After attending an informative session on Marine Spatial Planning at the American Planning Association Conference in Atlanta this April, I’ve been curious not only about how scientists and urban planners use tools like the Northeast Ocean Data Viewer and other tools to visualize and plan for complementary marine uses, but also how artists have found ways to visualize the vast life, depth, and power of the sea and bring the ocean into cities all over the world.

The Ocean Artists Society, recently profiled in a brief article in Ocean Geographic Magazine, was founded in the early 2000s by ocean artists Wyland, Guy Harvey, and Bob Talbot. Wyland, a marine life artist, started painting large-scale “whaling murals” in cities in the early 1980s. Today known as “Wyland Walls,” the first mural, “Gray Whale and Calf” was painted in Laguna Beach, California in 1981 as the first step in a campaign to complete 100 murals in cities around the world to raise public awareness of and fascination with marine life. The murals, in cities such as Whiterock, British Columbia, Nice, France, and Bundaberg, Australia, among many others are also featured in a film, Wyland: 100 Whaling Walls:

Importantly, not all of the murals are in cities by the sea – some are inspiring fascination with marine life further inland in cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, Indianapolis, Indiana and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sculptor Courtney Mattison has recently completed the third iteration of what began as her masters thesis project, “our changing seas: a coral reef story.” She describes the inspiration for her work in a short film as the outgrowth of her interest in the intersection between art and science, intended to inspire curiosity and educate people about the great beauty and fragility of reef ecosystems, and the susceptibility of these rare places to human impacts:

The exhibit catalog for her first work further describes and illustrates Mattison’s “interdisciplinary study of how art can inspire marine conservation.” Since the original piece, Mattison has created our changing seas II and III, the latter of which was recently on view at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Beyond murals and sculpture, artists have also brought marine life to city dwellers in many other ways. Cartoonist Jim Toomey recently joined NOAA research vessel Atlantis as artist-in-residence for a 10-day expedition in the Florida Escarpment of the Gulf of Mexico. Toomey hosted a live video feed from the trip which was broadcast in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for World Ocean Day. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, hosts an art contest affiliated with their annual Urban Ocean Festival, which features a myriad of art forms, including music, poetry, film, fashion, and more celebrating how people are connected to and rely on oceans.

A final example, still in development, is “Oceanic Scales: balance through biomimicry,” a series of multi-sensory, interactive games to encourage interaction and fascination with phytoplankton currently being developed by Gene A. Felice II & Jennifer Parker along with the OpenLab Research Center at the University of California Santa Cruz. The research and design team describe in their project proposal the importance of these marine micro-organisms as harbingers of ocean health, and therefore ideal means to foster public education and engagement: “phytoplankton are an early detection system or bio-sensor capable of warning when we are approaching a tipping point in the oceanic equilibrium.” The hope is that the installation will inspire greater understanding of the relationship between human activities and the state of our oceans.

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Oceanic Scales prototype on display at the Santa Cruz Wharf
Photo courtesy Gene A. Felice II