September 23, 2017

Academy gar
Alligator Gar, Steinhart Aquarium, 1990 (colored pencil on acetate with watercolor background)

The subject of this piece of art is probably not as interesting as the story that goes with it. But this fish (and the day I painted it) will always be part of my memory. The alligator gars at the Steinhart Aquarium (CA Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park) have been there for many years. I think I even remember seeing them swimming around when I was a little girl. Our family would go to the aquarium in San Francisco to cool off on a hot summer day in the Silicon Valley. In 1990 the aquarium was pretty antiquated and all the tanks/systems needed an upgrade. They began to renovate the Academy and aquarium in the early 2000’s and by 2008 it was reopened. Nice to know those same logs with eyes and fins, swimming endlessly around and around the tank of water, have new digs. Hard to tell if they noticed the change, with their unblinking eyes and that far away look…

Back to the story… In the late 80s and early 90s I was taking a variety of natural science and medical illustration classes at the Academy. I was very interested in learning how to use different media to draw realistic looking plants and animals. I started with a Prismacolor colored pencil class, took a colored pencil with watercolor class, perfected my skills with pen and ink from another scientific illustrator there, and finally I learned how to use gouache to render fur and feathers. My last class at the Academy was the coolest class of all as it gave me a chance to try all the techniques I had learned while drawing any fish we liked at the Steinhart…at night…when the Academy was closed…and everyone was gone. That was probably the best part of all. I think there were 8 or 9 people, including me, in the class. Our instructor would suggest a technique or media to try at the beginning of each class and then he would let us run around the aquarium to find a fish, or whatever, to draw. We were all giddy with the prospect of being alone there and discussed at length how were going to attach flashlights to our drawing boards and/or heads, how to get comfortable sitting on the floor, or what kind of portable chair we would be bringing to the next class.

For those of you who have maybe taken some kind of art class, the format of such a class is the same. First, the teacher makes a presentation of some kind. Second, you are left to try what was suggested and last, at a predetermined time later, you gather to share what you had done. This class was no different. However, there was one classmate who was clearly doing something quite different during our practice time. When we all came back together for the evening’s “critique” she never had anything to show. I seem to remember her being there when the teacher shared a technique at the beginning of class, but I never saw her drawing near any of the tanks in the aquarium when we were on our own. Thinking back it was odd that none of us encountered her along the dark corridors. I mean, part of the fun of this class was walking around before settling down to draw. And it did get a little weird that at end of the night she didn’t have anything to share. Why was she taking this class and what was she doing in there?

OK, so the last night of class, when we had all finished with our final “critiques,” she asked the teacher a question. She said, “I have been working with an artist that cannot speak for themselves and I think I would like to represent them and help them with their art.” We all looked at each other and the teacher locked his eyes on hers and asked her to explain further. (I suspect he had been wondering what she had been doing these many weeks as well.) I don’t remember her exact words, but the gist was that she had been working with a dolphin in one of the tanks and wanted to know what the teacher thought of her somehow representing this dolphin’s art. The teacher asked her for more clarification. She went on to explain that while we were all running around the aquarium, she taped a large sheet of white paper to the outside of the dolphin tank. Then, I guess, the dolphin swam up close to the paper and moved its nose against the tank. The woman said she used a marker to draw on the paper wherever the dolphin’s nose went. OK, by now you could have heard a pin drop in the room. I could only imagine that the paper was probably covered with a giant squiggle when they were finished. Or maybe, one of the pieces they had created together looked like the profile of Richard Nixon. I distinctly remember that the woman believed she had some kind of psychic connection with this particular dolphin and she was all in with the idea of a collaboration. She just wanted permission from the teacher to go ahead. (I have to admit I kind of liked the idea. Maybe it had to do with the fact that such a thing could probably only happen in California, hence my overall acceptance with such an idea, and the reference to Nixon—a very famous Californian.) Well, of course the teacher shut down that idea in an instant, but in a gentle way. He said something like, ”I don’t believe anyone at the Academy would give you permission to do so…” That was it. She just let it drop. (Maybe she already had some kind of plan to do it on her own.) Of course, all of this happened before the Internet. I could just imagine a Banksy type artist trying to share “underground” dolphin art on Youtube. Any proceeds would of course be going to Greenpeace.

As I drove home over the Bay Bridge that night I was thinking things like, how do you enter into a contract with a dolphin? Or what kind of remuneration would be fair to give to a dolphin for his or her art? Thinking about that class now, I can’t imagine artists being allowed to take a class at the Academy at night—running around the dark hallways, sketching favorite fishes as they swim around, and/or having an opportunity to artistically commune with a friendly dolphin. So, maybe I am just thrilled to have had such an experience and no dolphin was harmed and/or exploited in any way in the process.

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