Art by: Kevin Clark

When I arrived at the Marine Food Webs: Drifters to Swimmers exhibit I was expecting a cliché sculpture of a Chinook salmon snapping at a fly. Entering the calm, dimly lit Giustina Gallery at the LaSells Stewart Center, I found something much more thought-provoking. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photography created by marine researchers hung just below discreet light sources like diatoms in the sea. An informational panel quietly explained to me that the dialog being held between artist and viewer is on the importance of sustaining and preserving oceanic food webs “from microscopic plankton to those that consume them.” Furthermore, the panel proposed that this exhibit was designed to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences.

The creations along the walls took on all shapes, sizes, and color schemes. Among the smallest was a collection of highly detailed plankton sculpted from clay. Plankton themselves can exhibit a wide range of shapes and sizes, but this display was an enlarged depiction of the microscopic variety. Otherworldly; they had spikes, long antennae, frills, and ridges, many with no discernable top or front. They were complemented by a series of high-resolution microscope images of real plankton. These images captured the creatures in action: paddling with thousands of feather-like cilia, pumping through strange contractions of their bodies, or otherwise swimming in a more or less recognizable fashion. In the dry silence of the gallery, the images conjured an almost audible illusion of liquescent locomotion.

Miniscule as they may be, plankton are far from insignificant. Drifting along, not too far below the ocean’s surface, they form the basis of the marine food web. It is through their photosynthetic bodies that the ocean is able to sequester atmospheric carbon, though their short lifespans do not allow it to be stored for long. Carbon is more effectively stored when the tiny, often geometric, creatures are consumed by larger animals like fish.

The gallery indeed housed many artistic iterations of fish. Some, like the stately salmon, were expressed boldly with deep blues and blacks contrasted against white backgrounds – they seemed to be leaping from the canvas as they would while struggling upstream to spawn. Others were more abstract, capturing not their movement, but the brilliant and subtle ways that light is reflected off the smooth, soft, spotted bodies of native trout. The beauty of these creatures reaches the deep recesses of the psyche where, through some ancestral memory, we recognize in them a direct connection between the natural food web and humanity.

Painting by: Esteban Comacho Steffensen

The connection between the natural food web and humans was not lost of the artist-scientists who helped populate the exhibit. A collection of photography provided a human presence among the fish and the plankton. Showing a more tangible side of the debate, the camera had captured marine researchers hard at work taking measurements, loading boats, and installing specialized monitoring instruments. In their candid expressions could be discerned a mix of focus and of pleasure. These intelligent and motivated individuals were engaged in an epic battle to save the seas and protect its myriad creatures.

However, my eye was caught next by a large painting of a dark and stormy sea. A flush of biodiversity fills the bottom two thirds of the perspective; jellyfish, squid, crabs, fish, coral, krill, and eels. In the top corner, we can see just above the ocean’s surface in the distance a fishing ship towing a net, into which, presumably, all these creatures will be entrapped. The deep teal, dark greens, and black of the midnight ocean were perforated by red corals and light reflected from the skin, scales, and shells of the creatures. The piece is alive with motion: rolling waves, a trolling boat, creatures darting every which way, and the implied flow of energy across the food web and up the food chain.

Before leaving, I stood long before two of the largest paintings in the gallery. The first was set in the darkest depths of the ocean while the other was in the light blue near the surface. In the former image, only a few creatures drifted silently through the purple-grey gloom. The light was produced from within the creatures as the sun’s energetic rays could no longer reach them. It was still, like the gallery room itself, empty of action and quiet in reflection. In the latter image beams of white, almost twinkling light radiated through the water from top to bottom. The numerous creatures seemed to be drawn upward, imbibing waves of pure energy to a point that they themselves had become nearly transparent.

Painting by: Esteban Comacho Steffensen
Painting by: Esteban Comacho Steffensen

In these two paintings I saw duality of nature on Earth. Yes, there was the difference between light and dark, but there was something more. In one the light was external and in the other light came from within. As we live on this planet we must survive from it, our light, so to speak, comes externally. But as thinking, feeling, and creating individuals our inner light has the power to guide us, and those around us, through dark times. As artists, we reach deep inside ourselves, into the darkest depths, to retrieve something useful that speaks across language. As scientists, we strive to meet the challenges before us, to create a brighter world where issues of justice or hunger are theoretical concepts and not daily life. As students of Environmental Arts and Humanities, like this exhibit so wonderfully accomplished, we endeavor bridge these noble goals; to connect the inner realms and the outer realities.