Art and science tell great fish stories

Mar 26, 2024 | Aids to Navigation

Artist Mike Palmer’s work will be featured in “Ocean to Art: Cape Cod’s Seafood Palette,” a show that is a collaboration with the Fishermen’s Alliance.

By Doreen Leggett

While pursuing a graduate degree in fisheries oceanography at University of Alaska Fairbanks, Mike Palmer accompanied his thesis text with stunning, exact renderings of fish.

“I thought I could draw them myself and wouldn’t have to deal with copyright infringement,” Palmer remembers.

A lifetime later, Palmer still draws fish, shellfish and other sea creatures, but now the art is at the forefront, accompanied by research.

“If you are going to buy my art you are going to get science too,” Palmer said with a smile. “Art is a bridge.”

Palmer was seated at his home studio drawing desk in Mashpee on a recent rainy day. All around him were framed pictures of his drawings, which he sells under the name Waquoit Bay Fish Company. Clams, scallop, squid and pollock were stacked by a staircase, set off by an enormous drawing of a humpback whale and a clock made from a varnished horseshoe crab shell. Behind him on the wall were a plump, green-tinged menhaden and a dark-brown toothy, summer flounder. His dog, Luna, napped in her fuzzy bed nearby.

If the meticulously hand-drawn and pencil-colored works are flipped over, insights emerge. Take the longfin squid, which “every spring invade Vineyard Sound for some ‘romance on the rips.’ It’s spawning time, and feeding time for striped bass,” the prose begins.

Many of the pieces are destined for an Artist Spotlight show that opens at Barnstable Town Hall on April 8 and runs through June 28. “Ocean to Art: Cape Cod’s Seafood Palette” is an ambitious undertaking, featuring close to 30 works. The show is a collaboration with the Fishermen’s Alliance and focuses on highlighting the range of seafood available from local waters and its importance to our economy.

Every drawing in the exhibit is an entry point into the biology of the featured fish or shellfish and gives context to how it fits into the ecosystem of the Cape. Research from the Fishermen’s Alliance explains how the species helps define the personality of the port where it is landed and offers an insider’s perspective of landings values and threats to working waterfronts.

In Palmer’s former work as a fisheries scientist, he spent close to 200 days on fishing boats and research vessels. He knows his subject matter.

“My art comes from years of observation and connects people to the ocean while providing a sense of place. Sharing the work the Fishermen’s Alliance is doing to protect a healthy ocean environment and sustainable fishing practices is important to me,” Palmer said. “I believe strongly in trying to connect people, nature and place through art. On Cape Cod, seafood is more than just sustenance, it’s a lifeblood. Using art to highlight the ecological and cultural significance of our local marine life is my mission.”

Palmer was born in Westford, a suburb of Lowell nestled in the Merrimack Valley watershed. The younger of two sons of an engineer and kindergarten teacher, he spent much of his time exploring the woods behind his house. “I used to go out there and just get lost poking around streams and ponds,” he said.

He drew a lot as a kid, but it was mostly to entertain himself. Aside from a handful of high school classes he has no formal art training.

Growing up what really captured his imagination was the sciences, and in particular marine science and whales. Behind him in his office is a bookcase filled with research books, including “Intertidal Ecology,” “Quantitative Fish Dynamics,” “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine,” “The Lobster Gangs of Maine,” and “Against the Tide,” which features Cape fishermen. He leans down and pulls out a map he had drawn of all the orca sightings documented in a book he had read in high school.

“I was kind of a weird kid,” Palmer said.

When he graduated from high school in 1995 he wanted to go into the marine sciences and headed to the University of Maine Orono – an area of Maine where both parents have roots. Through college, Palmer continued to draw.

“I was drawing seaweeds, whales and some hippie stuff,” Palmer said with a chuckle, though he never took any art courses in college. “I drew to combat the boredom – but there was no serious studying of art principles going on!”

Following his undergraduate degree in marine science, Palmer headed west to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) to attend graduate school.

“I really had the bug to go west, particularly Alaska,” he said.

