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Environmentalist Artists

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Environmentalist Artists

Bring the Damaged Gulf of Maine Ecosystem to Dry Land

by CeCe King

Two years ago, a New Orleans-style jazz band led a funeral procession for Atlantic Cod through the streets of Portland, Maine. The artist responsible, Anna Dibble, had crafted a 7-foot-long papier-mâché sculpture of the cod that rested in the coffin. Anna was part of a climate justice organization named 350 Maine. She had organized this rally to highlight how cod had left the Gulf of Maine in part due to rising sea temperatures. “It was the first time I realized that artwork could come into environmental stewardship,” Anna said.

Anna Dibble with a grant certificate

This revelatory experience led her to found the Gulf of Maine ECOARTS (GMEA). GMEA is a collaborative movement that connects students, scientists, and artists to visually communicate information about the natural world. Their inaugural project will illuminate changes in biodiversity in the Gulf of Maine due to climate change and human impact.

Anna was galvanized to start GMEA’s current installation after learning the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of all the ocean waters in the world. “I came up with this idea of symbolically bringing the ecosystem out of the Gulf of Maine and making a huge sculpture installation that would show the public what was happening,” Anna said. The sculpture will be predominantly made of recycled materials and beach debris.

When Anna heard that the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay worked with artists, Anna immediately set up a meeting. She had no sketches when she marched into the building, but her passionate description of her vision was enough to convince the people at Bigelow to collaborate. Once she had a venue for the installation and the support of scientists, Anna gathered artists whose work focused on the natural world and students to start working on GMEA arts projects.

A partnership with Bigelow was essential. Anna envisions the artistic, scholastic, and scientific communities as having interconnected missions. “You need the arts to communicate the science,” she said, but “the science is behind environmental activism.”

MECA oceanography students

The centerpiece of present projects will be a 24-foot North Atlantic Right Whale, and a documentarian will film the building process. Anna said she is featuring this colossal creature because the Right Whale population, dwindling at about 400, is woefully endangered. Researchers at Bigelow laboratories have found the whales’ primary food sources have become limited, which likely led the whales to forage in areas where they are more vulnerable to getting caught in lobster trap lines and colliding with cruise ships. “We think of the whales as climate refugees,” Anna said.

Pamela Moulton is one of the GMEA artists, and her piece for the installation will be a floating mast made of lobster trap lines and kelp. “I always work with recycled, discarded material,” said Pamela. “The challenge is to turn all that into something quite beautiful so that people will be interested in what’s happening.” As Pamela continued to describe her process, her artist’s hands began taking apart and molding phantom material, eager to start working.

Anna’s goal for the project is to inspire a sense of environmental stewardship. “We are part of the ecosystem. We are the wild. A whale is the same as us. These are our neighbors in the water,” she said. The installation itself gets that message across to the public, but for Anna, the process is equally essential. “The collaboration and the making of the art, to me, is the activism,” Anna said.

One of the educators involved is Deb Debigun, who teaches at Maine College of Art. “I want information to be more widely understood, so people can understand and care for our natural systems,” Deb said. She believes the GMEA project not only inspires her students to be better environmental stewards but gives them hope. “It’s been really meaningful for them to be part of a larger project.”

For the student outreach program, Anna brought Deb and her college students along with a middle school class to a South Portland beach last fall to clean up the trash. They then recycled the material for sculpture. “We were able to put it all together and refocus it on making green crabs because of their invasive nature,” Deb said.

By early March of this year, Anna was actively working with twelve schools and eight professional artists. She had won $40,000 in funding. “Everything was going really great. Then the pandemic hit,” Anna said. The artists could keep working out of their studios, but when schools went online, the student outreach program was abruptly interrupted.

“It was devastating at first,” Anna said. However, the artist rapidly mobilized to create an online program for making endangered bird sculptures out of only household items, so any student could participate. She successfully piloted the program with one school and plans to expand the program this fall.

Although GMEA is two years and one pandemic into the project, the momentum hasn’t seemed to die down one bit. When I conducted a group interview with Deb, Anna, and Pamela on Zoom, they often strayed from the questions to excitedly brainstorm ideas for GMEA. This energy may be why the project is still set to open in 2021.

Part of a school of Atlantic herring