Every second breath comes from the ocean.
That was a phrase oft-repeated by Shawn Heinrichs at the opening of his Light on Shadow exhibit at the Southampton Arts Center. For some, that may be easy to forget, what with the extensively built concrete-steel amalgam of an environment in which many of us live our lives. Skyscrapers and highways – beyond creating boundaries – engender a great disconnect between humans and the natural environment.
For many, the ocean is a far removed ecosystem, its inhabitants living seemingly distinct lives from our own. As the mother whale and her three-ton calf swim in the North Pacific on a Monday morning, we are seated within four-walled workspaces, scrolling on our phones or typing away at computers.
This disconnect is dangerous for it is one that only exists in our minds. In reality, we are an intractable part of a larger ecosystem, wherein our health depends just as much on the health of all its constituent parts. It is this disconnect, among other issues, that Heinrichs seeks to remedy. For him, art is the medium through which we can rediscover our connection and thereby feel more compelled to care for other species and their habitats.
“There’s something about art that is timeless,” said Heinrichs in conversation with exhibit curator Matthew Hockley-Smith. “Conservation efforts they ebb and they flow, they come in they hit a peak of urgency, work happens, change happens or it doesn’t, and then it moves into another state of quiet or inactivity again.”
“If I want my message, which is shared by a lot of artists, if I want to represent these animals, these beings, the nature of the environment, it needs to stand the test of time. It can’t be a quarterly or yearly campaign, it needs to be there every year, as long as it can be there. And for that reason and that reason alone, I’m going to be putting more effort into that side of it because I feel like I don’t want this message to ever go away, I want to blow it up as big as the Empire State Building.”
Heinrichs did not always view his opus as art, though. Hockley-Smith’s trained eye and expertise helped Heinrichs harness the power in his images and display them in a way that would effectively share his message with the world.
In the exhibit, one first encounters the more traditional natural history photography: the majestic whale and her calf set against a sapphire blue backdrop; the sea turtle floating among the reef. As the exhibit progresses, though, his images are imbued with more surrealist elements: a woman – with all the comforts of a modern life removed – floats nude, small, and vulnerable before a magnificent manta ray. Here the human is removed from its insular built environment and directly placed in the home of marine life.
The exhibit closes with the dark room, “the result of that human interaction” as Hockley-Smith described it, where the human connection is more realistic and less innocent. The beautiful, grand creatures that viewers had just admired in the preceding rooms were now shown in a different, indelible light – treated as expendable resources, killed for their fins and gills, and stolen from their idyllic home only to lay dead across city rooftops.
“I found this incredible resource of images,” said Hockley-Smith as he gestured to pictures hung in the dark room. ” I said ‘this is fine art.’ And he didn’t necessarily at that moment think that. People who are perhaps outside the art world, they look at these images of these rooftops and think ‘well is that art?'”
These “rooftop” images to which Hockley-Smith refers were taken in Southeast Asia, where thousands of shark fins are organized by size and color atop industrial buildings.
“In my world, in academic conceptual high-end, the ‘critical acclaim spectrum’ we call it, this is fine art. So he had this whole body, but didn’t quite know what he’d done at that stage. Well I think he did know what he’d done, but he didn’t have the confidence to pull it out and make a body of work out of it.”
Heinrichs recognizes the ability of art to transcend all geographical, temporal, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. It speaks to our commonalities, and therefore has great utility in communicating the urgent need to protect marine species and habitats. His passion for conservation and marine life informs his art, which in turn informs his audience.
One could say that the Blue Sphere Foundation, which he co-founded, could not function as it does without his passion for art and conversely, that his art could not find the right audience if it weren’t for the resources and support of the foundation. The two support one another – creating the type symbiotic relationship that we should strive to achieve with our marine friends.
“The foundation, the charitable conservation element could’ve put me off, but I happen to believe in it,” said Hockley-Smith. “I have a house by the sea, I spend time on the water, I sail, I boat, I understand enough about it. You listen to Shawn, you watch that clip, you listen to the man talk about the work of the foundation and the reality of what’s happening, and I would challenge anyone not to be engaged by that. It left me feeling a level of responsibility, and I think that’s the power of Shawn as an artist.”
The exhibit curator is not the only individual to have been deeply impacted by Shawn. Denielle Sechs, the executive director of the foundation, was so moved after viewing “Racing Extinction,” a film on which Shawn worked, that she left her corporate job, traveled to Indonesia for six months, and in her own words “chased” Shawn to Colorado to forge a fruitful working relationship. Heinrichs’ art spoke to Sechs and moved her to follow a different path in life, and it is his hope that others will be inspired, too.
“In my imagery, in my storytelling, in my conservation work that’s where I start and I try to plant that seed because just maybe that one person in that room will get up, transform their lives, and become the next ambassadors for the change that we so desperately need,” said Heinrichs.
“Being able to bring an exhibit like this to a community that isn’t thinking necessarily about this precious resource and the trouble that it’s in, it’s a really powerful message,” said Sechs. “Not just show them the devastation, but also show them that there’s hope and get people more engaged with wanting to protect it. It’s not just some random market in Taiwan, it’s also right here in our backyards.”
Heinrichs’ work is a powerful reminder of our connection with the ocean and its species. We have the power to make a difference and turn the tide on habitat destruction and species endangerment.
Why should it matter?
Because although every second breath comes from the ocean for us, every breath comes from the ocean for these species.
Light on Shadow will be on view through July 16.
Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. For more information, visit southamptonartscenter.org. For more information about the Blue Sphere Foundation, visit www.bluespherefoundation.org.