How to Talk to a Nudibranch, and Some Other Things Worth Knowing…
by Suzette Mouchaty
Artist talk presented at University of Houston-Downtown, Aug. 27, 2022
Welcome, and thank you for coming downtown today. I am Dr. Suzette Mouchaty. Before I begin my talk about the sculptures in this exhibition, I want to take a moment to plug UH Downtown – UHD offers a minor in Sustainability, and the Center for Urban Agriculture & Sustainability is located here on the ground floor of this beautiful building that is Gold LEED Certified. This means, among other things, that the building was constructed using local and environmentally friendly materials and that it has many energy saving features. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and the rating system is widely used to evaluate designs for green buildings. This is the first LEED Certified building in the UH System to receive such a high rating. I want to thank the Houston Arts Alliance, the City of Houston, and the College of Sciences and Technology at UHD for funding the exhibition of the artwork that I will discuss today and for supporting a digital project that will make this artwork accessible to a much larger audience online.
I’m a biologist on the faculty here at UHD in the Department of Natural Sciences. I am also an artist, and the maker of these sculptures that were inspired by marine animals called nudibranchs, which are also commonly called sea slugs. I am going to tell you a story about how these sculptures came to be. I’ll share my impulse for making them, my artistic goals for this project, and the materials and process that I used. Somewhere in there will be a word or two about biology and how our personal choices impact the planet, now and in the future. After this shaggy dog story, I will invite you to come up and have a closer look at the artwork, at which time I will be glad to answer your questions.
Let me begin with the context for my story. The Earth is presently experiencing the 6th mass
extinction of life. Mass extinctions are characterized by a loss of 75% or more of all species in a relatively short time span. The last mass extinction occurred about 65 million years ago when an asteroid struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. The current mass extinction is not caused by anything extraterrestrial though – it’s being caused by one species – us, Homo sapiens. Several years ago I read an OpEd in the New York Times in which the author argued that since humans are part of nature and extinction is natural, we shouldn’t be overly worried about the fact that we’re causing a mass extinction. The argument boils down to the assertion that it is in our nature to be destroyers. We can’t help it. If you accept that, then you can absolve yourself and others of any moral obligation to protect the natural world from the fearsome power that our big brains have acquired. Since humans are part of nature, then anything that we do is natural, and therefore it must be okay…and down the rabbit hole of ethical relativism you go.
My reaction to the Op Ed was first to seethe a bit – I was genuinely pissed off! Then I thought about how I could respond through art. My initial impulses made anger the content. You know - a giant, ferocious, man-eating sand worm… something natural. I was in art school at the time and I was interested in scaling up my work. I’d been hearing a refrain, almost a mantra!, from one of my mentors, “Make it BIG Suzette. Make it BIG.” But making a really large sculpture would take a month or two…or three, I didn’t really know what I was getting into with the project… Another mentor said, “Suzette, we’ve all seen Dune”. I said, “Dune what?” I thought about the physical process of making the thing and that’s actually what made me reconsider. I asked myself, Do you really want to be confronted by a huge angry worm in the studio every morning? I mean, after all, that’s the sort of thing that makes people quit their jobs! I rejected the angry worm and decided to focus on beauty instead. So the terrifying 10-foot sand worm became a sexy 7-foot sea slug.
You might wonder why an editorial about the plausibility of a human-caused mass extinction made me so angry though. Part of the answer lies in the fact that I have hearing loss that wasn’t detected until I was in elementary school. Because I had to figure out so much of what was going on around me from context and non-verbal cues, I was always out of sync. A total misfit. I preferred the company of plants and rocks to that of other kids. I liked being outdoors because it kept me out of trouble. The fewer misunderstandings I could have with adults, the better. But I also found nature to be beautiful and comforting. I loved it, and as far as I knew, it loved me too. In college I decided to study biology with a plan to become a field ecologist. My life took some unexpected turns, so I didn’t end up studying ecosystems in exotic places as I imagined I would, but that’s alright because it means that I made a very sexy 7-foot sea slug, and I wouldn’t have done that otherwise. And I like it…and I
hope you do too.
So why nudibranchs? Well, nudibranchs are fabulous and they’re survival is in jeopardy. Nudibranchs are related to snails and slugs. These tiny mollusks live in coral reef habitats, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Tropical nudibranch species are flamboyantly colored and they vary a lot in physical form. Some species are relatively flat and they have what looks like a bundle on their back, while others are covered all over with finger-like projections. Some species even have a frilly, flap swirling about them like a ruffled skirt.
