‘The Underwater Wonders of Toms Creek’ Exhibition Highlights Collaboration and Community Partnership Eco-Ed

Swimming through the Perspective Gallery, hundreds of colorful paper cutouts of the native bluehead chub minnow accompany the calming sounds of water. Video projections of the male bluehead chub darting and building nests contrast with the serene, softly lit space.

The nest-building process is simple, methodical, and transfixing as the male minnow carries pebbles one by one in its mouth to build a mound in the stream, attract a mate, and spawn. In doing this, the bluehead chub not only guarantees the species’ survival each spring, but the mounds provide a safe spawning nest for up to nine other minnow species in the Toms Creek watershed.

Researchers in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech have observed and explored the habitats at Toms Creek at Deerfield Park since 2008, as the bluehead chub minnow is a “keystone” in the survival of other minnow species and provides stability to the ecosystem. Predators, pollution, and population growth all threaten the local waterbody, a tributary of the New River.

While public education has been a constant component of the research, this two-year collaborative project involving Student Engagement and Campus Life, the Perspective Gallery, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and faculty members from the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design helped make science more accessible to members of the community through visual art, theatre productions, and the immersive art exhibition. “The Underwater Wonders of Toms Creek” allows visitors to see these fish “out of the water” with the hopes of cultivating a better understanding of conservation efforts.

“Arts communicate with the viewers directly and inclusively without boundaries,” said Hiromi Okumura,  assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts and one of the collaborators on the project. “When art inspires humanity, magic happens.”

Pages from Matt Gentry’s nature journal are exhibited in the Perspective Gallery alongside large-scale photographs of the bluehead chub, oil-painted canvases of the minnow and its nest associates, and team members’ contributions to the visual representation of the fish and environment. Virginia Tech photo

The genesis of the project began in the Center for Communicating Science via a collaboration incubator facilitated by the center’s Director Patty Raun, who is also a professor of theatre in the School of Performing Arts, and colleagues in the center. Emmanuel Frimpong, the principal investigator on the bluehead chub research, has guided the study for more than 15 years, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Okumura, Frimpong, and Eugene G. Maurakis, a scientist, researcher, and science communicator from the University of Richmond, initially met in a Zoom break-out room where Frimpong and Maurakis introduced Okumura to the bluehead chub minnow, called “chubbies,” and the research at Toms Creek. The team included C. Meranda Flachs-Surmanek of the School of Public and International Affairs and contributors from the Center for Communicating Science.

Sponsored by a major SEAD Grant from the Virginia Tech Institute of Creativity, Arts, and Technology, and collaborative efforts of many across disciplines, Toms Creek and the community’s artistic renditions of the bluehead chub found a temporary home on campus.

Visitors to the “The Underwater Wonders of Toms Creek” can view videos projected on the walls to observe the movements and nest building activities of the bluehead chub. Mobiles throughout the Perspective Gallery display hundreds of created fish art. Photo courtesy of Hiromi Okumura.

“The photos of the bluehead chubs Emmanuel and Eugene showed me in that meeting were so memorable and lovely, I just wanted to know more, learn more,” Okumura said. “I did not know about this unique fish, and I wanted to learn more immediately.

The next spring, Okumura found herself wearing waders, side-by-side with the Toms Creek researchers as they counted the fish and measured the sizes of the nests and the speeds of the currents during the spring spawning season.

“There is an amazing world of aquatic life that I had never known before,” said Okumura. “Fascinating! I totally fell in love with chubbies when I saw them for the first time, and I immediately thought we need to protect this precious and vulnerable environment. Chubbies are doing amazing work creating communities and maintaining underwater ecosystems. It is up to humans to protect them for the future.”

“The Underwater Wonders of Toms Creek” is inspired by the research of three Frimpong Lab graduate students, Samantha Brooks, Thomas Bustamante, and Maddie Betts, in the Virginia Tech Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

The team of dedicated individuals helped the Blacksburg and New River Valley communities connect to the natural spaces around them. Contributors to the exhibition include Okumura; Robin Scully, art program director of the Perspective Gallery and School of Visual Arts faculty member; graduate researchers; Caroline Marcyes, a graduate student master’s program in material culture and public humanities and gallery lead; and two gallery interns, Emma Wilson and Anderson Huband.

As part of the Perspective Gallery’s Art Reach program, they helped community members learn about the Toms Creek watershed through “Watercolor Wednesdays” at the Blacksburg Farmers Market. During weekly events, visitors could create watercolor fish, turtles, and other aquatic creatures, which are now part of the exhibit, swimming through the gallery space.

Each painted fish hanging on mobiles in the Perspective Gallery is more than paper and paint — each represents someone who learned about the bluehead chub through the outreach programs.

“My focus, as a curator, as an artist, and as the director of the gallery, evolves out of creating exhibits that help people feel empowered to make the world a better place,” said Scully. “Sharing the bluehead chub research in an accessible and visual format in an exhibition gives patrons information on how they can become stewards of where they live. Creating immersive exhibitions that highlight social and environmental awareness is a wonderful way to help people connect their actions to the effects on local flora and fauna.”

Other visual contributions to this exhibit included large-scale photographs of the bluehead chub by Todd Pusser and Ned Rose, oil-painted canvases of the minnow and its nest associates by Maurakis. Also included in the exhibition are a framed watercolor of a bluehead chub by Betts, labeled with its Latin moniker, Nocomis leptocephalus; nature journal pages by Matt Gentry; and a minnow embroidered on a dark navy cotton background by Emma Hultin, another graduate student involved with bluehead chub research at Toms Creek.

In the gallery’s exterior display cases are highlights of the project and include a poem by Carrie Kroehler,  associate director of the Center for Communicating Science; images of the community activities presented by Marcyes; and a research newsletter submission by Brooks.

Visitors to “The Underwater Wonders of Toms Creek” exhibition can participate in a nest-building activity as part of the educational experience in the Perspective Gallery. Hundreds of brightly colored bean bags and pieces of wood may be moved around the floor to resemble the pebble nests of the bluehead chub. Bustamante conceived the demonstration for Art Reach sessions to educate visitors on the nest-building process and potential dangers to consider in selecting locations.

The exhibit, located in the Perspective Gallery on the second floor of the Squires Student Center on the Blacksburg campus, is open to the public through May 10 during these hours: Sundays, 1-5 p.m., Mondays 6-9 p.m., and Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon to 9 p.m.

– Rose Carter

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