From concept to creation: designing a rockwork display

Longtime Aquarium Aquarist Chris Van Damme joined forces with Associate Curator of Life Sciences Joel Hollander and Aquarium volunteer Eva Funderburgh Hollis to create a beautiful and authentic-looking piece of rockwork that was recently unveiled in our Puget Sound Fish exhibit. Below, Chris shares his thoughts about the project and how the process of creating the rockwork played out:

The inspiration for this project came from wanting to create some rockwork that mirrored the geology up in Neah Bay, which is where we do our collecting. In particular, I wanted some verticality and a swim-through feature that the fish could use; something beyond just a tumble of rocks against the backdrop.

I researched products with which to build it, started working with the material—and then discovered that Eva, one of our volunteer divers, is also a sculptor. Joel mentioned the project to her and she expressed interest in it. We met, did some clay modeling and discussed what we wanted to create.

We landed on a concept and I then built a spine for the structure. Next, we started laying Styrofoam—Eva glued it on and carved it down. When we achieved the shape we’d agreed upon, we applied the epoxy, and the product turned out really well.

However, when we tried to put it in the water, we found out it floated because there was so much Styrofoam inside it. We then had to remove the Styrofoam, which ended up requiring us to cut access holes in the base and chip and vacuum it all out. We then put it in the main exhibit area here for about three weeks or so to verify that it would sink, and to season it as well. We also painted it, with help from staff member Lindsay Holladay, to simulate coralline algae so that it wouldn’t go into the exhibit space without looking like it belonged.

Now that it’s been there a while, it has creatures on it—anemones and different invertebrates. It’s starting to create that habitat that we’d envisioned and it’s only going to get better with time.

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