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ART/SCI = Medium + Message

Margo Vitarelli
Margo Vitarelli

What we know and learn depends a lot on how we receive the information.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports a yearlong collaboration between local artists and scientists has yielded a cunning series of prints that intrigue, delight, and enlighten. 

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Megan Porter, Faded Genes, print. Porter, a biologist, managed to encode the tiny signs with a lot of information. Color, saturation, and outline all signify data about time, prevalence and whether any genetic material remains. The 'alala, or native crow, is red signifying a connection to Porter's artist collaborator, Deb Nehmad. See both works at the "ART/SCI 2016" show at HoMA School.

Art/Sci 2016: Where Art and Science Meet” continues upstairs at the Honolulu Museum School Mezzanine Gallery through September 30th .

“Where are all the parrot fish, they’re gone!!  What happened to them?” 

UH Marine Biologist, Mark Hixson studies coral and fish populations.

Hixon says parrot fish, surgeon fish and sea urchins are the lawn mowers of the sea, gnashing seaweeds and cleaning coral surfaces so baby coral polyps can find a mooring.  Without them, seaweeds quickly cover coral surfaces, smothering opportunities for new growth and recovery from stressors like coral bleaching, which could become an annual event.  Simple over fishing is the problem, Hixon says.

“I lived here thirty five years ago when there were lots of uhu or parrot fish and lots of surgeon fish.  I came back to my job three years ago here, and they’re almost all gone.  Severe, severe over fishing on this island.  Our reefs are not ready for the intense coral bleaching that’s coming.”

“This time of year, August-September, is when scientists are most concerned bout coral bleaching happening because the water can get too warm.  We’ve seen the last two years in a row we’ve had pretty strong bleaching events here in Hawai‘i.  The prediction is that within twenty years we will have bleaching events every single summer, forever.  That’s when we’re going to need all those fish and those sea urchins to keep those dead coral surfaces clean so new babies can settle and grow.”

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
After hearing a lecture by marine biologist Mark Hixon, artist Margo Vitarelli was moved to make a print featuring the uhu, or parrot fish. Here, Hixon shares his informative poster alongside Vitarelli's undersea Eden.

“I wish there was a plan.  That’s what’s motivated Margo and me to collaborate on this particular project is  my coming back to Hawai‘i after being gone 35 years and saying I’m concerned by the lack of fish like parrot fish and surgeon fish and sea urchins, which keep the reef surfaces clean.  They’re like little lawn mowers, and they keep all the seaweeds under control, and that’s what allows the corals to grow.  When you lose those herbivores, they’re called, then the corals eventually become replaced by seaweeds, especially if you have coral bleaching.”

“If we have lots of parrot fish, lots of surgeon fish, lots of sea urchins on our reefs, then when the corals die from coral bleaching, those herbivores will keep those dead surfaces clean so new baby corals can settle and grow without being smothered by seaweeds.  You need those lawn mowers of the sea to keep that lawn nice and clean so those corals can thrive. Without those lawn mowers, you get a weed patch and the coral with never come back.”

“Another bonus of parrot fish in particular, is that by scraping the dead coral surfaces and cleaning off the algae, they also poop sand.  They’ve been found on some island nations to produce 80% of the sand on their beaches.  And yet at a time when the sea level is rising and our coasts are starting to erode, we’re taking out all the sand producers.”

Hixon is not against fishing, he’s not against spear fishing, he’s against over fishing.  One problem he says, is 

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
(above) Denise Karabinus, Limu Kala. (below) Celia Smith, The Biology of Limu Kala in Waikiki. In the ART/SCI 2016 show, work by scientists inspires prints by members of the Honolulu Printmakers.

that fishing regulations are not strongly enforced and people do not practice pono fishing methods.  They take more than they need.  

“The worst example of that is scuba spear fishing at night.  Using scuba gear, to go down at night on the reef when the uhu, the parrot fish, are sleeping in shallow holes, and they’re sitting ducks.  You can take every single parrot fish on the reef and there are people who do that.” 

The good news?  “Research has shown that with a lack of fishing intensity, populations of reef fish rebound fairly quickly, within five to ten years.”

How to change? 

“Communicating, sharing, relating, and inspiring one another has good results in general,” says printmaker Margo Vitarelli who was inspired by a lecture Hixon gave at the Aquarium,

“So I started looking at different books of fish and looking at uhu and saying, uh oh. There’s about fifty different kinds of uhu and when they’re young they’re a different color than when they’re old and when they’re female they’re different than when they’re male.  So it got me into a whole other uhu world which was fascinating!”  Quite the aha.

The uhu print Vitarelli made (see above) is full of life, very possibly a beacon for learning more.  She and Hixon created  nine more artist/scientist pairs whose work is now on view in Art/Sci 2016, at the HoMA School. 

Vitarelli:  “Being able to reach out and learn something new from a different discipline opens your mind, makes you think of new things.  Maybe we can save the world if we connect.”

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Bob Thomson works with turtles specifically in the larger project of creating an evolutionary tree of life. Thomson's poster describes our progress toward creating that tree. On the same theme, print maker Terry Hildebrand created, Extinction and Evolution: Tree of Life, on view in ART/SCI 2016.

Print maker Terry Hildebrand worked with biologist Bob Thomson on an evolutionary tree of life.  

What imagery would one start with? Where do you start on this evolutionary tree of life?

“We start about 3.8 billion years ago, that’s when the universal common ancestor of all life seems to have arisen,” says Thomson.  Picture---a microscopic self-replicating molecule, probably with RNA rather than DNA, but Thomson says nothing's for sure, this is all an active area of study.  And a treasure trove of visual ideas. 

Scientist Megan Porter produced an attractive poster that records a grim message, 681 species that are either threatened, endangered, or already extinct in Hawai‘i.  

“It’s meant to be a visual representation of what we in Hawai‘i are losing or have already lost.” Coloration denotes time, outlines indicate whether we have any genetic record.  The poster calls you because it looks cool, then a lot of information starts to sink in.                                                                                                                        


Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Pratisha Budhiraja, Mano Wai. In the ART/SCI 2016 show at the honolulu Museum of Art School through September 2016.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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