Mara G. Haseltine, a globally recognized environmental artist, has been outspoken for years on the issue of restoring the population of Crassostrea Virginica, New York's native oysters. In late April, she unveiled a collaborative piece of public art that she created with students in her "Oyster Gardens" class at The New School in New York City. The New School Midden (pictured at right) is a swirling array of glinting oyster shells, arranged to look like the movement of tidal waters. Haseltine likens it to the work of Andy Goldsworthy, whose work combining man-made objects with natural landscapes has become iconic.
An avid activist and environmentalist, Haseltine has crafted large sculptural works depicting marvels of chemistry and microbiology, from an enormous rendering of the birth of a protein to a bronze sculpture of the SARS Protease Inhibitor which stands in front of the Singapore lab where the inhibitor was discovered. These works are glimpses into what science looks like, but lately Haseltine's work has actually begun to blend with science experiments, leaving its own unique imprint on science and the natural landscape, and in some cases even attempting to improve on nature's work. In June 2007 she unveiled a solar powered coral reef, in New York City's McNeil Park, and she is now working to see how the reef can interact with oysters and other marine life. Another project under construction actually mimics the gills of an oyster, filtering toxins from the water.
I spoke with Haseltine recently on the phone as she painted in her New York studio:
Julia Levitt: In your Oyster Garden class in the New School's Environmental Studies program, you explore art and design in connection with the environment. Can you explain what that means?
Mara G. Haseltine: My oyster class is a window into my work. My work is a real combination of science and art. So when I work with marine biologists, I actually become part of their experiments.
JL: How do you do that?
We're dealing with living organisms and we're creating habitat, which is really important for a myriad of reasons. Unlike mussels and clams, oysters create reefs, so they can prevent land erosion. [Reviving New York's oyster population] would just create a much healthier habitat for the more than 200 species that live on reefs. Oysters clean the water, they sequester toxins, so there's a lot of reasons why bringing back the oyster, which is sort of the backbone of the benthic habitat, is important.
JL: Is that the main reason that you chose the oyster as your subject?
MGH: Yes. And also, my family was in the pearl business, so I feel like I have an affiliation with oysters. And New York was once the oyster capitol of the world, boasting 350 square miles of oyster reefs. As an artist and an environmentalist, I like the concept of looking into the past to see into the future.
JL: Do you find that you ever have trouble with people from the science world taking your work seriously?
MGH: I try to partner with scientists. I never say I'm a scientist. But I'm starting to set up experiments and actually publish some science papers, so I think that's going to change.
JL: What kind of experiments are you working on?
MGH: I set up an experiment, which a graduate student actually ran, to test using mineral accretion technology in semi-controlled conditions. We wanted to find out whether oysters that were getting low volts of electricity and living on mineral accretion could grow thicker shells and have better health. We found that corals, when they're getting this boost of electricity, seemed to survive pollution and disease a lot better, so we're trying to figure out if that is true with oysters, too.
JL: When you do partner with scientists, what does your perspective as an artist add to the collaboration?
MGH: I work with them. For example, I'm putting all these structures in the water this summer based on my new design, which is based on the structure of an oyster gill. The aim is to create the optimal shape and design, using biomimicry, for oysters to grow on. [Our design provides them with] the maximum amount of flow-through for water; they have all sorts of nooks and crannies for habitat.
The helix shapes on the solar powered oyster reef allow for a lot of water flow around the oyster, which is actually kind of an improvement on nature's midden, because some of the oysters on the bottom actually die of starvation because the ones on top block them out and they can't get enough nutrients.
JL: The shell midden that you recently designed with your Oyster Garden students used discarded oyster shells laid out in a design to mimic the appearance of water flow. Can you describe how that was built?
MGH: It was very, very low tech. We got one day's worth of oyster shells from the oyster bar at Grand Central Station, where they go through about 5,000 oysters a day. We cleaned them, and then we just laid them on the ground in a certain pattern, working with the landscape that was already there. It just took a lot of elbow grease and forethought.
JL: Man-made middens, where people have discarded objects in piles, are used by archaeologists to study records of human consumption. Was this part of your intent in the project?
MGH: That was one thing that I thought was great about our midden. It was a record of consumption of one day in a modern world of oysters at Grand Central.
MGH: I think one really interesting project is The Eden Project in Cornwall, England. It's made of what look like Bucky domes, but designed a little differently, it's in a crater, and they have all these biospheres in them, and it's pretty cool. And I love Turrell's [work on the] Roden Crater in which he took a crater and made it almost like an Egyptian tomb, with all these different portals where you can look through them and it's in the middle of the desert, and see different star alignments and other things. I think all sorts of things like Chichen Itza, the pyramids, are marvelous.
Wolf Hilbertz, who passed away about a year ago, all his work was mineral accretion, and I loved it so much I went to Indonesia and studied with him. I still work with his partner a lot, who's the director of the Global Coral Reef Alliance.
JL: What do you think is the future frontier of art and environmentalism, if we really have just a few decades to make a big change in human impact on the planet?
MGH: I think the stuff that I do actually could make a difference, because it's designing within scientific guidelines and permitting guidelines. But I think really that lobbying is most important, when the next Kyoto protocol will be negotiated in 2009, and there's giant chunks of floating plastic in the oceans which need to be cleaned up. I think that plastic bags should be abolished. I think that law of the sea needs to be put in order. I think that art in general is really great and can cheer people up, and art is great for awareness. But the real solutions, I don't think are necessarily completely art-based. What I'm doing now is my own personal journey.
Image source: Calamara.com