I should warn you that I have been feeling a bit thoughtful lately. If you would like to skip over to see images from the exhibition, please clickhere to be redirected to the DRIFT page. You are also welcome to keep reading (I will put another link at the bottom of this page).
Preparing for an exhibition can feel a bit like a whirlwind or a marathon. It is a to-do-list count down to the opening: making sure everything is ready, having a plan about how to hang the work (sometimes I even build a tiny scale model with mini artworks to see how it could look), making a list of things to bring (painters tape, picture hooks, a hammer, level, pencil, eraser, labels, etc. etc.), designing a poster, walking around town asking shops if I can put the poster in their windows or community bulletin boards, ordering lettering for the front window, and the list goes on. I find myself filling with eager anticipation, and admittedly a bit of anxiety, as the countdown draws near.
If you google “how to make an art show” you will find a variety of approaches and lists for how to go about putting together an exhibition. Often these lists include helpful points, such as “make and install artworks”, or “hold an opening” and use words like “easy”, “successful” or “simple”. But something that these websites don’t mention is what happens afterword the exhibition is set up. They are missing the main point.
There is a huge variety of venues that hold exhibitions, but the one type I would like to highlight are “artist run centres” (arc). If you are not familiar with this term, it refers to welcoming and engaging, art focused, community spaces that are operated collectively by a group of working artists. These spaces are often multi-purpose, from exhibitions, art classes, artist studios and music venues. To exhibit at an arc means an opportunity to be in partnership with these artists, to become more personally involved in the operation of the exhibition, to spend meaningful time with the work and with people coming to see the exhibition.
I wasn’t sure howthis exhibition would unfold with this new world of restrictions. There are no more art openings. People in the gallery space were limited to 3 (myself included). Masked faces, hats and foggy glasses make it harder to immediately recognize people. Going out into the world takes more effort than it used to.
If you have known me for a while, you may have head me talk about how important you are to the activation of art. Much of an artist’s time can be spent on their own, in their studio, with their work. Artworks are an accumulation of decision making, time, thought, trying one thing and then trying another, processing, contemplation. Sometimes an artist may have created numerous other works before eventually making it to the final one. The one that represents the accumulative process. As long as that work is in the studio, behind closed doors, or carefully wrapped and stored away it is not alive. I believe that it is not activated until it is viewed by other people. When you go to a gallery and you are viewing an artwork, questioning what it is you see, what could the artist be trying to say, is there a meaning, does it make you feel uncomfortable, do you connect to it? Now there is an engagement. Now the art is activated.I am incredibly grateful to all of you who were able to come and see DRIFT. You activated my art.
I know that these are strange times, which made it even more meaningful to see you at the exhibition. Thank you for the effort to coming to see the show. Also, thank you to those of you who were not able to come but followed the exhibition online. Your support is very much valued and appreciated! When I mentioned that these “how to make an art show” lists are missing the main point. That main point is you! I am so glad to have this opportunity to show my work at an artist run centre because it meant I was able to see you, hear what you saw in the art and enjoy our conversations. Many of you I have known for years, and some of you I had the pleasure of meeting you for the first time. Thank you so much for coming!
After a few busy months preparing, sitting in the gallery over these past few weekends has been a welcome change of routine and, between people viewing the exhibition, an opportunity to quietly reflect and slow down. If you would like to view the exhibition on your computer or phone you can click here for photos, statements and a video of the work.
I would like to say a most heartfelt thank you toarc.hive artist run centre for hosting my exhibition, for being supportive, welcoming, helpful, encouraging and professional. It was a wonderful experience (and if you are an artist, I absolutely recommend sending your exhibition proposal to arc.hive)!
I would also like to say a special thank you to Meghan Krauss, a local photographer, visual artist and good friend, for documenting me in DRIFT (the images above). I also recommend checking out Meghan’s amazing art practice on her website here.
In DRIFT, I explore the continual movements of the ocean: from the glassy barrier of the surface to the soup-like complexities of the seawater below. The show will contain new works in and new mediums (for me), experimental paintings made with winter weather in Iceland and a series of conceptual seascapes that explore the flux of the ocean’s surface. These works will be exhibited along with other pieces that probe our relationship to the sea.
When: Open Saturdays and Sundays 12-4pm from March 6-21, 2021
Where: arc-hive artist run centre located at 2516 Bridge Street, Victoria, BC, Canada
Covid protocols are in place. Please wear a mask. Three person limit in the gallery space. The washroom is not available to the public at this time.
Please send me a message if you have any questions about the show or to arrange a private viewing if the opening times do not work for you.
A year ago, before life had changed, I was invited to participate in an exhibition about humpback whales in Whitehorse, Yukon (Canada). I had the opportunity to meet one of the organizers, visual artist Joyce Majiski, and tour her studio residency on Salt Spring Island. The studio was full of drawings and paintings of whale bones, source/reference material, tools, a pile of colourful and worn Styrofoam and large vertebrae delicately placed here and there. In the centre of the room, between a couple pillars, were ropes suspending two sequences of orange and blue vertebrae. It was a creative space turned research lab. I was in heaven.
