What do the North Pacific subtropical gyre, a floating trash vortex larger than the continental United States, and the Maier Museum of Art in Virginia have in common? The current artwork on display through August 8th as part of the 98th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art entitled “Evolutionary Drift: Works by Sue Johnson and Pam Longobardi.” This exhibition includes numerous works that force us to consider the health of our environment. Longobardi’s Eye Test Chart: Color Blindness, pictured above, makes a stunning visual statement out of the trash caught by the rocky shores of Hawaii on its way to the North Pacific gyre, a giant oceanic swirl of plastic debris.
Longobardi and Johnson, both internationally recognized artists, will be on hand at the Maier Museum of Art, Saturday March 21st at 3 pm to discuss their artwork as it pertains to environmental issues and conservation Joining them for the discussion panel of The 18th Annual Helen Clark Berlind Symposium will also be marine biologist Wayne Sentman, of the Oceanic Society, and artist, art critic and published author Suzi Gablik. They will be discussing the role of art and the artist in culture, particularly as it pertains to the environmental issues of extinction, mutation, and evolution.
Longobardi says her concern for the environment is not a recent development. Upon finding a diary written when she was twelve, the three things she was most thankful for were nature, animals, and her home. Later in life, she took up surfing and scuba diving, saying both “put [her] into one of the most intimate relationships with the ocean.” She adds, “We all started off there. It is the source of life on this planet.” Our oceans and environmental issues have always inspired her artwork, but it took a fateful hike to a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii for her to find one of “the right vehicles” to express her concerns.
During a residency, she was “drawn like a magnate down to South Point,” the southern most tip of the Big Island, and consequently of the United States. The shores of jagged lava rock give way to stretches of beach that can only be reached after a long four-wheel drive followed by a long hike. Looking forward to seeing the famous colored sand beaches created by volcanic sulphur, Longobardi was stunned by the mountains of junk she found instead.
At first, she just took pictures of the colorful piles of nets and plastics littering the beach. Tons of trash is hauled away from several locations around the island each year, but more continues to float ashore. The debris is caught by the rocky protrusions of Hawaii’s coast, snatched from currents which carry it towards the North Pacific gyre, half-way between San Francisco and Hawaii.
The debris comes from cities and towns around the world. According to “Altered Oceans,” a multi-media series for the LA Times by Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling, the majority of the debris comes from land and is swept out to sea by winds and waterways. It floats across the globe and ends up littering beaches or circling the slow currents of the North Pacific for decades.
While sifting through the trash on the big island, Longobardi says, “I have found items with text written in every language in this one place in Hawaii: Russian, French, Polish, Italian, all the Asian languages, you name it. This is what we’re leaving behind, these artifacts of culture that have drifted from all over the planet to land where they do not belong.” Longobardi takes the artifacts off the beaches, her personal clean-up job, and finds ways to pull them back into the culture to be examined.
She creates astonishing visual images that comment on what we’re doing to the earth. She says, “Every single action has a consequence. We cannot go on unaware of that anymore.” In fact, these consequences are being felt around the globe. Jeremy B.C. Jackson, marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography says that over fishing from the oceans and dumping waste back into them is changing their very chemistry and composition.
As a result, coral reefs are dying around the globe and other once-thriving underwater habitats are becoming baron wastelands of seaweed and bacteria. The consequences of pollution are felt right here in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay where once large populations of mussels, oysters, and crabs have vanished and large areas of the bay have become dead zones, areas where oxygen in the water is too low to support life.
In addition, wildlife biologist John Klavitter says two in every five Albatross chicks born each year die of starvation and dehydration. In a research study to find the cause, they retrieved lighters, light bulbs, toothbrushes, all kinds of plastics that were filling the stomachs of the dead birds. Our waste is affecting wildlife around the world, animals above and below the surface of the ocean. Longobardi’s Eye Test Chart includes a half shark-bitten detergent bottle, the missing half most likely permanently lodged in some shark’s digestive tract.
Longobardi says the trashing of the oceans “is a global problem that ties together everything: existence, convenience, economy, our health.” She says, “We need our smartest people putting their minds together to help change our attitudes.” Her artwork consistently looks at what she calls “the digestible way we view the world,” hoping to inspire others towards finding new and better ways of caring for the environment.
Join Longobardi and the other panelists at the Berlind Symposium on Saturday, March 21st at 3 pm to view this amazing exhibition on Evolutionary Drift and participate in discussions on art and our environment. The Maier Museum is located at One Quinlan Street in Lynchburg, Virginia on the Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) campus. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 1-4 pm. For more information go here or call 434-947-8136.