A sense of place

face cast in tank 1

RISD saltwater tanks reveal Bay’s wonders, relationships

Narragansett Bay is alive with moving color, shapes and textures. Consider the sleek, silvery black sea bass, blanketing orange star tunicates and crisp miniature-shrub-like red Irish moss — each a design marvel, yet unknown to many.

At the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Nature Lab, visitors and members of the RISD community can gain a glimpse into the Bay’s hidden wonders and find inspiration in the living systems that inhabit the waters off the Ocean State’s coast.

Aquaccapes workshopThree large saltwater tanks, visible to passersby on Providence’s Waterman St., glisten under bright, full-spectrum lighting, home to local species collected by student volunteers and maintained by student workers.

Jennifer Bissonnette, Nature Lab biological programs designer, explained the purpose behind the installation: “The goal of the tank design was not only to make an aesthetically appealing aquascape, but also to highlight the fact that, wittingly or not, we are always affecting the habitat of those we share the ecosystem with, and they are responding. This just makes the collaboration conscious, and visible.”

She said the tanks encouraged a sense of place, a more comprehensive understanding of RISD’s role within the Narragansett Bay watershed, and a connection between human life and other organisms.

Throughout the past five years, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR has invested in the tanks, allowing RISD to build the capacity to cultivate and maintain marine organisms, ranging from ctenophores and moon jellies to anemones, feather duster worms, and finfish such as sea robins and cunner.  Cowfish and butterflyfish, tropical migrants, add intriguing color to the collection, and tell the story of Gulf Stream eddies that bring juvenile fish from warmer waters to Narragansett Bay.

making plaster castsManaging the closed systems gives RISD students insight into the biogeochemical cycles necessary for nutrient cycling and health of marine ecosystems. At the same time, the varied life forms draw a deeper look into the natural world, both for ideas of color, pattern, form and texture, and understanding of the biomimicry principles that inform how nature solves design challenges.

As a winter flounder skims along a tank bottom, graduate students nearby investigate the long term data sets compiled by the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), looking at the patterns in the data that reveal the impact of climate change on the Bay. The effects include a decreasing population of winter flounder in these waters where the species once was found in abundance.

A September workshop at the Nature Lab planned by Bissonnette — Aquascapes: Designing with Fish — brought together undergraduate and graduate students from Sculpture, Ceramics, Illustration and Printmaking for two afternoon sessions. Calling the series an interspecies collaboration, Bissonnette said students learned about the habitat requirements of current and potential marine inhabitants, and tank friendly materials.

The students brainstormed on design ideas, and then moved into making a variety of hand-formed and mold-casted objects out of porcelain and cement. Now installed in one of the 150-gallon saltwater tanks, the creation works as an evolving piece where the organisms daily alter the scene through their movements and growth along the sculptural surfaces.

Helping plan the Aquascapes series, Lucia Monge, Nature Lab operations assistant, noted, “The workshop offered a fun way to learn about marine life and to relate more closely to other forms of life. The experience explored the human-nature connection, which is what the Nature Lab is all about.”

face cast in tank 2Story and photos from the RISD Nature Lab