7 minutes to read

Seeing Beyond Litter: The Art Of Steve McPherson

In conversation with the Kent-based artist giving plastic a beautiful second life.  

Marine pollution is a growing problem that poses a threat to the health of our ocean and the creatures that call it home. 
Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste and other debris end up in our seas, causing significant harm to marine life and the environment. However, there are people who refuse to let the negative impact of pollution overshadow the beauty of our sea.
One such person is Steve McPherson, an artist who has found inspiration in the discarded beach litter that washes up on shore. McPherson's work transforms everyday trash into stunning pieces of art that not only draw attention to the issue of marine pollution but also serve as a reminder of the power of human creativity and ingenuity.

McPherson on beach (5)

Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson


Based on the chalky coasts of Kent, UK, McPherson decided to dedicate his life to art when his dream of becoming an RAF (Royal Armed Forces) pilot crumbled in front of his eyes the day he discovered he was colorblind. He was 7 years old.
An avid collector and beachgoer since his youth, the artist saw in art an opportunity to express himself and a viable career path despite his condition. 
“I was actually inspired by my grandfather in the decision, it wasn’t random,” Steve says, flipping a tuft of silver hair away from his face. “He also wanted to be in the RAF but couldn’t due to health conditions. So he became an artist. 

His house was covered in paintings, he was always painting, but to him, it was a hobby”. 

After pursuing the discipline through school and university, he eventually became a lecturer but quit in 2016 to commit to his art full-time. It was “now or never” he concedes. 
His passion for the ocean is visceral, almost vital. As a teenager, he would spend his afternoons after school at the beach in solitude, playing with and carving driftwood with a pocket knife, listening to the soothing sound of the breaking waves and contemplating life. His interest in assemblage subconsciously entered his radar.

steve mcpherson (36)

Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson


As a university student, he would then go skip diving – a practice used by art majors where they scavenge the skips outside of construction sites to find materials usable for their projects – but soon he noticed he was interested in the archeology of objects. Plastic was the substance that held the most history. 


“Each object has the potential to tell a story. Coming from a collector background as a child, I was always interested in musing about what was behind the item in my hands. From militaria to pins, I was fascinated with their origin and that’s what inspired me to look beyond the discarded litter and find a new use for it,” he explains with a grin, his sophisticated British accent adding romance to the conversation. 

Despite not being able to collect everything he finds on the shore – the action of picking up small pieces of shattered plastic nestled amongst rotting algae is tiring and very unpleasant – Steve has managed to fill his garage with neatly arranged buckets of trash he found on his expeditions. Some of them have yet to be sorted and will hold him down for years. 


steve mcpherson (25)

Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson

“The plastic I find on my beach is very different from what you’d retrieve in Indonesia. It’s almost like small confetti, he explains, “my beach looks like someone went down there and threw a bomb of plastic confetti around”. 

His beach is a sandy strip not too far away from the hip town of Margate. It’s framed by beautiful white cliffs which have eroded with time due to the perpetual clash with the waves, causing the creation of enclosed pools of stagnant water. It’s exactly inside these coves that most of the litter coming from the sea gets entrapped. 

steve mcpherson (34)Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson

“Some of the garbage I find probably dates back to the 1950s,” says the artist, painting a bleak picture of the reality of some of the world’s most enchanting shorelines. 

But despite all – the pollution, the concrete all around and the nauseating smell of decaying seaweed – Steve was able to intrigue us with his narration in a way only an artist could. In less than 1h, he invited us to find the silver lining. 

The creative process behind making something valuable and aesthetically pleasing out of garbage is alchemical. It takes infinite imagination to be able to visualize a piece of art out of tiny scraps. It’s a lot of trial and error, too. Many of the items he finds are unusable. Glue won’t stick to them and so he’s become an expert at deciphering what is salvageable and what isn’t. 

steve mcpherson (54)Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson

“The most common thing I find is surgical masks, you know, with the pandemic,” he lets me know, “but the most bizarre is sex toys!” he laughs. Those are not something he’s keen on using though. 
Steve’s art is not intentionally environmental but it inherently becomes so given the elements employed to manufacture his paintings and sculptures. 
Unintentionally, it sends a message of the imminent need for action juxtaposed with a more abstract concept: there’s a second life to everything. 
Even if his subject matter wasn’t always directly connected to the ocean, in hindsight, he reveals, everything he’s created over the course of his career features subliminal details that reminisce of it. 

Over the course of our conversation, Steve points to something obvious but that’s never really taken into consideration: the human body is 60% water. Everything, even if remotely, is in sync with the ocean’s cycles and movements. 


steve mcpherson (47)

Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson

“We [humans] are part of a whole system. Why would you destroy the thing that provides us with the oxygen? [Without the ocean] there’s no life. There’s no weather.” he remarks in a serious tone. 

A lot of charities have reached out to Steve to collaborate, but often, he finds himself refusing. 
“They want me to create dolphins and dogs and other animals out of plastic. I am not interested in that. I understand that showing people endangered animals may trigger some emotional reaction, but that’s just not who I am”. 

Continuing the tradition of art as a tool for progression and social awareness, Steve reveals that candidness in his work has often upset people. It showed them the necessity to take action and change their habits, which is never comfortable. Sometimes, the audience wouldn’t believe he had picked all of that plastic by himself. 
“My art doesn’t shout in your face. I am not interested in making that sort of stuff. It’s cerebral.” he concludes. 

steve mcpherson (65)Photo Courtesy of Steve McPherson

Steve’s practice is not only visually stunning but also carries a deeper message about the impact of marine pollution on our environment. It reminds us that every piece of litter has the potential to tell a story, to move people and push them to contribute to reversing the decades of damage inflicted on the environment. 
It’s people like him who inspire us to keep going and remind us we must continue striving for a cleaner ocean. 


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