Get to Know the Artists: Ethan Estess

May 13, 2017

Get to Know the Artists
Art in the Arboretum: Environmental Installations

Several of the artists participating in Art in the Arboretum: Environmental Installations shared their personal histories and thoughts on art and being an artist and responded to the questions below.

Ethan Estess

Ethan EstessEstess, an artist and marine biologist in Santa Cruz, uses found materials to tell stories about the environment. He explains the inspiration for Gas Field, the piece he installed at this exhibition: “I collected these gas tanks during my four months at the Recology Art Residency at the San Francisco public dump in 2012. I was struck by their subdued pink color and soft rounded edges, which I found to have a surprisingly natural appeal. A walk through the diverse foliage at the UCSC arboretum reminded me of these tanks, and I dug them out of storage to give them a new life in the garden. This work is a meditation on the cycles of plant growth and decay that generate the natural gas we rely on in our fossil fuel-driven society.”

sculptureEstess has created other environmentally inspired installations, such as Dumpster Diving: California Brown Pelican, which, through its movements, tells the story of this bird from its near extinction from pesticides like DDT to its recovery through grassroots environmental activism. More of Estess’ artwork can be seen on his website:

What person, place, or event has been a primary influence on your work and why? My experiences with whale talethe ocean are the primary drivers of my creative practice. For example, watching a flock of pelicans fly by inspired me to build a 20 foot long kinetic model of a flock of brown pelicans flying in a sinusoidal pattern. Another time, a fellow marine biologist shared a story about watching helplessly as a whale drowned when entangled in fishing rope, and the next week I salvaged several coils of rope from the landfill and made a life-size whale fluke wrapped in rope. My practice is a pathway for me to share these encounters and narratives in the hope that they help people to see the ocean as the beautiful, life-supporting force that it is.

What adjectives best describe you as an artist/person?

Committed. At this stage in my art career, I am extremely focused on developing my practice. I left my full-time position as a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2014 in order to develop my art career, and I established my studio and gallery in 2016 to take my artwork to the next level. I have big dreams and I am excited to take my art to the highest level.

What adjectives best describe your work?

I would like my artwork to be regarded as cohesive, thoughtful, and well-crafted. Having a cohesive aesthetic is important to me in that it establishes my voice as an artist and enables viewers and patrons to recognize my work. I put a tremendous amount of thought into each piece, at least 10 times as long as it takes to make the work. This meditative process enables me to develop metaphor and integrate insights into the production of the work. And last, craftsman ship is extremely important to me. Growing up making surfboards, I learned to pay close attention to materials and details, and, in college, I had some intense design professors who pushed me to pursue excellence in the technical execution of my work.

  found   for the love of tuna   
                          Found                                            For the Love of Tuna

If you had a personal philosophy/motto, what would it be?
Go big then go home... Meaning, push your work as hard as you can but be safe and maintain your psychological and physical health throughout. I have a tendency to overcommit to my art, and this motto reminds me to take breaks, get in the ocean, and re-energize.

What might surprise someone about you/your work?
I think the backstory behind my material choices often surprises people. I have a commitment to using found materials in my practice whenever possible, and I’m constantly keeping an eye out for materials to scavenge. I often go to absurd lengths to reclaim material, such as the hundreds of pounds of fishing rope I shipped back from a dump pile in Nova Scotia and the thousands of metal welding rods I dug out of a dumpster at Stanford.

What are your thoughts on the Site Specific Environmental Exhibit?
I am excited and honored to be involved with this exhibition, and it is pushing my work to handle the outdoor environment. I am interested to see how people interact with my kinetic installation made from reclaimed helium tanks; we’ll see if people discover the acoustic characteristics of the work. I think the informal, open environment at the Arboretum will encourage this type of engagement with the installations, and I am looking forward to reactions from the exhibition!