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The Sussex artist turning ocean trash into treasure

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On Aldwick beach’s crunchy shingle, cuttlefish bones glow white and, tossed among the pebbles, lie the pale shells of slipper limpets and whelks. But every now and then something colourful or shiny catches the eye: a red bottle top, a twist of purple string, the reflective lenses of a lost pair of sunglasses. It’s these impostors we’re after and we bag them up.

I am on a beach clean in Bognor Regis with local artist Caroline South. We stroke back the sea-smoothed stones and shake out clumps of bladderwrack, searching for detritus big and small. I follow her to the tide line where the seaweed gathers and plastic flotsam can be found trapped within the tangle. The wilder the weather, the better the pickings, Caroline tells me, and she often hastens to the beach in the aftermath of a storm.

After just 30 minutes of beach combing, we have a bag full of rubbish and we head to a paved area in front of a beach hut to inspect our loot. It’s a sorry jumble of plastic cutlery, food packaging and stubby pieces of rope. But as Caroline picks among it, sorting the litter into colours, she quickly transforms our finds into something more cheerful: a rainbow of shapes and patterns within an invisible rectangular frame.

Love of collecting

Caroline’s ability to make something beautiful from everyday finds has seen her amass an Instagram following (@caroline_south) approaching 120,000 and build a business from the prints and greeting cards which she sells on Etsy. The appealing artworks were born from a love of scrapbooking and archiving when plastic waste was far from her mind.

‘I’d do a lot of walking with the kids and go to the beach a lot and I’d collect a lot of natural treasures,’ she says. ‘I wanted to document the things that we’d find when we were out and about – feathers, stones with holes, anything like that – and I started using that in my photographs, on my Instagram and on my blog.

‘Then, as I was collecting those things, I started picking up some of the plastic and realising how much there was … and then as my plastic collection grew, I started making images with just the plastic to bring some awareness with my following and show how much is out there.’

By turning this ‘rubbish’ into something beautiful, Caroline sends out an important message about the value of waste as well as the need to tackle marine litter.

Caroline’s art also highlights the different types of plastic that she’s picking up: items such as cotton buds which have been flushed down the loo (‘people don’t think about where it’s ending up’), and fishing beads and twine lost by anglers. ‘When I show the amount I can find on a single day, and I’ve laid it all out, people are always quite genuinely shocked,’ she says.

Nowhere is this love of collecting better symbolised than in the striking pink heart Caroline created during the pandemic. It’s a fitting metaphor for the values behind the 43-year-old artist’s work, communicating her love of her local beaches which she helps to clean up, and the reframing of unwanted waste into treasures that, when cleverly rearranged, create something heartwarming and joyful.

Some of the finds contained within the heart are rather unusual. ‘There are some quite nice bits in there,’ she says, pointing to a doll’s leg, an action figure’s torso, candle holders and two daisies – one from Playmobil and one from Lego. Rare too is the colour, making this piece extra special. ‘There’s never much pink,’ she says.

Love of colour

Caroline’s work is all about playing with colour. ‘The gradient makes it more eye-catching than a jumbled mass of plastic,’ she tells me. ‘It’s about putting it in some sort of order. I like symmetrical things, balance, colour gradients – I find all those things quite satisfying.’

We head back to her home, a 1970s terraced house that she is renovating herself and documenting on social media. The experience, coupled with her awareness of the plastic problem, is the inspiration behind her latest venture, Caroline South Living, an online shop selling sustainable home and lifestyle products such as refillable soap and shampoo dispensers and marbled coasters made from plastic waste. ‘I wanted to create somewhere where you could buy unusual homeware but without the plastic packaging,’ she says.

We head up the stairs, where each step is painted a different shade, to have a nose around her studio. It’s as neat and ordered as you’d expect from her work, with rows of chunky jars containing objects sorted by colour. Lidded storage boxes with tiny compartments contain her rarest finds. These include pastel-coloured pins from vintage hair rollers, and the spillage from a 1997 container ship that is still landing marine-themed Lego decades later – the little flippers, scuba tanks and spear guns finding their way into Caroline’s artworks.

Some of the items stored in Caroline’s studio feel very Bognor: shot ring caps for toy guns, bookies’ pens and the clasps that once sealed mesh bags of buckets and spades. The tile spacers, golf tees and curtain hooks are harder to place, but they all appear in unexpected quantities. ‘It’s just surprising: you don’t think of these things ending up on the beach,’ Caroline says.

Love of the sea

Less surprising is that Caroline, a keen wild swimmer originally from the Isle of Wight, produces artwork with a connection to the coast. ‘I grew up surrounded by the sea, surrounded by beautiful beaches, so I just love it,’ she says. ‘Even if I’m not collecting and I just take the dog down there, it just clears your mind.’

Old-fashioned Aldwick, with its candy-striped bathing boxes, is one of her favourite beaches ‘because it’s home’, she says, and ‘it’s always quite quiet and feels secluded because it’s behind the beach huts’. The west side of Littlehampton is ‘lovely’, she says, but West Wittering, ‘a beautiful beach’, tops the bill when it comes to treasure hunting.

‘I don’t know if it’s the tidal currents or whether it shows up because it’s sandy,’ she says, but it’s this shore that yields many of her most interesting finds: miniature animals that look like they once belonged in crackers, for example, and retro toy soldiers that have probably bobbed in the sea for years, dreaming of dry land and a new home.

Sadly, Caroline has also noticed lots of microplastics there, including thousands of nurdles (tiny plastic pellets) which, she says, you’d need to sieve the sand to remove. ‘I’ve seen how it’s got worse,’ she says. ‘It’s a huge problem … really sad’.

Caroline’s local beaches are such an important part of her life, but you’re unlikely to find her lying back and relaxing on Littlehampton’s golden sands or Aldwick’s speckled shingle. Plastic doesn’t belong on Sussex’s beaches and ‘having a bit of a rummage’ for colourful debris has become a compulsion, she says. ‘It’s really hard to leave it once you get into that mindset.’

You can see more of Caroline’s artwork on her website carolinesouth.co and her Instagram @caroline_south.



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