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Banksy meets Jacques Cousteau

Enrique GiliNovember 24, 2015

Even in a world awash with images, art still has the power to draw attention. But can it trigger social change? The PangeaSeed art collective hopes so.

An artist on a ladder in front of a finished mural of the ocean
Image: PangeaSeed

Have you ever wanted to swim with sharks, but can barely doggy paddle? Or wondered what the love-child of a sexy mermaid and a lonely sailor would look like? Tre' Packard is no stranger to such ideas. He is founder of a collective known as PangeaSeed, a group of street artists that meld public art with conservation in an effort to bring about social change. He calls the process artivism.

Established in 2009, his Honolulu-based nonprofit organization recruits artists to transform blank walls into a gallery-like experience. "We want to educate and inspire everybody," Packard said. Over the past three years, members of the art collective have painted more than 40 murals that explore the connections between people, nature and culture.
The goal of the project, known as Sea Walls, is to bring marine life to public spaces around the world; to make people stop, look and pay attention; and to alert them to ocean-related environmental disasters such as floating plastic and shark-finning.

An artist on a ladder in the early stages of a mural
Painting conservation on the wall is one way of trying to attract attentionImage: PangeaSeed

These days, Packard spends much of his time doing what he describes as "activating" public spaces at the invitation of NGOS and community groups. "We build artwork, display it, and people interact with it," he explained.

#link:https://www.pangeaseed.foundation/:PangeaSeed# artists completed their first Sea Wall in 2014 on Isla de Mujeres in Mexico. The collective was invited to paint a series of murals to coincide with an annual festival celebrating the value of whale sharks to the local fishing community. The Gulf of Mexico is home to the world's largest concentration of the species, in which Packard himself has a keen interest. "Despite being the biggest fish in the ocean, they're still a massive mystery," he said.

The combination of those factors led to the creation of 14 frescos exploring the story of a place and its people. Wildly expressive compositions leap off the walls, conveying a profound appreciation for underwater realms in multiple aesthetic styles.

Wild at Heart

Painting murals is a cultural practice that dates back to times when our cave-dwelling ancestors recreated the likeness of animals they respected and hunted. Even now, 40,000 years on - in our age of image saturation - depictions of the natural world can still speak volumes.

A walrus on the ice
SeaLegacy is planning to use stunning phtography to convey its messageImage: Sea Legacy

#link:http://celestebyers.com/:Celeste Byers,# a San Diego-based PangeaSeed artist, believes nature and art are inextricably linked, and acknowledges her kinship with the ocean through her artwork.

"Nature comes first in the grand scheme of things," she said. "But in order to feel fulfilled, I can't just sit around and look at it - I have to paint it, or do something." That includes transforming a drab concrete wall into a trippy triptych in the residential neighborhood of Point Loma in San Diego Diego - from the perspective of a seal.

In her role as an artivist, she's collaborated on a series of ocean-themed murals, often sharing the spotlight with fellow artist Aaron Glasson and members of the PangeaSeed collective. Their joint projects adorn buildings in San Diego, Cozumel and Isla de Mujeres. In sharing the images on social media platforms, they have reached an audience extending well beyond the Gulf of Mexico.

And that is important for Byers. "I think painting does have the power to inspire ocean conservation," she said. "If you admire others who care about an issue, then it might inspire you too."

Hoping for a sea change

The newly launched nonprofit #link:http://www.sealegacy.org/:SeaLegacy# is also planning a creative approach to conservation. Founders and veteran wildlife photographers Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen want to get beyond facts to tell visual stories about the world's oceans.

A polar bear against the blazing sun
Beautiful images can have incredible powerImage: Sea Legacy

According to Mittermeier, staffers at conservation groups often regard environmental messaging as an afterthought. "Their mandate has been conservation, and their investments traditionally lean toward science," she said. "It has been really difficult to get them to allocate part of their budget toward science communications."

To redress that imbalance, SeaLegacy plans to raise money to fund expeditions that blend beautiful images with marine conservation goals. "We're going to try to collaborate with several conservation groups in British Columbia to establish a network of marine protected areas there," she said.

Worldwide, establishment of marine protected areas or reserves where fishing is restricted or banned reflects something of a push to protect fish stocks and preserve sea life. These currently apply to some 2 percent of the world's vast oceans. But that is nowhere near enough for SeaLegacy, which wants to see a 20 percent protection rate by 2020.

That's a lot of water to cover in a small window of time. But both SeaLegacy and PangeaSeed are firm in their belief that the creative process can bridge the gap between knowledge, enabling policy makers to make informed decisions - and emotion, which serves as a call to action.