Prize-winning artist’s works on display

Georgian creates disturbing beauty from trash


You can view the work of Pam Longobardi at the Hudgens Prize Finalists Exhibition through Sept. 7. $3-$5. Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-623-6002,

It’s an enterprise both enviable and disturbing.

Artist and Georgia State University professor Pam Longobardi, 54, spends weeks combing the coastal caves on the Greek island of Kefalonia and walking the gorgeous beaches of Hawaii, surrounded by white sand and blue water. The gallery she works in is a paradise, though a paradise, her artwork shows, that is quickly being devastated by pollution.

Instead of seashells or beach glass, the items Longobardi collects on those exotic coastlines are trash, specifically the foul islands of plastic waste that float on the North Pacific gyre current, washing up in bits and pieces on those stunning beaches. Longobardi reimagines and shapes those materials in often strangely beautiful sculptures and installations.

Last Saturday, Longobardi became the 2013 winner of the $50,000 Hudgens Prize awarded by the Hudgens Center for the Arts in Duluth. It is one of the largest awards to a visual artist in the country.

“It felt like the biggest and most amazing form of acknowledgment,” said Longobardi, especially for an artist plucked from a pool of 370 applicants, who has been working for decades in her field.

“There were times when I would be there once again in Hawaii schlepping this material and feeling like ‘oh my God, no one cares what I’m doing here.’”

Since 2006, Longobardi has transformed her scavenged materials — plastic baby dolls, flip-flops, combs, plastic shampoo bottles, fly swatters — into art in a project she has dubbed “The Drifters Project.” Her work, which has been on display from Finland to China, brings to light the toxic plastic soup a great swath of the world’s oceans have become, where plastic decomposed into bits the size of plankton is ingested by fish and where seafaring birds, when they die, reveal guts filled with plastic waste.

“We don’t know what to do about this stuff. Nobody does,” Longobardi said. “We’re remaking the world in plastic. It’s terrifying.”

Toby Kamps of Houston’s Menil Collection was one of the jurors who awarded Longobardi the prize, and calls her output, “intricate, beautiful, and unsettling works of art.” Juror Doryun Chong of the Museum of Modern Art describes all four prize finalists as “exceptionally strong,” but found Longobardi’s work profound on a different level.

“Her work is not the kind that gives the viewer immediate satisfactions — if it does, that’s only one sliver of what it does — but something to watch and follow over a long time,” Chong said.

“I feel like finally my ideas, their time has finally come,” Longobardi said of the acknowledgment the prize conveys.

With her Hudgens Prize money, Longobardi hopes to realize several long-term dreams. One is the creation on Kefalonia of an experiment in sustainability: an attempt at creating an environmental utopia where plastic has been effectively eliminated. Another ambition is to complete a film made from the footage she has been shooting since 2006 documenting her work. Longobardi has more practical wants, too: for an assistant to help her fabricate her increasingly complex installations and sculptures.

Growing up in New Jersey, surrounded by family members who were lifeguards and scuba divers, Longobardi had an early connection to the ocean that was stoked as she grew older by her fascination with ocean explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau.

Though some might hear the strident, scolding tones of a staunch environmentalist in her message, Longobardi’s attitude and manner are far more thoughtful and mellow.

Like her artwork, in describing the woes of the world, Longobardi is often poetic and elegiac. She’s apt to see the dark humor in the environmental interconnection she finds, where obscure tchotchkes like a plastic baby Jesus from a New Orleans king cake can wash up in the remotest, deepest caves on a small Greek island. “Sometimes it’s like the ocean has a sense of humor,” Longobardi admitted.

Rather than pointing a finger, she is as apt to see her own role in this plastic fiasco. “I’m not innocent by any means,” she said, ticking off a list of the contact lenses and cellphones that rank her among the plastic consumers.

“I’m just trying to do better.”