During the 1990s, Telfair Museums’ Senior Curator of Education, Harry DeLorme, was making paintings of people in HAZMAT suits doing everyday activities, like going for walks or playing tennis.

“Maybe it will be a way of life,” he mused during our conversation for Art on the Air. “We’re already seeing that people are having to wear protective gear to go grocery shopping.”

DeLorme’s artwork has focused on environmental issues for over thirty years. Like the aforementioned paintings from the 90s, his work has often been ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. Over the past decade, for example, much of his artistic output has started with his observations of the six-mile long McQueen’s Island Trail, and the vast amounts of trash that he’s found along its expanse.

DeLorme “started noticing pieces of plastic sort of littering the ground, spread amongst the marsh grass, and lapping up along…the edge of the river” while on walks with his wife and fellow artist Rachel Green. He recalled “being shocked” at the amount of debris.

Being both an environmentalist and an artist, DeLorme felt the need to do something about his findings.

“I would go out to the trail and take a backpack,” he told me. “And I would photograph these deposits of plastic and fill up my backpack and bring it home and wash it, and sort it out. Over the period of a year or two, I would try to figure out what I was doing with these pieces of plastic that I was recovering.”

Early on DeLorme used his findings to create functional items, including a post-apocalyptic-looking tricycle, as well as a bench composed of pieces of milk crates and coolers. He also made a lamp out of cigarette lighters, “a new light out of lighters,” he joked.

But it was with the “paintings” where he really struck gold.

“I was documenting all the time what I was doing,” DeLorme explained. “I began doing paintings of the locations that I visited. And then I began to match the plastic I was finding to the painting. Basically [filling] up the painting, covering up the entire painting eventually, with these pieces of plastic I found, matching gestures to the shape of the plastic piece.”

Visually, the results are stunning, and that’s not just me saying so: One of these pieces won “Best in Show” at Sulfur Studios recent “Re::Claimed” group exhibition. But to DeLorme, the works are more than just a pretty picture.

“So in a way I’m destroying my own work by covering it in plastic.” He said, “I saw that as a metaphor for what’s happening out there. It’s this beautiful landscape, but if you look at it closely, it’s kind of poisoned with this material that we’ve dumped there.”

Shifting back to the current health crisis, DeLorme sees the events of the day as a chance to do something similar to what he does with his artwork: using a dire situation to shine a light on where we need to grow.

“Anytime something terrible happens there’s an opportunity for learning,” he said. “And sometimes people don’t take that opportunity, or don’t take any kind of long-term lessons away. So let’s see what we can learn from this situation. One is obviously to be better prepared. But I think that there are other environmental ones that we can learn.”

“What can we do to all pull together and improve our lives and improve our future?”

Listen to my entire conversation with Harry DeLorme embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with Julia Thompson and Kiri Williamson about art, working in the service industry during a pandemic, and being a couple while sheltering in place.

Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.

Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”

Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.