I have been working towards this exhibition over the past year and in October I procured a large cardboard box and packed my pieces off to the Yukon Arts Centre in snowy Whitehorse (Yukon, Canada).
Joyce’s sea-salvaged Styrofoam whale skeleton is now complete and hanging in the Yukon Arts Centre. Projection and sound are also part of her installation. She has put together an informative video about her process of creating the skeleton (click here for the video) and also created a video of the installation in place at the Yukon Arts Centre complete with the added lights and sounds (click here for the video). This installation, called Song of the Whale, opened in cooperation with a second exhibition, called Waters of the Humpback, which I was invited to participate along side two other artists, Irene Carlos (Guatemala) and Christina Luna (Mexico).
I created three works for this exhibition: an installation showing the bubble net feeding formation sometimes used by humpbacks, rotating drawings about the buoyancy of whales in water and a collection of 400+ tiny drawings of seaweed that change over time. If you would like to learn about the pieces I created for this exhibition, please click here to view the exhibition page on my website. You will find images and statements for the work on that page.
I am honoured to be participating in this exhibition which is very close to my practice and my work, and I am excited to be included in a free, on-line Artist Talk that the Yukon Arts Centre is organizing. It is happening this Sunday (February 7th, 2021) at 11:30 MST (if you are in British Columbia, it will be happening at 10:30am). Joyce and I will be talking about our work and Michael deRoos and Michiru Main will be talking about working with whale skeletons and marine biology (their family business, Cetacea, is based on Salt Spring Island).
Click here for more info about the Artist Talk and to register for the Zoom link.
“In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
These whales of legend and story mainly stay off shore, in pelagic waters. They are deep sea dwellers as their prey of choice is often squid. A few years ago, in February 2018, a sperm whale spent some time in the Johnston Strait, in the waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland. This was a rare event. The last time a sperm whale was recorded in this area was in 1984 (here is a link to an article from CBC about this event). This being said, I have only met a few people that have seen sperm whales in person.
Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to my cousin, Christine Konrad. Christine is a marine biologist and is one of those few people I know that have seen these legendary whales. Not only has she seen them, but she has spent time researching their family trees, their habits and the “who’s who” of the sperm whale world. Christine is from Vancouver, British Columbia, and studied at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She has since moved back to our beautiful BC coast and is studying some black and white cetaceans a little more familiar to most of us.
I am sure you are much more eager to hear Christine tell you about what she does than me. So, without any further delay, I hope you will enjoy reading this Q&A section that Christine and I put together especially for you.
Q&A with Marine Biologist: Christine Konrad
Natasha: Thank you so much for agreeing to let me bombard you with questions about your life as a whale researcher! I am looking forward to hearing more about your experiences, about what it is like to be a marine biologist and about the day-to-day tasks that are part of participating in the contemporary scientific field of cetology (the study of whales, dolphins and porpoises). To start off, would you mind telling us a little about your background?
Christine: We were lucky to grow up with grandparents who had a cottage by the sea, on the Sunshine Coast. I have no doubt that the many childhood days I spent exploring tidal pools and playing in the waves were a big part of what made me fall in love with the ocean. Yet, in the early years of my BSc degree at Simon Fraser University, I questioned my path, as I enjoyed my electives in fine arts, acting, literature and astronomy more than the chemistry and physics courses that my biology degree required. What sealed the deal for me was a field course, on the diversity of seaweeds, at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre; I spent three weeks of my summer doing my very own mini research project on kelp, surrounded by fellow keen budding biologists and supportive mentors. That experience convinced me that marine research was where I wanted to be. It was during my MSc at Dalhousie University in Halifax that I first studied cetaceans. Through a combination of encouragement from family, giving my all in my BSc, and really lucky timing, I ended up in Dr. Hal Whitehead’s research group, studying the family lives of sperm whales. It was a dream come true.
Natasha: Okay, so I have to ask. Have you read Moby Dick?
Christine: Funny you should ask… When I was accepted into the MSc program at Dalhousie and on my way to start studying sperm whales, my sister gave me a copy of Moby Dick. I brought it with me on my first excursion to study the whales, and I did start reading it on that trip. I felt that copy of Moby Dick was pretty special – it’s not every copy that gets to actually sail in the presence of sperm whales! But alas, in a sleep deprived state on the way home (after an unplanned overnight delay in Winnipeg…), I forgot the book in the airplane seat pocket. So, I never did finish reading it. I have seen a few Moby quotes at the start of thesis papers on sperm whales though, so clearly some other researchers have indeed read it!
Natasha: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Dominica Sperm Whale Project?
