Sea-riously impressive: Marine art contest leads the way for the future of marine conservation

By Maureen Zeufack

September 2018

There are certain things in this life that just feel right together. The classic combination of peanut butter and jelly, the forces of yin and yang, summer weather and ice cream. Harmonious, complementary pairings that we never question or think twice about. Art and science, however, is typically not one of those pairings.

The arts and sciences are often seen as separate entities, existing in opposite spheres of thought and requiring different capabilities. However, the intersection of art and science is not as unfathomable as some may believe. Each year, Massachusetts Marine Educators and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary co-sponsor a marine art contest that serves as a prime example of this winning combination.

drawing of krill and comb jelly
This drawing of a krill and Beroe’s comb jelly placed first in the High School division of the annual Marine Art Contest. Image: Linda Palominos

“Two direct goals of the contest are to generate interest in local marine creatures among today’s youth, and to provide an activity that teachers can use in their classrooms to supplement traditional marine education,” explains Anne Smrcina, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s education coordinator and lead on the art contest.

With the theme of “Exploring Biodiversity in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary,” students may illustrate any Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary species in any location coinciding with its migratory range. The contest is divided into five divisions: Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Scientific Illustration (all grades), and Computer Graphics & Photography (all grades).

drawing of striped sea bass
Tenth-grader Gabrielle Gu of Westborough High School’s striped sea bass placed second in the High School division. Image: Gabrielle Gu

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s nutrient-rich waters, located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, are home to a plethora of species such as humpback whales, Atlantic puffins, harbor seals, and Atlantic bluefin tuna, among many others, all of which can be used as subjects for the artist’s research and contest artwork.

Over the past decade the contest has grown significantly, now attracting hundreds of entries – reaching a record high of 915 entries in 2016. And although the majority of submissions originate from Massachusetts, the contest has received submissions from across 10 states and from several foreign nations including China, France, and Kazakhstan.

Antoinette Young, a fifth grade teacher at Eddy Elementary School in Brewster, Massachusetts, heard about the contest around seven years ago from a local high school art teacher. She has since incorporated the contest into her fifth grade art curriculum and worked with her school’s administration to implement initiatives to encourage student involvement. Young, the spouse of a commercial lobster fisherman, notes that despite their community and school’s proximity to the water, there is a lack of awareness among students about the nearby national marine sanctuary. “Most of my students have never heard of Stellwagen Bank and they live on Cape Cod,” she points out, emphasizing the contest’s importance.

drawing of a comb jelly
Fourth-grader Jasmine W. of Lexington, Massachusetts placed first in the Elementary School division. Image: Jasmine W.

Not only does this contest work to educate students on marine life and the importance of the conservation of our ocean ecosystems, but it also does so for the general public. The winning art becomes part of a traveling exhibit sponsored by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This art travels to a wide array of venues including national parks, federal buildings, nature centers, and museums, where it introduces viewers to the sanctuary and its resources. The images are also featured in a calendar that is published on the web.

Student entrants also realize the importance of educating others. Erik Zou is a rising senior at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and a six-time returning entrant who placed sixth in the Scientific Illustration division this year. He explains, “People can learn more about marine life through my drawings. I think a lot of people see the names of species but have no idea what they look like, and seeing my drawings can show them a creature they never knew existed.”

Aayan Patel, whose watercolor painting of a humpback whale and her calf placed third in the High School division, reiterates this vein of thought. He says, “such contests are very important to keep the citizens aware of the marine life on our planet and hopefully add to the movement of reducing pollution that jeopardizes their habitat.”

painting of a humpback mother whale and calf
Davidson Academy (Reno, Nevada) ninth-grader Aayan Patel painted this humpback whale mother and calf. This piece placed third in the High School division. Image: Aayan Patel

This intersection of the arts and sciences has not gone unnoticed by those involved with the contest. In fact, it is celebrated. “Today, I look at the contest as a way of moving STEM to STEAM by bringing art into marine studies and the ocean world into artistic endeavors,” says Smrcina.

Smrcina is not alone in this belief. Several contest entrants identify themselves as both scientifically- and artistically-oriented. “In essence, I believe that [art and science] both express mutualism for one another,” explains Patel. “The creativity associated with art drives scientific discovery but the rules and perceptions of the world dictated by science help root art into place.”

Michela Giordano, a contest newcomer who attends Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington, Massachusetts, echoed this sentiment. Giordano’s painting of a common loon placed first in the contest’s Middle School division, and she feels it speaks to her dual interests in science and art. She “[loves] to be out in nature” and admire various species, yet immerses herself in various media of art.

painting of a common loon
Eighth grader Michela Giordana placed first in the Middle School division with this painting of a common loon. Image: Michela Giordano

Smrcina says that “The contest is a labor of love. It is one of the most personally rewarding projects of my career.” It’s evident that this palpable passion from both the staff who facilitate the contest and the students who enter it is what will sustain this contest and the legacy it is creating for itself for years to come. The contest also has significant support through its partners, including New England Aquarium, the Center for Coastal Studies, the Ocean Genome Legacy/Northeastern University, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and through the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the South Shore Natural Science Center.

The Massachusetts Marine Educators Marine Art Contest has made large strides in educating and ushering in the next generation of environmental stewards. The competition serves as a catalyst for innovative, interdisciplinary thought in young people that we so greatly need in our rapidly changing and technologically advancing world. The gateway this contest opens to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and to marine life and science for students and educators alike is part of a movement of positive change for the world’s future and future conservation efforts.

Maureen Zeufack is a volunteer communications intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland.