Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Plankton Progress

It has been just over a year since the Healy set out from Dutch Harbor, and although I have not had any more arctic adventures since then I thought I should give an update on how the artwork is coming along. I described my initial idea for a plankton bloom wall installation in my Art Recap post toward the end of the cruise, but the idea has evolved substantially as I have worked on it over the past few months. 

When I wrote about my artistic process for the blog and the Arctic Spring site I talked about three basic stages in my process: 

Refining the ideas into drawings and generating imagery 
Making the finished work. 

I realize now that I forgot a major stage though: technical problem solving. In between the drawings and the finished work I spend a lot of time experimenting with materials and techniques and making prototypes before I finally settle on a medium that will work well for my idea. 

My plan for a plankton bloom installation calls for many small images of plankton that will be displayed in circular frames on a wall. Each piece will be able to stand alone as a single object, but displayed together they will create a visual graph of a spring plankton bloom building up from just a few ice algae diatoms here and there to a wall that is nearly filled with plankton. The question is how to make these many circular plankton images so that they capture the glowing, translucent, detailed beauty of the different kinds of plankton and are also able to be displayed in a modular way on the wall and be produced in large numbers by hand. 

So far my experiments have included appliqu├ęd and embroidered fiber pieces framed in wooden embroidery hoops, colored pencil and water color drawings on translucent vellum, and white on black scratchboard drawings. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but so far scratchboard seems to be the best balance of visual and technical qualities. I was very happy with the aesthetic qualities of both the fiber pieces and the vellum drawings, but both of them had major drawbacks in terms of production and display. The fiber pieces were prohibitively slow and labor intensive to make in large numbers and the shimmery translucent fabrics I would need to use to get the effect I wanted were extremely difficult to work with in the way I wanted to use them. The vellum drawings were easy to make and I loved how they looked, but because of their translucent and fragile nature they were going to be such a challenge to display that I would have ended up not only making the pieces themselves but also having to build all of the frames and design and construct a complex custom lighting system. That would have at least tripled the time frame (and budget) for the project and required all kinds of skills I don't really have. While it is not perfect, the scratchboard seems to strike a better balance between aesthetics and practicality.

In case you were wondering, scratchboard is a thin piece of masonite coated with a layer of white clay and then a very thin layer of black ink. You draw on it by scratching through the black ink to reveal the white clay underneath. It lacks the ephemeral, light and airy quality of the vellum drawings, which I do miss, but it solves many of the technical problems and has its own appealing visual qualities. I can achieve much more detail much faster this way, and I do enjoy the graphic quality of the white plankton on the dark ground. I think if I can find a successful way to incorporate color into the scratchboard it will work pretty well. It may not be the perfect solution, but at some point I need to make a decision and go into production or I will never see this project through. But for now the experimentation continues and I would love any feedback or ideas on what people like or dislike about the different techniques!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Portfolio Website

I might be a little late on this, but I got some feedback that people ending up here after hearing about the cruise on WCAI were having trouble finding my portfolio website with the rest of my artwork. So here is the link:

It's a much better format for viewing the artwork and you can see a lot more art with a lot less words if that is what you're looking for! I have very been delinquent in putting the drawings from the cruise up there, but there is about five years worth of work going right up until I left for sea and the arctic drawings will be there soon.

Thanks to everyone who said such nice things about the radio program, I was nervous doing it so I'm glad to hear that people thought it sounded good!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Radio Stars

Finally something new to report: the SUBICE cruise is going to be on NPR! Today Ben, Bob, and I were interviewed by Heather Goldstone for her program Living Lab on our local NPR station. The segment will air this coming Monday 10/20/14 at 9am and again at 7pm on 90.1 WCAI. It will also be available to stream online at 

I have never been on the radio before so it was a little nerve-wracking, but I think it went well. We mostly talked about the science and the narrative story of the cruise, but I don't want to give to much away or you won't listen! 

In other news I am continuing to slowly work on the art inspired by the cruise, mostly the pieces for the plankton bloom installation, but no word on a show just yet. Stay tuned.....

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The End (for now)

I know there has been a big delay with this, but things got crazy at the end there and I'm just now getting caught up on a lot of things….