Christine: Gladly! The Dominica Sperm Whale Project is a unique long-term study of families of sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean, run by Dr. Shane Gero. Thanks to Shane’s dedicated study of these whales over the years, they are now the best-known families of sperm whales anywhere. My primary role was to analyze genetic information (extracted from bits of skin collected from the whales), to answer questions about the family lives of these whales, like “do sisters babysit for each other more often than friends do?” I had the great pleasure of spending two field seasons (each about two months long) in the waters of Dominica, getting to know these whales (and collecting more skin for my work). The first season, we lived aboard Hal’s 40-foot research sailboat, Balaena. The next year we lived in a little house up the hill in the jungle, and we went out on daytrips in a chartered vessel crewed by Dominican skippers. In both cases, there would be about five or six of us onboard. With tight quarters and long days spent together, my fellow crew would quickly become my family for the season.
Natasha: How was living on a sailboat?
Christine: I’ll admit it does take me a few days to find my sea legs, but usually any seasickness I feel can be overcome with some Gravol and a day or two of feeling queasy. Still, I am always glad when someone else volunteers for dinner duty for the first couple of nights, because spending two hours below deck, cooking over a hot and swaying stove certainly doesn’t help.
One of my favourite things about life aboard Balaena, other than spending my days with the whales, was spending my nights under the stars. I don’t exactly love being woken up at 2am for my turn at night watch… but there’s something really wonderful about being the only soul awake for miles, sailing along in search of whales, with the Milky Way for company.
Natasha: That sounds amazing! Did you need to learn any special skills while on the job?
Christine: You know what skill I never would have expected to need as a marine biologist? Winking. Now, I was one of those kids who always hated being picked as “it” when playing “wink murder”, since I never did master the knack of a good clean wink, without having to scrunch up my whole face. It turns out that aiming a crossbow (which we use to collect small skin samples from sperm whales, for genetic analyses) is much easier with one eye closed. In my case, I used an eyepatch and felt like a real pirate in the Caribbean. On a more serious note, yes, there are many new skills that I gained over the course of my studies, from spotting a distant whale blow on a windy day and photographing fast moving whales through a telescopic camera lens, to the equally important though seemingly less exciting skills of writing code in statistical software to run analyses and pipetting bits of microscopic DNA in the lab.
Natasha: Can you share a little more about life as a researcher?
Christine: I’ve already talked a bit about what field work is like, and you may have gathered that it is one of the things that I really love about what I do. But life as a researcher in marine biology typically involves more time in an office or a lab than at sea. So, I guess it’s lucky for me that I also enjoy spending my time unravelling the story told by the data I collect. When I get to the exciting part in my analyses where I am finally starting to piece together answers to our questions, you just might find me up late on my computer saying, “I’ll just make one more map, then I’ll go to sleep.” Of course, not everything about the job is fun – I can’t say I like balancing budgets or filling in paperwork – but a fresh sea breeze has a great knack for clearing the mind of any administrative woes.
Natasha: What did you do after your Masters?
Christine: After my Masters, I started working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, first in Nova Scotia, and then, about a year later, here in Vancouver.
In Nova Scotia, one aspect of my work was going out on aerial surveys, in small airplanes, flying low over the water, looking for whales, particularly the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. It was a very different experience from the boat-based work I had done before but rewarding in its own way. I also spent many of my days at a computer, working on mapping the habitat of east coast whale and dolphin species, as well as mapping vessel traffic, which is a significant source of risk and disturbance to whales.
The focus of the team I am a part of now is on southern resident killer whales (as well as their neighbours to the north – the northern resident killer whales). The research we are doing is motivated by the very tangible goal of providing the best possible science advice to help this population recover.
Natasha: In your experience, have you noticed a difference in the behavior between sperm whales and orca?
Christine: Sperm whales and killer whales actually have a lot in common, especially when it comes to their social lives. Both species live in tight-knit family groups and pass on cultural knowledge, such as dialects that are distinct enough that, in some well-studied populations, researchers can distinguish between groups based on sound alone. Despite this similarity, I still had a steep learning curve ahead of me when I transitioned from studying the behaviour of one to the other. It took practice and guidance from more experience killer whale researchers to learn to see the sometimes subtle physical cues in the whales’ behaviour that indicate whether they are resting or hunting or just playing around, or some combination of the above! On the bright side, killer whales do spend a lot more time at the surface than sperm whales (who typically dive for the better part of an hour when hunting squid in the depths), so that does give us a bit more opportunity to observe them!
Natasha: The Southern Resident Killer Whales have been on the news a lot over the past few years. Can you share with us about some of the struggles within the populations? Is there anything that I/we can do to help?
Christine: It’s certainly not an easy time to be a southern resident killer whale right now. Some struggles they face include: finding enough to eat, contaminants in their food and environment, and being disturbed by boats and the underwater noise that boats make. Killer whales use sound (echolocation, which is like a natural version of the sonar system of a submarine) to hunt for food. So, underwater noise can make it even harder to find fish that are already scarce.
