Whaling Museum’s Environmental Art Show for Earth Day

Asher Jay's Repurposed PET bottles make an artistic statement on environmental responsibility.
Asher Jay’s re-purposed PET bottles make an artistic statement on environmental responsibility.

By Annette Hinkle

Earth Day is upon us. While there are beach clean ups and wooded walks around the East End this weekend, on Sunday, the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum will be offering a different spin on how we can all celebrate the big beautiful world.

And it’s in the form of an art show.

“Coral, Ice and Plastics” is an exhibition by artists Asher Jay and Anne Doubilet, conservationists who use their work to reflect on the state of the environment by focusing on the pollution and climate change that is affecting it. Though their mediums are quite different, both artists will bring a unifying vision to the Whaling Museum about saving the planet.

For underwater photojournalist Anne Doubilet, the oceans first began to be a source of intrigue practically as soon as she was out of the womb.

“We had a summer home on Cape Ann, in Magnolia, Mass., right next to Gloucester,” recalls Doubilet. “I grew up in the ocean and spent my entire first 12 years in that water. My lips were blue, but it never bothered me.”

Doubilet went on to become a photographer and a diver as well as a protégé of preeminent marine biologist Eugenie Clark with whom she has traveled the world documenting the oceans and life in them for National Geographic.

“I worked freelance and my role was as part of an underwater team,” explains Doubilet. “Taking pictures underwater requires a team of people. It’s like working on a film. In the early days at Geo, you could get sent out to the field for a couple months.”

Doubilet and her then husband, also a photographer, built a name for themselves and proposed many stories, most of which were written by Clark who in turn taught Doubilet the science of the seas.

“I flunked bio 101, so when we hooked up with Genie it was life changing,” says Doubilet. “I had a marine biology tutorial one-on-one with the world as my classroom. We went to Japan, the Red Sea, New Guinea and did 10 to 12 stories for National Geographic.”

Doubilet notes that the interconnectedness of the world hit home for her in a big way while the team was working on a story about sharks. As they were watching sharks feed, Clark noticed a slow moving flounder on the sandy bottom that was not being pursued.

“She thought, ‘Why aren’t predators attacking it?” recalls Doubilet. “That led to the next story – the Moses sole poisonous flounder which emits a milky white toxin. It has an interesting and complex formula that it releases into the water. Ironically, it becomes more toxic as it disperses.”

“It’s such a complex chemical formula, I believe it still has not been duplicated in the lab,” continues Doubilet. “It’s a hemotoxin and a neurotoxin — so it simultaneously attacks the blood and nervous system and paralyzes many predators.”

“In the Sinai, we rubbed a little flounder poison on our skin and it kept the flies away,” she adds.

For Doubilet, that moment was transformative in that it really made science come alive for her.

“For me, who’s more of an artist, science became part of my daily life in an understandable and doable way,” says Doubilet, “observing creatures and the whole concept of how everything in the world is connected.”

And that connection is at the heart of Doubilet’s work which will be on view at the Whaling Museum — 30” x 40” photographic panels each featuring a pair of images… an iceberg on top and a close-up of a polyp from a coral reef on the bottom.

Doubilet explains how the inspiration came about.

“After shooting reefs in New Guinea, I was invited on an expedition to the Arctic,” she says. “I went from the bottom of the coral triangle to the top of the world with Students On Ice, a fabulous organization that takes high school students to become ambassadors of environment and climate change.”

“During my time there, all the icebergs were melting, drifting and shifting — 2007 was the first year that the Northwest Passage was free of ice,” says Doubilet. “I was coming back on the plane from that trip and falling asleep and I had this idea of coral and ice and putting them together. The ice was melting and dripping and shrinking. And the corals are vanishing.”

Doubilet should know. She has had the opportunity to visit some of the most remote reef systems in the world over the course of 30 years and is in a position to offer a unique perspective on how dramatically fragile environments are being affected by changing water temperatures and ocean acidification.

“Those changes I’ve seen have turned my thinking totally around and changed my view of the world,” says Doubilet. “In Cape Ann, the ocean and all that was in it was infinite. Now that’s not true. It’s just turned into a big garbage dump.”

Doubilet explains that that garbage dump she’s referring to are actually a number of “trash islands” that now exist throughout the world and consist of giant clusters comprised of tiny bits of plastic that is going no where.

