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Eco-artist Sean Connaughty continues his Lake Hiawatha trash crusade with garbage sculptures at MCAD

Sean Connaughty

Sean Connaughty

There’s a small billboard on the grounds of the MCAD Sculpture Garden. If you were to just glance at it, you might think it was an advertisement: The cursive Coca-Cola script, with its white lettering and iconic wavy line underneath is instantly recognizable.

On closer inspection, however, you'll see it's not an advertisement at all. This billboard -- made by Sean Connaughty, MCAD students and staff, and volunteers -- is actually a two-sided display case, and it’s filled with trash taken from Lake Hiawatha over the course of one day.

On Earth Day this year, about 104 volunteers helped Connaughty pick up trash from the lake, resulting in a collection of 18,879 items, which were then sorted and categorized, with notation taken of the corporation that produced the items.

The top four brands highlighted in Connaughty's Lake Hiawatha-Anthropocenic Midden Survey 2019:

1. PepsiCo
2. Coca-Cola
3. McDonald's
4. Mars, Incorporated

And those are the four brands whose logos -- and related trash -- make up the four displays at MCAD. McDonald's “golden arches” are made out of discarded straws, Pepsi's tricolor circle is empty Cheetos bags and Gatorade bottles, Mars' lettering sits in a sea of Snickers, M&Ms, and Skittles wrappers.

Sean Connaughty

Sean Connaughty

“I realize now that the question is and always has been: Who is responsible for the trash in Lake Hiawatha? Because no agency takes responsibility to clean up the trash at the lake,” Connaughty says. “To me the answer is the consumer, the producer, and our municipalities.”

Connaughty lives just a few blocks from Lake Hiawatha, and his art and activism has been aimed at the lake's trash problem since 2015.

Lake Hiawatha is the less popular neighbor to Lake Nokomis. It's smaller, with less visitors. However, the DNR's Habitat Restoration Project along the shoreline includes native plants between the water and the land, which attracts all kinds of birds.

It's a quiet lake, and it would be beautiful if it weren't for the garbage everywhere.

Lake Hiawatha wasn't always a lake. It used to be more of a wetlands. Back in the early 1900s, Minneapolis Park superintendent Theodore Wirth suggested it be turned into a dry meadow because its lake qualities were subpar. Instead, the lake got dredged up in the 1930s, around the time the park board decided to build a golf course next to it. 

Today the golf course dumps millions of gallons of water into the lake every year. Lake Hiawatha is also dumping grounds for its surrounding neighborhoods' stormwater. With all that storm water comes trash, without any mitigation system to protect the lake.

So Connaughty started picking it up. Bags and bags of it. He got his neighbors and friends to help. He's put together cleanups, published surveys of the trash they found, presented trash as part of gallery installations, and created public art awareness campaigns to reduce littering.

Connaughty has also organized, written letters, spoken publicly at park board meetings, all in the hopes that something will be done about the trash in Lake Hiawatha. He has been told would cost $150,000 to fix. The reconfigurement of the golf course, meanwhile, will cost $28.2 to $62 million.

“The mitigation has been tied to the fate of golf course and held hostage because of the way negotiations have been set up,” Connaughty says.

Traditionally, the consumer is often placed at fault around discussions about littering. With these new pieces, Connaughty is also putting corporations and municipalities on blast. “One thing I noticed in talking to the community about trash is how easily it slid into a toxic narrative about blaming underserved communities,” Connaughty says. “That was also part of my motivation for calling out other responsible parties.”

A few months ago, he was asked to come up with an outdoor piece for MCAD. As a 2018 McKnight recipient, Connaughty was already slated to show his work in MCAD's indoor gallery. Inside, Connaughty has placed trash in plexiglass vitrines that look a bit like columns. His Lake Hiawatha 2019 Trash Survey, which breaks down all of the items collected by type, is also part of the exhibition. The indoor show is up until July 14, while the outdoor sculptures are here indefinitely.

The project has received statements from the top four corporations, who responded with disappointment and noted sustainability measures they have taken, which include recyclable packaging, garbage and recycling receptacles, and partnerships with conservation groups.

The next step for Connaughty is to shift the focus to the city and the park board. “This is the fifth year of cleaning,” he says. “We had hoped that a solution would be in place by now. That is part of the reason for upping the game a little bit.”