In addition to their aesthetic appeal, nudibranch biology is pretty interesting. These animals don’t have eyes, although they can detect light and shadow. They navigate their environment using chemical signals picked up by rhinophores, which are organs that look kind of like rabbit ears on the top of their heads. So they see with their ears which are actually noses…or something like that. Nudibranchs don’t have teeth. They have a rough tongue that they use like a cheese grater on their food source. Like fish, they breathe through gills. Fish have internal gills that are protected by bony flaps on each side of the head. Surprisingly, nudibranchs have gills that are external to the body. The name, nudibranch, is Latin for “naked gill”. It’s very strange that such an important organ is so
exposed. In some species the gills are in finger-like projections that are all over the back of the animal. In other species, the gills are in a bundle of feather-like plumes that surround the anus. You heard that right. They breathe water that they pooped in. See! You like science more than you thought you did! And Yes, I did include some interesting anatomical features in the sculptures…
And there’s more! Nudibranchs are hermaphrodites, which means they are both male and female at the same time. Here is where the story becomes salacious. Nudibranchs don’t self fertilize, so they do need to mate in order to reproduce. Each nudibranch has a penis on the right side of its head and a vagina on the same side of its body. When they mate, the penis of one animal extends from its cheek and probes the vaginal opening of another animal somewhere in the vicinity of its navel, if it had a navel that is… The recipient stores the sperm until its eggs are ready to be fertilized. Awesome.
Like their relatives, the land snails, nudibranchs are soft bodied and slow moving. Tropical
nudibranchs are so brightly colored, that they’re easy to spot, so you’d think that predators
swimming around the reef would just snap them up. But they aren’t easy pickings. Nudibranchs have a secret – they’re armored. Ecologically nudibranchs are consumers - they graze on corals in the same way that land snails graze on plants. But corals are related to jelly fish and, like jelly fish, they are covered with stinging cells that deter predators. Amazingly, nudibranchs are able to eat the coral and transport the stinging cells from their gut cavity to their skin. So nudibranchs repurpose the stinging cells to form a protective coat. This hidden defense helps explain the fabulous colors of nudibranchs. Warning coloration evolves in species that have chemical defenses, like bees and wasps
for example. Fish are pretty fast learners too, since it just takes one tiny nibble to get a mouth full of poisoned barbs. What’s not to love?!
So, the first sculpture of this group was inspired by a photo of an actual animal. The species is Nembrotha kubaryana. This species is velvety black with green spots and orange accents. And it’s tiny, about the size of your pinky finger. Now here’s where we cross over in the land of art. So tilt your head, we’re going over into the other hemisphere of your brain. Although these sculptures were inspired by actual living things, they are not accurate representations because they are not scientific models. These objects are sculptures and they are intended to function as works of art. What does that mean? Well, art is cultural production. Art is an experience. Art makes the intangible, tangible. My objective with this work was to enlarge and abstract this creature in order to enhance and exaggerate its strange beauty. I wanted the sculpture to attract you, to draw you in. I tried to give it
personality and attitude. It’s coy. I presented it on a human scale because I wanted it to confront you and to make you just a tiny bit uncomfortable… It is demanding that you look at it, that you see it. These creatures have entered your space. They are sensing you.
Okay, how did I make them? I worked out the forms by making small clay models. Then I sketched them onto a long roll of paper. I cut out the silhouettes and traced them onto blocks of expanded polystyrene, or EPS foam also known as Styrofoam. More on that environmentally unfriendly material in a moment… The carvings are glued to a plywood base and there are vertical fins of wood that project up into their centers for stability. I did most of the carving using wood tools, and I hand sanded the surface of the polystyrene before coating it with an acrylic resin that looks like plaster. I brushed on the acrylic coating material and hand sanded the entire surface following each of seven coats…yes, it was truly a labor of love. To finish the piece, I experimented with different paints – spray paint from Home Depot, water-based graffiti spray paint from Alva Graphics which is just a few
blocks from here on North Main, and liquid acrylic paint applied using an airbrush.
The two largest sculptures took several months to complete.