After a three day transit through the Bering Sea filled with perfect weather, views of Aleutian volcanoes, fishing stops, and lots of lounging in the sun on the flight deck we got into Dutch Harbor on June 23rd. We all went out for sushi and I was the happiest I have ever been to eat seaweed salad and other fresh green things and a real fried egg on top of my rice bowl. After that we went to the bar to celebrate the end of the cruise with our first drinks in six weeks, and then to a bonfire on the beach where it actually got fairly dark out, another novelty.

The next morning I was on the first of three planned flights out of Dutch Harbor. It was a little turbo prop plane and the weather was getting bad and it was quite the takeoff. That was the first time I’ve ever felt like I really needed the seatbelt on an airplane! We made it to Anchorage fine, but I found out later that no more flights left Dutch Harbor for two days and most of the rest of the science party was stuck there.

From Anchorage I spent another ten days travelling and playing in Alaska including a visit to Talkeetna, lots of hiking, and the Girdwood forest fair. It was a lot of fun and a nice way to ease the transition back to real life, but a little overwhelming. It was a big contrast to go from a life where I didn’t have to make any decisions, not even what to eat for breakfast, to traveling around with very little plan, bouncing between different friends in different towns, having to constantly figure out where to go, how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, and how to adapt to all the unforeseen changes in a plan that barely existed in the first place. It was well worth it though and Girdwood was really at its best with perfect summer weather, lush plants and wildflowers everywhere, and lots going on.

Now I’m back on the Cape working on finishing the artwork and finding ways to get it out into the world and use it to make more connections between art, science, people, and plankton. This is probably it for the blog for the time being, but maybe I’ll come back to it when there is a show of the work or some other big development. Or maybe my next expedition?? Thanks so much to everyone for all the great feedback and support I’ve gotten, to the SUBICE science party and the Healy crew for all the help and for letting me be so involved in so many aspects of the cruise, and especially to Bob Pickart for making it happen! 

How we spent the transit

Dutch Harbor coming into view on the last morning

Tugboats coming to meet us and bring us into the harbor

Science Recap

In the end we never did actually find an under ice plankton bloom like the ones that were accidentally discovered in 2010 and 2011, and the melt ponds that we were looking for only just started to appear in the last few days of the cruise. Research cruises have to be planned far in advance and there’s just no way to predict exactly when melt ponds will form or blooms will start in any given year. At the beginning of this cruise the scientists were worried that we might have come too late and wouldn’t be able to get far enough north fast enough to get ahead of the blooms, but in the end it turned out that we were a little too early and once we got into the ice the snow melt and melt pond formation we were waiting for didn’t happen in time for us to see them. That’s how it goes though and we did get one of the first and most thorough looks ever at the Chukchi Sea in pre-bloom winter conditions, so it’s not as if it was a wasted effort. 

Bob’s CTD work on this cruise was the most comprehensive CTD survey of the Chukchi Sea ever done, and the first to go so far north so early in the season. His water profile data about temperature, salinity, nutrients, and currents is all new and gives the scientists a much better idea of how the currents change seasonally in the Chukchi Sea. Chris and Ken learned a lot about light transmission through sea ice, light absorption by ice algae within the ice, and what kind of light and ice conditions are not enough to start a plankton bloom. For example it turns out that the ice has to stop freezing and start melting before a bloom can start, even if there is enough light, and that is what didn’t happen for us. They also made some new discoveries about ice permeability to salt vs fresh water and how fresh water melt ponds are able to sit on top of the ice without soaking through. Kevin never got to see the plankton blooms he was hoping for, but at least now they all have a much better idea of the under ice conditions before the blooms start and also a better idea of what it might take to actually start one. And a reason to go back again another year!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Art Recap

I wrote this about a week ago, but didn't get a chance to post it until now....

Things are winding down here, we're still transiting back, and the outreach team gave a presentation today to show the science party and crew what we’ve done. I gave a short slide talk at the presentation, but this is my written version of what I’ve done and the current state of the artwork.

I came into this trip with some basic ideas about plankton, the Arctic food chain, and the kind of work I wanted to do, but I also wanted to allow myself the flexibility to be inspired by the experience and let the work evolve based on what I learned. There is a long tradition of artists accompanying expeditions to document new discoveries and I wanted to stay open to whatever happened. 

