EAST BOOTHBAY — Anna Dibble looked up at the 24-foot wooden North Atlantic right whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and allowed herself a moment of satisfaction.

“It looks stunning,” she said.

South Portland artist Andy Rosen made the whale from wood, tree parts and roots, and it’s part of a new multi-artist, two-story installation, “Majestic Fragility,” that opened last week at Bigelow and will be on view for the next year. Dibble, an artist from Freeport and founding director of Gulf of Maine EcoArts, a nonprofit arts collaborative, led the three-year effort to create an ambitious installation that attempts to convey the biodiversity and beauty of the ocean through artistic expression while inspiring people to save it.

She recruited artists and worked with Bigelow scientists, students and educators across Maine to raise awareness about the fragile health of the Gulf of Maine.

“So many people are used to being in boats, canoes and kayaks, but so many also do not know what goes on underneath the surface. These creatures are our neighbors,” said Dibble, looking up at the life-size whale sculpture and the enlarged phytoplankton alongside it.

This 24-foot-long wooden sculpture of an adolescent North Atlantic right whale skeleton, as seen from above, was made by artist Andy Rosen and David Mahany. It serves as the centerpiece to “Majestic Fragility,” an installation portraying the fragile nature of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rosen’s white right whale skeleton arcs gracefully as it moves through space. He made the spine with a tall thin tree, cut into small vertebrae-like sections, connected by cables and attached to a large head cavity filled with roots. It is surrounded by microscopic ocean life, represented by lighted comb jellies and diatoms created by Joe Hemes, and deceptively beautiful displays of ghost gear created by Pamela Moulton. Lee Chisolm and Dibble made the birds that fly on the ocean’s surface. All the materials used in the artwork were 100 percent repurposed or recycled, Dibble said.

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Other artists who participated were Carter Shappy, who was the first artist-in-residence at Bigelow, and Chris Sullivan. Shappy helped create the grid work attached to the ceiling, from which all the artwork is suspended. Sullivan was the project manager. Separate from the primary installation, photographer Brian Skerry is showing enlarged underwater photographs of Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range in coastal New England waters known for its biodiversity.

“It was a great process and it really came together because the quality and interaction of all the artists’ work,” Hemes wrote in an email. “The right whale, the ghost gear, the birds and comb jellies make a wonderful ocean soup!”

Comb jellies are tiny oval-shaped animals with comb-like plates that they use to move through the water. When they swim, the comb rows diffract light and produce a shimmering effect. Hemes, who works with lights in his art, made his comb jellies with a special cloth, wire, pipe cleaners and acrylic, and filled the interior space with LED lights programmed to slowly change from blue to mostly green. They hang and rotate with the air movement.

The green-hued objects created by artist Pamela Moulton are meant to represent “ghost gear” – commercial fishing gear that gets lost and settles on the sea floor. In the foreground is one of many creations by artist Joe Hemes, meant to represent marine invertebrates known as comb jellies. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Moulton, who lives in Windham, worked in a similar color scheme. She salvaged nets and ocean trash to create what she calls sea pods – dense, colorful pods that hang throughout the exhibition. They represent ghost gear, the abandoned lines and nets of fishermen that accumulate on the ocean floor and sometimes imperil whales. She worked within the Forel-Ule Scale, which oceanographers use to measure the color of the water, to create her sculptures, giving them a sense of place and infusing the installation with bursts of blues and greens.

Within each of her pods, she hid visual treasures – things like Barbie dolls, baseball hats or sandals that were part of the trash she collected. They are visible, but it requires effort to find them.

“It’s a big game, and it’s kind of fun,” she said. “All my work is oriented toward saving the planet, but not in a doom-and-gloom sort of way. There is hope.”

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A community artist, Moulton worked with many schools to create her pods, empowering kids to create. In all, students from more than 16 schools and colleges participated in the project. Some of their artwork is displayed as well.

Bigelow scientists study the foundation of global ocean health, and most of what controls it is microscopic life, said Steven Profaizer, chief communications officer for the lab.

“These are the most important organisms in the ocean but they are also invisible to the naked eye. They are hard things to relate to and they are hard things to understand and to care about and to get the public engaged with, but they are critical to the future of the oceans and to the future of all human life,” he said. “They are much less charismatic than right whales, but they impact all of us. They make the planet habitable.”

Five years ago, Bigelow began working with artists to help explain what the lab’s scientists do and why their work is important. In 2016, it partnered with Shappy, a printmaker, as its first artist-in-residence. Shappy created a 20-foot, vertical cylindrical print that explained, through an artist’s eye, the ocean acidification research ongoing at Bigelow. Later, Maine artist Krissane Baker worked with lab scientists to create an installation of phytoplankton-inspired glass art. Baker, whose exhibition at Bigelow was interrupted by the pandemic, recently completed another residency at Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island in the Isle of Shoals off the Maine-New Hampshire coast.

Images of sea life from Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine, by photographer Brian Skerry, are backlit by window light and are part of an installation of new work called “Majestic Fragility,” about the fragile nature of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Majestic Fragility” is the third art installation at Bigelow. The exhibition is open during regular business hours, which are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

“Getting people to understand and engage with microscopic life is tough,” Profaizer said. “Art is one way we have found that we can make those invisible things visible to the public and get them to engage with these things that are critical to their lives.”

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When it works with artists, Bigelow assigns a scientist for expertise. Profaizer said Bigelow’s scientists like working with artists because they approach their work in similar ways.

“The culture of Bigelow is one of empowering scientists with creative freedom to explore a new idea and give them the independence they need to try out a bold new idea that may or may not pan out,” he said. “That culture works well with artists. Every single time I have asked a scientist to collaborate with an artist, they have said yes.”

Dibble worked with senior research scientist Nick Record, who served as coordinating scientist for “Majestic Fragility.”

“Our research around the world is revealing so much about the wonder and opportunity of the ocean – as well the substantial threats it is facing,” Record said in a news release. “All of these issues are complicated, but the fate of the oceans is the fate of humanity. We need fresh ways to imagine the future in order to meet these challenges, and this art is a way of helping us explore new possibilities and inspire people to be part of the solutions.”

“Majestic Fragility” is on view at Bigelow for a year, but Dibble is thinking about where it will go next.


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