When editors at Sierra, the magazine of the venerable Sierra Club, were looking for art for the cover of the 2014 September/October issue, they contacted Atlanta artist Pam Longobardi. An eco-activist known for her creations made of found ocean plastic, Longobardi was commissioned to create a sculpture with a strong environmental message as well as a human quotient.
Landing in Sierra Club members’ homes this week, the magazine cover depicts a colorful eye mask with two piercing green eyes. Longobardi, who was recently selected for the “State of the Art Survey” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, constructed the assemblage, titled Plastic Looks Back, with about 250 pieces of plastic that she picked up on beaches in Panama, Alaska, California, Greece, and Costa Rica.
The mask references our “being blinded to the true nature of plastic, its invisibility, its hiding in plain sight until it reemerges to haunt us and the natural world,” said Longobardi, a professor at Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design.
The sculptural collage was photographed for Sierra’s eighth annual “Cool Schools” issue, which explores what colleges are doing to help the environment. This year’s theme is eco-activism, specifically artistic eco-activism. One of many professors interviewed for the issue, Longobardi emerged as the “obvious person” for the cover, said Sierra executive editor Steve Hawk.
The work complements a feature story titled “Can Art Schools Save the Planet?,” in which writer Amy Westervelt explores how “universities across America are adding programs that pair an understanding of environmentalism with the usual skills taught to art students.”
Universities are “responding to an art-world trend—galleries from Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt to New York’s MoMA PS1 have staged exhibits focused on environmental change in recent years—and to rising demand,” writes Westervelt. The article highlights Kim Anno’s efforts to develop a degree program at California College of the Arts focusing on art, science, and the environment.
In an editorial column profiling Longobardi, Hawk notes that Longobardi teaches a course titled “Art and Environment,” which asks students to examine the “triangulation between science, art, and activism in addressing environmental crises.”
If Sierra’s current cover image seems eerily familiar, there’s good reason for that. The editors asked Longobardi to create a plastic-based work that would echo the famous 1985 National Geographic cover of an Afghan girl, a photograph by Steve McCurry.
Assembling the work on a table in her Poncey-Highland studio, Longobardi created the sculpture in only 10 days. “It was crazy,” said Hawk. “What I like about it is that she pulled it off. It’s not just a bunch of trash. There is a face there that is showing emotion. It is a bunch of trash, but there’s humanity at the core of it.”
While McCurry captured a frightened young refugee with haunting green eyes, Longobardi’s sculpture compels for entirely different reasons. Encrusted with garbage, the earth looks back at us with a startled gaze, speaking volumes about what we are doing to it.
Sally Hansell is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. In addition to being a longtime BURNAWAY contributor, she writes for Huffington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Surface Design Journal, and Sculpture.