Mystic Seaport Art Exhibit Brings Ocean’s Threats to the Surface

"Transient Passage" by Alexis Rockman. (Watercolor and acrylic on paper, 2022, courtesy of Alexis Rockman)


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MYSTIC — The health of the world’s oceans is in trouble, but there’s still hope for recovery. 

That’s the message from artist Alexis Rockman, whose large-scale paintings at the Mystic Seaport Museum weave together natural and maritime history, bringing attention to the survival of marine creatures amid pollution and climate change.

The show, “Alexis Rockman: Oceanus,” features 10 brightly colored, loosely rendered watercolor paintings replete with living and extinct ocean inhabitants. He also created an 8-by-24-foot panoramic oil painting that depicts a historical parade of ships above the water line, and the deep underworld of ocean life – and death – below. 

“That was really the thing that I wanted to do, besides make this painting about the history of the ocean, was [reference] the [Seaport’s] collection. We all worked together to choose at least 16 boats from their collection that are in the painting,” he said. “And then, think about the corresponding industries that have been administered on the oceans and the resources that have been exploited which include fishing, the transference of goods including enslaved peoples, whaling, stuff like that.”

Rockman has used natural history to explore issues of biodiversity and climate change since he began his color field paintings in 1985. 

He told CT Examiner this week that, for the seaport pieces, he worked closely with James Carlton, director emeritus of Williams-Mystic, to research ocean species and environmental issues. 

“His specialty is invasive species, the Japanese tsunami and the ecology of ocean-going animals that make the plastic garbage patches home,” Rockman said. “These are all things I’ve been interested in for decades – how and why plants and animals move around, what the effects are on local ecologies.” 

Christina Connett Brophy, senior vice president curatorial affairs and senior director of museum galleries at the seaport, said the show brings attention to dire ecological issues of oceanic distress but conveys a sense of hope that something can be done “if we’re smart and quick.” 

She said the show also brings attention to “blue technology,” which is made up of systems and devices designed to clean the ocean while preserving marine ecosystems. 

“Here are all the people in this moment who are working to remediate some of those serious issues, so we’re trying to get people to leave with a sense of hope and inspiration,” she said. “It’s breathtaking when you walk in … and I think it’s going to inspire people just by the beauty of the images. But once they get the content, I think it’s really gonna give people something to talk about. And it’s not doom and gloom. This is reality, but here are some conversations to have to improve our future.”

All works were commissioned by the seaport and will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. 
Alexis Rockman: Oceanus” opens Saturday at the Mystic Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Ave.

“Trophic Web” by Alexis Rockman (Watercolor and acrylic on paper, 2022, courtesy of Alexis Rockman)