These threats don’t just affect this population of whales, or this species, but they are important issues for many species. Among the sperm whale families that I studied in the Caribbean, there is a mother whale, named Pinchy. She is one of the more easily recognized individuals in the population. The reason? She was hit by a ship several years ago, and though she survived, she still bears a noticeable scar. The threats posed by ships, by overfishing, and by contaminants are global.
But many small steps can still play a part in solving big issues. One action that comes to my mind that anyone can take is to be a conscious consumer. If you eat seafood, make sure it is sustainably harvested (there are online resources, such as this sustainable seafood guide that can help you be well informed). If you want to go whale watching, do your research and only go with a company that has a good reputation for following the distance regulations that are in place to keep the whales safe and undisturbed, rather than a company that makes promises of getting you up close and personal. If making a purchase, consider if you really need that item, if it needs to be new, where it was sourced from. The vast majority of goods on our planet are moved around on ships; the more we reuse items, the more we purchase locally made goods, the less we contribute to the pressure that ships transporting goods place on the ocean’s creatures. To multiply your impact even more, if there’s an issue you care about, make sure that the decisionmakers who represent you know that it’s important. Perhaps that means signing a petition or writing a letter to your local member of parliament.
Natasha: Obviously cetaceans and our coastal ecosystems are important to you, but what types of things do you enjoy doing when you aren’t in the lab or on the field?
Christine: As a high school student, if I had to give an answer of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to live by the ocean, research the animals that live in it, and make nature-inspired paintings in my spare time. That balance of science and art was, and still is, my ideal. So, while, as my career progresses, I’ve found myself focused more on science, without as much free time spared for art, I do try to find artistic outlets when I can. For example, during my time living in Halifax, I found a wonderful and creative community at Halifax Circus, where I could find artistic expression through circus performance.
I think art provides a great opportunity to communicate; whether it shares a feeling, an idea, or a beautiful moment in time, art can help us see things in new ways. Also, for many of us, we may first be captivated by science when it is presented to us through art. This includes myself; one of the ways I fell in love with nature as a child was through watching nature documentary films (on VHS tapes on rainy days at our grandparents’ cottage) and flipping through the beautiful illustrations in field guides to the local wildlife.
Natasha: Thank you so much for taking time to share with us and for sharing about your passion for whales and your career as a marine biologist. I am excited to see where your path continues to take you!
I consider myself lucky to have family that share a mutual interest in nature, the ocean and the amazing creatures that live there. I am constantly learning from Christine. Maybe you learned something new from reading the above, I know that I did! If you would like to learn more about Christine’s sperm whale research, I highly recommend reading this paper she published: Kinship influences sperm whale social organization within, but generally not among, social units. I hope you enjoyed reading our Q&A, Christine and I had fun putting it together for you.
The image on the right from my Fieldwork oil painting series. This painting was inspired by photographs of sperm whales’ backs taken by Christine off the coast of Dominica.
All images were provided with permission from Christine Konrad. Photo credit Christine Konrad unless otherwise stated.
A couple days ago the BIBLIO NORDICA exhibition opened at the Vyhod Media Centre in Petrozavodsk, Russia. I feel honoured and humbled to have my work in this show alongside a group of amazing artists from around the Northern Hemisphere.
Early this year I was asked to be part of this exhibition, at the same place where I did an artist residency in 2018. The organizers have been planning this exhibition for many years and finally it was coming to fruition. The concept of the show was “book of the north”. At first, I was surprised to be included in an exhibition about the north as I live in one of the most southerly places of Canada, but of course on a grander scale I do live in the north, very much so in fact. The artists were encouraged to creatively think about these two concepts, “book” and “north”, and approach them from whichever angle we would prefer.
In February I began working on my art piece. I decided that my book should be about my connection to Russia and so I decided to do a little digging in my family history. Thinking about the locations that my ancestors lived in relation to the “north” I realized they have almost circumnavigated the globe between the 60th and 50th parallels.
I am grateful to have a rich collection of historical information to draw from when it comes to family history. I was able to borrow family history books from my parents and stacks of old photographs. The photos have become intermingled, combining a hundred years of history together in one box. A collection of information about people that are connected to me, but grow blurry and disant as they reach further back in history. The photographs and images from these ancestry books were my source material for this project.
I wanted to share my piece with you now that the show has opened as a way of participating and connecting with this exhibition half way across the world. I created a page on my website (click here to view) with my artist statement and images of this artwork, titled Terrēnus Paterna.
A special thank you to artist Natalia Egorova for the above images
These past few months have been a time of reflection, introspection and thoughtfulness. Of course there have been many other things going through my head too: aprehention of the unknown, feelings of anxiety and loss. It has been a stange experience. One that everyone is going through differentlly. A time that has been isolating and yet somehow bringing togetherness. This picture is of my home studio (i.e. the kitchen table) this morning. Listening to The Jealous Curator podcast, which I highly recomend, and going through a giant stack of photos, books and alblums from my family history (thank you, mom and dad!).
