Beakers and Brushes


The microscopic organisms that form the foundation of ocean health are hidden from sight, but the scientific process reveals the life, wonder, and opportunity inside each drop of the sea.

Scientists brim with excitement about what they learn, but their attempts to share it can be obscured by the complexity of the tools and training that guides their insights. When nonscientists hear the information, they rarely feel the emotions behind it.

The artistic process can provide the emotional translation needed to communicate the importance of science and broadly instill the same passion that researchers feel for the natural world. It can connect people with the heart of discovery and inspire them to care, which is vital to building a society that is guided by science.

Bigelow Laboratory researchers regularly collaborate with artists to help share the essence and significance of their work. The newest endeavor is a two-story installation at the laboratory made by Gulf of Maine EcoArts, a collaborative group of Maine artists. “Majestic Fragility” is scheduled to be up through Fall 2022 and is open to the public during the laboratory’s normal business hours.

The exhibit presents a cross-section of sky and sea that illuminates the diverse life in the Gulf of Maine — and the challenges it faces from human impacts.

“This exhibition is a communication to the public about what is currently going on with the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, and also in oceans all over the planet,” said Anna Dibble, founding director of EcoArts and lead for the project.

Dibble’s work is driven by the urgency of climate change and humanity’s disconnect with the natural world. That inspiration sparked the purpose and themes of the EcoArts’ project with Bigelow Laboratory. She organized a decision-making group of artists and worked with educators around the state to engage students with the science, art, and environmental messages behind the project.

“A lot of Bigelow Laboratory’s research is studying microorganisms to discover what is happening, and will happen, to life on the planet due to climate change, and then design solutions,” Dibble said. “I think art communicates best what this science is trying to do because people respond emotionally to art more than they do to science.”

Few animals elicit more emotion than whales. The image of their massive figures gliding through the ocean, majestic and calm, have been an inspiration for writers, filmmakers, and artists of many mediums.

The centerpiece of the new installation at Bigelow Laboratory is a bone-white, 24-foot sculpture of a North Atlantic right whale, one of the world’s most endangered species. With a massive root ball and trunk of a tree at its core, it hangs from the ceiling, silently swimming amongst renditions of coastal birds and colorful fabric kelp. The cast of coastal characters make a fantastical rendition of the sea, rooted by the science conducted at the laboratory.

Senior Research Scientist Nick Record is a computational ecologist who served as the coordinating scientist for the installation. He uses computer modeling and data science to understand the changing Gulf of Maine, including the North Atlantic right whale. His findings have helped reveal why right whale movement patterns have shifted, and how they are likely to change in the future as the Gulf of Maine continues to warm.

“Science is important to everyone because it deals with how we’re going to live on this changing planet, but scientists often don’t communicate in a way that draws people into our work,” he said. “It is really important to get people involved from a lot of different directions, so we need to use more effective ways to inspire them.”

Despite the general perception, Record said that science and art are not as distant as one might think. Each field shares a sense of discovery and a search for truth, reliant on inspiration from the natural world and the forces around us.

“Both artists and scientists have to look at the world in a way that people haven’t looked at before,” he said. “You need to see the world through a new lens, and show people the world through a new lens, to really be doing something cutting edge in either.”

Current Bigelow Art Exhibit: Majestic Fragility

Bigelow Laboratory scientists have a rich history of fruitful relationships with artists. Through art installations at the laboratory, traveling exhibitions, and live events, these partnerships have helped connect people to science in new ways.

Carter Shappy played a key role in the EcoArts installation, but he was also the first to participate in Bigelow Laboratory’s visiting artist-in-residence program in 2016. He partnered with Senior Research Scientist Steve Archer and his team to create a sculpture for public display.

“I was basically like a sponge,” Shappy said. “I came in as an artist and soaked up all the research and ideas I could. I then used abstraction to tell a story, inspire curiosity, and encourage a deeper investigation into the research that influenced it. That process of allowing oneself to be curious and to look closely is at the core of both artistic and scientific pursuits.”

Based on Archer’s work, Shappy created “Colorcosm,” a 21-foot, screen-printed sculpture made of six prismatic cylinders that hung from the ceiling of the laboratory’s main hall. The art was initially inspired by research into a gas produced by microorganisms that has far-reaching effects on cloud coverage and how much energy it reflects into space. The sculpture included layers of colorful rings representing the water column, the way light changes at depth, and key processes that happen at the ocean’s surface where light, gasses, and microbes interact.

“I really latched onto this kind of ripple effect, which most people don’t have the ability or training to see — how a change that humans cause can ripple throughout ecosystems and lead to wildly unforeseen effects,” he said.

The critical impacts of unseen organisms represent the heart of the work at Bigelow Laboratory. The ocean is filled with microorganisms that provide half of the oxygen we breathe, form the foundations of food webs, and influence global cycles.

Their importance and intricate beauty have inspired exhibits like, “Tiny Giants.” This collection of large photographs reveals microscopic marine life in staggering detail. After traveling the Northeast for several years, the exhibit now resides at the Portland International Jetport.

