This scientist has made a career of mapping the ocean floor, while creating art from the fascinating creatures who lives there, using the ancient craft of gyotaku.
- Story by Steve Barney
Holly has always been fascinated by creatures in the water. She grew up in Michigan and spent her childhood on the water where her father owned a bait shop on the shore of Lake St. Clair.
Later, she studied marine science at Coastal Carolina University. It was in college at a job fair where she learned about the work going on at the Naval Oceanographic Office based at Stennis Space Center, on the Mississippi coast.
NAVOCEANO is the largest subordinate command within the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, and has a fleet of six state-of-the-art research vessels collecting data to support military and civilian mariners.
“When I learned about NAVOCEANO, I was sold,” Holly says. “I packed my bags and moved to Mississippi. I wanted to be on those ships and spend my life at sea.”
Holly is a hydrographer, and she maps the sea floor by using specialized SONAR devices. SONAR uses acoustic “pings” which bounce off the sea floor, and then she measures the echos. The measurements provide the raw data used to compile detailed nautical charts.
Today, Holly uses a sophisticated R2 Sonic 2024, a high resolution multibeam sounder, with full coverage over the sea floor. Much of Holly’s time is spent looking at a computer screen and analyzing streams of data. Sometimes the unexpected appears on Holly’s computer screen, including uncharted shipwrecks and plane crashes, artificial reefs and debris fields. Holly marvels at the local ecosystems that attract marine life of all sorts.
She looks forward to going out to sea where her creative passion comes alive. Holly learned the technique of Gyotaku from boyfriend Scott Johnson. Johnson used to be a “Hell Diver.” He still enjoys free diving under oil rigs to spear fish and then prints them on rice paper with sumi ink.
Holly walks the beach a lot on the hunt for freshly killed fish. “I look at the eyeballs and see how fresh they are, and give them the sniff test,” Holly said.
Recently, Holly began offering live demonstrations of fish printing at the seasonal Mr. Atticus Night Market sponsored by the Mockingbird Café and The Arts, Hancock County. Public demonstrations in an uncontrolled environment offers Holly a host of challenges.
Holly explains, “The fish I had was on ice overnight and it’s necessary to wait until the surface moisture stops condensing, or else the water smears the ink.
“Once it’s the right temperature and the condensation stops on the surface. I stuff the gills with a paper towel to prevent water seeping out. I pin the fins out so they don’t lay against the fish’s body to ensure a good print off the fish.”
In May 2019, Holly participated in the “Under the Flower Moon” experience at La Terre Bioregional Center and Art Studios in Kiln, Mississippi. Along with her fish prints and live Gyotaku demonstration, Holly created a site installation bringing the ocean to the woods.
“When jellyfish are swimming together it is called a bloom,” she said. “I wanted to create a magical scene with jellyfish bobbing in the wind.”
To create the jellyfish sculptures, Holly “upholstered” plastic bowls and used ribbons and beads as tentacles attached to mini Slinkies with battery powered fairy lights. The installation was breathtaking.
Ann Madden, vice president of The Arts, Hancock County, said, “Holly’s illuminated jellyfish were so dreamlike and magical, it made you wonder if you were on land or undersea. Her artistry, composition and colors are so beautiful and interesting.”
Madden added, “Holly marries art and science in a simple but sophisticated way that creates a wide appeal. She is generous with her time and expertise and is one of the loveliest, most approachable artists I know.”
In 2014, Holly purchased Lil’ Tuggle II, a tugboat rumored to have sunk in Lake Pontchartrain during Hurricane Katrina. For the last four years, Holly has done a full rebuild and restoration, doing a large portion of the work herself, figuring it out along the way.
Holly is passionate about bringing the boat back to life and making it her mobile art studio. Ultimately, Holly’s dream is to take Lil’ Tuggle II on “The Great American Loop”, making a big circle from Mobile Bay up to Chicago, through the Great Lakes, to the Hudson River, and down the eastern seaboard through the intercoastal waterway.
Along the way, Holly plans to catch fish, paint them (and eat them), then sell her artwork on Etsy. Meanwhile, she’ll be logging hours toward her Captain’s license while living her water world dream.