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Using SciArt to Protect Killer Whales

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Meet Rosemary Connelli, the killer whale girl and a passionate SciArt communicator from Rhode Island.

Rosemary uses her SciArt business, Connelli Designs, to educate, raise awareness, and enhance studies of the marine environment through graphic design and printmaking. She has worked with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Whale and Dolphin Conservation just to name a few. Now, she is working with Whale Wise, a UK charity aiming to protect marine mammals, on whale entanglement educational material.

We asked Rosemary to share some of her story and what she has learned through her pioneered SciArt career path.

Hi Rosemary, can you tell us a bit about you and the steps you took to get to where you are now?

"Sure! My name is Rosemary Connelli, and I am an artist and scientific communicator. I grew up on Block Island, a small island off the coast of Rhode Island. The first time I combined science and art was in middle school, for an assignment in science class where I had to create identification cards of flora and fauna of the island. This passion would reappear later in my studies at Green Mountain College, where I created my own classes to combine science and art. After graduating college, I launched my business, Connelli Designs, and started collaborating with marine education organizations."

You make those steps sound straight forward, but I imagine there were many forks in the road. What made you choose the path to marine mammal education specifically?

"Of course it wasn't that simple, but I didn't let roadblocks stop me from pursuing both art and science communication. I worked hard to construct new classes at my college that would allow me to do this. And, it was during a graphic design class I had constructed where I found a way to join those naturally. The assignment was to combine research and visual communications in the form of an educational infographic to raise awareness of a species that needed critical attention. I chose the Southern Resident killer whales, a group of endangered killer whales comprised of three pods or family groups: J, K and L pods. Currently, there are only 74 individuals left in the population, and they face extreme threats such as lack of prey availability, vessel noise, and pollution. In an effort to share their story, I designed an interactive infographic that highlighted their population count, their threats, and how the general public can help their existence and future survival. From that moment on, I became hooked on the idea of connecting science and art as a means to help amplify and share crucial stories of the marine environment."

We love infographics, both learning from them and creating them! Did that project help you find your niche in the world of scicomm?

"It definitely helped me practice the skills I use today. I find joy in creating visual communication materials such as infographics and signages through graphic design and printmaking mediums. I believe artwork can help bridge a communication gap for individuals who learn visually or have a difficult time understanding and reading complex research articles and materials."

"After I graduated in 2018, I took my graphic design skills to the New Bedford Whaling Museum working as a design intern. In that role, I created museum signage for their exhibit "Whales Today," so, yes, infographics were the starting point to my work in scicomm. And then I took that a step further in building my own business in the spring of 2019."

What motivated you to start your own business?

"I decided to launch my own business to build my image as a scientific communicator and to create connections."

Making connections is very helpful in forging your own path. What were some of the early connections you made through your business?

"Yes! The first connection I made was in the summer of 2019. I was accepted as an artist-in-residence with Bere Point Research and Sointula Art Shed on Malcolm Island in British Columbia, where I studied the Northern Resident killer whales and their unique beach rubbing behaviors through graphic designs."

"After the art residency, I spent a few months in Iceland as a cetacean research intern under the University of Iceland collecting behavioral observations and photo-identifications of humpbacks, and also began collaborating with the Húsavík Whale Museum on an ongoing museum signage project."

So, you were both a whale artist and researcher? It's rare to be able to study something from both the artist and scientist perspective. What was that experience like?

"Yeah, I was able to combine both disciplines on an issue I cared about. I actually started as an artist-in-residence in Canada, then became a research intern in Iceland, then had the opportunity to do another art residency in Iceland. Each position was very exciting! But I had to be proactive and seek out those opportunities."

"In the researcher role in Iceland, I worked at a shore-based station where I logged sightings and behaviors of cetacean species and tracked killer whale populations and movements with a theodolite. I also spent time designing educational materials. One design project I worked on involved creating a cetacean photo-identification poster for the Icelandic community, so even as a researcher, I was using my skills in visual communication."

