Of ‘Ghost Whales’ and sea foam: Coastal environment inspires art on view at Avery Point

Kristian Brevik’s “Entangled: Ghost Whales,” cloth, wood, light, rope, shadow, on display at “Crosscurrents.” 
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Kristian Brevik’s “Entangled: Ghost Whales,” cloth, wood, light, rope, shadow, on display at “Crosscurrents.” Sean D. Elliot/The Day

Outside the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery on the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, the waves of the Long Island Sound glitter in the sunlight.

Inside the gallery, water is an eye-catching vision, too — in the form of a series of marine-inspired artworks.

On one wall, for instance, visitors can see Carla Goldberg’s sea foam sculptural drawings, with bubbles swirling on plexiglas panels, creating a sense of movement and flow in a stationary piece.

Some of the art takes a cue from the creatures to be found in the water. In Kristian Brevik’s “Entangled: Ghost Whales,” whale figures — artistic creations using cloth, wood, light, rope and shadow — glow from the inside and seem to be fairly swimming mid-air in one of the gallery rooms.

A Lynn Stephens Massey watercolor focuses on much smaller inhabitants of the sea: jellyfish. Images of the primitive-looking yet fluid jellyfish are central to the piece, but the artist has also woven in written information detailing that, for instance, jellyfish have no brains but rather a network of nerves and they breathe through their skin.

These are just a few of the coastal environment and maritime heritage-themed pieces showcased in “Crosscurrents: A Connecticut Sea Grant Art Exhibition” on view in the gallery, which is located on the second floor of the Branford House.

They are all the products of artists who were awarded funds by Connecticut Sea Grant’s Arts Support Awards Program during the program’s decade-long existence. The program has given up to $1,000 each year to individuals or groups working in the visual, performing or literary arts. The winners are, according to the exhibition, “selected based on aesthetic quality, relevance to coastal and marine environments, and their potential impact on non-traditional audiences.”

For this anniversary exhibition, organizers contacted all the artists, asking if they wanted to submit their original work or a different relevant work.

“Crosscurrents” is co-curated by Syma Ebbin, UConn associate professor in residence and research coordinator with Connecticut Sea Grant, and Christopher Platts, visiting assistant professor of art history at UConn’s Avery Point campus and curator and director of the von Schlippe Gallery.

Art can reach a different audience

The idea for the Arts Support Awards Program developed when Ebbin met artist Susan Schultz, who had a studio at the Velvet Mill. Ebbin learned that Schultz had received funding from a Rhode Island Sea Grant's Visual Arts Program to support her work.

Schultz finds various kinds of detritus on the beach — things that might have anthropogenic origins but have been transformed by the marine environment — and sculpts them into porcelain still-lifes, Ebbin says.

“I realized after I left her studio, not only did I know about this great award that she had received, but I also realized that I looked at the beach differently, that my interaction with that coastal area had changed. The things I looked for had altered,” Ebbin says, explaining that, on the beach, she began keeping an eye out for things that “embody the dynamic and long-term relationship between humans and the sea, each changing the other over time.”

“So that change in my own perception led me to think that this would be a really great way of embracing or connecting to other audiences,” she says.

Ebbin says that, with Sea Grant, she tends to deal with social or natural scientists who do research, produce papers and give presentations at science conferences. Sea Grant has always tried to expand beyond that, and, Ebbin notes, art can reach a different audience.

“Art has a capacity to engage … Just like there are different learning styles, I think art has the ability to connect with people who might not connect with some of the more typical research or extension products,” she says.

Platts says he hopes that visitors can enjoy the aesthetic qualities of the works on view but can also develop “an understanding that these works of art can raise important issues, whether it’s the representation of women in maritime history … or conveys the negative effects of human interaction with whale populations.”

The latter piece he refers to is the aforementioned “Entangled: Ghost Whales,” and he says its components can be appreciated “as works of sculpture that are in a way decorated with the very netting or the very marks of a boat propeller that hit them. They can be visually decorated with these signs, with these symbols of the negative outcomes or consequences of human interaction with the marine environment.”

The other piece he mentions, “A Further Sea: Jackie’s Drift” by Anastasiia Raina and Rebecca Sittler, touches on the historical record of women’s roles in maritime history, which is often overlooked. It focuses on a single female stowaway in the early 20th century and tells her story in the context of other tales of women sailors and stowaways in the 1800s and 1900s.

Pieces of the past

The Connecticut Sea Grant Arts Support Awards Program, the exhibition text notes, “has encouraged the production of art that explores biodiversity and health of Long Island Sound as well as important environmental and social issues facing marine and maritime communities.”

The deadline for applications for this year’s awards program is May 13.

One piece in the current exhibition that was part of the awards program is the installation “They Came by Water” by Diane Barcelo and Ashby Carlisle. It is an artistic array of words, created with copper wire in a graceful, almost cursive script and hung from a frame. Some of the words are in English, but many aren’t; they are from the various ethnic groups that lived in New London during the city’s whaling heyday.

Discussing the evolution of “They Came by Water,” Barcelo says she and Carlisle “both are interested in language and culture but in very different ways, and we express our interest in those things in our work in very different ways. We both are very concerned with environmental issues, although she tends to express it more in her artwork than I do. It just seemed like we were on the same page as we started talking about all of the languages and types of people and cultures that were living here in New London in the 1800s due to the whaling industry being such a huge business.”

Using research done in the 1920s at Connecticut College, the duo did spreadsheets of all the languages spoken in the Whaling City in the 19th century. They came up with words about water, the sea and more from the most heavily represented languages at the time. The ones they selected for the installation depended on the sound and meaning of the word. They considered, too, the forward and backward flow of the words in the matrix.

“Some of it’s about sound and some of it’s about meaning and some of it is about the look of it,” she says.

They knew that the languages of Native Americans living here at the time were oral languages, as were the African languages of the Africans brought here. Consequently, they included in the installation audio of the Mashantucket Pequot language from Clifford Sebastian and audio of the Dangme language, spoken in southeastern Ghana by the Dangme people, from professor Thomas Dabrah.

Barcelo, who teaches an art appreciation course at Avery Point, says it’s been wonderful to see pieces in “Crosscurrents” by artists that she has invited into her class in the past. She says it’s a nice full-circle moment.

Beyond that, Barcelo says, “I’m so glad that Sea Grant did this and that the gallery did this celebration show. It’s just so interesting to see what recipients have done in the past 10 years. It was really a joy to be a part of and wonderful to see all of the artwork.”

Debbie Hesse’s “Blue Wave. Specimen. 8.2' (from Sway. Shift Series), plexiglass, adhesive gels, adhesive mylar, hardware, on display at “Crosscurrents.”
  Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Debbie Hesse’s “Blue Wave. Specimen. 8.2" (from Sway. Shift Series), plexiglass, adhesive gels, adhesive mylar, hardware, on display at “Crosscurrents.” Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Detail from Diane Barcelo and Ashby Carlisle’s “They Came by Water,” mixed-media sculpture/installation, on display at “Crosscurrents.” (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Detail from Diane Barcelo and Ashby Carlisle’s “They Came by Water,” mixed-media sculpture/installation, on display at “Crosscurrents.” (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

If you go

What: "Crosscurrents: A Connecticut Sea Grant Art Exhibition:

Where: Alexey von Schlippe Gallery, Branford House, University of Connecticut Avery Point Campus, 1084 Shennecossett Road, Groton

When: Through April 7; hours noon-4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday

Also on view: Paintings by members of the Connecticut Plein Air Painters Society created at Avery Point

Admission: Free

Contact: (860) 405-9052

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