Wetpixel interviews sculptor Gar Waterman

Wetpixel interview: Gar Waterman

Wetpixel interviews artist and sculptor Gar Waterman, who has been creating stunning sculptures of nudibranchs out of Italian stone. They are created to spread the massge about the biodiversity of the oceans, as well as being objets d’art. Wetpixel caught up with him as he was preparing for a joint exhibition with underwater photographer Kevin Lee, which aims to show nudibranch photography alongside Gar’s sculptures, and asked him about his work.

Wetpixel: OK, the obvious one first! Why nudibranchs?

I have always loved the chance encounter with a nudibranch on a dive, and like so much in nature, the closer one looks the more extraordinary is the detail revealed. Few creatures on this planet present such an incredible array of biodiversity as nudibranchs, and they are a treasure trove of inspiration for me as my sculpture is primarily derivative of natural forms.

Wetpixel: Do the creatures inspire you, or do you seek out inspiration?

Absolutely they inspire me. With a copy of Dave Behrens wonderful book Nudibranch Behavior as reference I have become increasingly intrigued by the marine biology of these amazing creatures. I missed the science boat completely in school, but nudibranchs have given me a great reason to amend that situation. My sculptures can take several months to carve and polish, and this extenuated process allows me an opportunity to cogitate on questions like exactly what is the function of a curuncle, and is there a direct correlation between incidence of protandry in humans and in nudibranchs. What a heady choice to have when carving a rhinophore out of red Persian Travertine or orange onyx from Algeria - should it be Perfoliate, Corambid, or Striated Bulbous, or maybe Pulpit style? Decisions, decisions. Such marvelous, crazy, strange and fabulous creatures - I never tire of looking at them.

Wetpixel: Do you dive to seek out inspiration?

I rarely get a chance to dive these days, but all those years of working underwater with my father left indelible impressions that still inspire much of my art work.

Wetpixel: How are the sculptures made?

To begin with, I acquire my rough stone in Italy, where I lived for 7 years back in the eighties. The area around Carrara is still a center for the stone industry, and not only can you find all the locally quarried stones there, including the famous white statuario marble, but you also can select from exotic stones imported from around the world. So, I do a little shopping, crate two or three tons of onyx from Persia or Afghanistan and marble from Turkey, and ship them back to the States. From there it is a simple case of removing any stone that is not nudibranch, and there you are. There is a little carving with air powered chisels, cutting with diamond saws, and a whole lot of tedious work polishing in between, but essentially there are no shortcuts when you are carving something out of a rough chunk of stone.

Wetpixel: How does the creative process work for you? Do you work from photographs? If so, where do you take the photos?

I photograph my own work when it is finished, but I couldn’t take a picture underwater to save my life. All the inspiration I require can be found in photographs from the incredible community of scientists, photographers, and other associated nudiphiles who chase slugs around the world. A few minutes leafing through Indo-Pacific Nudibranchs and Sea Slugs gives me enough ideas for years to come, and the many nudibranch websites are great resources as well. Once I have an idea of what I want to do with a particular piece of stone, I do a rough sketch on the surface of the block, and then dive right in (so to speak). I don’t make models. It is more a direct process of constant adjustment and tweaking as you gradually carve away material and move the work along to where you want it to go.

Wetpixel: Where is your favorite dive site? Favorite site for nudis?

One of my favorite dives was with my father in the Soccoro Islands, where we were shooting part of an hour special for the Discovery Channel with Peter Benchley and Howard Hall. The strange horizontal striations of the volcanic islands below the water line, chrystal clear visibility mixed with drifting clouds of volcanic ash, and an exhilirating ride on the back of a 16 foot wingspan manta ray with my father and sister combined to create a dreamlike science fiction experience that I will never forget. Swooping in and out of the drifting clouds of ash on the back of an enormous living beast was pretty amazing. Howard documented the experience – I remember watching him swimming like hell with the camera to keep up with the manta and get the shot, which, of course, he did and it made a wonderful sequence in the film. I have never dived a nudi hot spot like the Lembah Straits, but I certainly look forward to the opportunity. A little field research would be great, and it has been way too long since I put on a pair of fins and a bottle.

Wetpixel: Are your sculptures anatomically and color correct? Have you ever created a ”dream nudi”? Is making them as lifelike as possible important to you?

It is not my goal to replicate the forms from nature that inspire me. The challenge is not to copy, but to practice one’s own particular artistic alchemy using nature as a point of departure. With their myriad shapes and colors, nudibranchs offer a formidable array of interesting forms for a sculptor to carve, and I like that challenge. The colored stones that I enjoy working with lend themselves as suggestions of the infinite color variations found in the real creatures, and I do my best to carve a decent gill plume and rhinophore within the limitations of what I am able to do with the stone. The first nudibranch sculptures I carved were pretty simple. Now I sometimes add a little more anatomical detail, but much of my stone sculpture remains a factor of the shape of the original rough piece of material, what it suggests, and the particular working qualities of that kind of stone. I can never hold a candle to (and have no desire to) the real creatures that inspire my sculptures, but it is my hope to do them justice with my art work, and in so doing to perhaps generate a greater appreciation of the creatures themselves.

Wetpixel: Your bio lists exhibitions of your work in many places, how do non-divers respond to your nudi sculptures? Do people believe that these are real creatures?