Earlier this year I was invited to partisipate in an exhibition in Russia. I have been working on my piece for this exhibition since the beginning of March. It is a break from my usual focus of interest (whales, of course) and is by far the most personal art project I have worked on yet. I feel this time period in contemportary history has influenced my project. An intensity of reflectiveness in my day-to-day life. Sorting through an old suitcase of musty-smelling black and white photographs of family members is like holding the past in my hands. Photos that were taken over a hundred years ago of people I don’t know, but I know they are important to my family history. Searching faces for resemblances. Trying to discover something about these people that can no longer tell their story. Seeking to find connection. The pictures are mixed together. Some from Russia, some from the Canadian prairies. Sometimes the backs have writing. I assume the writer is explaining who the people were or where it was taken. A jumble of faded handwriting. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Low German and sometimes in Russian. I find it interesting how the black and white evens out the differences of time and place, making it difficult to tell apart. I can’t help my inner dialogue as I look at these faces. This couple was my great great great grandparents… I wonder what they were thinking when this photo was taken? Was this a special occasion? Was it their first time being photographed? I wonder what they would think if they knew that many years later their photo would make it’s way from person to person into my hands and that I would be carefully and critically observing and then painting them? What would they think of me? And so on. What difficult lives these people lead. Pioneering and farming. Fleeing as refugees. Living through wars. Loosing children. It is hard painting protraits knowing their future and that sometimes they passed away not long after the photo was taken. My family history (and many other’s too) is rich with sacrifice and love and sorrow and victory.
My Grandma Clara
I have been enjoying this project (although it has also been emtotionally tiring at points). Art is a great way to process. Not only processing the photos, but also the time period I am living through now. A time of calmness and reflection. As some of you may also know, my grandmother passed away at the end of March. She was my last living grandparent. 99.5 years old. My parents have been taking care of her as she lived with them in their home for 8 years. Over these years, and especially over the past year as I was able to help with her care, I have developed a deep relationship with her and it has been difficult to let go. Sorting through misculanious stack of black and white photos I realize that she was also my connection to these faces I don’t know. I need to create something tangible out of the efermality of lost memories.
To be honest, I have felt a little burnt out this week. But really, it has been a long four months. Sometimes you just need to take a break. Today I desided that before I get too involved in what I “need to do today” I would take a moment to write down my thoughts, take some pitures and share them here with you. It is a beautiful journey to learn about the past and I am so thankful to have access to these pictures and family history books. These past few months have been strange and I hope you are doing okay too. Maybe it is time to stop, take a little break and do some reflecting. I would love to hear about how you have been filling your time and dealing with the past few months.
SUPERPOD installation at the Ministry of Casual Living Window Gallery
Detail of SUPERPOD installation
This month I had the pleasure to exhibit my SUPERPOD installation at the Ministry of Casual Living Window Gallery in downtown Victoria. What a fabulous alternative art space! Especially during this time period when it is not possible to gather inside smaller spaces. The gallery window is a bay window that is accessed and viewed from outside. I would like to say a huge thank you to the Ministry for keeping art accessible and for maintaining this beautiful space so well. Also, thank you to all of you that stopped by to check out this installation. Without you the work is just a private project in my studio… but by viewing the work you actually activate the art and bring it to life. Thank you!!!
I took the installation down on Saturday and wasn’t sure where to store it… then my husband found the best storage spot!
I just discovered an old artform while watching a BBC documentary (Coasts) that I had not known existed: diatom arranging. That’s right. Organizing microscopic, single-cell organisms into kaleidoscope-like patterns… by hand! Never heard of it before? Me either. Possibly because when it was popular was in the 1800’s. I love this early connection between art and science.
Work by German microscopist J.D. Möller
The above work was created by Johann Diedrich Möller (1844 – 1907). He had decided to become a professional artist but then discovered the microscope. This changed the course of his future and Möller quickly realized that he preferred working with microscopes and slides to painting. He got a job building microscopes and grinding lenses and eventually had his own business. He created many beautiful arrangements of diatoms which can be divided into three types of designs: geometric arrangements, grid arrangements (for identification), and winding strands of a variety of diatoms (often collected from the same location or showing similar types.
So where exactly does one find diatoms? They are found in practically any body of water: oceans, rivers, streams, lakes and even puddles. And what are they? They are single-celled microalgae contained within thin walls of silica (like glass). They exist in a plethora of shapes and designs and are often referred to as “jewels” because of their beauty and delicacy.
While this artform has all but been forgotten there are still a few sci-artists that continue the tradition. Klaus Kemp is a leading contemporary diatom arranger and has earned the title “The Diatomist” for his work. Click here to view an excellent video where he talks about his work and his process (I highly recommend checking it out).
Work by Klaus Kemp
If you feel like you need to learn more about this, here are a few more resources for you:
As many of you know I am interested in using art to build connections and help make science more accessible (specifically marine sciences). Often science and art can feel worlds apart, but at the heart of these two ways of thinking is very often the same motivator: nature.
