Update on Searching for the Ghosts of the Gulf with Brandon Ballengée

February 7, 2022

After a delayed start due to Hurricane Ida, our collaborative residency with Brandon Ballengée and the Plaquemines Parish Government, Searching for the Ghosts of the Gulf, is officially underway. While the storm pushed our plans back, it also underscored how relevant this project is. The hurricane made landfall several parishes away, but widespread wind and water damage left many Plaquemines Parish residents without power for months. In response, we pivoted our early fall activities to collecting and distributing relief supplies to some of our partners in the hard-hit community of Phoenix, Louisiana.

As the community has stabilized, Searching for the Ghosts of the Gulf has begun in earnest. This project brings artist, biologist and educator Brandon Ballengée to A Studio in the Woods for a community-based residency with Plaquemines Parish coastal communities. Through participatory art and science, the project explores missing Gulf of Mexico fish species with youth, fisherpeople, and community members, many of whom are themselves under threat.

In November and December, Brandon hosted workshops for students at Phoenix High School, a K-12 school located in Braithwaite, LA on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Brandon presented on evolutionary adaptation in fishes and how successful they are at adapting to changes in their environment. He then encouraged students to consider ways we might adapt to rising seas, sinking land, warming, and other changes to climate and our environment. Brandon brought a portable natural history museum – a kind of sea chest – with fish specimens for the students to examine and draw. The students were so inspired that they independently proposed collaborating on a coloring book of Gulf of Mexico species for younger students and an art show at next year’s Orange Festival – a beloved Plaquemines community event.

Even though they are surrounded by water – open Gulf of Mexico marshlands sit on one side and the Mississippi River on the other – many students shared that they haven’t been in the marshes, boated in the water, nor gone fishing. Historically students’ families would have had boats for shrimping, collecting oysters and commercial fishing but the impacts of repeated hurricanes over time have destroyed these vessels. 

Brandon also hosted a Professional Development workshop for faculty of Phoenix High School onsite at the Tulane University Biodiversity Research Institute (TUBRI) Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, the largest preserved fish collection on the planet with 9 million + specimens!  After a tour of this unique fish collection with particular attention to endemic Gulf species, he shared strategies for teaching art, science and adaptation with teachers and community organizers. Through drawing and discussion the group explored the rich regional ecology of the region and how we can adapt to climate changes.  

Looking forward, Brandon will continue offering Fish adaption and drawing workshops to Plaquemines Parish residents and invited guests from outside the parish. Sign up here for a public workshop on April 28.

To recruit additional Plaquemines stakeholders, a series of pop-up exhibitions will be set up by Brandon in unconventional venues such as marinas, seafood markets, parks, libraries, festivals and other places where fisherfolk, oil field workers and their families gather. 

Brandon has also begun working on a ‘food chain’ sculpture from Suttkus collection specimens to help visualize and experience the complexity of the Gulf of Mexico food web.  Here he hopes to work with Plaquemines parish fisherfolk to complete the work while strategizing means to help Plaquemines fisheries to once again become sustainable. 

The project will conclude in 2023 with “FISHSTOCK,” a free festival focusing on community adaptation. Program, artworks and ecological findings will be exhibited and attendees will be able to participate in a variety of art, science, food, energy and other hands-on activities. Here we will celebrate Plaquemines natural resources and rich culture of the parish members, while presenting solutions imagined by and for coastal residents and building a network to sustain our communities both human and non-human alike.

If you are interested in learning more, join us for an Artist Salon on March 24 to meet Brandon and here about the project first-hand. Register here.