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A Journey into the Sanctuary's Anemone Forest


The project was only supposed to take 50 hours. But at the end of the allotted time, Joline Putnam was still immersed in research - reviewing dozens of videotapes to get a better understanding of her subject. It would take her another 100 hours to complete her task, but the final product was well worth the effort.

In selecting her final project for an art certificate program in natural science illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, Putnam chose to paint the cerianthid forests of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary's mud basins, little realizing the complexity of the undersea environment when she started. "It was all so new to me," she said. "The subject intrigued me, but I was somewhat naïve and didn't understand the difficulty in putting the scene to paper," she added.

The northern cerianthid (Cerianthus borealis) is a type of sea anemone that burrows into the mud, unlike the more familiar types that attach to hard substrate.

Originally interested in botanical illustration, Putnam was persuaded to change tracks when the possibility of an internship with Dr. Peter Auster at the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut became available. Her plan for a floral still life became a close-up look at an undersea landscape - where, Putnam noted, "some of the benthic invertebrates do resemble plants. So, I guess you could say I did follow my initial desires in some respect."

Looking to forge links between work of scientists, the talents of local artists, and the interests of the public, Auster was awarded a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship, which included an outreach component. Part of this work involved finding ways to show the public views of undersea landscapes. While cameras in deep water can capture close-ups of underwater creatures and their habitats, scientific illustrators can combine the views of many images and allow the viewer to see a landscape perspective. In 2004, NURC-UConn, the sanctuary and several other organizations funded the production of a poster from the first art generated by the project - an exploration of a deep boulder reef in the sanctuary by scientific illustrator Mary Jane Brush.

For the 2004-2005 school year, Auster approached the Rhode Island School of Design with his idea of a painting about the cerianthid anemone forests in the muddy basins of the sanctuary. "For years we knew the mud basins had interesting features and were very biologically diverse. However, still photographs and video simply didn't capture the totality of what was happening in these areas," Auster said. "Whether you're exploring with submersible, remotely operated vehicle, or diving, the ability to capture photographs is limited by the available light and the lenses of the cameras," he said. "What we needed was a way to capture the bigger picture - and that solution was through the creative talents of artists."

Once Putnam signed on for the project, she spent nearly 100 hours viewing videos and still images from the sanctuary, consulting with Auster about appropriate species, and determining the right colors to use. Water absorbs different colors of light at different depths, so most underwater scenes tend to be bluish-green. "At one time a feature might be brown, and another time green," noted Putnam. "The NURC scientists were great at keeping me informed and technically correct."

Art was always something that Putnam had been interested in, but had been put off with family and career. A consultant to companies providing bus services for schools and a mother of two children, now 20 and 26, Putnam decided in 2001 to follow her deep-seated interests. "I loved art, but didn't think I could make a living at it," she noted. Now well established in her business, she saw the opportunity to take some time for herself.

In 2004, with the certificate program near completion, Putnam was faced with deciding on a final project. When Auster's internship offer was presented, she decided to jump at the opportunity. "I have always loved the ocean, and I've been a sailor for many years. But as far as underwater creatures go, I was a novice," she said. "It was a lot more than I thought I was getting into, but it was worth it."

The final painting (after many pencil drawings to perfect the various species) uses watercolor and color pencil. "Although the subject is a dark and murky environment, and this is a relatively dark painting, I wanted to create a somewhat lighter feel with the use of watercolor," said Putnam. "This painting represents no one particular site in the sanctuary, but showcases the variety of species that can be found in these special muddy seafloor forests," she added.

The painting will become the focus of the next joint poster project of the sanctuary and the National Undersea Research Center, with production and distribution now scheduled for late summer or early fall. Contact the sanctuary for more information about how to obtain a copy of this poster or other outreach products (see page 3 for contact information).

"The use of art to illustrate seafloor landscapes has become an extremely valuable tool in bringing awareness of this unseen world to the public," said Auster. "It is my hope that we can continue this interaction of science and art, with new students and new undersea environments for many years to come."


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