A few weeks ago I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Whale-Listener-and-Marine-Bio-Art-ologist Leticiaà Legat through Instagram. It is nice to know that you can still meet people and stay connected while maintaining physical distance. But when the other person lives in Brazil, it’s really the easiest and best way to meet anyways. After numerous messages and lengthy e-mails back and forth I quickly realized that Leticiaà is someone that you should meet as well. I asked her if she would mind my interviewing her on my blog and she has graciously agreed to share some of her experiences, thoughts and photos with you and I.
Natasha:Leticiaà, thank you for being so willing to share with us! What is it about whales that has drawn you to study them? Can you tell us a little about your background and education history?
Leticiaà: First of all, thank you for having me, and for your kind words! I’ve loved animals (and the sea) since I can remember, and by the time I was 6 I knew I wanted to be a Biologist. Whales entered the game a few years later. My brother was driving me to school one day, and telling me some killer whale tales he’d recently learnt. I grew instantly obsessed. Back then, the internet was not a thing (ha!), but with each new little scrap of info I slowly added together, the fascination only grew. Particularly in regards to their behavior and social structure. That holds true until today! So by age 10 began my dream of being a killer whale behavior researcher, which I’m so incredibly grateful I eventually got to do! The love for animal behavior and acoustics eventually grew bigger, and spread towards a huge range of taxa. Nowadays I’d likely be happy studying any cool vocalizing creature.
Leticiaà Legat doing field work
Background and education wise, I have a double bachelor in Biology, an MSc in Oceanography (analyzing contaminant levels in dolphin tissues), and was half way through my PhD when a whole lot of life happened. I am now getting slowly back at it, but have transferred to an MPhil instead. During and after graduating (some 14 years ago) I have worked with bird behavior; coordinated behavioral research in a big marine mammal project in Northeast Brazil, which also included collaborating with, and helping local fishermen and kids understand whales better; taught undergraduate university courses; had the pleasure to be an intern at a Brazilian Oceanographic museum; a visiting researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium marine mammal research lab (where I discovered my love for Bioacoustics); and did a few more internships and volunteering, in Brazil and abroad. I’m currently writing up my postgrad research on whale acoustic behavior. More specifically, Icelandic killer whales and North Pacific humpback whales feeding calls.
Natasha: What is this research about?
Leticiaà: I looked in detail into two incredibly similar calls that Icelandic killer whales and North Pacific humpback whales use. They are both loud, low frequency, long calls; and are used only in one behavioral context: while feeding on herring schools. So, we have two very different cetacean species (fairly distantly related in evolutionary terms), which live in different oceans, using a very similar call, for the exact same purpose. They haven’t heard the call from one another and copied it, nor do they have similar acoustic repertoires to begin with. In fact, the calls’ frequencies are out of the optimal hearing range of killer whales, meaning is too low for them to efficiently communicate in.
Killer whale off Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Photo credit: Leticiaà Legat. This photo was taken under research license, with a tele-lens and cropped. Please respect all guidelines when in the presence of whales.
This is what we call convergent evolution; a process in which not closely related organisms independently evolve a similar trait, to adapt to similar ecological niches. Meaning the two calls evolved twice (once in each cetacean population), to serve the same end: help in herring capture. These calls have been known and independently studied for a few decades, but never looked into together/ comparatively. By statistical analyses, I could for the first time compare both calls, and show just how similar they are (strikingly so!). The calls seem to be used to manipulate the schooling behavior of herring groups, which (research shows) groups tighter when the calls are emitted. This in turn should make it easier for both bubble-netting humpbacks to trap, and tail slapping killer whales to hit the prey before consuming it.
Break between land-based observation sessions in Cetacealabe, Gil Island, BC. Photo credit: Sam Rose Philips
Which’s really interesting, since the herring schooling behavior is in itself, originally, an anti-predator strategy (now being exploited by predators!). Interestingly too, the calls frequency is also in the resonance frequency of the herring swim bladder, which could have several implications, and be precisely why this frequency was evolutionarily selected. The call also seems to be spreading, at least in the humpback population, meaning other whales are learning to use it too. Learning has been previously described for several cetacean species, including the ones I’m studying, and this component adds a whole other layer of interest regarding cognition (learning, innovating, problem solving…), and social structure (who hangs out with whom, in which contexts, for how long, etc.). In other words, there’s still lots of missing pieces in this puzzle, including the ones I was to look into before the aforementioned “lot of life” happened… But that’s how science happens, cooperatively. Adding new research (pieces) together with previous data, until we get to see the whole picture. Here’s hoping I get to dive back into it someday soon!
Natasha: Do you have a favourite whale species? And can you tell us why?