The entire time that I was working on these sculptures I was bothered by the materials that I was using – materials that are common to the trade. Carving generates a lot of waste and the polystyrene breaks apart into tiny beads. If the beads end up in water, fish and birds mistake them for food. Since polystyrene is plastic, animals can’t digest it and it fills their digestive systems causing them to starve to death. Initially I tried reusing Styrofoam from packages by gluing pieces together, but ultimately I ended up purchasing a block because the carving tools would tear out large chunks whenever I ran into a seam of adhesive. I did a lot of patching! Manufacturers use a hot wire system to cut the material, and smaller hot wire tools are available to artists who make sculptures using polystyrene. I decided not to use a hot wire though, because melting the plastic to cut it generates toxic fumes. I cut the foam with hand saws, but there’s a downside to this as well. Manually cutting the polystyrene produces plastic dust that’s difficult to sweep up, and it’s a health hazard if inhaled. Am I worrying too much?
Well, plastics, such as the polystyrene and acrylic in these sculptures, are chemicals made from petroleum oil. Plastics are useful because they don’t degrade, but that’s also the problem with them. Over 150 years of plastic waste has accumulated on Earth. Plastic bits can be found everywhere now, including the Arctic, the bottom of the ocean, and even in the tissues of wild animals. There’s an island of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. Plastic pollution is deadly to animals and the long term consequences are really unknown. Researchers are actively trying to discover microbes that can chemically digest plastics, but it’s still a quest.
Okay, so by basing these sculptures on nudibranchs I avoided facing that giant angry worm in the studio every morning, but I didn’t avoid dealing with the giant angry worm that colonized my mind. Unfortunately, the issue of plastic pollution is entirely eclipsed by the other environmental elephant in the room, which is Climate Change. Most simply put, the Earth’s climate is a result of the interaction of 3 things – the amount of sunlight the Earth receives, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and the abundance and diversity of life on Earth. Humans have altered everything but the sun. Landscapes that once absorbed CO2 have been destroyed, and the Earth’s carbon dioxide stores have been unlocked and thrown open. Consequently, so much carbon dioxide has been added to the atmosphere that Earth’s climate is beginning to change. And that change itself is not such a bad thing, but the rate at which the change is occurring is definitely bad. This rapid change in climate
is pulling the rug out from under life on Earth. You hear people say, “we need to save the Earth”, but we don’t really…the Earth will be fine, it’s the humans who need some help here…and of course most of the other species we share the Earth with need help as well.
Unless human civilization drastically reduces the amount of carbon dioxide being
added to the atmosphere very soon, by 2050, that’s just 28 years from now, most coral reefs on Earth will be gone due to global warming and ocean acidification that occurs when excess carbon dioxide dissolves into the water. That means that nudibranchs, and all of the other fantastically beautiful and weird creatures that inhabit coral reefs will be gone.
For me, this is a moral issue. Every day I think about my how my personal choices are contributing to this destruction. How much responsibility do I bear, personally? What can I do to bring about change? How much of an impact can I make? The problem is so big! I find my efforts to conserve energy and to reduce carbon emissions puny relative to the scale of change that needs to happen, and I feel frustrated by the vast and damaging infrastructure that I can’t avoid functioning within – an infrastructure that needs to be torn down and reengineered to meet human needs while still protecting ecosystems. The inertia of our destructive civilization results, at least in part, from the psychology of people who cling to past ideals despite their obvious consequences.
Our well being, economic and otherwise, depends on healthy ecosystems that generate clean air, fresh water, and food, and that protect us from harsh climate, and yet we continue to destroy the very thing that sustains us. So little nudibranch, is this goodbye? Extinction is forever. Scientists know that human civilization is faced with an enormous challenge. As individuals, it’s easy to become discouraged by the magnitude of the problem. Metaphorically speaking, we need to take a different path if we will save ourselves from extinction. Like any journey, it’s super helpful to know where you’re going. So, where are we going? What future do we wish to find and how do we get there?
Now here’s the vision thing…Can you envision a future in which nudibranchs and their coral reef homes continue to exist? That’s a future where we don’t lose 75% of Earth’s species, and where we will still find nourishment and stimulation in nature. I like this future quite a lot… Can you imagine a civilization predicated on carbon neutrality? One in which our buildings, transportation, food production and industry all release the same amount of carbon as plants and other photosynthetic organisms absorb? A carbon neutral civilization is a sustainable one – one that can continue on into the future in perpetuity. Those two futures are one and the same. The route to carbon neutrality won’t be easy, but it isn’t impossible. Collectively, our individual choices that reduce our environmental impacts help improve our chances of reaching a carbon neutral future. But of course, we need infrastructure changes as well. This gorgeous, environmentally friendly building is a step in
the right direction.
And With that, I invite you to come take a closer look at the nudis. Thank you!