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Using trash to spotlight nature along the Del. River Waterfront

Jul 07, 2023

Artist Julie Woodard carved flowers out of reclaimed plastic waste to draw attention to the Delaware River Waterfront’s natural environment.

For the Race Street Pier, Julie Woodard stitched together a tapestry of oak leaves using discarded reusable shopping bags and a plastic tarp. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A series of soft sculptures are newly installed along the Delaware River Waterfront, using post-consumer plastic to recreate natural elements of the waterfront.

Artist Julie Woodard hopes people will notice her Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Joe Pie Weed shaped out of reclaimed trash and placed in a half-dozen locations between Pier 68 to Race Street Pier — and then notice the real thing growing nearby.

The main location of Woodard’s installation “Pockets of Light” is at Cherry Street Pier, where fixed to a white shipping container is a grid of colorful coneflowers, reflecting the real thing in nearby sidewalk planters, stitched from various plastics.

“There are lids from take-out containers, pedicure flip flops, corks, and lots of broken umbrella pieces,” Woodard said. “I am a self-proclaimed ‘Doula of Discarded Things.’”

“Pockets of Light” is the latest phase of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s ongoing project to bring sculptural art to the river’s edge. The waterfront arts program has brought big names in the art world to the Delaware River, like the British artist Tracey Emin, along with local artists like Woodard and her collaborator, Eric Dale, aka Eric the Puzzler, who turned “Pockets of Light” into a game. He devised simple puzzles that invite viewers to participate in a scavenger hunt along the river.

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“I’m particularly excited about the way that it invites people to travel from our southernmost parks up to our northernmost parks,” said Sarah Eberle, creative director of the DRWC. “And really understand how much is going on, on the Philadelphia waterfront.”

From Cherry Street Pier, the installation continues north to Race Street Pier, where Woodard stitched white oak leaves onto a discarded blue plastic tarp. The pier park has a canopy of white oaks.

To the south stand installations at the Washington Avenue Pier and Pier 68. Each location is accompanied by a QR code, leading visitors to on online portal where a puzzle tests their observation skills from that particular location, asking them to find, for example, the name on a utility building visible across the river in New Jersey, or a wheatpaste monster by the street artist Gloopy Goblin.

The portal also offers more detailed information about the natural environment where the visitor is standing, including the names of the plants they are likely looking at, what insects are buzzing near those plants, and what impact plastic waste has made on the site.

“We’re trying to get people to learn a little bit more about the plants and their environment, to look around at the space that they are in. To notice and to reflect,” said Woodard.

“We just want people to have fun, too,” added Dale. “The piers are beautiful places to come and relax. We have provided an attractive thing to look at while you’re here, and some activities to partake in so that you can go on a little adventure.”

Enthusiastic puzzlers who devour the scavenger hunt could be eligible for prizes by completing layers of games.

This is Woodard’s first foray into public art. The collage artist always works with reclaimed materials to create wearable and framable artworks. The original idea for “Pockets of Light” came from literal pockets pulled from clothes, and pocket squares which she uses in her collages.

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She expanded the idea to metaphorical pockets, where natural elements can find a foothold in an otherwise built, urban environment.

“Amidst everything that’s going on in the world and all everything that’s in the city, there is nature,” she said. “There is calm, there are opportunities for us to experience joy and experience nature.”

The elements of “Pockets of Light” will be on view until the end of September. During that time Woodard will be adding more pieces to the existing locations, and removing older pieces as they weather and decay.

“We will remove them to make sure that they do not end up in the river,” she said. “Which is exactly the opposite of our intent.”

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