People love to touch the curves and surfaces of these sculptures. I initially always get some skeptical looks when I tell people what I am working on, as very few non-divers are familiar with nudibranchs, but once they see that we are not talking about your common garden variety slug, they are pretty interested. Those who visit my studio face a quick lesson in opisthobranchia, and once I get their attention, I wave my copy of Nudibranch Behavior like some newly converted, bible thumping preacher, show them a few pictures and sculptures, and then tell them about the art/science exhibit that the work will become a part of. In general everyone goes away quite intrigued. Nudibranchs are so colorful, strange, and, yes, cute, in their inimitable way that most people can’t help but be amazed. When I tell them that a nudibranch might just save their life one day it creates a different kind of connection entirely with people, as none of us are unscathed by cancer, be it directly or indirectly. Early on in my nudibranch carving career I had a discussion with one of my collectors, Dr. Bruce Chabner, who is clinical director of the Dana Farber Cancer Clinic at Mass General in Boston. He is very involved in cancer drug development, and was the first to tell me about the extent of the research being done on the pharmaceutical potential of nudibranch toxic chemistry.

Wetpixel: Being Stan Waterman’s son meant that it was somewhat inevitable that you would have strong connections to the underwater world. Have you always found nudis fascinating , or is it something that has grown in later life?

A year in French Polynesia at aged 9 - this was back in 1965 - way too long ago - introduced me to diving, and over the years I have accompanied my father on many wonderful expeditions. We were usually hunting larger marine creatures for the camera, and in the rush to get the shot of the whale shark or the school of hammerheads before they disappeared, the pleasures of the u/w macro world were often overlooked. When we failed to get our shot, often the thing that would make a successful dive for me would be to just settle on the reef in one place and look closely at whatever might happen to be there. As Victor Hugo famously said in Les Miserables, ‘Where the telescope ends the microscope begins, and who can say which has the wider vision?’. Occasionally I would see a nudibranch, which was always a treat, but my interest in them really blossomed as I learned more about their marine biology and began to explore them with my sculpture.

Wetpixel: Does Stan help you with your sculptures?

By including me on many of his trips over the years, he helped to provide the visual foundation that much of my sculpture is built on, but he is much handier with a camera than he is with a chisel.

Wetpixel: What would be your second favorite marine creature for sculpture? Do you any projects planned to create sculptures of other creatures?

I’d have to remain in the mollusk family for that. Shells have always been a favorite subject. We collected many of them that seminal year in Tahiti, and I have always admired their spiral perfection and the contrast of a rougher exterior with their polished, smooth interiors. I also have a thing for cuttlefish and squid.

Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat to the marine environment? Should artists engage more to help protect it?

I think everyone would agree that ocean acidification from CO2 absorption and water temperature increase from Global Warming present the most compelling threats to the marine environment. Overfishing, oil spills, and the host of other abuses we heap on the oceans all pale compared to the ramifications of a more acid ocean environment. When the coral dies, everything else that depends on it goes too, including many nudibranchs. The forecast for the fate of marine life as we know it over the next fifty years is pretty depressing.

Wetpixel: How does art influence people?

This is a question with as many answers as the amount of art work out there and the number of people who look at it. Ideally art influences people by offering them alternative ways of looking at the world and by provoking a response. Little is worse for an artist than indifference – hate the work, love it, great, but no reaction at all is tough. As an artist you develop a pretty thick skin, and over time you learn to appreciate it when someone responds to your work and to not waste time worrying about how to attract the attention of those who don’t. This particular body of work represents a really exciting departure for me, as it is intended to be more than just me creating my art and putting it out into the world. My ultimate goal with the nudibranch sculptures is to build an arts-bridging-science exhibit that will bring the beauty and the biology of these creatures to a wide audience. The exhibit will carry a simple message of marine conservation that says here is one of the more extraordinary examples of biodiversity to be found on this planet, and we will lose it and a great many others like it if we continue on our present fossil fueled course. I don’t expect to change much – we all aware of how difficult that will be, but I will try my best to add another voice to the conservation cause, using my art work as a leverage point. I believe nudibranchs could be very successful ambassadors of biodiversity, with a good shot at catching our attention long enough to make us at least think about why we should change our habits and that perhaps saving them might just be a precursor to saving ourselves. A Don Quixote joust with a self-absorbed and mostly indifferent world, for sure, but worth a try.

Wetpixel: Who is your greatest artistic influence? How does other artists’ work influence you?

I admire a great many different kinds of artists, from classic to contemporary. They generally all share one thing in common, which is that they know their craft. I prefer art that is well, if not exquisitely, made. Mind you, my tastes range from Neolithic banner stones to Albrecht Durer engravings to Wayne Thiebaud to Andy Goldsworthy, with a lot of stuff in between, but it is all work that expresses the distilled skill of that particular artist, whether in a captured moment’s gesture or in something that took months to make. I love going to the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, which is stuffed to the rafters with just this kind of work. I never come away without having seen some beautiful object there that gets me thinking about some shape or form and what I might do with it with my work.

Wetpixel: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Learn your chops, and you had better be in it for the long run.

Wetpixel: Are your sculptures available for sale? Do you take commissions?

I sell my sculpture, do commissions, and undertake the occasional Public Art Project. I have made a living selling my work for some thirty years – not such an easy thing to do in the art business.

Wetpixel: Where can people see your work?

My website, has a lot of my sculpture in the various styles and media in which I work. It is an easy mouse click away. I am represented here in New Haven by the Kehler Liddell Gallery, and I also have an upcoming exhibit this June at the University of Connecticut gallery in Groton with u/w photographer Kevin Lee. This exhibit will feature his gorgeous nudibranch photographs along with my sculpture, and will provide a glimpse of the eventual larger and more elaborate art/science exhibit that aims to capture kids imaginations and encourage them to think about the place and importance of biodiversity in our world.