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St. Markers Create Marine Ecosystem Art
St. Markers Create Marine Ecosystem Art

Students in veteran art teacher Barbara Putnam's Studio 1 course recently researched and created impressive paintings examining the health of the marine ecosystem of the Mediterranean Sea. Their work was exhibited in December at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, Spain, and is currently displayed in the Admission corridor gallery at St. Mark's.

This past fall, Ms. Putnam's 17 Studio 1 students focused on the Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus), the sole member of the genus Monachus and one of only two surviving species of monk seals in the world. Their mission was to research and create paintings that, when exhibited together, could educate the international community about the value for both protection and research of this extremely rare and critically endangered pinniped. Students were tasked with examining the monk seal in its habitat, researching and making a painting about the monk seal, its food source, or the threats it faces from natural invasives or from human interaction with its environment.

"As a maker of art and as a teacher," says Ms. Putnam, "I don't see a separation between my work in the classroom and my work in the field. As an artist I am a reporter of what I see in the natural world. I want my students to learn observational skills to help them in any area of study and to show them that art is a research-based discipline." She wonders why the disciplines of art and science "are even thought of as separate today." Artists and scientists, she notes, "have a history of collaboration, and sometimes the scientist is also the artist." Ms. Putnam is able to cite many examples of this, such as naturalist and lithographer Francis Herrick (1858-1940)—" His own eyes could see more than a camera could record"—and 1908 Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), a neuroscientist who said "What has not been drawn has not been seen." Artists, declares Ms. Putnam, "need to study and to observe, and observational skills, well-learned, become tools for both the artist and the scientist."

So her students—Josh Bergers '22, Sophie Chiang '23, Leila Frederick '21, Weston Harkey '23, Madison Hoang '23, Chase Hornstein '23, Mandy Hui '23, Andrew Hung '22, Grace Lee '23, Pearse MacDonald '23, Lillian Pena '23, Ben Pestana '21, Claire Sudduth '23, Chatchanun Suriyaammaranon '20, Darius Wagner '23, Joy Wei '22, and Ingrid Kai Yi Yeung '23—began to research and observe.

They were well-prepared. "I am really at my best as a teacher when I have to learn ahead of the students," said Putnam. "So I researched the topic all summer before presenting it in class." She collaborated with an expert in the field—Dr. Luigi Bondone of the University of Venice and Archipelagos Italia—and prepared a series of questions to present to her students as they learned about line and color theory during the fall. The class skyped with Dr. Bundone, researched, observed, analyzed, interpreted, prepared themselves thoroughly, and then committed their ideas to paper.

"We were handed a task that was quite out of the ordinary," wrote Darius Wagner, a III Former from Brooklyn, New York, about the experience. "In collaboration with Dr. Bundone we immersed ourselves in the fight of our lives, the climate crisis, while still learning how to transform what we could see and our passion for this issue into our artwork. Throughout this project we learned a lot about ourselves as students and a lot about our role in the environment. This project was a testament to the skills we have acquired in our Studio 1 art course, and adding to them."

In December, Ms. Putnam traveled to Spain to attend the World Marine Mammal Conference. She took with her all of her students' finished paintings to exhibit there, and she gave an illustrated talk entitled "Drawing on Science." She shared with the audience the project: its process and its results. She concluded by asking a question: "How do the arts add value to the sciences and how can science inform artistic subject matter?" Looking back on the experiences of her Studio 1 students this past fall, she offered an answer: "Working together as professionals who have chosen different but connected fields, we can inspire young people. We can also join our research and its presentation in ways that perhaps can inspire change."

The response of the conference attendees—scientists, graduate students, and professional specialists in a variety of related fields—to the St. Markers' artwork "was over the moon!" recalled Putnam. "They wanted to know what university these artists attended."

With their own eyes, these 17 St. Markers "recorded more than a camera could record" and their artwork and research today is on exhibit in the Admission corridor of the School's Main Building, just beyond the reception desk, on the way to the Dining Hall.