an exhibition season devoted to contemplating environmental concerns — and a piece of student-created art, at that.

“At the Moody we strive to foster creativity across campus, wherever it may be found,” said Alison Weaver, the Suzanne Deal Booth executive director of the Moody Center. “When Alex and Lauren reached out with the idea to create an installation from recycled lab materials, we said, ‘Absolutely, come on over!’”

“Needless to say, the result is fantastic and has been capturing the interest of students and visitors alike, provoking conversations about art and the environment and fostering interest in both conservation and coral reefs,” Weaver said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.