Sculptor Bryan Northrup in the backyard of his Oak Park home. William Camargo/Staff.

According to the International Bottled Water Association, sales of bottled water in the U.S. totaled more than $13 billion last year — an increase of more than 6 percent from 2013. Those billions of dollars in revenue translate into billions of pounds of plastic, which in turn translate into billions of barrels of petroleum, which is what plastic bottles are made from.

The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 18 million gallons of bottled water were shipped to California from Fiji in 2006, producing roughly 2,500 tons of greenhouse gases — and lots of plastic litter.

“I don’t think people think about that when they use plastic bottles,” said Oak Park sculptor Bryan Northup. “They just throw them on the ground.”

The California native, who moved here in 2008, said he was prompted to start salvaging the plastic litter, in part, by the documentary Tapped, a film that’s highly critical of the bottled water industry.

“The toxic pollution pumped into the atmosphere as a by-product of making millions of polyethylene water bottles has contributed to the shift in global climate that likely helped to kill so many trees in the Chicago area,” he said.

Northup, who divides his working time between the basement studio of his home and the Oak Park Art League, where he’s assistant director, said he wants to use his art to raise awareness about the connection between plastic-related pollution and climate change.

One of his latest works is called “Message in a Bottle,” a sculpture that will be installed in mid-September in Hiawatha Park in Chicago’s Dunning community. Northup will cover the dead tree with discarded plastic beverage bottles that will form limbs of sorts, with the bottles containing written messages created by the general public.  

Those messages will also be compiled on a website that observers of the sculpture can access by scanning with their mobile devices a QR code on the trunk of the tree. The deadline to submit the messages is Sept. 15.

The installation is part of the Chicago Tree Project, a program sponsored by Chicago Sculpture International and the Chicago Park District, designed “to transform sick and dying trees into vibrant public art,” according to a statement released by Northup, who said he’s still reeling from culture shock.

“I hate to say this about Chicago, but there’s a lot of litter here and people don’t seem to care. I’d like to see something done, like a redemption value placed on plastic bottles, because the pollution is so common,” he said, while tending to the infant son he’s raising with his husband.

The sleeping baby seemed to reinforce the urgency of his environmental message. He wasn’t talking in abstractions. Northup said he’s soliciting messages from anyone, but recommended they incorporate advice for future generations (“your grandchildren”), warnings about the effects of individual actions and “some hope for the future.”

He said that in the years since he and his husband moved from California, he’s noticed viscerally the change in the weather — a reality that only heightens his sense of urgency about raising climate change awareness.

“When we moved from California it didn’t seem like there was such extreme weather and all these strange drought problems that the state has now had, so just within that span of time it’s gotten worse. That’s seven or eight years? It seems pretty rapid to me,” he said.

Asked if climate change would force him into activism, Northup chuckled and talked wistfully of “jumping on a ship somewhere” as an activist for Greenpeace, before noting his responsibilities — his marriage, his foster children, his home in Oak Park. He said the Chicago Tree Project is his way of using art to inspire action.

“It’s important to raise awareness and Chicago is really open to that. I love that the city is supporting this program and I hope that it continues for many years. Sadly, there are a lot of dead trees to choose from.”

To add a message of your own that will hang from the tree in Hiawatha Park, click here.

This article has been corrected to include the proper spelling of Bryan Northup’s last name. Wednesday Journal regrets this error.

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