Leticiaà: I think I’ll stick with killer whales here (even though they’re big dolphins). Their cognitive abilities (the learning, problem solving, innovating thing again) are very impressive. And I find it fascinating that whilst having only one recognized species worldwide (so far, despite genetic evidence suggesting otherwise), there are SO many different types, with such different diets, specializations, behaviors, complex social structures, morphology, acoustic repertoires… So many different cultures altogether, even when sharing the same habitat. And it doesn’t hurt that they are beautiful creatures to look at, and sound pretty good as well. That being said, I dream of one day seeing a blue whale, and have a special fondness towards minke whales (so overlooked!), long finned pilot whales, and southern right whale dolphins.
Natasha: What role does art have in your life? Do you find that your research informs the art you create? What type of art do you enjoy making?
Leticiaà: Art has been part of my life since I was a kid. I have experimented with several media over the years, but eventually abandoned all (but nature photography) for a really long time. This was before I connected the arts and science dots in my head, you see. I continued to adore, admire, and respect art.
Bubble netting papercut by Leticiaà Legat
But somehow started thinking of all the art I did as time wasting hobbies (even scientific drawing!), and forgot how much nourishment and balance I get out of creating. Of how truly powerful it can be, including for research communication. It took me getting incredibly ill long term, to very recently relearn that, and see how much I need art in my life. That also helped me realize that art and science are simply different ways of investigating nature, and sharing my love for it. And that’s how Biopliliarts was born. I’ve only just started tending to it properly, so here’s hoping it’ll grow beautiful and strong! I do mostly nature inspired art, love to experiment with different media, and aim to share some of my knowledge through it (or at least in the accompanying texts, as I also love some whimsy…).
Fun, bizarre, possibly too disturbing fact: in a way, my research not only informs my art (I have a gazillion whale photos, plus a few animal design ideas floating in my mind at any given time), but it actually has given me the skills required to do some of it… During my PhD I discovered paper cutting art, which in time became my favorite media. You basically use craft knives or surgical scalpels (I use scalpel blades in craft knives, for comfort) to cut paper into patterns, revealing your chosen design. I was instantly fairly good at it, for the weirdest reason: dolphin necropsy skills. During my internship at the oceanographic museum, and later during my MSc, I did countless necropsies and tissue collection on dolphins that had washed up dead (more commonly drowned while entangled in fishing nets…). It’s a really sad reality. But I’ve also always appreciated that with marine mammals, contrary to most other Zoology subjects, we never kill animals for collections or analyses (something I could never do). We only collect either very tiny dart biopsies samples, or sample already dead animals.
Happiness Hippo papercut by Leticiaà Legat
Happiness Hippo papercut by Leticiaà Legat
Heart conditions papercut by Leticiaà Legat
Single bubble-netting papercut by Leticiaà Legat
Natasha: Can you give a few examples of some of the places that you have traveled to because of your love of whales?
Leticiaà: I’ll start by saying that whales have great taste in places! haha Having grown up over 1500km from the ocean, as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree I started chasing whales around. First in the beautiful (and unbearably hot) Northeast of Brazil, then the Southeast of the country (Santa Catarina – thoroughly worth visiting, and Rio – not really a fan, but also worth visiting), and then I moved to British Columbia (enough said!). I lived in the English countryside (of all places!) for the past 6 years. I chose to move there to study under my brilliant supervisor. Meanwhile, I did field research in British Columbia and Iceland, and brought the data home for analyses. And I’ve visited Scotland often, for courses and such. I have also been to both Washington DC (what?) and Denmark (with a stop at the Faroe Islands on the way!) for Bioacoustics graduate summer schools. Finally, marine mammal researchers have a way of choosing beautiful places for conferences. I’ve been to meetings in Nova Scotia, San Francisco, South of England, Scotland, a different place in Denmark… Ah, and of course, I’ve been to Patagonia! That was my dream destination since I discovered the local killer whales as a 10 yo, and I got to visit (and see them!) ten years later, before even becoming a Biologist.
Natasha: What is it about whales that you find the most interesting?
Leticiaà: I’m mainly interested in behavior and acoustics, particularly predator-prey dynamics (like the feeding call research for example), and how novel behaviors or calls spread through populations (or across populations at times!). Sound is the most important tool cetaceans use to perceive their environment, navigate, communicate, find prey, find mates, and in some cases, manipulate prey behavior. So there’s a whole lot we can learn simply by listening. And (particularly with increasing levels of anthropogenic noise) it’s very important that we do so. There’s a lot we don’t know yet. And since cetaceans spend most of the time entirely submersed, researchers are at a huge disadvantage when studying their behavior in comparison to, say, wild pig researchers, who can see their study animals most of the time. With increasingly fancy technology though, the underwater world is becoming more and more accessible to us.
Natasha: Can you tell us about your favourite whale encounter or experience?
Humpback whales bubble-net feeding in British Columbia, Canada. Photo credit: Leticiaà Legat. This photo was taken from shore with a tele-lens and cropped. Please respect all guidelines when in the presence of whales.
