Franklin Street Rubbish the Raccoon sculpture shares Earth Day message

March 27, 2024

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On March 15, 140 W. Franklin St. Plaza welcomed a new resident — a 7-foot tall raccoon named Rubbish.

Rubbish the Raccoon was designed and created in honor of Earth Day on April 22 by artist Nyssa Collins.

The sculpture was commissioned by the Town of Chapel Hill last August, when Collins won the Town of Chapel Hill Commission Award for her entry in the Uproar Festival of Public Art — a woolly mammoth made of bamboo and twine.

“They picked me from the Uproar Festival of Public Art because they knew I had made other giant animal sculptures, and they said, ‘Could you make an Earth Day sculpture of a giant animal made of trash?’” Collins said.

The sculpture’s frame was built throughout this semester at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where Collins is a graduate student in studio art. It was then delivered to the site in Chapel Hill, where it was covered in trash and completed on-site.

The sculpture, which is made out of trash and recyclables and weighs nearly 200 pounds, is composed mostly of materials found on the campuses of UNC and UT Knoxville.

Aside from college campuses, the materials for Rubbish the Raccoon were pulled from the Haw River as part of a partnership with the Haw River Assembly, a nonprofit that works to protect the river and Jordan Lake.

Madison Haley, a plastics program assistant for the Assembly, said many of the bottles featured on the sculpture came from various trash traps and cleanups along the river. She said bringing all of the trash together was a community effort.

She said the collaboration, from cleanup to final product, was the most magical part of the experience.

“A lot of the Haw River [Assembly] work is joyful, but it’s also kind of depressing to pick up trash month after month,” she said. “So to collaborate with Nyssa, to build something that’s beautiful and tragic, is really rewarding and fun.”

For Collins, the sculpture represents the large amount of disposable plastics people use every day. According to the Earth Day Network, close to 80 percent of all plastic is still in landfills or the natural environment.

Steve Wright, the public art coordinator for the Community Arts & Culture division of the Town of Chapel Hill, said the sculpture serves to highlight the importance of recycling properly.

“It’s a cool way to clean the water system and reuse [trash] in an artistic way,” he said. “and call attention to if you sit there and look at it, you’re like, ‘Woah, all of these bottles were in Bolin Creek, that’s a drag, we need to do better.'”

Ultimately, the sculpture will be retired, and the plastic bottles will go into recycling. Its removal will make way for the next temporary sculpture, which will be commissioned in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride month.

Rubbish the Raccoon will have a two-month residence on Franklin Street, and its next steps remain unknown.

“Over the next couple of weeks, we hope to sort of figure out, ‘Could this exist and continue to display elsewhere in the public realm?’ and if so, let’s try to find a place, because it’s really cool,” Wright said.

Haley said that the Assembly is currently working on collecting trash for another sculpture, which will debut at the Haw River Festival on May 4.

Collins said she plans to continue to experiment, but she wants community members to think about their use of single-use plastics.

“For students — I wish that they would minimize use of single-use plastics, and be really conscientious when they’re using those,” she said. “Because artists can find other materials, we’ll always find another way, so no need for them to go through all these bottles.”