Turning Trash Into Artistic Treasure


Leanna Wolff

Part of Leanna Wolff’s role as an artist involves scouring Hawaii’s beaches in search of shells and sea glass to use in her work.

Those ocean offerings have long been part of Wolff’s art, making for textured pieces.

“There’s something about when you see something like that, you want to touch it,” she explains. “We’ve kind of lost that dimension of our world a little bit, and I think that’s why, in every one of my pieces, you want to see and go and feel and touch.”

But her newest collection, Adrift, while it still holds that element of touch and texture, instead highlights trash she finds on beaches. Rather than going for perfectly intact shells and stained sea glass, she finds plastic, or sometimes, rope, Styrofoam and other types of trash.

That slight change in medium sparked an entire movement for Wolff.

“Rather than fighting it, I embraced it,” she explains. “Rather than ignoring (the trash) and trying to find my few shells amidst all the junk, I want to make a point to show people that this is what we’re doing (to our beaches).”

Trash she finds within the sand and along the shore normally is blue, black and white — perfect, she says, for her wave portraiture, but not so good for the environment.

Wolff melts down plastic trash scraps to create textured creatures (like these fish) and patterns in her work

Wolff melts down plastic trash scraps to create textured creatures (like these fish) and patterns in her work

“If I can at least start here, it makes a conversation, and if it starts there with every person that sees the painting, and if it touches someone to make one small change in their life, then that’s being effective,” she says.

Wolff always has loved art, and to fuel that passion, attended The Art Institute of California in San Diego. While she didn’t study art in college — the idea of being a “starving artist” wasn’t too appealing — she fed her creative side by majoring in architectural design, with a focus in sustainable design.

Upon graduating, Wolff immediately started her own architectural design business — something she still dabbles in if the right opportunity presents itself — but it wasn’t until she moved to Hawaii four years ago that her iconic wave prints would come to fruition.

“I got married here, I had my twin girls (Logan and Siena) here,” says Wolff, who now lives in Kailua. “I’m not going anywhere. I have never felt more at home than I have here.”

The first wave she painted was for her brother, who at the time was going through a rough patch, to remind him that life always offers fresh starts and opportunities.

“I really wanted to instill that feeling in him in that painting,” Wolff recalls. “And I don’t think that purpose has ever changed.”

In her new collection, ‘Adrift,' artist Leanna Wolff incorporates trash found along Oahu's beaches into her murals of waves NICOLE KATO PHOTOS

In her new collection, ‘Adrift,’ artist Leanna Wolff incorporates trash found along Oahu’s beaches into her murals of waves NICOLE KATO PHOTOS

With each piece she creates, she hopes it will speak to the viewer in a positive way. And now, Wolff is looking to create that sense of awe on a larger scale by using her art to benefit the community. She recently completed a 30-foot installation piece for Cutter Ford’s grand reopening in Aiea. She also finished a 15-foot mural, which will be donated to The Boys & Girls Club, and is preparing for a community mural as part of the Haleiwa Arts Festival (July 16-17).

“I am going to take a bunch of plastic from Sustainable Coastlines and separate it out (by color) and have a huge mural for people, especially kids, to be able to put the plastic into the mural to create a big piece,” she says.

And, for Wolff, awareness and sustainability starts with keiki.

“We can all make a difference, but I feel like their generation can just change 100 percent,” she adds.

But, for now, she believes that one simple action will make a huge difference for Hawaii’s landscape: picking up your trash.

“Every single time you go to the beach, don’t leave without picking up five pieces of trash,” she urges. “I think you’ll find that if you get down in one square-foot patch of sand for one minute, you’ll find just that.”