At first I was so distracted by the ice and the wildlife that I couldn’t focus on the science at all. I did several drawings of the ice from bridge where I toned the whole paper gray and then erased out the ice floes as they went past through the window. I also did a few walrus drawings and a series of small drawings of the snow buntings that landed on the ship for a while.

After a couple of weeks I finally got over my amazement at the Arctic enough to start focusing on the science. I spent a lot of time talking to scientists and asking questions and started drawing plankton. Everyone was incredibly patient and generous with their time, answering question after question, letting me look through microscopes, trusting me enough to let me help with field work, and giving technical feedback on my drawings. I also learned a lot about ice and ocean currents, and I enjoyed that too, but it has always been the living world that has captivated me the most so that’s the direction I took. So far I have done about fifteen plankton drawings of different species. These drawings aren’t my final pieces from the cruise though; I am using them as a way to build up an image bank of plankton to use in more elaborate future projects.

One of my ideas is to create an installation of a plankton bloom on a wall using small fiber studies framed in round wooden hoops. I’m using the plankton drawings as a way to study the different types of plankton and figure out compelling ways to make their invisible world visible. My plan is to fill a wall with individual plankton studies starting with sparsely spaced ice algae species at one end and building up to a solid bloom of as many of the different species we saw on the cruise as possible at the other end.

The other idea I’m working on is using the plankton forms to design patterns that I will use as layers in large woodblock prints. I want to make prints with silhouettes of the larger arctic wildlife combined with patterns made of tiny plankton to show that even the top predators such as polar bears and orcas are built of tiny phytoplankton, but I’m still working out the patterns themselves right now.

Basically I’d like to spend the next few months building off of these drawings and this experience and making a body of work of prints and fiber pieces that can be shown together to embody some of what I’ve learned on the cruise about plankton and the Arctic. In a way I’m disappointed that I didn’t get more finished work done during the cruise, but I don’t think it was really possible. I learned and took in so much that I never could have otherwise and now I have this huge stockpile of notes, drawings, ideas, and resources to work from and a clear direction to go in, so I am content with that.









Barnacle nauplii larvae

Copepod patterns

Barnacle nauplii and Polychaete patterns

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Back to the Bering Strait

We’re done! Science officially ended at 10pm on Thursday and the Captain came on the intercom and announced that we were steaming for Dutch Harbor. We celebrated the last CTD station with lollipops. Since there’s no alcohol on the ship handing out candy seems to be the main method of celebration here. 

When I went to bed Thursday night just after the end of science we were already out of the pack ice and just seeing small floes here and there, and when I woke up yesterday morning we were completely out of the ice for good. Yesterday felt more like a pleasure cruise than work. The weather was absolutely perfect, no clouds, calm seas, low winds, and temperatures around 40. And we saw land for the first time in over five weeks! Everyone was off shift and spending as much time on deck as possible in between packing up the labs. On the way up we were completely fogged in when we crossed the Bering Strait so we could just barely see the Diamede Islands through the fog. This time we had over 10 miles of visibility and we could see Siberia, Alaska, and both islands all at once for several hours. It was pretty cool to see both sides and realize that on a day this clear people in Siberia could definitely see the Alaskan mountains and think about walking there if there was a land bridge. It would be a long walk though and neither side looked especially hospitable. Siberia and both islands had towering cliffs right down to the water, and the Alaska side had tall mountains right to the coast, but at least no cliffs. Pretty cool. And there were whales everywhere! We didn’t get a good look at many of them, mostly just the spouts, but I did see a couple of tails. I think it was a combination of gray whales and bowheads, or at least that was what I was told. It was crazy though, if you looked in any direction for more than a minute or two you were pretty much guaranteed to see a spout. There was a pod of orcas for a minute too, but they were even harder to see. 

It stayed clear all day and into the night and Amanda woke me up around 2am to see the sun touch the horizon just below the Arctic Circle on the summer solstice. It didn’t quite set, but it brushed along the horizon to the north before it started back up and we got a little bit of sunset colors. The closest to a sunset we’ve seen in weeks. This morning it’s cloudy and fogged in again and the seas have come up a little. Not bad, but we can actually feel the boat moving for a change. We were warned yesterday to secure our stuff so that “your room doesn’t get underway overnight.” I keep hearing stories of the Knorr and people stuffing life jackets along the edge of their bunk to keep from falling out, but so far I haven’t been in any danger of falling out of bed. Or as they say here falling out of my rack. 

