When you enter through the front doors of the Southampton Arts Center on Jobs Lane for the rest of the year, you’ll be greeted by the sounds of whales talking with one another, the smells of the sea and the sand, and a visual explosion of colors you’d only find diving off a coral reef in tropical waters.
This new immersive exhibition, titled “Light of the Ocean,” is the latest installation by artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez, who has travelled throughout the U.S. mounting these types of installations for more than 25 years. It is also a partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s marine program, which will also be offering hands-on science projects in the gallery.
This exhibit has been an all-hands-on-deck effort for weeks, with volunteers, some walking in off the street, working alongside Mr. Alvarado-Juárez to create another world within the museum walls. In the end, they’ll have brought in 20 tons of sand, countless sea grasses, shells and stones and 4,000 paper bags cut and painted to look like the tentacles of coral protruding out into the sea.
The museum is welcoming visitors to help install the exhibition from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until the opening Nov. 2. Those interested in volunteering can sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 631.283.0967 x11, or sign up here.
Mr. Alvarado-Juárez was born in a hospital on the beach in the seaside town of Tela on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, where he developed a healthy respect for the ocean. Every year, he said, visitors from inland would come to town on vacation and drown.
The town was a center of the United Fruit Company’s banana business in the when he was growing up, said Mr. Alvarado-Juárez, but one of his favorite places to visit there, still, is a botanical garden where a horticulturist brought in to work on experiments for United Fruit did his own fascinating experiments with tropical fruits from around the world, following his interests out of scientific curiosity, not out of a thought for commerce.
“It has a huge bay, with lots of coral reefs,” said Mr. Alvarado-Juárez of his hometown. “I was born on the beach, and as a child, the ocean was present all the time. I came to New York when I was 14, and New York is a port, also. The ocean has never disappeared from my life.”
This installation also includes recent underwater footage Mr. Alvarado-Juárez took on the reef on Roatan, the largest of three islands in Tela Bay.
This evolving installation began in Islip in 1992, as an homage to the ocean, but has picked up elements from landlocked locations it has traveled to since, from Denver to, most recently, North Dakota.
“There’s an enormous variety of plants and life in the ocean. It’s immense, and we’re still discovering,” said Mr. Alvarado-Juárez, who has added series of paintings, both representational works of beetles and butterflies, and recently, more abstract work, as the installation grew.
“They’re finding things at depths where there is no life, where there is gas coming out of the earth that will kill everything.”
“The biggest issue is we’re killing it,” he said of the ocean. “The entire earth, and the oceans, are covered in plastic at this point. We’re drinking and eating it. All water in the world is contaminated at this point. If you think you’re drinking beer, it’s plastic. Salt has plastic in it. It’s grossly unfair to animals, who are innocent and don’t realize we’re poisoning them.”
Community input into the project is vital to Mr. Alvarado-Juárez’s vision. Since the beginning of this year, he’s been holding workshops, dubbed “The Paper Bag Project,” to recruit community members to help make the bags that comprise the tentacles of the coral throughout the exhibit. It’s an ongoing effort — the bags in the installation are marked with the date they were created, with some as old as the original exhibition in 1992. Unlike plastic bags, they’re biodegradable, and Mr. Alvarado-Juáraz seems to view them as old friends.
“I know them,” he said as he gave a tour through the installation under construction in late October.
The partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension was also a natural fit, he said.
“We will be doing a lot of things that are scientifically correct, and some things that are artistic — things will anchor you and put you in a place, but it’s also part fantasy,” he said. “Many things are real and many things are made up. I keep the gallery open while I’m working. Anyone can check out the process. It’s always magical, and there’s always something anyone can do.”
Mr. Alvarado-Juárez was able to bring the project to Southampton after the Southampton Arts Center’s Artistic Director, Amy Kirwin, invited him.
“Amy instantly picked this up. It’s to her credit that it’s here,” said Mr. Alvarado-Juárez. “It’s apropos to Southampton, a seaside community.”
“Francisco’s work is compelling, beautiful, and above all, relevant. Not only will the fantastical display be one-of- a-kind, but to be able to open up the installation to the public to view and even help prepare is exactly the kind of opportunity SAC strives to create for our patrons.” says Ms. Kirwin. “It’s thrilling to be able to peel back the curtain on the creative process and let people in to work closely with the artist and experience what it is like to produce an exhibition.”
The exhibit will open with a reception on Nov. 2 from 5 to 7 p.m., and will be on view through Dec. 31. Gallery hours are Thursday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 31 from noon to 6 p.m. The suggested admission donation is $5, children under 18 free. The Southampton Arts Center can be reached at 631.283.0967.
More information is online at southamptonartscenter.org.