Art and altruism team up at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island to protect sea turtles.

“Just Add Water 2.0,” an art exhibit focused on sea turtle awareness, is on display through March at the Manteo site. Visitors can check out six sea turtle paintings by Outer Banks artist Raffaele Paglia and visit the onsite Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center where aquarium staff are tending to 88 cold-stunned, injured, or ill sea turtles.

Inspired by their turtle shape, Paglia chose skim boards upon which to paint acrylic images of six sea turtle species, five of which are found in North Carolina: hawksbill, loggerhead, green, leatherback and Kemp’s ridley.

“The skim boards are actually repurposed, taking something no longer seaworthy and giving it purpose,” Paglia said.

His compositions arrest the viewer. Contrasting colors, such as shades of orange and blue, make the work pop. Using a variety of strokes, from bold to ethereal, Paglia overlaps shapes to create depth. He varies the size of his forms to lend contrast and uses light to bring life to the work.

A patterned turtle shell is paired with vulnerable hatchlings crawling to the sea while a loggerhead majestically sweeps into the picture plane. Creating realistic images was paramount to the artist.

“I had to do a lot of research to be correct,” he said. Each elongated, oval shape draws the viewer to not only his art but to the message about safety for turtles and the role people play.

Subtle human elements are added to scenes dominated by turtles – reminders that all of life is connected. Truck tracks in the sand appear in one painting; a break in sunlight at the surface of the sea leading to air and land, appear in another.

And, most importantly, the message to not pollute is represented by a turtle approaching a floating, translucent, white form that resembles a jellyfish. The shape and color could signal food for the turtle yet also represent human-caused danger – clear plastic. Paglia kept the shape nebulous enough to show how manmade trash can be mistaken for natural food.

“That piece stood out to me as a conservation piece,” he said.

Plastic is a real problem to sea turtles as evidenced by what the creatures at the STAR Center defecate. Staff collects the detritus. Already, they filled a container with expelled plastic – proof positive of potential harm, such as gastric distress and blockages, from which some of the STAR Center patients suffer.

The center’s main room contains round, aqua-colored tanks and black tubs filled with recovering turtles. The patients are loggerheads, green, and Kemp’s ridleys, says Alex Jeddry, STAR Center’s technician. “They are doing great, eating really well,” she said. “Some are cleared for release.”

Turtles come in cold-stunned, with respiratory illness, and injured from boat strikes and ingested fishing hooks. The average stay for the cold-stunned turtles is a few weeks to a month. They must be warmed up and eating well to be let go. One sea turtle, injured from a bad boat strike, was hospitalized for two years.

Paglia enjoys being involved in the state site’s efforts. He’s learned quite a bit about conservation, he said. It makes the exhibit even more personal and “something that I feel strongly about.”

His focus on environmental issues is a 180-degree shift for the artist.

Paglia grew up in Italy and America, the son of a military father and a Naples-born mother who was both a model and painter. He studied fashion design at the Istituto Artistico dell’Abbigliamento Marangoni, or the Marangoni Artistic Clothing Institute, in Milan, he said, and enjoyed a lengthy career in fashion design as well as theater and film wardrobe design. Today, Paglia works as the assistant manager of the aquarium’s store.

Fashion design was more about consumerism, said the artist. Now his artistic expression is focused on painting nature, which he is passionate about protecting.

His artist statement said it all: “Now, more than ever, we need to take a deep, profound look at what we do and how this affects the environment. We protect what we love.”

Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 20 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.

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