Not many people know, but there’s a hidden art gallery tucked away in the Fort Fisher Aquarium. Traverse the white alligator swamp and make an abrupt turn at the stingray petting zoo, past the inflatable whale. No, they aren’t directions from a Lewis Carroll story, but they do in fact lead to the aquarium’s Spadefish Gallery. Artists are chosen to hang their works for exhibitions which last three months. The art offers a palate cleanser for aquarium-goers and it’s included with admission. Mixed-media artist Alexandra Morse occupies the gallery for the year’s busy summer season with “Plastic Ocean.” The exhibit shows a unique sculptural approach to painting that harbors an environmentalist message.
Although she earns her living as a diver, with a knack for finding shark teeth, Morse has never been far from a set of pencils or paintbrushes. She made the honors art program in high school, by learning college-level techniques, like stretching and priming canvases, well before getting her bachelor’s degree. Although she chose not to major in art, she would take a few courses always to keep her wits about her—which also served to keep her talent whetted. Enthralled by underwater photography, Morse would paint imagined seascapes populated with creatures, mythical and mundane, ranging from Medusa to marlins. Eventually, the fascination would inspire her to pursue diving on a professional level. After spending so much time beneath the waves, Morse began to paint deep seascapes with a trained eye.
“The way I paint water is definitely different from diving,” she clarifies. “There’s a difference when I’m painting something at depth versus higher in the water column or in shallower water. Before I would paint water more like currents with a back-and-forth stroke; with underwater, it’s more about columns of light and shadows.”
Water isn’t the only thing given this kind of attention in her paintings. Morse relies heavily on texture, hinting at moving currents within her painted water columns by creating tactile creases and folds on the canvas. Furthermore, she incorporates sculptural elements that protrude from the surface. Jellyfish bubble upward in a dance of swaying tentacles, while carefully detailed sea turtles drift into view. Close inspection reveals colorful pebbles and sea-glass embedded in the turtle shells.
More strikingly, jellyfish are made of plastic. Where sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish in reality, Morse’s art mimics life by creating visions of jellyfish out of garbage. In other paintings she shows sea turtles approaching pieces of grocery bags that look nothing like jellyfish—nailing the point even further home. Morse does this intentionally, often using plastics she finds while diving but commonly from everyday life in Wilmington. Morse credits advocate groups for keeping the beaches as trash-free as possible, but she maintains we have a long way to go to help Wilmington become ultimately eco-friendly.
“Here, we don’t really get a lot of plastic debris,” she explains. “We have a lot of people here who are advocates for the ocean, like Surfrider Foundation, Plastic Ocean Project, and others aware of plastic pollution, so our beaches are somewhat clean for how much tourism we get. I do find some plastic in the ocean or off the beach, and I will collect it, but a lot of my plastic is from living in the South. It’s really difficult to get away from plastic here. If you go into the mountains or the West Coast, it’s a lot easier to be plastic-free because businesses help you avoid getting plastic when you go grocery shopping. Even for me, I’m such an advocate for the ocean and how plastic is not good for it, but I still can’t be 100 percent plastic-free living in Wilmington. Any time I do come across it, I will recycle it in my artwork.”
Morse was among a plethora of artists who took part in Expo216’s similarly-titled show, “Ocean Plastic,” in 2016. Naturally, her paintings fit the theme like a glove. So too do they find a suitable home in the aquarium; although, viewers who saw her work at Expo216 may find themselves in on a special secret.
“Not many people know the paintings will glow in the dark or in blacklight,” Morse shares. “It’s really hard to portray because it’s gallery lighting, but it has to be completely dark for the glow paint to show. I actually ended up having a whole exhibit upstairs, which was their blacklight room. They have a theater room that can be completely blacked out. It worked really well to have a blacklight showing where we would intermittently have the lights on and turn them off.”
Morse’s application of glow-paint is far from what one would see at an average craft-store. She evokes marine bioluminescence, and the subtle shifting of stray-light particles reaching the deepest ocean. Beneath blacklight glow, her grey plastic jellyfish become charged in venomous green, and previously unseen bubbles erupt from empty water. In an affectionately profound example, a docile humpback whale and her calf become traced in meticulous patterns, as they drift through plankton, glowing green against a royal blue ocean deepened by blacklight.
Although an environmentalist at heart, Morse doesn’t intend to admonish society through art. She merely wants to make people more mindful of how our garbage is treated and especially where it ends up. It’s all about understanding and compromise.
“It’s one of those things where being aware of the issue is key,” Morse elaborates. “One of the most common statistics is there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish by 2050. I think it will probably be sooner than that with the rate we consume plastic. There’s also an awareness how plastic is an amazing invention. Without plastic we could not have what we have today, especially in the medical industry. [But] there is no such thing as throwing something away. It’s just putting it somewhere else. Our trash and recycling system is much better than other places in the world, but if you look at the world population, the amount of plastic consumed, and the amount that can be recycled, it’s just not sustainable. Eventually we’re going to do something different.”
“Plastic Ocean” runs during daily operating hours until September. The exhibition features previously unavailable work as well as brand new offerings. Each piece on display is for sale, with 20 percent of sales going straight to Plastic Ocean Project.