Water is Life
The ocean I grew up on courses through my veins. I’ve spent a lifetime swimming through it, pondering its vastness and all of the life it holds. One summer night about ten years ago, I swam underwater through a cove of microscopic phytoplankton. Each tiny being dazzled my eyes and mind, fluorescing electric blue as my body disturbed them.
Over the years my concerns about the health of the ocean and all waters have grown to be an obsession you might say, and you’d be right. I observe the changes the human race has wrought upon the earth and waters in only my almost sixty years. Thinking about and then researching the contents of the river that runs to the sea past my studio window brought about an awareness of chemical content within our bodies as a result of the chemical culture we became. The theory of my short water quality video ‘Upstream to Downstream: In Our Bloodstreams’ is a painterly call to change that chemical way of life. What goes around, comes around. My work has encompassed the results of climate change on the ocean and its inhabitants. I developed an award-winning ocean teaching curriculum to educate students on how our lives are intrinsically tied to the sea, as well as to develop a sense of empathy for the creatures under the surface.
As I was already focusing on the unseen and at the time mostly unknown to the general public, I literally dove into a concern for the creatures that inhabit these tainted waters. I reignited my childhood love of snorkeling to more closely observe underwater life, taking water samples back to my studio to observe under the microscope; drawing and painting from those views of the life contained within one drop of water. Local gallerist and community advocate, Charlotte Davenhill of Tidemark Gallery in Waldoboro tuned into how I was making work to educate our intertidally connected community about the contents of our waters. The Tidemark exhibit incorporated the usual mesmerizing images of water surfaces, but also an entire wall devoted to giant glass slides I had created that incorporated paintings of what I saw through the microscope; identification and information on the species of phytoplankton and whether or not they were toxic; and how what we put in the water changes the delicate balance of the water’s chemistry and can cause toxic blooms from otherwise innocent microscopics. It was easy for me to jump into the citizen science work as I’ve always been an environmental steward; plus my biology major mom gave me a college grade microscope at the age of six.
In my science-inspired research, I learned that phytoplankton supply 50 – 80% of the breathable oxygen in our atmosphere. I had always thought it was just trees that supplied us with the life-giving oxygen. I also learned that they were the basis for the food chain in the oceans; the original food since the early stages of this Earth.
My path with art and science continues. As I spoke of my obsession with various people, there were suggestions to further connect with marine biology that have been instrumental in the development of my recent work. I am indebted to Cynthia Hyde, co-owner of Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, for steering me to the little-known residency with Shoals Marine Laboratories on Appledore Island. The artist gives one hour art lessons to five college level science classes, but has all the remaining time of a two week span to indulge in her/his own body of work. Mine was snorkeling the intertidal area daily and transferring those memories of light, pattern, temperature, currents, and inhabitants from Asiatic crabs to Ascophylum nodosum sharing my outdoor studio space (a gazebo with 360 degree views) with the gull community. I had to hide my paint palette in a large covered bin under my studio (picnic) table each night so they wouldn’t eat the juicy looking ribbons of oil paint. Some mornings, I would arrive at the gazebo to find added texture and patterns of fresh gull tracks through the previous day’s work.
One Shoals class in particular helped me make a major leap in my work. A boat took us out one night to learn how to scientifically collect plankton and phytoplankton and bring it back to the lab to observe them live under the microscopes. That night we watched the phytoplankton magically fluoresce as we collected them from the sea. Back in the lab, people called out which plankton or phytoplankton they thought they had identified, with people running back and forth from one microscope to another to share in the delight of discovery and wonder. Little jewels. That’s how I like to describe them. I had already created abstracted glass and LED versions of glowing phytoplankton, but here at Shoals, I had the opportunity to learn about the myriad microscopic life forms. I began paintings of them within a natural ocean setting; the micro within the macro. The scientists were very intrigued.
Back on land, I was trying to catch the attention of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. I knew from an article in the Portland Press Herald that they had an unofficial artist-in-residency where an artist has the opportunity to collaborate with one of its many scientists. I spent two years virtually knocking on their door, sending along exhibition invitations and artist statements.
I had almost given up, but when a friend (that I did volunteer phytoplankton ID with through the Damariscotta River Association and the Department of Marine Resources) told me there was going to be an annual meeting of the Gulf of Maine Marine Educators Association, I thought I’d give it another shot. I managed to get an appointment two hours prior to the GOMMEA meeting. It became the unofficial beginning of my artist-in-residency with Bigelow. Two weeks later, I had the official ‘go’ and was paired with Dr. Michael Lomas, Senior Research Scientist and Director of the National Marine Research Center for Algae and Microbiota within Bigelow.
Most artists I know have a day job. Mine has been teaching art for twenty-five years. I began my residency working alongside several fabulous scientists in the NMRC. They would ask me what I wanted to observe and then get me live samples from their world-renowned collection housed in special temperature-controlled environments. After teaching for the day, I would high-tail it down to East Boothbay to spend several hours studying through the microscope and grilling my collaborating scientist and other patient lab scientists with a gazillion questions. I drew and drew and drew non-stop as I observed each little jewel of phytoplankton.
My exhibition plan was to create glass versions 1000X magnification of the 100+ life forms I had observed under the microscope. The site-specific ‘Ocean Breathing’ installation took form in my mind as I had further conversations about the life of phytoplankton within the vast ocean water columns. After six months of making glass phytoplankton, or versions that were mutating due to ocean acidification and rising climate change temperatures, the individual pieces were ready to install. Mike and I, plus several other collaborating artists and scientists had the opportunity to describe our works together to an audience at Bigelow’s CafeSci summer talks series. Usually an audience of around 60, our particular CafeSci talk had standing room only of over 300 curious people–a wonderful testament to the power of art and science combined.
‘Water is Life’ I like to say. Years ago, I never could have imagined that my art would take me from plein air painting to being a local and global water activist. Through my love for water, I have become more.
Image at top: Krissanne Baker, Evening, Bigelow installation detail, recycled glass sculpture with phosphorescent pigments and solar LEDs: appropriated slumped, fused, and/or soldered glass