UH Hilo art and science departments collaborate on modern 3D work of art, now on exhibit at Honolulu art show

A science-art collaboration between two professors and two students produced a work of modern art in honor of coral reefs, now on exhibit at annual show in Honolulu.

By Leah Sherwood.

 John Burns, Jon Goebel, Jade Kauwe, and Kawelina Cruz stand next to their 3D artwork of corals.
(Left to right) John Burns, Jon Goebel, Jade Kauwe, and Kawelina Cruz stand with their collaborative artwork, “Reef,” at the “SymbioSEAS: Connecting Science, Education, Art, and Society through Coral Reefs” art exhibit, March 1, 2019, Honolulu. Courtesy photo.

A collaborative group of faculty and students from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo created an original modern art piece now showing in a month-long exhibition that opened in Honolulu March 1. The show, entitled “SymbioSEAS: Connecting Science, Education, Art, and Society through Coral Reefs,” is an annual art exhibit that showcases coral ecosystems research through various 2D and 3D mediums. The exhibit will continue until March 30, 2019, at the ARTS at Marks Garage in Honolulu’s Chinatown neighborhood.

SymbioSEAS represents a group of 40+ scientists and artists who have worked together over the past year to bring global awareness to the health & rehabilitation of our oceans and coral reef through cultivation of a gallery that showcases coral ecosystems research through various 2-D and 3-D mediums.

The UH Hilo group’s exhibit displays 3D printed corals fabricated from corn-based plastic on a 3D printer. The creators John Burns, a UH Hilo alumnus and now an assistant professor of marine science and data science, Jon Goebel, an associate professor of art, and two undergraduates, Kawelina Cruz and Jade Kauwe, took part in opening night of the show on March 1. The UH Hilo group spoke with attendees about their exhibit during the event’s “speed dating” session.

Coral placed inside computer housing.
“Reef.” John Burns, Jon Goebel, Kawelina Cruz and Jade Kauwe. Computer Tower, 3D Printed Corn-Based PLA Plastic. 2019. Courtesy photo.

Creating art out of science

The concept for the UH Hilo group’s artwork came from the two art students, Cruz and Kauwe, who were enrolled in Burns’s data visualization class when he was invited to participate in the SymbioSEAS event. Cruz and Kauwe had developed an interest in 3D printing, and from that seed a collaboration unfolded among the marine science and art departments at UH Hilo.

“It’s a collaboration between myself, the two art students, and Jon Goebel,” says marine scientist Burns. “Kawe and Jade had this idea of taking an old computer and making an art piece that integrated 3D printed corals. The general concept for the piece is that we live in an interesting time where we are becoming reliant on technology to save corals, while ironically, the manufacturing and waste associated with technology is part of the environmental problems that are destroying them.”

Description of the piece:


“Reef” -ind
Computer Tower, 3D Printed Corn-Based PLA Plastic
$5,000 (glitter included)

While the industrial revolution and technological advancements have led to population booms and supported human activities that harm the natural world, these technologies simultaneously provide new tools to study and conserve our planet.

Researchers are increasingly dependent on computing technology to discover new ways of supporting and assisting the recovery of coral reefs in the face of human-driven environmental changes.

Ironically, the waste products derived from these technologies contribute to the global degradation of the planet. Despite the environmental cost of technology, it likely holds the key to discovering new technologies capable of assisting corals so they can survive into the future and provide us with the food, coastal protection, and economic resources we so dearly depend on.

Kauwe, a UH Hilo senior, explains that Burns initially had brought up the idea to incorporate the old computer part. It took a little over a year to create the piece, which included time to complete the 3D printing and to color and texturize the printed corals to give them a more realistic feel.

“We used different colors of spray paints, contrasting dark and light shades of the same color to the corals,” Kauwe says.


This year’s SymbioSEAS event is being held in honor of Ruth Gates, director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at UH Mānoa, who died of cancer on October 25, 2018. Gates was Burns’s PhD advisor and was instrumental in encouraging and motivating him to pursue his idea of using 3D technology to visualize and study Hawai‘i’s coral reefs.

The SymbioSEAS annual event represents the efforts of scientists and staff at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology working with community artists and organizers to bring global awareness to the health and rehabilitation of oceans and coral reefs. The art exhibit is accompanied by a variety of public programs, including science and art workshops, community dinners, and film screenings.

This year’s event is partially funded by the Western Society of Naturalists Rafe Sagarin Fund for Innovative Ecology and the HIMB MakerLab with support from the National Science Foundation.


About the author of this story: Leah Sherwood is a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

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