Artist viewing her work suspended above her head

Krisanne Baker sculpted some of the same microbes from recycled glass while working as visiting artist-in-residence in 2019. She spent six weeks with Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas and his team learning about phytoplankton and sketching illustrations of them as seen through a microscope. She then created a collection of nearly 100 sculptures based on the experience, which were then hung alongside Shappy’s “Colorcosm.”

Baker was fascinated by the beauty of the ocean’s tiny organisms and how such small creatures could be so significant. She set out to create representations of phytoplankton to encourage people to think about something they can’t see with their naked eyes. She was also driven to effectively communicate how climate change and ocean acidification are threatening these vital organisms.

“I find I get a much stronger reaction from the public when they’re drawn in by beauty, and then presented with the concerns,” she said. “I think people are frightened by what’s going on with climate change because they feel powerless to do anything about it. So, I like to approach them with the positive and try to get them to think, ‘This is gorgeous. Let’s save this.’”

Like science, art pushes boundaries and explores new horizons. Michel Droge is an abstract artist who aims to create beautiful art inspired by unconventional aesthetics. After a trip to Katahdin Iron Works in Maine, Droge became interested in mining and “the appalling beauty of the way we rip into the earth.”

Their path led them to Senior Research Scientist Beth Orcutt, an expert on the deep sea. Orcutt’s work focuses on deep sea ecology and the impacts of human activity in ecosystems miles beneath the waves. This includes mining for the rare elements, like nickel and cobalt, needed to make the electronic technology that could curb carbon emissions and energy use.

“I was really inspired by the combination of gorgeous, rich, mysterious parts of our world plus the incredibly violent kind of excavating that we do to survive on this planet,” Droge said.

Orcutt and Droge began to foster a relationship around both their work and the deep sea. Orcutt would share images and explain how they related to research about life on the seafloor, answering questions along the way.

“My role was opening the door to the wonder of the deep sea,” Orcutt said. “But they took the knowledge and turned it into something totally different that I could never have envisioned.”

Droge eventually invited Orcutt to come to their studio to see the first of the paintings and offer critique. It was a new experience for the research scientist.

“I just tried to relate the emotions that the art captured for me,” Orcutt said. “We talked about art in terms of color and composition. It brings inspiration. It brings whimsy. I could also see how I could use the paintings as a way to talk about my science in a way that I’ve never been able to do before.”

Droge doesn’t want their art to compete with the imagery that exists of billowing underwater volcanoes and alien-like seafloor environments. To them, the competition with nature is too stiff. As an abstract artist, they wanted to capture the emotions around the deep sea and mining. They wanted to create art that connects a mind full of science and a heart full of emotion.

“I didn’t want to do anything representational, but I wanted to draw from the richness and ideas of it all and create a platform where people could talk about the impacts of deep-sea mining,” Droge said. “I hope that I create a platform where people can spend time enjoying beauty and light, love and mystery, and also think about and learn more about deep sea mining.”

Orcutt saw this as an opportunity to engage an audience that may otherwise be left in the dark. Some of the initial paintings from the collaboration were put on display this fall at the Maine Jewish Museum, where Orcutt gave a public talk about her research and her work with Droge.

“A very small fraction of humanity gets the opportunity to see the seafloor, so getting people to care about it enough to protect it is really difficult to do just with words,” Orcutt said. “Art can reach people’s hearts in a way that they could care about something because they have an emotional attachment to it.”

This challenge persists even in the sunlit surface waters where phytoplankton grow. Despite their importance, these microscopic plants remain unseen and unfamiliar to most.

A Coccolithophore sculpture under construction

Coccolithophores are one of the most ubiquitous types of phytoplankton on the planet, and you’re not likely to find a bigger fan of them than Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch. Balch is enamoured of their role in the ocean and their unique aesthetic. He even published a book of photographs this year that showcased the beauty of coccolithophores. So, when he was approached by Julie Crane about creating a sculpture of one, he jumped on the opportunity.

“Mother Nature, through evolution and selective fitness, has designed these incredibly intricate, amazingly-shaped organisms,” Balch said. “Artists can help communicate this beauty. They help pull us out of our heads and translate the objective aspects of science into heart and soul.”

Crane is currently working on a five-foot-diameter sculpture made of clay epoxy that will be displayed outside of Bigelow Laboratory in 2022. The piece will be based on Emiliania huxleyi, the most common coccolithophore, which plays a key role in food webs and the global carbon cycle. By creating a sculpture at a scale that better reflects their impact, Crane hopes to communicate the importance of these microscopic wonders.

She also hopes viewers will see their own lives reflected in the piece.

“When we are able to encounter something we typically can’t see, we can ponder the intricacies of the role each of us contributes to the whole,” she said. “The design of this living planet pulses with beauty, function, and purpose, and it requires us to be stewards of what we have been offered. I hope we can learn to appreciate what we have here.”