A visit to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is a revealing trip to say the least. Their informative exhibits teach us about aquatic species from their environments and habits to even their scat.

In the current art exhibit in display, Sensational Sharks and Their Curious Cousins, you discover that sharks and rays belong to the same group of fishes called the elasmobranchs. You also learn from this exhibit of 18 art works, how artists from the Colored Pencil Society of America — Raleigh-Durham Chapter interpret these creatures through their medium and style. And, you come to understand how you can participate in shark research.

Stingrays and sharks are very closely related. They have skeletons made of cartilage and 5-7 gill slits.

Think of stingrays as flattened sharks; but on the inside they are similar. Some sharks fall in between such as angel sharks that are flat but are not rays. A clue to differentiate the various overlapping types: if the gill slits are on the bottom, it’s a ray. If they’re on the side, it’s a shark.

The artists chose to represent individual sharks or rays including leopard, sandbar, blacktip hammerhead, whale and dusky sharks as well as the blue spotted ray, giant manta ray, large toothed sawfish, cow nose ray and guitarfish. Working in colored pencil and/or watercolor or a combination of both, the artists bring us up close to these wonders of which many of us may never see.

Ranging from the impressionistic work of Carolyn Langley who created a ray using colored pencil to create a patchwork of color for the contrasting underwater environment with a greyish-white ray starkly outlined in black to the Disney-esque underwater seascape by Pearl Cohen that feels like a floating fantasy featuring a cow nose ray, the work is varied by approach to mood, color and style choices as well as the myriad ways one can apply colored pencil and watercolor to the surface.

“Tuesday’s Treasure” features a beach find, a shark tooth in the ocean froth. Created by Kathleen McLeod with colored pencil and white paint, the artwork also has a grainy coating around the edges of the frame as if it was lifted directly from the sand and surf that is depicted in the image.

The exhibit features a glass case filled with shark parts, including cartilage, teeth, and jaws. There also are skate cases and illustrations of kinds of sharks and a brochure explaining how you can become active in shark research through Spot a Shark USA.

We learn from the exhibit that there are over 1, 200 species of sharks and rays. The aquarium takes part in several research and conservation projects to learn about sharks and their habits and conservation needs. In-house research investigates sand tiger shark reproductive behavior. Exhibit text proudly reveals that the aquarium is making inroads into understanding sharks: “From tagging and ultra-sounding sand tiger sharks to researching shark movements along the coast, the North Carolina Aquarium staff are making an impact.”

The folks from the NC Colored Pencil Society are helping the effort. Their fascinating images — many copied from photographs, help to put a personal face on the animals, including much maligned sharks.

They were guided to choose a living species and portray the species humanely and avoid sensationalism.

Working under these guidelines, the artists help us sense their creature’s grace and marvel over their colors and shapes and, of course, their environment. We come to understand that their stunning domain truly is theirs, but we can play a role in helping to protect it and these creatures thanks to informative exhibits such as “Sensational Sharks and Their Curious Cousins.”

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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