While beachcombing typically involves searching the sands for sea glass, marbles, and antique bottles, part of the thrill can be discovering something unexpectedly inspiring. For Ethan Estess, nothing excites him quite like finding a good piece of discarded fishing rope. An artist and biologist from Santa Cruz, California, Ethan considers himself more of a beach “cleaner” than “comber” and finds beauty and potential in often overlooked ocean debris. With his use of commercial fishing rope and other reclaimed marine materials, he is able to create serene, yet intriguing artwork that evokes awareness of ocean pollution and expresses his passion for protecting the places he loves the most.
Ethan grew up making surfboards and continued to channel that creativity into artwork in an interdisciplinary Science and Art program at Stanford University, where he first explored the use of reclaimed materials in his sculpture classes. He began working as a marine scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium studying bluefin tuna, yet ultimately left feeling unfulfilled, deciding to try pursuing art full-time before committing to a seemingly endless cycle of academic training for a scientific career.
He also felt strongly that his research wasn’t contributing enough to solving the problems facing the ocean; he knew he needed to find his voice through art and speak up about the threats to ocean ecosystems he had been seeing firsthand through his travels as a researcher. After eight years of hard work, he happily reports that he managed to turn his passion for making things out of ocean trash into a self-sustaining art practice.
Ethan’s first fully beach-based project came after discovering a tangled-up longline while surfing along the coast of Spain and Portugal in 2014. He liked the material so much, he packed it in his suitcase and brought it with him to an art residency in the Canary Islands, where he then turned it into a swirling hurricane-like piece. On the Lanzarote coast, he continued to collect marine debris, taking dozens of strenuous trips across the volcanic rock fields with ropes and nets draped over his shoulders.
Over the years he amassed thousands of pounds of reclaimed fishing rope, which is now stashed away or future projects in his studio in Santa Cruz and an O’ahu storage unit. Each piece of rope tells a story, inspired by his experiences as a marine biologist and surfer throughout the world’s oceans.
Much of Ethan’s current work is based on insights garnered working in small fishing villages in Japan while studying bluefin tuna ecology. He developed a method for using the fishing rope to depict traditional Japanese ocean iconography and is continuing to explore the limits of that technique. The first step is gathering a huge amount of reclaimed fishing rope in order to have a wide color palette. Then, he visualizes a beautiful or calming ocean seascape and begins to render it with the different colors of rope.
Sitting in the ocean watching the waves move around him at sunset is one of his preferred ways to seek inspiration. “What I most value about being an artist is the creative freedom and boundless potential to tell stories,” he says. Each artwork is a peaceful conclusion to a treacherous journey of reckless abandoned waste. His artworks are a meditation on our connection to the ocean, beautiful while simultaneously evoking concern for the issue of plastic pollution.
Ethan makes a limited number of commissioned artworks each year and also sells his work through a gallery in San Francisco. He often participates in beach cleanups to remove plastic debris hosted by organizations in O’ahu and his hometown Santa Cruz. Most days you can find him making art in his studio, right across from his favorite restaurant Bantam on the Westside of Santa Cruz, surfing, or fixing up his old house with his wife.
Learn more at ethanestess.com and follow Ethan on Instagram at @estess.art.science and @ countercurrent_art.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.