Leticiaà: I think most of them happened in Iceland. The killer whale juveniles and calves spent my first field season there chasing the hydrophone array we towed behind our boat (like a 60m huge hose, filled with sound recording equipment). It was a lot of fun to watch them investigating it, and I got fantastic recordings from it. Until one day, after they`d been particularly relentless in the chase, I pulled the array back on board at the end of the day, to discover they had chewed the end bit off! I still don’t believe it and I was there… After that day they completely lost interest though. The Icelandic pilot whale encounters were fascinating too, and are possibly my favorite thing. They arrive in several small organized groups of over a hundred individuals in total. Vocalizing non-stop, with perfectly coordinated movements, they mob the killer whales, charging at them at full speed, and chasing them out of the area. It’s fascinating and terrifying to watch. We started calling them pirate whales…
In Cetacealab, Gil Island, BC (whose researchers generously made their long term data collection available for my analyses), we’d sleep lulled by whale breathing sounds, and watch several species from shore, sometimes swimming right under the lab’s observation balcony… It’s the best way to see (and study) whales when possible, really. Without interfering at all in their behavior.
Natasha: For someone who is interested in whales and would like to learn more (like myself), are there any recourses that you recommend?
Books wise, I remember really enjoying reading Orca: The Whale Called Killer by Erich Hoyt and The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. And if despite the use of specialist language you’re at all interested, nowadays it’s fairly easy to get hold of some scientific papers for free. You can either look for them on Google Scholar or Research Gate, a sort of “social media for scientists” type thing. Many researchers make their publications available there, and if not, most will also be happy to send you a copy if you get in touch via email (if they’re not crazy busy!).
Natasha: Finally, do you have any favourite whale related fun facts you can leave us with?
Cetaceans are born tail first, a neat adaptation that means they won’t drown in case the birth takes a while.
Blue whales are the largest animals to have EVER lived on Earth. How cool is that? Calves can gain over 100kg a day in the first few months of life by nursing on their mother’s rich, fatty milk.
I’ve once listened to a recording of narwhal vocalizations, and no kidding, it sounded like the intro theme for The Addams Family.
The sound used for the dolphin in the infamous 90s movie “Flipper” was actually an altered kookaburra bird call!
Minke whales have a very particular, strong smell. They are often referred to as “stinky minkes” by researchers.
To learn more about Leticiaà’s art practice you can check out her Biophiliarts website by clicking here and follow her Instagram page by clicking here.
I would send a big thank you to Leticiaà for being so open and willing to share! It feels special to have a peek into the scientific world and learn about what is being studied. And it is always a pleasure to meet someone that also shares a love of sci-art (science-inspired art). Oh, how I love those papercuts! =)
What I have learned from residencies and traveling is that anything can happen, everything can change and it is beneficial to learn to adapt quickly. Stay flexible. This is something I find myself thinking of right now. Everything looks familiar outside… but I know it is also different. A change of routine… or a lack of routine. A fresh slate, as it were. And so here I find myself in my second-floor apartment at my kitchen-table-studio, trying to get my head around the strangeness of what is happening and trying to figure out how I fit into the picture and how I can adapt.
These past few weeks have been difficult ones for me, as I am sure they have also been for many of you navigating life right now. I am trying to remind myself that difficult doesn’t mean bad. Challenges are not bad. A change of routine is not bad. When life is smooth it’s easy to click into “default mode”, but when something upsets the expected flow I am reminded of the value in paying attention.
Especially when their are voids in life, things that are missing (like a job or a family member), it is important to be thankful. One of the countless things I am thankful for is art. It helps me to process, it gives me space to be quiet, and it settles my brain from working in high gear. To take time to stop thinking about life’s complications and slow down and concentrate on the tip of my pen and the line it is drawing is freeing. Strangely enough, I think when I am unaware I am thinking I think the most effectively (sorry if that doesn’t make sense). I encourage all of you to do something creative today–trust me, it’s not just for the “gifted” or the “artistically inclined”. It is about the journey after all, not the destination.
I have been loving my Picture By Post project! Through it I have had the opportunity to reconnect with friends and make new ones. It has been something fun and encouraging for me to focus on and I have enjoyed many walks down the road to the postbox with a happy stack of envelopes. It’s actually strange to think that during this time of distancing I’ve connected with way more people than I would have otherwise. I am grateful for the conversations, the connections and the lovely photos that people have sent me back through this project. The pictures have been posted all across Canada (from right here in Victoria all the way to Nova Scotia), the USA, England and even to Germany! I would like to say thank you to everyone who has participated so far (and if you would like to have a Picture By Post mailed to yourself or a friend, please click here to contact me).
Thank you @chirp2lou for bringing your Pictures By Post to the beach and sharing these lovely photos!
I would love to hear what you are doing to deal with all the changes right now. How are you adapting? Have you tried something new? Or maybe picked up an old project to finish?
Stay strong. Be encouraged. Ask for help if you need it. We are in this together. =)