How did you get the second artist-in-residency position?

"One day in my role as a cetacean research intern, I was photographing killer whales in Skjálfandi Bay. I wanted to identify the whales in the photographs, so I reached out to the Icelandic Orca Project for support and to inform them of the whales’ recent presence in the bay. I introduced myself and my artwork studies to the founder, Filipa Samarra, and after many email conversations, I was asked to join their team as an artist-in-residence. I flew out to Vestmannaeyjar in the summer of 2021, and joined a wonderful crew of researchers, professors and students. It's not something that landed in my lap, it was an opportunity that I had to create for myself."

Seeking opportunities is how we all start! Do you have any role models you look to when you need inspiration to do that?

"Yes! Eva Saulitis. She was an American marine biologist and poet who moved to Alaska in her early twenties to study killer whales. I first learned of Saulitis in my early twenties when I read her book, “Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas." Her book tells the firsthand accounts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, and how the spill destroyed the killer whale community she was studying. Her narration through a scientific and a creative lens instilled a drive in me to see myself both as a creative and a scientist. I had hopes of reaching out to her to share my thoughts on how moving her book was, but unfortunately I learned she had passed away from breast cancer in 2016. I am grateful to have read her work at a stage in my life where I was finding myself in the world."

"My mother is also my role model in so many ways. She has been my inspiration since I was a child. She graduated with a degree in art therapy and encouraged me and my siblings to express ourselves through creative outlets. She has supported my artistic career and the choices I have made for myself and my business. Without her love and support in my artistic passions, I don’t think I would be the woman I am today."

And is seems like you are doing well as both a creative and a scientist. Are you working on any current projects you'd like to tell us about?

"Currently, I am working on educational design projects that will be used for identifying Icelandic whales and addressing humpback whale entanglements with my Whale Wise team. The project aligns with their mission statement to create a harmonious relationship between whales and humans through scientific research and public engagement, and I am really excited to be involved."

"And, through my business, I am working on making new block prints of salmon and orca scenes, inspired from my time in Washington. When I think of longer term goals, I would love to find myself in WA as an artist, working alongside environmental groups and Indigenous organizations involved in salmon and killer whale studies."

It sounds like there is no lack of creative scicomm work, but building that clientele must have taken a lot of time and effort. What has been the biggest challenge for you throughout your career? If you could advise your younger self, what would you say?

"That's true. My biggest challenge for me throughout my career has been to believe and trust in myself, especially when others may not understand or support my artistic passions. But I know in my heart how much artwork drives me and makes me feel like I have found my place. It makes me happy to help others share their work visually. I wouldn’t want to lose this passion as it has helped shape my identity, my womanhood, and my spirit."

"But starting off and taking risks is scary. I wish I could tell my younger self not to doubt myself and that it is okay to follow passions that others may not understand. We have to put our happiness and the very embodiment of it first. That's what makes us feel alive and whole."

Paths to a SciArt career are not usually obvious ones. Is there any message you want to share with those who are hoping to combine both disciplines?

"Yes. From what I have learned, it’s crucial to make connections and to network with like-minded individuals. Connect with friends, professors, and researchers in these fields for advice and opportunities. Push yourself out of your comfort zone for opportunities. Reach out to that organization you have been dreaming to collaborate with. When we leave our comfort zones, sometimes we find a version of ourselves and opportunities we had never dreamed of meeting. You can also join art and science groups in your area, in online forums, or wherever group spaces may be available to you. If you are looking to build your artistic side, try out art classes or an artistic medium if you are curious! You may end up enjoying a creative outlet, but you never know if you don’t try, and that goes for anyone even if you're not trying to make it a part of your career. And, lastly, follow your heart and pay attention to what makes you happy. If combining science and art is what strikes a fire inside of you, hold onto that feeling. It’s possible to achieve your passions if you continually believe in yourself and focus on the person you would like to become."

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