An exhibit by new Homer artist Kim Schuster seeks to make science accessible to nonscientists through her bright, colorful depictions of marine animals.
“That’s exactly was I was going for,” Schuster said. “As a scientist, I wanted to communicate science in a different way across disciplines.”
Schuster’s show, “Science Observed Through Art: Unsung Species,” opened last Friday at Ptarmigan Arts’ Back Room Gallery. Her wood mosaic sculptures and watercolor paintings of fish, clams, jellyfish and other animals include scientific and sometimes witty descriptions of the animals depicted. For example, of the warty sea cucumber, she writes that it’s in “the genus parastichopus, which is a very fun word to say and sounds exactly how it is spelled.”
A marine biologist who works part time with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Schuster moved to Homer in 2015 with her husband, Martin, also a marine biologist at Fish and Game. They met at graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, Kim Schuster got an interest in biology growing up there when she would visit her grandmother at Myrtle Beach.
“The little tiny things on the seashore were always so fascinating,” she said. “I decided to pursue higher education because of that. I wanted to figure out what those things were.”
Schuster also lived in Colorado and California and graduated with a bachelor of science in marine biology from the University of Santa Cruz, California. It was in middle school in Littleton, Colorado, that she came to love woodworking and art, but that art didn’t come easy to her.
“It took me a long time to learn to draw,” Schuster said. “A lot of people have a beautiful, natural talent. Oh boy, I didn’t have that.”
In middle school in the early 2000s she wanted to take shop.
“But they never had a woman take shop before, which is very weird,” she said. “It’s not like I’m that old.”
The school put her in a home economics class. Schuster petitioned to get to take the shop class and won.
“Fight for what you want,” she said. “It led to something great in my life and an outlet for my desires.”
Woodworking sparked her creativity.
“I taught myself to draw simple shapes and then gradually form them into more complex things like ocean animals,” she said.
Schuster loved woodworking so much that as a young teenager she asked for and got a table scroll saw for her birthday. It was hard to take her scroll saw with her while in college and grad school. She didn’t get back to woodworking until after she’d settled in Homer.
“Even though I’ve been making these things for awhile now, I’ve been focusing on art as a way to communicate science only two or three years ago.”
Cindy Nelson at Ptarmigan Arts invited Schuster to do a single-artist show after seeing her work, a small fish, in last year’s Homer Council on the Arts 5×7 show. At first, Schuster said she wasn’t sure she could do an entire show’s worth of work.
“A year later, it’s finally there,” she said.
With her husband, Schuster lives in a yurt about 14 miles out East End Road. She works in an unheated shop, which means on cold winter days she has to warm up her saw first. In the off season from working at Fish and Game, Schuster works as a guide for Albatross Expeditions in Antarctica, but that’s not happening this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That does give her more time this winter to work on her art.
Schuster gets her ideas for making marine animals from what she sees in daily life or in looking online and in books.
“I have a notebook where I sketch out various ideas,” she said. “You can look at it and tell what works and what doesn’t.”
Her technique is similar to intarsia, where woodworkers cut out shapes from different kinds of woods and piece them together like puzzles to make a pattern. However, Schuster uses a single piece of wood like pine on which she has drawn the individual parts of the sculpture. She also numbers the pieces on her plan and then on the cut piece of wood “so I can put it all back together,” she said.
After the pieces are cut, Schuster sands and paints them, and then glues them back together. She puts a finish coat on and then glues a piece of medium density fiberboard to the back of the art. For two sculptures she did of a razor clam and a butter clam, she used Bishop’s Beach sand as part of her paint.
For a basic shape like a rockfish or salmon, Schuster could save herself some work by cutting out the outline with a scroll saw and then scribe the lines of parts like fins with a Dremel tool. She chooses not to do that.
“It’s a lot easier to control painting of the piece,” Schuster said. “… You have these cleaner lines. … I can’t control the Dremel as well as those saw blades.”
Schuster started doing watercolor paintings while doing field work.
“It was basically a way to take art with me to remote locations,” she said.
Her watercolors got some attention when while doing Antarctica guiding she donated a piece for a charity called Hook Pod. Hook Pod raises money to buy plastic coverings that go over longline hooks to keep albatrosses in the southern Pacific Ocean from getting caught on the hooks set by South American fishermen. For that charity show she made a variant of one of the pieces in the Ptarmigan Arts show, “Space Seal.”
“It got a lot of attention and raised a lot of money, which I was honored by,” she said.
Schuster uses a technique in her watercolors where she paints with a water pen and then blows on the paint.
“It creates cool patterns,” she said.
In her show, Schuster said she wanted to spotlight marine animals that aren’t well known, or to convey information about them that’s not well understood. For the rockfish, in her description she wanted to make the point that they’re old fish that can live to be 80 years old and don’t sexually mature until 20. That’s why fishermen should use deep-water release mechanisms to release younger fish.
“We tend to think about and glorify very specific animals that live in our ocean,” she said. “… I wanted to challenge that viewpoint by putting the spotlight on organisms that aren’t well known or perhaps are well known but not understood. I’m hoping to share my excitement and knowledge of why these organisms are so important.”
For more on Schuster’s work, visit her website at AqueousDesignsAK.com.