Searching for the Ghosts of the Gulf

Portraying Ghosts: Artist Notes

In 2016, I became part of an interdisciplinary Louisiana State University research team (where I am a currently an Artist Research Associate in the Museum of Natural Science), which published that 14 fish species, endemic to the Gulf of Mexico, have not been reported following the DWH spill[1].

Even prior to the spill, several Gulf fishes remained elusive and had not been found in decades (1950 through 2005). Little is known about these species and the only records we have of their existence is a handful of preserved specimens scattered among natural history collections[2]. As an artist, I am inspired to portray and to tirelessly search for these Ghosts.

In response, I create portraits of these missing species, which I refer to as Ghosts of the Gulf, as a way to give form to each of the lost species. The Ghosts are drawn from historic specimens in the Tulane University Biodiversity Research Institute’s (TUBRI) Suttkus Fish Collection (the second largest preserved fish collection in the world located in several converted World War II bunkers in Belle Chase, Louisiana) and others I photographed and radiographed as a 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (the first largest fish collection in the world).

Some portraits are printed radiographs while others are drawn using solidified DWH ‘tar balls’ collected from Gulf beaches or from ‘fresh’ crude oil from the Taylor spill. These Ghosts intend to convey mystery as well as melancholy, as a means to engage audiences towards introspective contemplation, asking what is lost from our collective treatment of the Gulf. I am also interested in what creating portraits of missing animals means at a point in history where we find ourselves in a mass extinction event, when species are disappearing so fast that we cannot even scientifically record them.

[1] All of the 14 endemic missing fish species were recorded in the Gulf of Mexico between January 2005 and January 2010, but not reported in natural history collections post DWH. Please see: Chakrabarty P, O’Neill G, Hardy B, Ballengee B (2016) Five Years Later: An Update on the Status of Collections of Endemic Gulf of Mexico Fishes Put at Risk by the 2010 Oil Spill. Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e8728

[2] Up to 44 of the 77 known Gulf endemic fishes are rare, have not been reported, or recent data is insufficient to understand their population status (Chakrabarty et al. 2016).