March 27, 2019

Rebecca Rutstein Combines Art and Science to Illuminate Deep Sea Mysteries

Art Notes

Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher

Rebecca Rutstein and Samantha Joye

Looking to microbiology, marine science and geology for visual inspiration, Philadelphia-based artist and experienced ocean explorer Rebecca Rutstein seeks to illuminate the mysteries of the deep sea through creative abstraction. Whether working in painting, sculpture, installation or public art, her work reflects an ongoing interest in interpreting maps and data. Curated by Annelies Mondi and currently on view at the Georgia Museum of Art, her exhibition “Out of the Darkness: Light in the Depths of the Sea of Cortez” demonstrates this seamless blending of art and science.

Rutstein currently holds the Delta Visiting Chair for Global Understanding, an annual position established by UGA’s Willson Center for Humanities and Arts through a gift from the Delta Air Lines Foundation. The award recognizes leading scholars and creative thinkers who can present contemporary global issues in a local context while collaborating with members of the university’s faculty.

In addition to her yearlong exhibition, part of Rutstein’s tenure involved a deep sea expedition with a team of scientists led by Samantha Joye, Athletic Association Professor in arts and sciences in the marine sciences department at UGA. Joye’s research seeks to understand how climate change and anthropogenic disturbances can affect complex processes in coastal and open ocean environments. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the team traveled aboard an Alvin submarine to the ocean floor in the Guaymas Basin in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. While the research team studied hydrothermal vents and carbon-cycling processes, Rutstein set up a studio to create new pieces inspired by their collected data in real time.

It’s impossible to miss the “Progenitor Series,” a 22-foot-tall behemoth towering in the museum’s grand hall. Inspired by both the water column and the 2,200-meter descent to the ocean floor, the series’ four paintings are vertically stacked, with each canvas shifting in scale and perspective. Through her special lens of abstraction, Rutstein interpreted sonar mapping of hydrothermal vents, where some scientists believe life on earth may have formed. The basin’s Beggiatoa bacteria, which look like long filaments under a microscope, form transient mats on the surface of vents, and these forms lay the foundation of the paintings.

“Shimmer” is an eye-catching, 64-foot-long steel sculptural installation that flows along the museum’s Patsy Dudley Pate Balcony. Laser-cut clusters of hexagonal forms take their inspiration from data Joye previously collected on hydrocarbon structures present in the Guaymas Basin. Their warped appearances symbolize the molecular transformations that occur within a unique environment of intense heat and pressure. Integrating bioluminescent patterns from deep sea video, the sculpture is programmed with motion sensors and LED lights that shift between cool tones of aqua, blue and purple in response to the movements of passersby. These flickering lights resemble those of siphonophore, a colonial organism whose clear tentacles flash and glow when confronted.

Located to the right of the installation is “Galapagos II,” a large acrylic painting of swirling shades of blue beneath a topographical line drawing in bright aqua. Documenting a separate adventure, Rutstein made the painting while serving as an artist in residence on board the Nautilus, which traveled from the Galapagos Islands to Southern California in July 2015. Created by pouring paint onto the canvas as the ship trailed a hurricane, the marbled bands of color serve as a record of the vessel’s movements through turbulent waters. During the three-week expedition, she also worked with scientists to map the ocean floor using multi-beam sonar technology, and later incorporated these dimensions into the work.

Rutstein will visit Athens for two separate events this week. In partnership with the Willson Center, Creature Comforts’ Get Artistic program will host a meet-and-greet, Q&A and conversation with Rutstein on the subjects of community stewardship, creative exploration and the importance of pursuing a passion. Held Wednesday, Mar. 27 from 3:30–5 p.m. at the brewery’s downtown taproom, the Community Enrichment Lecture is the first in a series intended to benefit permanent Athens residents and university students. The following day, Mar. 28, at 6 p.m., the Georgia Museum will host “In Conversation: Rebecca Rutstein and Samantha Joye,” where the duo will discuss their deep-sea expedition to the Guaymas Basin.

“Progenitor Series” will remain on view through Mar. 31, while “Shimmer” will stay installed through Oct. 27.


  • Thursday, March 28

    Georgia Museum of Art

    6 p.m. FREE!

    In Conversation

    Artist Rebecca Rutstein and UGA professor of marine sciences Dr. Samantha Joye speak on Rutstein's current installations at the museum. See Art Notes on p. 11.