Sea, science and art

Artist at Sea Sarah Grew uses her phone to time a cyanotype print using sunlight on the back deck of the Research Vessel Atlantis. (Photo by Bret Yager)

Artist Sarah Grew has a more metaphysical goal than the scientists with whom she huddles over wriggling samples of sea life, nets and their associated software aboard the Research Vessel Atlantis off of Newport.

Joined for two weeks with a team of researchers centered around an Oregon State University initiative that places artists upon the high seas, she is using life and images from nets and underwater cameras, transcending time by creating cyanotypes of the specimens and activities aboard ship.

The results of this melding of modern research technology and antiquated photo processing technique? White silhouettes of brittle stars, salps, shrimp and comb jellies swimming in a sea of blue, sending ripples of the past between pages.

For this project, Grew is following in footsteps laid in 1843 by Anna Atkins, an amateur botanist and pioneering photographer who put together the world’s first book of photos. They were of British algae. Grew is creating a companion volume that links our time and ocean creatures with those of Atkins.

“I’m using the technology of her time and modern technology, so there is a duality,” Grew says. “Today, they’re creating images 90 frames per second. A cyanotype takes four minutes for a full exposure.”

Time. It haunts most of us in some way. The more we adhere to the “tyranny of the clock” the more quickly it moves until we are rushing headlong. Grew is keenly aware of this, so on ship, she is deliberately slowing down, observing everything. She spends hours and days immersed with the 21 scientists who are studying the ocean’s lower food web. Equipped with a hardhat, she is on deck helping bring in samples from an array of plankton nets, then joins the scientists musing for hours over copepods, jellies, scoop-mouthed viper fish and other treasures from the deep.

She looks for the striking, the whimsical — sometimes the childish — to capture in her prints.

That’s when she’s not helping out by running a winch attached to a camera sled for relaying millions of images of plankton that will help scientists piece together an understanding of how the food web operates.

On deck, Grew stands in a stiff northwest wind as the waves churn. She is printing her cyanotypes with sunlight and a ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide solution sensitive to ultraviolet light. It takes six to 12 minutes on the sea for the rays and chemicals to do their work, to yield the outlines of a wandering jelly against the robin’s egg blue.

“I was thinking of all of the things we ignore and don’t see around us,” she says. “I’m just trying to get people to stop and look at what is in their environment, to get people to stop and take a breath. This idea of stillness, of getting things to slow down, has really appealed to me. What is it that gets you to slow down and notice?”

It’s a question that lingers in the air as Grew brings the scientists in on her project, walking them through the process of creating their own cyanotype prints. Most of her own printing will be done on land as her project wraps up.

“The goal is to collect the images and learn enough about plankton that I have scientific information to go with images,” says Grew. “The goal on board ship is to do enough that the scientists understand how it works.”

She is excited about the possibility of cyanotypes at sea.

“This is about reaching across time using images and technology of the modern time and expressing it with ancient technology,” she says.

These are apprentice pieces for Grew. A possible masterpiece is a project that she ponders often but which still escapes her — a circle of time created through a layering on the page of different media, from ancient charcoal to the most modern paints, each interacting and telling part of the story. Practical considerations have held her up, such as ways of doing this so that the end product doesn’t fall apart.

Grew comes to the ship through the Sitka Center For Art and Ecology in Otis. It’s a one-month residency, with two weeks at sea and two on land. Grew is the fourth artist in the program to be placed aboard a research ship.

Chief Scientist Robert Cowen says his intention with bringing artists on his research cruises is to give them an unconstrained opportunity to create an interpretation of the science, the people, the technology, or whatever the artist chooses to focus upon. Artists at sea were selected with the help of the Sitka Center, and the four will be brought together for a final show to share what they have been able to create.

When writing the artists into the original National Science Foundation grant that also funds his examination of the ocean’s lower food web, Cowen hoped their efforts would help better communicate to the broader community what scientists do.

“The NSF wants science and its scientists to be available as broadly as possible,” he said.