Uncommon Response To An Uncommon Ocean Spill

Replica Air Jordans, constructed by the artist Andy Yoder’s from trash gathered on dumpster dives, evoke the Great Sneaker Spill of 1990. Greg Staley

We shared another story years ago about a creative response to an ocean spill, but it was the frequent kind of spill, involving oil. More common in our pages are stories about creative responses to the plague of waste, especially that from plastic. Today’s story is in good company:

If the Shoe Floats

Over the decades, a mass of flotsam from a freighter accident has inspired scientific discovery, urban legend and, now, an art exhibition commemorating the Great Sneaker Spill of 1990.

Mr. Yoder wields a glue gun to create a sneaker replica for an installation that also stands as commentary on environmental destruction. Greg Staley

It seemingly happened so long ago that the event has assumed elements of urban legend — the saga of the Great Sneaker Spill.

Sometimes referred to as the Great Shoe Spill, the tale recounts an event on May 27, 1990, when, during a sudden violent storm in the North Pacific, five shipping containers were swept off the deck of the freighter Hansea Carrier somewhere between Seoul and Seattle.

Of the 40-foot steel boxes that broke loose and crashed into the ocean, one sank to the bottom and four broke open to spill out a stream of contents that included computer monitors, sex toys and 61,280 Nike sneakers destined for America’s basketball courts and city streets.

… cartons from McDonald’s takeout meals … Greg Staley

The incident went on to become a parable of environmental disaster, as well as a red-letter event in the history of sneakerheads. For months, the buoyant flotilla drifted, carried by wind and currents until, in early 1991, beachcombers reported coming upon batches of the sneakers off Vancouver Island in Canada, pushed north on the Davidson Current. That spring, driven southward by opposing breezes, more of them turned up along the coastlines of Washington and Oregon.

… and posters from a David Hockney exhibition. Greg Staley

The Great Sneaker Spill might have gone unremembered had it not been for the enterprising scavengers who washed and resold the flotsam and Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who, alerted to the spill’s existence by his mother, later used it as the basis for a study of little-known currents. That bit of science earned Mr. Ebbesmeyer the sobriquet Doctor Ocean and, for a time, a guest spot on the couches of late-night talk shows.

Early this year, Andy Yoder, an artist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in repurposing everyday objects, happened upon the legend of the Great Sneaker Spill and decided to commemorate it as a means of highlighting the continuing degradation of our marine environment. Creating 250 Nike replicas from recycled trash, Mr. Yoder then arranged them on store shelves in an immersive installation, “Andy Yoder: Overboard,” that went on view on Oct. 24 at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont and also online.

Reached by phone at his studio in northeast Washington, Mr. Yoder, 62, spoke about the Great Sneaker Spill and how it first drew him in. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What about this event resonated for you?

I’d been offered the chance to make a proposal for a show by the arts program CulturalDC. CulturalDC has a mobile art gallery in a reconditioned shipping container, and I immediately got interested in the containers themselves. When I started researching, I came across the incident of the Great Spill.

There is so much I did not know. There are millions containers going around the world at any given time, and, surprisingly, things fall off boats routinely. Though I am very pro-environment, I think we’ve been preached to enough about the effects we as humans have on the planet, so I wanted to do a project that brought attention to the issue in a way that wasn’t preachy.

Were you a sneakerhead?

Not at all. When I first moved to New York in 1984, I was a nerd from suburban Cleveland, dropping into the downtown art scene in what was this great, transformative experience. I remember seeing Keith Haring outside the Pop Shop, all in black and wearing high-tops and feeling like I had arrived…

Read the whole story here.

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