Laurie Sumiye Visits Vertebrate Zoology

Natural history collections aren’t only visited by scientists – they are also a unique resource for artists.  Laurie Sumiye is one such artist who uses the Vertebrate Zoology collection to both inspire and inform her artwork.  Like the scientific researchers who use the collection’s specimens to understand the evolutionary relationships between different organisms, artists like Laurie use the specimens to understand and interpret the often complicated relationships between humans and the natural environment.

Laurie was born in Hawaii, but refined her skills as a conceptual artist all over the globe.  She has studied and worked in New York, San Francisco, and Florence.  She has exhibited artwork and screened her award-winning films in Los Angeles, South Africa, New York, and Sao Paulo.  And now she has brought all of that experience and creativity back to Oahu to explore the tension that exists between people and a delicate island ecosystem.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Laurie for a few years now, and I’m constantly impressed with her devotion to learning about Hawaii’s native species.  Most of my work with her has been related to her film projects, which focus on Hawaiian forests and their small songbirds.  But last month, she came to me with a very different type of project in mind: an installation piece featuring a much larger bird, the Laysan albatross.

Laysan albatross are one of three species of albatross found in the North Pacific.  They spend most of their lives searching for food on the open ocean and only come ashore to breed and raise their chicks.  Small breeding colonies can be found on Oahu and Kauai, but most of the species breeds in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Unfortunately, this puts the birds in close proximity to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, the flotsam and jetsam of modern human life that accumulates in the centers of ocean gyres.  The adult albatross forage for food, ingest plastic (either by mistake or because it is covered in flying fish eggs), then feed the plastic to their chicks.  The end result can be seen in the haunting photos taken by Chris Jordan on the island of Midway.

Laysan albatross adult and chick on Midway Atoll

Laurie’s latest project was born from a desire to raise public awareness about the struggles faced by these birds and explore the ways that humans are both harming and helping them.   To that end, she’s creating a series of Laysan albatross eggs from discarded plastic.  In order to accurately represent the size and shape, she made silicone molds from actual Laysan albatross eggs in the Vertebrate Zoology collection.  Please see below for images of the mold-making process and the final results!