Arts & Culture

Animated oceans: Exhibit mixes art, science to raise awareness

People experienced an early version of “Plasticity: Our Changing Oceans,” JD Whitman’s thesis project, during the Installation and Interactive Performance class at the University of Iowa’s Art Building West in May 2017. (Tim Schoon/The University of Iowa)
People experienced an early version of “Plasticity: Our Changing Oceans,” JD Whitman’s thesis project, during the Installation and Interactive Performance class at the University of Iowa’s Art Building West in May 2017. (Tim Schoon/The University of Iowa)
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The sea creatures are delicate and beautifully rendered, carefully constructed glass creatures so lifelike they could be mistaken for the anemones, corals, octopi and jellyfish they’re modeled after.

When University of Iowa MFA candidate JD Whitman saw these works, created in the late 1800s by German glass craftsman Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, she was intrigued. She was studying marine biology in Ireland on a Stanley Fellowship, and the Natural History Museum in the National Museum of Ireland had a rare collection of Blaschka glass marine invertebrates. But the works weren’t open to the public, so Whitman has been collaborating with the museum to begin photographing and cataloging the fragile pieces so the public could get a glimpse of them.

“I was inspired by them because they were both science and art. I’ve been trying to merge science and art since I was an undergrad student,” she said.

For Whitman, they were a spark of inspiration that led to her MFA thesis in sculpture at the UI’s School of Art and Art History. For the last two years, she’s been working on the project, translating her photos into animated drawings that she can project onto walls. At the same time, she’s been collecting used plastic from around Iowa City and turning it into sheets she can inflate to create 3-D structures, tunnels people can walk through. Inside, they’ll find an animated underwater world, projected around them.

Next Saturday (March 24), people will be able to experience her simulated ocean. As part of the UI’s 2018 theme semester, Climate for Change, her exhibit, “Plasticity: Our Changing Oceans” seeks to raise awareness about marine life and the plastic pollution that is threatening it.

An important part of the Blaschka glass creations, she said, is that many of the sea creatures they documented are now extinct.

Marine invertebrates are the only animals that couldn’t be preserved through taxidermy, so the Blaschka pieces are the only remaining models of some species.

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“They’re incredible, because they’re almost exact replicas of the species. They are a record of a decline in marine biodiversity,” Whitman said. “In their own right, they are master works of art, but they also exist as scientific facts.”

The simulated underwater world she is creating is designed to be reminiscent of a tunnel room at an aquarium, with her animated creatures swimming through a projected ocean. The tunnels are about 180 feet long, with five different chambers, designed to be wheelchair accessible.

“My artwork is a hybrid between art and marine ecology,” Whitman said. “I’m trying to educate views on both the importance of marine invertebrates, why they’re important to the ecosystem, and what plastic pollution is doing to their environment.”

She said she is interested in “ecophobia,” when people have a negative response or are desensitized to large scale environmental problems.

“My thought is that using installation art to first present the wonder of the ocean and recreate that magical space and then slowly introducing the threat affecting it could kind of delay or offset the effects of ecophobia,” she said. “I want people to be excited about the existence of the ocean but also to just be aware of how their actions and their use of plastic is affecting this space.”

In the future, she hopes to take the exhibit on the road, perhaps to different schools or communities. For the event next Saturday, she has partnered with the UI’s Office of Sustainability and RecycleMania to help with education on plastics and recycling. She also will have games, interactive art projects and other activities.

“I don’t want to be an activist and say plastic is terrible, you shouldn’t use plastic,” she said. “I just want to raise awareness of what is happening.”

If you go

What: Plasticity: Our Changing Oceans exhibit

When: On display 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 19 to March 24. On March 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., families can interact with the exhibit with games, educational activities, art projects and more.

Where: Drewelowe Gallery, University of Iowa Visual Arts Building, 107 River St., Iowa City

Cost: Free

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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