We are excited to announce the newest addition to The Endangered Species Print Project: the staghorn coral by artist Renee Robbins. Below Molly asks Renee about her work and her fascination with oceanic flora and fauna.
ESPP: You chose the staghorn coral for your ESPP print. Why were you drawn to this species?
RR: Selecting a species from the ocean seemed the most urgent because my creative work investigates oceanic flora and fauna. Only one artist chose a plant and that got me thinking about all the other possibilities for critically endangered species. Corals give diversity to the other species in the ESPP. Our coral reefs are in great danger so it was the most pressing to me personally. Research revealed the Staghorn and Elkhorn as the most critically endangered of the coral species and I even considered doing a painting that incorporated them both. Getting deeper into the research revealed how the Staghorn plays a vital role in the coral ecosystem. The branches are fast growing (up to 4-8 inches a year) and very hearty so it’s like the backbone of the ecosystem. The Staghorn resonated with me the most visually and conceptually. For better clarity in the ESPP project I chose to focus on only the Staghorn and to save my research of the Elkhorn for a later painting.
ESPP: What was your process for creating your print (research and or medium you use, etc.)
RR: For this piece I began by learning everything I could about the Staghorn. What is the habitat, how does it grow, what are it’s defining characteristics, and what does it look like. Looking through photos and reading articles helped me to dive deep into the subject. To inspire invention in the painting process, I print out several images. Next I develop several small quick compositional sketches within the ESPP 8” x 10” format. In order to have more room for detail, I made the actual painting bigger at 16” x 20”. After starting with a rough pencil sketch on the panel, it was time to get out the acrylic paint. Through trial and error, I find and develop the image by letting it emerge slowly. My painting process starts with thin layers of acrylic and then I respond to how the colors and shapes interact. As the painting progresses, more and more information gets added with tiny brushes. Creating detail is my favorite part of the painting process.
ESPP: I really enjoy the artist statement you have posted on your website in which you state “I position hybrid flora/fauna within a space that simultaneously evokes the deep sea and the cosmos. Moving between the real and imagined, my painting process brings together microscopic and telescopic viewpoints.” This is an interesting way to think about the world. How did you arrive at this viewpoint?
RR: Good question! I can hardly remember not making this work. Marine biology was my career aspiration as a young girl and the interest in the natural world has always been there. Somewhere along the way I realized that I was an artist and not a scientist. An artist’s research and practice asks different questions than a scientist. I learned to draw through direct observation and my first series of works was figurative. Patterns derived from biology and anatomy textbooks were layered over anthropomorphic forms. Chromosomes, violins, and cars were all figures to me. In my last year of undergrad, I created a large painting based on a plant cell illustration but I was still figuring it out why. During graduate school, I came to realize that I was more interested in interior/exterior notions and the contours of the figure melted away. The next series, wallpaper paintings, examined the interplay between decoration and fine art. Hand painted wallpapers on rolls of canvas hung like scrolls in the exhibition space. The exhibit included 20 different pieces hung together in an installation. The patterns referenced cells, meat, make-up, plants, science, and also repetitive patterns from interior design. I thought about gender roles in how spaces are decorated, as some are very feminine and others more masculine. After completing this series and writing extensively about it I was awarded a grant to study in Tokyo, Japan for a month. When I returned everything changed and the work shifted again. I completely abandoned the series that I wrote the grant for. Instead of focusing on one pattern or idea, my next painting layered 30 different references in one work. The new painting brought together multiple references in order to play around with hybrid notions. I was still doing the same stuff but I organized it in a different way. This is how I approach each series with a set of new organizing parameters. While my work has always drawn from biology, the hybrid notions possible in combining different systems deeply compels me to create. This viewpoint incorporates all of my interests and it’s how I make sense of what’s around us. It motivates me and it’s a way to enjoy what’s near and inside us. There are parallels in different scales of natural systems and it really blows me away. I find poetry in creating a form that could either be a microbe or a star. I like that it can be one or both at the same time and that ambiguity is really powerful. There are so many things that inspire me so I could never ever focus on just one subject or system.
ESPP: Have you ever visited a wild coral reef? You seem like you probably do some scuba-diving.
RR: Actually, I’ve never been scuba diving but I do spend lots of time at aquariums observing flora and fauna. Much of my research involves looking at hundreds of photos and reading all I can about a subject- it’s part of the learning process. Observing the world by walking around and looking is a big part of my life. In order to immerse myself in the wide range from the microscopic to the telescopic, the research extends online and to our libraries. For me the attraction to the ocean and the microscopic is about something I don’t have easy access to. It’s a way to escape or a place to dream. The work has a vocabulary of recognizable forms that help to create associations or links that can lead us somewhere else. Someday I probably will go scuba diving and who knows how it would influence my creative process.
ESPP: Have you had any exciting animal encounters recently?
RR: Let’s see, while not an animal I’ve been thinking a lot about the Corpse Flower. It was supposed to bloom at the Chicago Botanical Garden recently. In the end, it didn’t have the strength to bloom and that massively bummed me out. I really wanted to smell and experience it! I’m still going to do a painting about the flower because I want to be the artist that paints the stinky flower. It might smell like rotting flesh but it’s really beautiful and I’m deeply moved by that dichotomy. A creature that I’m obsessed with, the Venus Flower Basket, has found it’s way into my work. The Field Museum in Chicago has a fantastic specimen on display and these creatures live in the very deep ocean. Creatures have to go through great lengths to survive in the deep ocean. The basket sponge symbiotically houses a male and female shrimp, which live in the interior and clean the sponge. The sponge helps the shrimp get food by trapping it inside the spicules and the shrimp helps to clean the sponge in return. After the shrimp breed, the tiny offspring leave to find their own Venus Flower Basket to call home. In Asian cultures, the specimens are often given as wedding gifts in their dry state. The architecture of the sponge is also very unique. It’s shaped in a cylinder and is made of thin glass spicules. Its architecture is similar to that of the modern skyscraper because of how the spicules interweave. The material is really fragile but when the spicules are arranged in a certain way it makes the form really strong. Nature designed it first and that is incredibly moving and exciting. Venus Flower Baskets are also bioluminescent which of course makes them even more fantastic. I’m obsessed with bioluminescence.
ESPP: If money and accessibility were no object and you could go on a nature exploration anywhere in the world- where would you go?
RR: First, I would go to the deep ocean, say perhaps 8,000 ft below the surface off the coast of Monterey Bay. I would look for the specific creatures that inspire my work like the Comb Jellyfish and the Carnivorous Harp Sponge. It would be so amazing! The next stop on my trip would be traveling to the microscopic level near a hydrothermal vent. There are probably some fascinating extremophiles living there and I wonder how they can live at such extreme temperatures. For my last exploration (I get at least three stops right?), I would definitely have to go somewhere out in the cosmos like the Rings of Saturn.
ESPP: As an ESPP artist you obviously are passionate about conservation. What drives you to care about conserving the natural world, why is it important to you personally?
Yes it’s definitely important to me! I’m driven to conservation because if we as a human species do not intervene there will be nothing left to learn, enjoy, and inspire us. It’s really alarming if you look at the statistics for climate change. It makes me crazy that some people choose to believe or not believe in science. Science is not a belief. We are losing important species every single day. The oceans especially are in great danger. There is so much that we have not even discovered. Only about 10% of our oceans have been studied and there are so many secret treasures to be discovered. I hope to bring attention to these critical issues with my artwork.