Now we have three days of transit back to Dutch Harbor. The atmosphere is definitely celebratory now despite the bad food and the huge job of packing up two entire labs and all of our personal stuff, plus all the reports to write and talks to present before the end of the cruise. I decided to end art at the same time as science, so now I’m just preparing photos for the website, writing for the website, and putting together a slide talk for the crew. It’s nice to have everyone transitioning back to normal sleep schedules so we can all hang out together. Channel Fever has definitely set in though! The talk of food is ridiculous, I think it’s worse than when people start talking about food on backpacking trips. 

Chris leaving the last ice station with drone and lollipop in hand
The deck crew waiting for the last CTD to come up

Siberia, the first land we had seen in weeks

The Diamede Islands, one is US and one is Russian

The Alaskan mainland

Whale watching

2am summer solstice sunset/sunrise in the Bering Sea. This is looking due North

night light

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ghost Busters

I took a day completely off from art making yesterday and did science almost all day. I had been starting to feel like I wasn’t getting enough done, even though in fact I’ve gotten a lot done, it’s just never enough, and I needed a break. Also there were various other things contributing to bad morale. The food situation is getting bleaker all the time: no breakfast cereal, no fresh fruit or veggies, no more real eggs (as opposed to the kind in a carton), and no more of the good tea bags. Then we had a problem with the evaporator that makes the fresh water out of sea water and had water rationing for a couple of days. Then I lost the ping pong tournament in the first round. Life at sea was getting grim for a while there. It could still be worse though. It could be like the safety drill we had that started with an imaginary steering failure and then escalated into an imaginary collision, water main break, electrical fire, flood, and chest wound. I think part of it is that everyone is just starting to get tired of being at sea and worried about getting everything done by the end and stressed out by the logistics of getting all the equipment back to all the various places it goes, but it does seem like morale is low all around.

So it was really good to spend almost the whole day out on the ice working hard and getting lots of sun and fresh air and really tiring myself out and not thinking about art work. I walked Carolyn’s transect with her to take ice measurements. At every ice station she does a 200 meter transect where she makes three different measurements of the snow and ice conditions: snow depth, ice thickness, and albedo, which is what percent of the light coming from the sun is reflecting off the ice/snow vs being absorbed. Fresh snow reflects about 85% of the light hitting it (turns out you can get actually get sunburned on the bottom of your nose from the reflected light and it’s not just mitten abrasion from nose wiping that makes it hurt!), whereas melting snow or exposed ice reflects much less and open water much much less. So it makes a positive feedback where the closer to melting the snow gets the more light it absorbs and the faster it melts, which makes it absorb even more light and melt even faster. I walked the transect taking the snow depth measurement with a high tech Ghost Buster type backpack instrument with a pole that I had to stick into the snow every 50cm and take a reading. It’s really cool but at the same time a little intimidating that I’m not just scooping slush or holding cords anymore, I’m taking the actual data for really important scientific work!

After the science station was done we had ice liberty again for an hour before dinner, and I learned another important fact about light reflecting off of snow, which is that if you wear a stick-on mustache on the arctic sea ice on a sunny day you will get a sunburn with the shape of a mustache on your face in white. So now I have a sunglasses and mustache tan on my face. It was really fun though. The weather was perfect and we all wore mustaches (I don’t know who brought them but it was a great idea), had a big snowball fight, played touch football, and ran around burning off steam for a little while. 42 days is a long time to be on a ship, even a really big one, so it was really nice to spend a whole 5 hours off of it just enjoying the Arctic and helping with science instead of trying to do something productive.

Mustache wearers in mustache formation


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Light and Ice

Some photos from the past few days....things are starting to wind down and we're preparing to turn south and leave the ice for good in a few more days and I'm going to miss it. A lot of these are from a night when Amanda and I got up at 3am again to see the light. If not for the fact that there are no meals then I think I would be tempted to become nocturnal out here, the nighttime light is so much nicer that the daytime.

Radar stuff looking beautiful in the nighttime light

Amanda photographing in the nighttime light

3:30am, as dark as it gets

Finally a melt pond!