By Greg Stricharchuk
She holds the piece of wood to the light and turns it slightly. Does it curve in a certain way? Does it look like a bird’s head or a feather?
Laura Marie Panozzo, who holds permits to collect driftwood and other debris that wash up on the lakeshore of the dunes in northwest Indiana, calls herself an eco-artist. Most recently she has been sculpting birds from the refuse.
Her work is bringing renewed interest in the dunes’ ecosystem, says Nicole Kamins Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, a nonprofit devoted to protecting 15,000 acres that make up the national dunes parks. She says many people are aware of the fragility of birds, critters and plants in the dunes, but “even more are completely unaware.”
Panozzo’s work, Barker said, “takes that conversation into the art world. She’s an amazing and positive force to be reckoned with.”
Her birds range in wingspan from several feet to 16 feet and sell for $500 to more than $4,000.
“Lots of people are idealistic about the environment, but few put that idealism into action and incorporate it into art,” said Richard Sellers, who suggested Panozzo come to a recent party where some of her works were auctioned.
Dan Plath, who heads the water program at NiSource, a natural gas distributor based in Merrillville, Ind., said Panozzo from time to time loads a flatbed truck with logs and other junk she gathers from near a subsidiary’s coal-fired generating plant on Lake Michigan. “We’re pretty lucky to have someone of her caliber.”
Panozzo, 39, has supported herself as an artist for 22 years, starting in Italy where her big break was selling 11 of 23 paintings she worked on virtually nonstop for weeks. At the time she was attending a school there on a three-month scholarship she had won while attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her earnings provided financial footing; she stretched her stay in Italy to five years.
Afterward, she moved to Puerto Rico for four years and began sculpting saints in papier-mache, an outgrowth of studying saints’ images in church as a child. “I was fascinated with iconography and statues and engrossed with stories of the saints.”
She returned to LaPorte, Ind., the town where she was raised, four years ago, making a living doing private art commissions. Three months ago she opened Earth Angel, Eco Art Studio in an old warehouse. In front she built a gallery where she displays her art and the works of others.
Her workshop is in the back of the building. Recently several bird sculptures in various stages of assembly were spread out on a table as her son’s puppy scampered about chewing on wood.
The process of building birds, she said, starts with picking the right pieces of wood. First she wraps and glues together the head and neck. Then she crafts a section that acts as the bird’s body and tail. Other wood pieces are layered on as feathers, everything held together with glue and wood screws.
Finally, she uses raw umber to conceal seams and screw heads. Some birds are left natural; others are painted, including the wingtips.
A single mother, Panozzo credits her 8-year-old son Enzo with inspiring her to make birds after finding a piece of driftwood that looked like a bird’s head. She said he also came up with the idea of writing notes on the “feathers” when he wrote on a piece of wood: “Momma, I love you. You are the bess.”
“I looked at the feather and realized how powerful it would be for each feather to have a message,” Panozzo said. Some of her customers supply their own messages.
Recently she and 22 disadvantaged second- and third-graders built a bird in an after-school program in Michigan City, Ind. Each child was given a feather and asked to paint it with watercolors and to pick an expression of encouragement or love to add to it.
“They thought it was the coolest thing,” said Janet Bloch, education director at the Lubeznik Art Center, which sponsored the project.
The bird was hung in the school library as families of the children snapped pictures. “It looks like it’s flying,” Bloch said. “It’s like a Phoenix reaching for something beyond.”