The depths of creativity: Art meets science in the Gulf of Mexico

6 – minute read

In the Arts Complex at Florida Gulf Coast University, three tables hold an array of ceramic artwork. Some are as tall as 2 feet with ridges and octopus suckers, while others resemble fragments of miniature water park slides. A few look like hexagonal decorative tiles bound for the garden. Half the pieces are terracotta colored, reminiscent of healthy coral reefs, while others are a more subdued beige. Together, they’re a Seussian assemblage of design, shape and size.


“All this was made so that it can disappear,” says Patricia Fay, a Bower School of Music & the Arts professor. She stands before the table, looking over some of the 60-plus pieces of ceramic artwork she created with Macy Noll, an art and biology double-major, in coordination with the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station. Like oversized aquarium decorations, the pieces have been sculpted to mimic the uneven and organic nature of coral formations and to host marine organisms. They will be installed at Kimberly’s Reef, an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico created by The Water School at FGCU.

FGCU ceramics
Ceramic pieces have been sculpted to mimic the organic nature of coral formations.

“We want these pieces to be completely overwhelmed and consumed by the underwater environment,” Fay says, “so that you won’t see individual pieces, but you will see the structure.”


Spanning 11 acres, Kimberly’s Reef is composed of six “villages” designed in part by Mike Parsons, Water School professor and Vester director. Each village comprises rectangular concrete culverts, which Fay points out are “not as attractive a habitat for settlement in the Gulf — and for development of longer-term established habitats — because it doesn’t have enough complexity.”


“The culverts are these big blocky, right-angle objects and they’re very foreign,” Noll says. “They’re not what you would expect to see at the bottom of the Gulf. But the sculptures we’ve made look very organic, very fluid. They look like something that belongs in the ocean.”

Fay and Noll created a variety of reef enhancements to be affixed with marine epoxy in various combinations and configurations on the flat tops and inner and outer walls of the open-ended rectangular culverts. The reef location and the qualities and firing temperatures of the clay influenced their designs. “But then it was also, think like a fish — what would I enjoy if I was a fish — and making this kind of wonderful amusement park,” Fay says.


“There are limitations as to how natural you can make them look,” Noll says of the ceramic pieces. “The whole point of this project was bio-mimicry. The natural processes already in place are working great. If we want to help it along, we should mimic those.”

Fay and Noll are divers, which Fay says helped them create the artwork funded by the Seidler Fellowships in the College of Arts & Sciences, an annual competitive grant program through the Seidler Benefaction. “We used those internalized references as we developed the sculptures.”


The finished pieces are not glazed because Fay was concerned that would inhibit organisms from attaching. Encouraging attachment is also the reason for all the added textures.


“A reef is built in layers, so the more nooks and crannies and crevices and ridges and everything else, the better the baseline organisms will be,” Fay says.


The textured design was created by modifying standard ceramic extruder technologies. Picture a large-scale Play-Doh press.

FGCU boat
Patricia Fay hands off a ceramic piece to Vester staff to be installed at Kimberly’s Reef, an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico created by The Water School at FGCU.

Fay started with basic extruder plates, which allow wet clay to be pushed through and shaped on the outside while hollowing out the inside. She modified the plates by drilling out various ridges and patterns. Working together, Fay and Noll squeezed 20-pound blocks of wet clay through the modified plates to create unique textures and patterns, just like the colorful modeling compounds kids play with.


Fay and Noll then cut or tore off the clay in sections, attached different pieces together to create reef-like designs and fired the unglazed clay in gas and electric kilns. A unique number zip-tied to each piece will be used to create a catalog allowing scientists at Kimberly’s Reef to report on organisms by their locations.


The first pieces were installed in June. The moderate size of the sculpted corals and placement atop and inside the concrete culverts allow divers to swim over and around them.


Their design serves to create a habitat that encourages the growth and development of marine life. As marine creatures seek shelter and refuge within the crevices and niches, the ceramic enhancements will create a biodiverse habitat at Kimberly’s Reef for moray eels, tube worms, plankton and other marine organisms.


The project is a catalyst for growing FGCU’s marine ecosystem in the Gulf, but also perfectly fits Noll’s aspirations to merge her art and biology interests.


“I want to keep doing this kind of thing in the future,” Noll says. “This is where I want to live, in this interdisciplinary area between art and science.” What’s the dream job? “National Geographic photographer. I would love to be a scientific correspondent, photographer and writer. I’m trying to tie it all together.”

FGCU professor and student
Macy Noll, left, an art and biology double-major, helped Patricia Fay create the ceramics for Kimberly's Reef.
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