NARRAGANSETT—Walking into the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, one comes upon a wall fixture unlike those around it. Upon closer inspection, it is revealed as a strange visual document that projects both scientific information and an artistic touch. The piece is the work of URI undergraduate Chad Self, who embarked on a project which blended both his studies in art and interest in oceanography.
After receiving a $1,000 research grant to develop a project suitable to the mixing of both art and oceanographic science, Self contacted GSO Assistant Professor Chris Roman in order to see his desires come to fruition. The result was the construction of a bathymetric map of the sea floor made from liquefied paper.
“I had a lot of ideas written down on paper and spent a good amount of time writing this grant proposal,” said Self. “The total amount was $1,000, so I thought, ‘If I am going to get it, I want to get it right.’ I spent a lot of time putting the details down.”
“The first time I met [Roman], I was waiting for him in a lobby,” he added. “Then a guy comes out holding a flying, inflatable shark, and that was the guy I had to meet.”
Self was grateful to have consulted with Roman, who showed him a number of digitally rendered maps of the seafloor which he has developed while working on sensing systems and acoustic technologies during his GSO research.
“It was a perfect fit with [Roman], and for him to be able to show me these maps that they have done, I was like a kid in a candy store,” said Self. “They call it ‘mowing the lawn’ when they map the sea floor, and it was cool. I was advised to watch [Dr. Robert Ballard’s] talks at URI as well, and I spent a little time getting a feel for what’s going on.”
“During our first meeting, he told me about the boat [research projects] that go on at GSO and the robots they use to map the sea floor,” said Self. “He gave me the stuff I needed and I tried doing a really good job to represent what they do in their program.”
Self’s efforts were a test of his creativity and resourcefulness. After conceptualizing the proposed paper-made map and organizing its construction, Self only had a day in which to complete the project because of the quick drying nature of the moistened pulp. He built an 8-by-4 foot wooden frame, lining it with a bed sheet, and made 120 pounds worth of paper pulp with an outboard motor he attached to a 50-gallon bucket.
“That was a pretty hard, rough day,” said Self. “In order to plan, put together and have everything ready for one day, to try to hit the mark on one day, there is no reset button, I would have had to start all over again if I messed up.”
Self made red, blue, yellow, and white pulp, pouring it into the frame and molding it according to his original layout.
“I love that they use bright primary colors to make these neon topographical maps,” said Self. “I found one map where there were rock formations that created weird ovals on the bottom of the ocean, and I really liked that, since I spent the last year making prints of circular images.”
“With the colors especially, there is only so much planning you can put into it, as far as matching,” he added. “For the blue, instead of dying, I used pulp made from blue jeans. I also did some preliminary tests on small pieces to see how the ochre dye and jeans dye would look, although I did get worried about 50 pounds in water weight of jeans on the paper.”
After completion of his artistically rendered bathymetric map, which hangs now in the Studio Blue room of the Ocean Science and Exploration Center, Self reflected on the relationship between art and science, and the place his artwork may hold within the larger university community.
“My art is a representation of [Roman’s] science, a general idea of what his map is,” said Self. “Take my piece and put it into the building at the GSO and people there will be thinking about bathymetry. Take that same piece and put it in the art department at URI and we will be thinking about entirely different definitions of what we are looking at.”
“[The image] is really context-based,” he added.
After graduating this past year, Self is planning his next move to graduate school.
“Graduate school is my next goal right now,” said Self. “To stay within that community when you are in school, working with other people and where everyone is pushing each other, that is when you meet people and win awards.”
“The graduate level is where a lot of stuff happens with peer art,” he added. “I don’t want paint birds or pictures of lighthouses, but keep doing what I am doing, which is less accessible for what the general public will accept as art, but more at the university level. I would really love to continue to push my own art.”