Artist Spotlight: Ocean Sole
Cleaning beaches, creating masterpieces
As a bizarre and, yet, very real phenomenon, thousands and thousands of flip-flops are washed up onto the East African coast creating an environmental disaster. Not only do they spoil the natural beauty of the beaches and oceans, but the rubber soles are swallowed and suffocated on by fish and other animals and obstruct turtle hatchlings from reaching the sea.
Noting a need for a sustainable solution, Ocean Sole was created in 2005 by Julie Church, a marine conservationist born in Kenya, as a way not only to clean beaches, but also to create masterpieces. The creative team of artisans transforms the discarded flip-flops into sculptures, keyrings, bracelets, bowls and more of elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, dolphins, sharks, turtles and more of various sizes.
These colorful masterpieces come with an important message about marine conservation — and make a unique souvenir — in more than 45 zoo and aquarium gift shops in everywhere from the U.S., Canada and the UK to Lebanon, Dubai, Tanzania and South Africa.
The majority of the Ocean Sole artisans are from rural Kenya. The top carvers are from the Kamba tribe, who are traditionally wood carvers, and they now lend this inherent skill to a more eco-friendly material. Their artistic inclination is perhaps genetic, but certainly passed down through the community as younger generations realize the great opportunity to sell their sculptures to tourists and earn a living.
I started doing some small piece work at school because I was really interested in this job and have now been working here for six years, said Bryant Muhanji, artisan. “I used to love drawing at school so I wanted a job that works in art. This is the best opportunity. It is very creative.”
While the artists were originally proficient in sculpting from wood, the flip-flop material is very difficult to handle in comparison. In the workshop, they adopt a “buddy” system whereby new employees are trained by the artisans who have been working with flip-flops for years to show them how to adapt their skills.
Rachel Drew, speaking on behalf of a team of Kenyan artisans in Nairobi, Kenya, who work for Ocean Sole, said it takes about a month for a newcomer to become fully trained to handle the new rubbery material. These skills can then be passed down to their families and community.
“My second son is learning how to work with these materials, and he is interested in helping the environment and recycling like me,” said Jackson Mbatha, artisan. “I believe that education is the most important thing and (Ocean Sole) has helped to provide education to my children.”
Step by Step
The flip-flops arrive at the workshop from the coast or from waterways in urban centers and are first washed and treated, then dried and arranged by color. The smaller sculptures are created by carving into single carving blocks made from layered flip-flops, while the larger animals are built by gluing flip-flops to an inner body and sanding down. The sanding down process is key to creating the smooth curves of the animal bodies. The artisan must continue to shape the piece on the sanding machine and this task requires a lot of skill.
“Inspiration for Ocean Sole artists is the wildlife of Kenya,” Drew said. “We organize staff trips to safari parks and animal orphanages for the artisans to ‘meet’ the animals in real life. And while our portfolio of animals is filled with African species, we have recently introduced brand new designs such as the panda and bison. These are harder for the artisans to carve because they have never seen these animals in 3-D before.”
Although the artisans do have to follow a rough template in order to maintain some design continuity, each artisan shows off their personality through their work, and as a result, every product is a one-of-a-kind.
Drew said their main objective is to clean beaches and remove the threat of plastics from our fragile marine environments while giving the artisans at the workshop from vulnerable backgrounds a sustainable income and an improved quality of life for themselves and their families.
“I did not have a job before,” said Jonathan Lenato, artisan. “There are no jobs in Samburu where I am from. Now I live in Nairobi and work (for Ocean Sole) to make money for my children’s education. I will teach them to recycle to help protect the environment.”
Feel Good Art
Ocean Sole has had the most success with gift shops of zoos and aquariums, with stories of sold-out orders from places like the San Diego Zoo, Virginia Zoo, Houston Zoo and Auckland Zoo.
“We are currently looking into creating some pieces for the Smithsonian Museum Cultural Festival this summer in Washington D.C.,” Drew said. “We have been invited to attend and will be sending two artisans to participate in the festival. This is an incredible opportunity and we can’t wait!”
They run on-going campaigns to encourage buyers to think ethically when sourcing products for their stores, and the conservation message attached to each piece of art resonates well with these organizations. The art provides a sustainable income to each artisan under Fair Trade regulations and elevates their quality of life. On top of this, Drew said each artisan is incredibly proud of their work because it ultimately helps to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems.
“Before (Ocean Sole) I was not able to afford shoes and had to borrow some to come to Nairobi to find work,” said Eric Mwandola, artisan. “I used to cut down trees and harm the environment as a wood carver. Making flip-flop products is better. I have been working here for six years and I can now afford to send my two children to secondary school and feed and clothe them well.
“I have set up a small farm upcountry with two cows and I sell the milk to my neighbors to make extra money and it is an investment for my children,” he continued. “The company supports me when I am sick and they pay my doctor’s bills. I say thank you.”
The biggest obstacle for the company is the expense of exporting the products from Kenya, but when people are bought into the cause and have fallen in love with Ocean Sole creations, they don’t mind paying a premium for shipping costs.
“While the art world is fluid and constantly changing, we don’t believe that our bigger ‘statement’ pieces will ever be out of fashion,” Drew said. “They are fun, timeless and bring a wonderful message about marine conservation into the home. It’s truly ‘feel good art.'”
By Abby Heugel
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