At UAF he followed a research path in fisheries oceanography, which he liked because it pulled physics, chemistry, geology, and biology together. “It’s an integrative science that looks at things as systems – that really intrigued me.”

It was in graduate school that he first started working collaboratively alongside Alaskan fishermen on groundfish research.

“During this time I really came to appreciate the knowledge, stewardship, and dedication to craft exhibited by fishermen,” said Palmer. “Those experiences solidified my desire to work on applied fisheries science issues – I wanted to do research that mattered to the people who made their lives from the sea.”

His first job out of graduate school was in Gloucester, Massachusetts working for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries regional office. In 2005, he moved to Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, where his relationship with the non-profit Fishermen’s Alliance – then the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association — began.

“I met Mike when I first started with the Hook back in 2005 and we were collaborating with the Science Center to develop the first iterations of electronic logbooks, which provides fishermen a way to turn their daily catch into standardized data scientists can use,” said Mel Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “It is amazing to see how his rigorous attention to detail in data collection has transformed into intricate and stunning artwork.”

While at NOAA, Palmer spearheaded a number of federal projects including leading the Gulf of Maine cod and haddock stock assessments for nearly a decade. He saw firsthand the collapse of cod and the recovery of haddock. His science duties kept Palmer pretty busy. Along the way he also married and became a father to a boy and a girl. What he didn’t do while working as a fisheries scientist was draw.

“When I left grad school, I really didn’t touch art again for a long time. My career was my focus. I think I did two drawings over the next 20 years,” he said.

A couple of years ago, he began thinking about life’s next chapter. He had been with the agency for a long time and felt that it was time for something new. He missed the opportunities for the more hands-on research and creative outlets that had excited him earlier in his career. Plus, he wanted to spend more time with his family. Running through options for his next career, he thought, “I could draw.” But he had to draw something he was passionate about, particularly if he was going to do it full time.

“That was the million-dollar question – could I enjoy making a living from art? I wanted to draw what I enjoyed.”

Not surprisingly, he didn’t stray far from his roots – fish were the answer.

Before he starts drawing, he does background research on the fish or shellfish. Working from photos and videos, he calculates the relative proportions and makes notes of the number of features on an animal such as the type, and number of fin rays. His first reference sketch almost always has a box full of measurements in the corner. He calls this process the “metrics and meristics” stage. He follows up the first sketch with many more until he is satisfied that he captured the fish as it would look in its natural underwater environment.

“The squid took six tries to get it right,” Palmer explained.

Once he is happy with his sketches, he begins a greyscale drawing of the organism using graphite pencils. During this stage he focuses on the form, texture, and tones. Finally, he makes a reproduction print of the graphite drawing which he then colors by hand using colored pencils, bringing the organism to life. Colored pencils do not erase, so mistakes are difficult to recover from.

“You’re hanging by a wire,” he said with a laugh. The time spent on reference sketches, graphite grey-scale drawing, photography, digital clean-up, and the final colored-pencil drawing is 40 to 60 hours per fish.

As the show looms closer, Palmer is finishing up his final pieces. He has produced nine new works specifically for this show. These, combined with nearly 20 existing original drawings from Palmer’s portfolio will make up the exhibit.

“I’m really excited to see all this come together,” Palmer said. “This is a culmination of years of work in fisheries, and it’s an opportunity for me to give back to the Cape Cod community that means so much to me and my family.”

“We take every opportunity to educate people about the Cape’s commercial fishing industry and the local seafood available,” said the Fishermen’s Alliance’s COO Sanderson. “This seemed to be a unique opportunity to do just that. Plus, Mike’s art is amazing and we are delighted to partner with him and share these drawings with the community.

“The only problem is deciding which fish we want to hang in the office.”

ARTIST RECEPTION: Meet the artist and members of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance during the Opening Reception, Friday, April 12, 2024, 4:30 to 6 pm at Barnstable Town Hall.  The exhibition is free and open to the public. Palmer has generously offered to donate 10 percent of any show sale proceeds to Fishermen’s Alliance.


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