Building an Ocean

For a few months in my studio I've been immersed, so to speak, in a project I'm calling Ocean.

It's mysterious and exciting work - perhaps the most so of anything I've done. It involves going deeply inward and outward at the same time.

As you can tell from this description it's not literal in nature. Most of the imagery comes from my head and from what happens with materials in the studio; however it is also informed by books I'm reading that range from the scientific (Jaques Cousteau's last book, The Human, The Orchid, and the Octopus) to Jules Verne's iconic marine fantasy, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Lately, I've also been visiting actual sea creatures, most recently at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and then yesterday, in a revelatory visit to the Seattle Aquarium, my first visit there since the 90's.

From the moment I walked in I was swept up in how beautiful the place is.

The main entrance hall is a high-ceilinged, elegant space with one enormous fish tank at the far end. It pulled me slowly toward it's delicate blues and oranges. I could have just stayed there, watching the polypy undulation of anemones in the current.

I visited a young woman named Amrita at the tank where you can touch things like starfish and anemones. She was feeding slimy kelp to the sea urchins. "They use their spines to hand it to their mouths at the bottom," she informed me. Her hair was dyed a light pink. I asked if it was inspired by the anemones. She said, yes, it was - and that she wants to be a marine biologist.

The sea otters had just been fed and were still holding shrimp on their bellies and zooming around while they ate. From below, their movements looked to me like the loveliest dance performance, supple and strong. They are completely themselves. 

Back in the main building I stood mesmerized by the giant octopus in its cylindrical tank while its red mantle pulsated and its tentacles curled and unfurled. It seemed to want to fold in on itself at the same time that it reached outward, inhaling and collapsing, deflating and expanding. Its eye, the wall plaque said, could discern my size and light and dark contrasts as well as my own. It could see me.

Later it had moved to the larger part of its tank through a tubular overpass. It's suckers rapidly navigated the glass walls, round white dots against its ruddy upper skin, attaching and detaching, agile, purposeful.

Each one of the animals I saw, from the insanely fluid wolf eel to the stocky, open-mouthed puffer fish, moves with a peculiar rightness, each one lives in its body in the water, with all its fellow creatures. They are bizarrely different from one another yet they seem to rub along.

Whatever wriggles up from my own depths to meld with what I have seen with my eyes in those tanks, I'll be going back for more of this other world. Soon. With a sketchbook.