At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, Kaitlyn Metcalf and her husband had been traveling in Southeast Asia, where they scuba-dived in the Andaman Sea among different places. Seeing nudibranchs up close inspired Metcalf to profile the tiny, colorful sea slugs in a series of paintings. PHOTOS COURTESY KAITLYN METCALF

Time underwater yields painting series of alluring sea slugs

TRENTON — Amid the sorrow and darkness that plagued the world during the coronavirus pandemic, Trenton artist Kaitlyn Metcalf immersed herself in work that explored color and light. 

The visual artist and her husband, Ryan Swanson, traveled to Southeast Asia during the winter of 2019-20. In Thailand, they had signed up for some scuba-diving trips in the Andaman Sea, known for its vast coral reefs, when the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was much in the news. They opted to shorten their travels, but still got plenty of diving in including living with 20 other divers aboard a boat for a week. During that excursion, Kaitlyn searched for and got to observe up close a marine creature near and dear to her — the nudibranch.

Nudibranchs are shell-less mollusks found in seas all over the world (including off Eastport!) but are most colorful in tropical waters. Numbering more than 2,000 species, the sea slugs range widely in shape, color and form, and seem almost otherworldly. The tiny creatures measure about 1 to 8 centimeters in length. 

For Kaitlyn, searching for nudibranchs beneath the sea’s surface was a bit of an escape. One that would cause her to excitedly motion to Ryan, using a specific hand symbol, to let him know whenever she spotted them.

“Under the sea, they don’t know coronavirus,” the 2007 Maine College of Art graduate said. On land, “It was palpable.”

As a global shutdown loomed that February, “It was very tense at that point. People were worried about how they were going to get home,” she shared. “Being under the sea, I was just able to sort of take it in and look at these beautiful creatures.” 

How the slugs get their vibrant coloring adds to their allure.

“They get a lot of their color from feeding on poisonous creatures,” she explained, like jellyfish and anemones. “I found it a really beautiful analogy for what was going on.”

From her underwater perspective, she wondered if something beautiful also could come out of the destructive disease gripping the world.

“On this trip, I couldn’t help but feel the contrast of these two worlds, above and below. Neither feeling dependent or concerned about the other, but in reality, critically intertwined,” Kaitlyn wrote on her website about her series of paintings inspired by nudibranchs. 

Once home, Kaitlyn prepared for what she thought would be a two-week quarantine.

“What are we going to do with our time?” she thought. “What’s my next project going to be?”

The initial two weeks turned into a much longer shutdown, and the art shows Kaitlyn typically participated in were canceled.

“I should take this time and just press the reset button,” she decided. “I’m just going to make work for me.”

The “reset button” included beginning her nudibranch series. 

Originally from New Orleans, La., Kaitlyn calls her work “exploratory.”

“I like to take concepts and materials and just sort of push them,” she explained, adding, “a lot of my work has been connected to the water.”

The indefinite time at home allowed her to go even more in depth. 

“A lot of times, I do use my shows as a motivating factor to keep the creative engine going,” she said. “This past year, it was different because the work actually just flowed out of me.”

Besides searching for the creature herself, Kaitlyn’s process for the series included finding professional photographs on nudibranchs online. She reached out to photographers for permission before reconfiguring the images into compositions painted on canvases with acrylic paint.

“Since there were no local shows to prepare for, and with extra time in the studio, the nudibranch series gave me a chance to explore new painting techniques and materials, along with playing with the abstraction of these magnificent creatures,” Kaitlyn said. “For years I have painted mostly realistically, and the series is an exciting opportunity to paint a real-life creature in a way that feels quite abstract.”

One of the materials Kaitlyn got to explore further is glass glitter. The flecks of a silver-based material come in all colors of the rainbow. Pieces in her nudibranch series are adorned with the metallic media. 

“It just gives [the painting] added depth and dimension,” she said, and “breathes a little bit of extra life in the painting.”

“It’s like it’s a living creature.”

Using glass glitter coincides with much of Kaitlyn’s work, which focuses on finding illumination in dark spaces. 

On a recent road trip, Kaitlyn and Ryan traveled through Cottonwood, Ariz., a small town where the pair serendipitously stumbled upon the glass glitter supplier, Art Glitter, Kaitlyn uses. 

“So then of course it was two hours in the glass glitter store chatting with [the owner],” Kaitlyn recalled. 

Since the pandemic, Kaitlyn has reevaluated her participation in outdoor art shows in favor of gallery representation. As the world reopens from the pandemic’s slumber, Kaitlyn’s work is being represented by The Gallery at Somes Sound.

“I’m really enjoying the work I’m creating,” she said. 

For more information, visit Kaitlyn’s website, and email [email protected]

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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