“My teeming up with Asher Jay brings up the other issue I’m tackling — the issue of plastics. The Pacific gyre is now the size of two Texas’ side by side,” she says. “The plastic goes from three feet of water down to 30 feet. It never bio degrades. It breaks down to tiny pieces — it looks like little pin heads — and sinks to the bottom.

From there, it is ingested by deep water feeder fish like the lantern fish and is consumed up the food chain — eventually ending up in humans who eat the fin fish which feed on everything below.

“Our whole exhibition — Coral, Ice and Plastic — is combining art and science and making your art.”

Anne Doubilet's "Iceberg and person, Hoare Bay, Arctic/Red hard coral, Red Sea."
Anne Doubilet’s “Iceberg and person, Hoare Bay, Arctic/Red hard coral, Red Sea.”


For Asher Jay, conservation has become a mission — not only in her art, but in her entire life.

And ironically, it started with the world of fashion.

While on a three month modeling trip to Africa in 2010, Jay noticed garbage everywhere in Kenya — and took it upon herself to personally pick up as much of it as she could.

“I was shocked and I spent the entire time collecting trash,” says Jay.

But she also made an impression during her time there — and people wanted to meet the woman who was getting involved to make a difference.

“Anyone from any walk of life can have an impact,” says Jay. “All it takes is one person taking responsibility. And I feel responsible for it all – the dolphins being killed in the oceans, the rhinos getting butchered in Africa. I feel like I have to no choice but do something. I’m surprised not more people are not feeling it.”

To that end, Jay has developed a project called “Message in a Bottle” which brings to the Whaling Museum this weekend. The work comes to Sag Harbor fresh from a showing at the American History Museum in New York and consists of repurposed PET bottles (or polyethylene terephthalate in technical terms) — those ubiquitous plastic bottle that are the pre-packaged beverage container of choice around the world.

“PET type one plastics can be recycled — though only 1 in four is,” notes Jay. “Plastic bottles are so unhealthy for you and they’re deadly for the oceans. We need to do something.”

Jay’s solution was to turn the bottles — albeit only a few hundred — into art. But like her one-woman effort to pick up garbage in Kenya, she sees it as a powerful beginning. So far, Jay has transformed 200 PET bottles by painting and decoupaging them using colorful waste paper. She has also sought out 200 different voices from around the world to offer a printed message to go on each bottle about the earth. Each finished bottle is displayed suspended from the ceiling by string and reflects a unique human voice in the world.

“Each bottle is suspended like a Christmas ornament,” adds Jay. “The color and richness of nature comes through the artifice of the bottle. It’s the intersection of what is artificial and manmade compared to organic and untamed. You can also see the quotes on a slide show in the background.”

“I want to get these messages heard. I collaborate with all these amazing people and show how this is happening – it’s not just sharks and whales, it’s everything at the same moment and concerned citizens are stepping in,” says Jay who is about inclusion and the breaking down of stereotypes.

“Just because you’re an investment banker doesn’t mean you’re only this,” she explains. “It’s not just one thing like in previous generations. This is bringing it all to light and will serve as a time capsule.”

“I don’t work with any one group,” adds Jay. “I have no single agenda. It’s more about being inclusive. When you have a pronounced agenda for and against something, you stop listening to each other.”

As an example, Jay notes that she has friends in the fashion industry who eat meat and wear fur — neither of which she believes in.

“I hate fur, but if I take such a strong stance and preach, they’re not going to listen,” she says. “Right now they have some exposure. If they lose me, they won’t hear about anything.”

Jay plans to build the project up to a total of 1,000 bottles, and like her roadside cleaning mission in Kenya, people are taking notice of her efforts. Message in a Bottle is in demand as an exhibition and she is getting calls to take it everywhere. To spread the word, she will also offer a place at the Whaling Museum visitors can work on their own bottles.

“It engages the public and encourages youth participation while taking it to the next level,” says Jay. “It has to come from a positive place. There’s no growth from negative input. That’s why I started my own ‘nation’ – garbage nation, or Garbagea. It’s a parody and gave me an opportunity to talk to people with humor and with a different approach.”

“I even have a national anthem.”

“Coral, Ice and Plastics” opens at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum (200 Main Street, Sag Harbor) this Sunday, April 21, 2013 from 1 to 4 p.m. The work remains on view through May 22. Anne Doubilet and Asher Jay will visit the Ross School on Earth Day, Monday, April 22, to work with students on conservation arts and science projects. For more information, call the Whaling Museum at 725-0770.