Marine pollution, art solution

“It was premonitional to me,” she said, both because of the color and the fact that plastic is made from oil. “There’s information about plastic that’s really alarming. It doesn’t really break down.”



Marine pollution, art solution

International marine debris artist brings her ideas to Alaska


Published: June 13th, 2010 10:14 PM
Last Modified: June 13th, 2010 10:15 PM


PAM LONGOBARDI / Georgia State University


Just as photographer and installation artist Pam Longobardi finished one of her most recent pieces, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.

It was April 20 and Longobardi was completing a large wall construction, roughly in the shape of a hand mirror, created entirely of bits of black plastic she had collected from beaches.

“It was premonitional to me,” she said, both because of the color and the fact that plastic is made from oil. “There’s information about plastic that’s really alarming. It doesn’t really break down.”

Longobardi, a professor of art at Georgia State University, has exhibited around the world, including venues connected with the Beijing Olympics and the Venice Biennale. Her resume includes more than 40 solo exhibits and numerous commissions. She’ll be in Alaska to speak in Anchorage and Seward this week.

For the past five years, her recurring subject has been oceanic debris. She has created the Drifters Project, an ongoing collaborative and interdisciplinary project focusing on marine junk and plastics pollution.

In a phone call from her home in Atlanta, she described her work process. She walks beaches, takes note of piles of ocean-borne garbage and reflects on what it says about the relationship between the natural world and human culture.

“When I encounter the debris, often it looks to me like it is already installed. It’s really sort of striking,” she said. “I compose a photograph as I see them, as if an artist has already been there, but I never touch them or rearrange them. After I take the pictures, I do a beach cleaning, taking away all that I can carry.”

That material is then used in conjunction with the photographs to create her installations.

“I’m interested in getting people to think about their own connection to plastic,” she said, “because 99 percent of the debris is plastic. A lot of things are objects of personal hygiene. Toothbrushes, hair barrettes, cups, plastic bottles, everyday objects. Plastic is a major component of consumer society.

Then there’s the industrial waste. “Nets are all made of plastic now. When they break loose they have an enormous impact.”


PAM LONGOBARDI / Georgia State University



Howard Ferren, director of conservation for the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, which is hosting Longobardi, hopes her visit will help initiate a project that will lead to an exhibit focused on Alaska using marine debris as an art medium.

“What we have in Alaska are many beaches surrounding or exposed to the North Pacific,” he said. There are ongoing beach cleanup events close to populated areas, “but with our immense coastline and distance, there are places where it’s very difficult to get access.”

Durability, the quality that makes plastic convenient, presents a problem when tons of it are released into the wild. Ferren gave the example of albatross chicks on Midway Island, near a giant, permanent, floating raft of discarded material called the North Pacific “garbage patch.” Unwitting parents feed bits of plastic to the chicks until their stomachs rupture.

“We have lots of science and statistics,” he said. “But sometimes it can be more engaging for people to understand a problem through art.”

Ferren is contacting international artists who use marine debris as found art material, such as Longobardi, with the idea of fielding an expedition to Alaska’s remoter shores. Collected material will “wind up in an art exhibition that could be tailored to travel to various institutions,” like art museums and aquariums, he said.




Some Alaskans are already doing something along those lines. The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer, which has organized trash pick-up “coast walks” for years, is turning some of the junk into art this summer.

“Drift,” billed as a “Flotsam and Jetsam Art Tour,” features buoys retrieved from the detritus collected during the clean-up walks. This spring, the buoys were handed out to local artists who decorated or otherwise reconstituted them in imaginative ways. The finished products were presented at a group show June 4 and are now displayed in 25 locations on both sides of Kachemak Bay.

“The artists in Homer are so incredible,” said the center’s Melanie Dufour. “It’s just crazy the variety of techniques and what they envisioned. We have between 90 and 100 pieces — some use more than one buoy — by everyone from preschoolers to Toby Tyler.”

Tyler is Homer’s grand old man of professional painting, having worked in the town for more than 50 years.

“I’m already getting people coming up and asking, ‘You’re doing this again next year, right?’ ” said Dufour.

“Drift,” which resembles Anchorage’s “Wild Salmon on Parade,” will remain on display through the first week of September. The art then will be auctioned off with half the proceeds going to the center and the rest to the artists.


Long buoy with animal parts: "Fish Eyes" by Mary Huff. © Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies



The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies’ auction will coincide with this year’s coast walk.

“We have over 300 people participate in our coast walk every year,” said Dufour. “And other groups do it too. It’s a great way to anecdotally track the debris. Call it ‘citizen science.’ ”

Dufour said she’s seen a change in the kind of trash coming ashore over the years. “It used to be mostly commercial fishing gear. Now we’re seeing more sports fishing gear and things related to play activities.”

The Kenai Peninsula gets its share of oceanic garbage. A 55-day project in 2007 took 90,000 pounds of debris from 72 miles of coast on the southern side of the Peninsula — by no means a record.

“Our cleanups are an important effort,” said Ferren. “But there are so many tons of debris that you have to go back annually. We need to take steps to stop the debris from happening in the first place.”

That’s not easy when so much of modern life is tied to plastics. Within arm’s reach as I type this are dozens of such objects: CD cases, glasses, headset, hand lotion bottle, phone, gum dispenser and the computer keyboard itself — all handy and, to some extent, indispensable.

“The buoys are a useful tool,” said Dufour. “But when they get discarded, they become trash, pollution.

” ‘Drift’ is a way to create a public art event that people will notice; and as they notice the buoys, we have the information about them, what marine debris is, what it does.”

That echoes Longobardi’s goal.

“I want to encourage people to think about what they use, what they throw away, and not be overwhelmed. Like this (Gulf of Mexico) oil spill, which makes me sick to my stomach. Environmental catastrophe often overwhelms people into complete paralysis. They think there’s nothing I can do. But everyone can do something. And if a lot of people were doing something, it would make a difference.”

It has already made a difference for Longobardi. “Since I started this project, I’ve changed my own behavior. Others tell me that they’ve seen my work and started recycling.

“That’s as good an outcome as I would ever want.”  


© PAM LONGOBARDI / Georgia State University


Marine pollution artist

PAM LONGOBARDI will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St., and at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Alaska Sealife Center, 301 Railway Ave. in Seward.

DRIFTERS, By Pam Longobardi (Edizione Charta, 68 illustrations including 64 in color, $29.95), advance copies signed by the artist, will be available for purchase at her talks or online at

DRIFT, artistically repurposed buoys, will be on display in various locations on both sides of Kachemak Bay through Sept. 7. A map of where to spot them can be obtained from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, 708 Smokey Bay Way in Homer, at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and at


PAM LONGOBARDI / Georgia State University



3 Responses to “ Marine pollution, art solution ”

  1. [...] I was looking up some uses for beach-junk online and found an article about this woman named Pam Longobardi who created an art exhibition out of plastic that she gathered from beaches around the world. Awesome!! Check her out! [...]

  2. hookem disse:

    The oil spill is nothing to laugh at but I just saw a kid wearing a t-shirt that cracked me up. BP - We’re bring oil to America’s shores. I died laughing because BP’s billion dollar image change to their new sunflower logo is forever going to be associated with the worst environmental disaster to strike America. Check out the shirt here -

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