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Life Aquatic: Nicoletta Darita de la Brown and Voyages at the National Aquarium

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What happens when our cultural and civic organizations collaborate with Baltimore-based artists? The results are compelling, unusual, educational–and, an increase in local audience engagement.

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Voyages Chapter 3 was an art installation and performance by artist Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown exploring the healing power of water, as well as an after party and dance performance. Hosted on July 20, Voyages was a celebration of Baltimore-centric nature and an opportunity for ‘voyagers’ to revisit favorite exhibits at the Aquarium through the artistic lens of de la Brown, where the boundaries between art and science became fluid.

As a collaborative partner, BmoreArt invited photographer Jill Fannon to capture the event and performance and we are happy to present her beautiful photos with more information about Nicoletta’s research, residency, and performance through the following article, originally published June 8 at the National Aquarium’s website.

When Nicoletta de la Brown was a high school student at Baltimore School for the Arts, she worked at the National Aquarium on the Guest Services team. She remembers arriving early in the morning, before any guests arrived, and soaking in the powerful, soothing effects provided by the mesmerizing world of water just beyond the glass.

Fast forward to present day and Nicoletta is the featured artist for the National Aquarium’s Voyages: Chapter 3 event on July 20—and she hopes that the art she’s creating for the event provides guests with that same feeling of calmness and restoration that she discovered at the Aquarium all those years ago.

At the onset of her artistic journey for Voyages: Chapter 3, Nicoletta immediately knew that she wanted her art to convey the magic of being surrounded by water here at the Aquarium—and the restorative effects of water in general.

“I want people to feel how healing, powerful, soothing and special this space is, and the water is,” Nicoletta explained. “I knew that was the seed, and I knew I wanted to plant it in the ground to see where it bloomed and what I could harvest from that.”

 

With this idea identified, the next step in Nicoletta’s artistic process involved seeking inspiration from time spent in and near water. She immersed herself in nature, spending time in forest streams and other spaces connected to water. She also spent many hours at the Aquarium, which included swimming in a tank in the Animal Care and Rescue Center—an experience she describes as life changing.

“Having an opportunity to be in a space … that then gave me space to swim as a modality of healing for me was one of the most powerful gifts I’ve ever been given,” she said. “It’s changed my life as a woman and as an artist.”

While at the ACRC, Nicoletta met a muse for her practice: Kai the green sea turtle, who suffers from buoyancy issues as a result of a boat strike injury. While talking with our experts about Kai, Nicoletta learned about the concept of neutral buoyancy in the aquatic world, which is the state in which an animal neither rises nor sinks. For Nicoletta, this concept was a game changer.

“I realized that for me, sometimes when I’m trying really hard, I am maybe not buoyant enough or I am overly buoyant and I realized that if I can just find that balance for myself then I myself can be neutrally buoyant,” she said.

 

As a part of her Voyages artistic residency, Nicoletta had the opportunity to connect with not only Aquarium experts, but multiple experts from other organizations. Two of those experts—Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and Bonnie Tsui—deeply influenced Nicoletta’s research.

In his book “Blue Mind,” marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols explores how being near, on or in water has positive effects on our mental health. Dr. Nichols’ research draws from neuroscience and psychology, the science behind how blue spaces cause a calm, meditative state of mind. This “blue mind theory” seamlessly complements Nicoletta’s intent of conveying the healing properties of water through her art.

Bonnie Tsui, author of “Why We Swim,” dives into the significance of swimming throughout different cultures and history. This nod to the ancestral call to water can also be seen in Nicoletta’s work and process. Ms. Tsui’s book also chronicles her interviews with scientists, such as a those in a lab researching the cardiovascular benefits of being underwater, providing Nicoletta a holistic look at humans’ relationship with water.

“As a creative, as an artist, as a very spiritual being, I feel a lot,” Nicoletta explained. “I use intuition, I am very mindful, I am present. I fuse my spiritual practice with my art practice—and I am a forever nerd. So the science just gives me more fuel and gives me more seeds to plant so that I can say, ‘I’m going to push this further.'”

Armed with inspiration from time spent in water and knowledge from collaboration with experts, Nicoletta began to create her art for Voyages: Chapter 3. During this stage of her process, she switches gears.

“I turn off my thinking brain and I turn on my feeling body and my creative energy starts to flow and I start to create,” she explained.

Nicoletta is an interdisciplinary artist, and her art for Voyages: Chapter 3 is composed of several different elements. She has created multiple experimental, non-narrative films, which she describes as ethereal and cinematic, that portray how it feels to be in water and to have water as a modality of healing. These films will be projected in spaces throughout the Aquarium during Voyages: Chapter 3 and will also be layered with sound components for a multi-sensory experience.

In addition to these videos, Nicoletta will also be performing during the event from the crest of Blacktip Reef. She describes this performance art as dance-like and resembling ritual. For this aspect of her practice, the artist is also the art.

“I sculpt space with my body as I activate the space as moving, living, breathing art,” she explained.

During this performance, Nicoletta will be in garments, a headdress and adornment that she fabricated and sculpted herself—another component of the art she’s creating for the event. Like the videos and the performance art, she’s created these garments while being guided and inspired by the healing nature of water. When fabricating garments, she also pulls from another source of inspiration: her heritage.

“I’m Panamanian, and I am very proud of my culture and being first generation in this country so I’m celebrating the women that came before me—some of them are ancestors, and some are elders—and I’m bringing their spirit into [my art],” Nicoletta said. “I’m honoring someone who’s loved on me and walked the path before me.”

 

Throughout her months-long artistic process, as she’s been learning and creating, Nicoletta has continued to ask herself the same question: How will guests feel when they walk through the door? Her goal is for guests to feel how she feels here—soothed, calm and restored—but it’s not just about feeling those restorative benefits of water. It’s about celebrating the power of that feeling, and celebration is what Voyages is all about.

“I want people to dance with me; I want people to celebrate,” she said. “Voyages as a concept is an invitation for adults to be playful—so come to play. Come to this space with people you love, come to gather and exchange with other people, come in a way that you feel like you’re going to be celebrating yourself.”

Most importantly, she wants guests to experience her art and the event as their authentic selves.

“Come as you are,” she urged. “And come ready to celebrate you.”

 

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