Over the past four decades that Connie Lovell has visited the Texas coast from her home in Harlingen, about an hour west of South Padre Island, she noticed more and more trash washing up on the shore.

At first, she considered just not going to the beach anymore. But the thought of not being able to put her toes in the ocean (“my first love,” as she describes it) gnawed at her. Nearing retirement from her interior design business in 2017, Lovell thought about what she could do to make a difference.

Soon she would begin trucking loads of beach trash back to her house—toothbrushes, shoes, fishing rods—and transforming it into larger-than-life sculptures as a part of her new nonprofit, Washed Up Texas. Assembled entirely from items collected on Texas beaches, each sculpture resembles an animal native to the coast, such as sea turtles, dolphins, and crabs. Colorful plastic bottles, flip-flops, and beach shovels are molded into fins and pincers.

“I love to create something that actually speaks to the problem that is destroying my ocean,” says Lovell, whose sculptures have been installed at Valley International Airport, George H.W. Bush Library and Museum, and the Texas State Aquarium.

She watches as people approach her sculptures and witnesses how their expressions change from cheer to concern. “You cannot solve a problem unless you know you have one,” she says. “Unless you live along the coast, most people do not know that this is a problem.”

A woman with short hair wearing a blue striped apron smiles in a scene with a colorful background

Photo by Anthony Francis

Lovell estimates she’s picked up more than 3,000 pounds of trash in the past five years, throwing out or recycling what she can’t use. And while she says she’s not against plastic entirely, she is alarmed by our overreliance on it for cheap, disposable goods. “Plastic never goes away, but what it does is break down and get smaller and smaller,” she says. “I don’t care where you live on this earth. If you breathe, you should be concerned about the ocean.”


Lovell’s Harlingen Picks

Jackson Street Market Days and Harlingen Art Nights

The Jackson Street District is Harlingen’s historic downtown thoroughfare, home to antiques stores, vintage boutiques, and home décor shops. Lovell says the monthly events that take place here­—Jackson Street Market Days on the first Saturday of the month, filled with food and craft vendors and music; and Harlingen Art Nights on the last Friday of every month, which showcases local artists—are great opportunities to experience the city’s downtown.


The Moon Rock

Harlingen’s first food truck park, launched in 2022, features seven food trucks that rotate frequently and offer a variety of cuisines. There are also picnic tables, basketball and sand volleyball courts, a dog park, a full indoor bar, and live music every night. “It’s just fun. I feel like I’m in Austin or San Antonio,” Lovell says.


Stefano’s Brooklyn Pizza

A beloved local hangout for pizza and Italian cuisine, Stefano’s started in a gas station before moving to a brick-and-mortar location. In December 2021, a major fire destroyed it. The tragedy brought the town together to rally behind the restaurant, which reopened in a temporary location in early 2022. “The town did fundraisers,” Lovell says. “If you get pizza, it’s got to be Stefano’s.” The restaurant returns to the rebuilt location early this year.

Iwo Jima Monument and Museum

Located directly outside Valley International Airport, the Iwo Jima Monument recreates an iconic photo of six U.S. Marine service members planting a flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. The Marine placing the flagpole into the ground is Weslaco native Cpl. Harlon Block, who was killed during the battle. There’s also a small, free Iwo Jima Museum. “We have a large number of people who join the service from our community,” Lovell says. “Those are kids who are fighting for our freedom.”


Rio Grande Birding Festival

Every November, avid birders from all over the world flock to the Rio Grande Valley for this festival, which in 2023 marked its 30th year. Hundreds of people travel throughout the nine different sites that comprise the World Birding Center—from South Padre Island to Roma—to glimpse some of the millions of birds migrating south to Mexico. The festival features field trips, presentations, and workshops, and provides an economic boost to the Valley. During last year’s festival, Lovell displayed one of her Washed Up Texas art pieces that features three flamingos.

Humberto the
Great Blue

Valley International Airport
3002 Heritage Way

From the April 2024 issue

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