Salmonic Inspiration: Empowering a scientific message through the visual arts.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by salmon lover and artist Ray Troll, the first in the thought-provoking series, “Salmon Dialogues”. Hosted by the Vancouver Aquarium in conjunction with the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF), this series is aimed at discussing various aspects of a creature that has a deep historical, biological, and cultural connection to the British Columbia coast: the Pacific Salmon.
“Fin” artist Ray Troll is a salmon lover. In 1983, Ray moved to Ketchikan, Alaska to help his sister start a seafood store, where he found himself “smack dab in the middle of a fish culture that stretches up and down the coast”. At the time he was just “a guy with a Masters of Fine Arts degree, fresh out of college, who became a fish monger”, one who didn’t know a “humpy from a hole in the ground”. He became a quick study and fell in love with fish. Ray personifies salmon as powerful engines, a species that “touches so many lives and drives the economy in so many ways”. All species of salmon are vital to the aboriginal communities, the commercial and recreational fisheries, and to the surrounding ecosystems they interact with. Ray’s “Deep Forest” (seen above) is a piece of scientific surrealism that captures the transportation of nutrients such as nitrogen through the forest ecosystem. These nutrients are important for increasing growth rates of those forest ecosystem trees and shrubs, which provides instream habitat for migrating and spawning salmon. However, with increasing threats from climate change impacts, ecosystem degradation, and habitat loss, the survival of these salmon species is likewise threatened.
So how does visual art fit into this scientific picture? As Ray explains, “there is a lot of compartmentalizing in the world…science over here, art over there…we must break down these barriers.” This self-proclaimed “lobe-finned Darwinist with a crayon” is inspired by the natural world. It’s with this passion that he created many unique and engulfing pieces of aquatic art, which highlight human-fish cultural interactions, and touch on all senses through combined art and science. These elements also extended into music and writing. Ray was the recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 for the category of Natural Sciences in the field of Science Writing for the development of a co-written piece of work Crusin’ the Eternal Coastline: the Best of the Fossil West from Baja to Barrow.
It was a big step for Ray to start hanging out with scientists, but he quickly learned that “[scientists] want and need people like [Ray], to help get the word out”. His art helps popularize species such as salmon and brings attention to the issues surrounding them. Salmonstock, which is a 3-day festival in August that happens after the fishing season, was co-founded by Ray as a means of “celebrating Wild Alaskan salmon and the people who depend on them, [and the] power we have to protect our resources and our livelihood”. People who attend are also banding together to help stop the proposed Pebble Mine, a project that will be built at the headwaters of Bristol Bay that feeds into many important salmon spawning rivers. Contamination from an open-pit mine could significantly threaten the salmon populations, and in turn the many people who rely on salmon for food and nourishment, a sustainable economy, and a healthy ecosystem.
Ray’s art and contribution to the improvement of scientific understanding is truly inspiring. As an environmental scientist, I do believe that we tussle with the traditional barriers between scientific practices and the public engagement. We want to be able to contribute to positive change in the relationship between the public and our resource use. I have learned a lot from what Ray offered up during his lecture, and I will move forward from here by striving to meld my scientific knowledge in formats that are creative, and that touch on all the senses. I encourage anyone in a variety of disciplines to begin working together to integrate your talents, and communicate your knowledge and views of the world in multitudes of styles to reach every individual.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marina Steffensen is currently pursuing a Master of Resource Management Degree from Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, BC). She has always been fascinated with the environment, in particular with the ocean’s diverse and fragile ecosystems. At heart, Marina is a field scientist and explorer, taking any excuse to travel and explore new places. She is also an avid scuba diver, photographer, runner, and movie buff.