WESTERLY — Artist Elizabeth Ellenwood has always spent time on beaches and has long been fascinated "with the ocean and the creatures who inhabit it."
"I've always loved the beach," said Ellenwood, a Westerly native who grew up in the Daytona Beach area of Florida and lived in Boston for a number of years before moving back to the area with her musician husband last year. "Our family spent a lot of time on the beach and we always had that 'leave it better than you found it' belief."
"My father was a boat captain," she added. "He taught us to respect the ocean and the waters." She was surprised, therefore, to find so much trash on the beautiful beaches of Westerly.
In her walks along East Beach and Napatree, she gathered the litter: Whether it was a crushed can, a discarded water bottle, a plastic bag, a toy soldier or a piece of a balloon, Ellenwood would stoop to pick it up and bring it home.
In one day alone, she picked up 240 pieces of plastic as she walked along East Beach.
"I didn't expect it would be that much," she said. "It was both horrifying and exciting."
Ellenwood received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography from The New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2010, and has exhibited in various locations around New England, including the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery in Groton. Now she is working on her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. As she walked the beaches and collected pieces of plastic, she wondered about how she might incorporate that experience into her work.
It finally came to her, said Ellenwood, who names the British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins as one of her inspirations. Atkins came of age in Victorian England, "a fertile environment for learning and discovery," according to the New York Public Library, where some of her work is now on display. Some sources say that Atkins was the first woman to create a photograph.
"Guided by her father, a prominent scientist, Atkins was inspired to take up photography, and in 1843 began making cyanotypes — a photographic process invented just the year before — in an effort to visualize and distribute information about her collection of seaweeds," the library said in describing Atkins and her work.
"I love alternative photography," said Ellenwood. "I've enjoyed it for a very long time." Ellenwood was a member of the team that worked on the Rollie McKenna exhibit now on display at the Stonington Historical Society's Woolworth Library and Research Center. She got the darkroom part of the exhibit up and running.
After seeing the Atkins exhibit, Ellenwood's ideas began to merge. She was attracted to the deep blue of the cyanotype process, and of how the blue relates to water, and said she thought she could "unite all the pieces" of her interests for her semester final. She said she asked herself, "How can I make more of this global issue in an instructive fashion?"
Earlier this year Ellenwood presented her idea to some of her faculty members. She received positive feedback and was encouraged to continue.
"It was well-received, and I kind of kept going," she said. She created the images by placing her objects on paper that had been sensitized to light and then exposing them to the light source. Shadows cast by the found items appear on the prints.
"We talked about how the images are beautiful so they make people stop and think," Ellenwood said last week as she showed her work at the Savoy Bookshop and Café. "It pulls you in so you start thinking ... it starts a conversation."
Earlier this month, she presented her completed work: a wall of 240 cyanotype prints made from the trash collected on that one beach walk. "It talks about all the things I am interested in; art, science, polluting our oceans," she said.
Christopher Kepple, director of development for the Stonington Historical Society, worked with Ellenwood on the Rollie McKenna exhibit. He called Ellenwood "an incredibly competent and technically savvy photographer."
But that's not what makes her photography special, he said.
"To me, what sets her apart is her ability to creatively respond to the scenes and subjects she photographs and capitalize on the visual possibilities they provide," said Kepple. "I shot industrial machinery with her last year, and I was amazed at her imagination and how many discoveries she made with her camera in a short time. She excels at using framing to invent new images within a scene."
"She is truly a special talent," Kepple added. "And a delightful individual as well."
Westerly artist Sean Spellman has known Ellenwood for more than 20 years. It was Spellman who urged Ellenwood and her husband, Josh Kiggans, a drummer, pianist and mandolin player who performs with Ward Hayden and the Outliers, to move to the Westerly area.
"Liz is using her art as a vehicle for positive change, focusing directly on a global issue that affects us here in Westerly," Spellman said. "The preservation of water quality and cleanliness of the beaches here should be of importance to all residents."
"I am really glad she moved back to the area," he added.