Visualizing global shipping’s environmental impacts

Merced River with Containers. (Painting by Mary Iverson)

Why local artist Mary Iverson paints shipping containers in the middle of Yosemite National Park.

Drive southbound on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and you’ll get a birds-eye view of Seattle’s industrial skyline. Bright orange cranes that look like something out of The War of the Worlds tower above the waterfront. They stack cargo containers like massive legos onto aging cargo ships that will one day be purposefully run aground and torn apart for scrap.

But just because these vessels for international commerce may one day be gone, can we ignore their lasting impact?

The “Progress and Sacrifice” exhibit at Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square recently featured the work of two local artists with a similar mission: to bring attention to forgotten industrial relics.

Local painter and public artist Mary Iverson looks at shipping containers and vessels in a unique way. Where most people would see a rusty, floating eye-sore, Iverson sees artistic potential, and a whole mess of economic and environmental issues.

“After many years of studying the Port of Seattle and the shipping industry, I began to see the shipping container as a representative icon of the global economy, population and growth,” Iverson said.

Shipbreaking, Yosemite Valley. (Painting by Mary Iverson)Shipbreaking, Yosemite Valley. (Painting by Mary Iverson)

In December, her work was featured at Davidson Galleries, and is currently displayed on the Marion Street Pedestrian Bridge (near the Downtown ferry terminal).

One of the most striking paintings from the Davidson Galleries show incorporates shipping containers and wrecked cargo ships into the pristine landscape of Yosemite National Park.

“When I put containers and shipwrecks in our national parks and our treasured places, its kind-of an eye-opener,” Iverson said. “When we see this in industrial places where they are supposed to be they’re sort of invisible and no one pays attention.”

Jeffery Kuiper, Director of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture at Davidson Galleries, says that Iverson’s technique is symbolic of the environmental impact of the shipping industry.

“With these canvas pieces, she scores through the surface and that’s how she creates those white perspective lines,” Kuiper said, referring to the intersecting lines on Iverson’s paintings. “She is symbolically wrecking these pristine landscapes…and in that way is able to very eloquently express her concerns about the environment.”

Ninety percent of world trade is by sea, mostly in shipping containers like these at the Port of Seattle. (Photo by Hillary Sanders)Ninety percent of world trade is by sea, mostly in shipping containers like these at the Port of Seattle. (Photo by Hillary Sanders)

For Iverson, wrecking the landscape is only a part of the story behind her art. She looked into the controversy surrounding the disposal of the out-of-commission cargo ships and was surprised what she found. In a process called ship breaking, yard workers dismantle the hulls of cargo ships to recycle the salvageable parts. The largest ship breaking operations are found mostly in India and Bangladesh.

Why? The lack of regulations in these countries to protect yard workers makes the process cheap, but also dangerous. According to Iverson, yard workers earn measly wages. They don’t have hardhats, respirators, or even shoes to protect them from the rusty metal and asbestos that hide within the massive hulls of the cargo ships.

“It’s just so interesting how we are insulated in our own culture until we are given a reason to think about interconnectedness with other countries and with the environment,” Iverson said.

Also featured at Davidson Galleries beside Iverson, local ceramic artist Dane Youngren emphasizes the significance of the decay of abandoned structures. His largest work displayed at Davidson Galleries, aptly titled “Railroad Trestle,” is a replication of a crumbling railroad track.

Youngren has long been fascinated by the unique character of old, dilapidated buildings. He says his message is to not just preserve the history of these structures, but also to recognize the important role that they once played.

Youngren’s sculptures, though they look like wood, are actually ceramic clay that has been stained and sculpted to have a wood texture. (Photo by Hillary Sanders)Youngren’s sculptures, though they look like wood, are actually ceramic clay that has been stained and sculpted to have a wood texture. (Photo by Hillary Sanders)

“These structures have functioned within our society, within the economy, for industrial purposes,” Youngren said. “The fact is that when things are no longer useful, they are left behind, abandoned, too expensive to repair.”

Much like the stranded cargo ships that are rusting away on the shores of Bangladesh, the relics depicted in Youngren’s work signify not only a loss of history, but a lack of awareness of the effect that our actions have on the global economy, society, and the environment.

As Iverson points out, her paintings are a proposal to do things differently, and to consider the impact capital and commerce have on our world.

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