Guardians of Garbage in the Galapagos

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Billy Strong erects a sculpture on a shore of the Galapagos Islands. Dell Cullem photo
Billy Strong erects a sculpture on a shore of the Galapagos Islands. Dell Cullem photo
Billy Strong erects a sculpture on a shore of the Galapagos Islands. Dell Cullum photo

By Douglas Feiden

There were mountains of plastic bottles, gasoline tanks, buckets, buoys, spools, coolers, netting, papers, balloons, automobile tires, metal scraps, electrical wiring, tattered canvas, pulverized planks, fishing reels, purplish refrigerator coils, chunks of Styrofoam — and virtually every other kind of detritus known to man.

Sound like a cross-section from a toxic waste dump? Actually, all that rubbish was recently found scarring the shoreline at multiple locations on the Galapagos Islands. And the two East Hampton men who discovered it, documented it, photographed it, filmed it, and created art from it, are back on the East End to tell the tale.

“It’s supposed to be one of the most pristine and isolated places in the world, but like every other island in the world, it is filled with debris,” said Billy Strong, the artist, environmental activist and global anti-litter crusader who has been dubbed the “Green Explorer.”

“Humans may never before have set foot on these beaches, yet the waste of humans is now covering these beaches,” said Dell Cullum, the filmmaker, wildlife photographer and organizer of beach clean-up drives in the Hamptons. “And the only footprint you see is the carbon footprint.”

Dell Cullem, left, and Billy Strong on their trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Dell Cullum, left, and Billy Strong on their trip to the Galapagos Islands. Dell Cullum photo

Ocean-borne trash and its destructive impact on the planet’s coastlines are not unique to the Galapagos Islands, which straddle the Equator, 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, and are renowned for the diverse, endemic species that inspired a young Charles Darwin to conceive his theory of evolution.

In fact, the 51-year-old Mr. Strong has labored in the garbage fields of India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Easter Island, where he has forged his signature oceanside-junk sculptures. Meanwhile, the 53-year-old Mr. Cullum has hauled off refuse by the tons from Montauk Point to Wainscott.

“As any surfer will tell you, Ditch Plains is a beloved beach, so they go in there every single day, clean the beach 100%, and the very next day, it will be just as bad or worse,” Mr. Cullum said.

But the Galapagos had a special appeal. An archipelago of volcanic islands, it was strikingly beautiful, largely untouched and boasted an uncanny landscape and menagerie that soon proved irresistible to both men. Mr. Strong had visited in 2015 scouting locations for his trash-themed artworks, and he invited Mr. Cullum to return with him to forage for raw materials and film his adventures.

The result of that collaboration is “Isabela: A Green Explorer Expedition,” a 78-minute documentary chronicling “an odious side of paradise” and a “scourge of our oceans” that debuts on Sunday at the Mulford Farm Gallery in East Hampton.

Filmed by Mr. Cullum, it documents a breathtaking two-week journey around Isla Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos, and showcases how Mr. Strong deployed his art to broadcast “a message of warning to the world — a life-saving message that can no longer be ignored.”

Making art from objects that wash up on beaches as a means to change consciousness and help save the planet is the artist’s mission. And so, in the unforgiving 120-degree heat, he braved the serrated, knife-like lava beds that lie ashore to erect and mount five life-size sculptures — Fisherman, Siren, Frigate Bird, Totem and Mermaid — made entirely from beached debris and accumulated garbage.

They are timeless towers of refuse, beautiful if stark symbols of environmental degradation, and they look out, reproachfully, on the infinite Pacific, seeming to defy the inbound contaminants.

“It’s a warning,” Mr. Strong says in the film. “The trash is going to come alive one day, and it’s going to kill all the humans.”

When it comes to flotsam and jetsam, the partners have divergent approaches to a common goal: “Billy looks at all this debris as his palette,” Mr. Cullum said in an interview. “He’ll go to a remote location of the world and pick up trash and create art out of it to send the world the message that we have a problem, while I am out trying to solve the problem.”

That yin and yang dovetails in the Galapagos, and the chemistry between the two men unspools as they gather bags of debris to cleanse the shore as best they can and stow them below deck for later disposal — until there is room in the hull for nothing more.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strong works on board to fabricate smaller size trash sculptures — Darwin, Crab and Sea Creature — which will also be exhibited at Mulford Farm.

So there is beauty in what the film calls “an ugliness that leaves no land mass untouched.” Adds Mr. Cullum, “If this doesn’t shock people into a realization of the problem, what will?”

The world-premiere screening of “Isabela: A Green Explorer Expedition” will be held at 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 21 in the Mulford Farm Gallery at 10 James Lane in East Hampton. There will be a 2 p.m. reception. A showing of artist Billy Strong’s Galapagos-garbage sculptures will debut that day and run on weekends through October 9. Admission is free.

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