A New Art Installation Illustrates a Changing Gulf of Maine
Artists collaborated with scientists at Bigelow Laboratory to create the exhibition on display through October 2023.
Over this past summer, artist Pamela Moulton worked in her screened-in studio at Hewnoaks Artist Colony in Lovell, at the foothills of the White Mountains. Carefully deconstructing and reassembling fishing materials washed up from the ocean floor, she tells the story of the ghost gear that lies tumbling underwater, beyond what we can see from boats and beaches. At the same time, Andy Rosen, a South Portland– based artist, was working at the shop of fabricator and craftsman David Mahany. Bit by bit, pieces of plywood, driftwood, and sections of roots and branches grew to reveal the skeleton of a massive North Atlantic right whale, alive with movement and subtle color. Architect and sculptor Joe Hemes applied his knowledge of producing light-filled sculptural objects to create scientifically accurate depictions of bioluminescent ocean creatures. And Anna Dibble, the artist who spearheaded all of these activities, collaborated with educator Lee Chisholm to create three-dimensional bird forms while building and refining her plan for an immersive, ethereal installation of all these suspended sculptural objects that bridges art and science at East Boothbay’s Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.
For the past three years, Dibble, a North Freeport–based artist originally from Vermont, had been looking for a way to build a community art-making experience centered on environmental concerns. After participating in a theatrical funeral procession for the dwindling Atlantic codfish, organized by the Artists’ Rapid Response Team in 2018, Dibble became focused on finding a way to more fully embrace communally generated artwork in her own practice. For Dibble, the codfish parade brought to mind immersive communal artworks like Red Grooms’ 1975 installation Ruckus Manhattan, a 10,000-square-foot reproduction of the borough of Manhattan created with the help of many artist assistants. Dibble envisioned a similar project centered on environmental concerns in the Gulf of Maine. Remembering a project at Bigelow Labratory by artist Carter Shappy, she reached out to the research institution. “I went there with only a crazy dream idea and a lot of enthusiasm,” she recalls, and the enthusiasm was immediately returned by Bigelow’s community of scientists. Reaching out to fellow artists also brought a wave of energetic responses, and soon her crew of creative collaborators included people who could not only dream up but organize and help to build the artwork, such as project manager Christopher Sullivan and Rosen’s fabricator colleague, the woodworker Mahany.
Nick Record, a senior research scientist of ecosystems at Bigelow Laboratory, was a crucial touchpoint in the development of the project. Guiding the artists through some of the technical aspects of the Gulf of Maine’s unique biosphere, Record used his own creativity and his perspective as a scientist to help integrate two worldviews. “I think both scientists and artists are trying to look at the world through new lenses and show the world in ways people haven’t seen it before. Curiosity and discovery, trial and error, and creativity are essential, whether you’re a scientist, an artist, or somewhere in between,” he says.
The artists involved in the project worked from the same perspective, allowing the project, Majestic Fragility, to to operate as both as both contemporary art and as a learning opportunity for themselves and their communities, as the artwork took shape in their studios. Moulton, who collaborated with schoolchildren and educators throughout the state, researched not only the phenomenon of ghost gear, which is discarded or lost fishing gear in the ocean, but also the specific color index used in scientific diagrams to chart the acidity and other properties of ocean waters. Sculptor Hemes, working with the form of northern comb jellies, learned about that creature’s anatomical structure with the help of Record. “The eight ribs have iridescent cilia, which jellies use for mobility. I designed a light animation program to slowly change the color of the comb jellies from green to blue, with each jelly having slightly different colors and timing, so they seem more alive,” Hemes says. “By suspending the comb jellies [sculptures] on a single wire, they slowly move with the air in the lobby like they are underwater.”
“What I love about this show is that the size of the marine life and the position in the space makes me feel like a part of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.“
Rosen’s whale sculpture, like the rest of the work in the exhibition, is also high above eye level, in a long, tall lobby in the Bigelow complex. Looking up toward the space’s ceiling, the whale floats, transcendent and otherworldly, among the rest of the sculptures, all of which reference marine life. Funded in part by the Maine Arts Commission, the Onion Foundation, and private donors statewide, the exhibition is on display through October 2023.
“What I love about this show is that the size of the marine life and the position in the space makes me feel like a part of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem,” says Record. “People, scientists, whoever— we’re a part of the marine system, and the artwork makes me feel that every time I walk through. You can actually look upwards and see the organisms floating above you.” By transforming the space, the artwork brings the viewer into a world that is otherwise invisible to us, and in the context of an institution whose primary function is to research and find ways to preserve that invisible world. Dibble’s vision of a multifaceted art experiment, bringing environmental narratives into the realm of communication and community, has taken form at Bigelow Laboratory in a manner that merges the earthly with the sublime.
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