An artist and a scientist work together to create a larger-than-life 3D sculpture of coral reef

Master printmaker Jon Goebel and marine scientist John Burns have teamed up to create an eye-catching, greatly enlarged (80,000 times larger than life), yet anatomically correct sculpture of a coral colony. The project is meant to spark a perceptual shift in the significance that corals play in the ocean’s ecosystem.

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura. Photos and video by Kirsten Aoyagi.

At first glance, the fields of art and science could not be any more different, any more unrelated. Creativity and imagination versus data and discoveries. But what happens when the worlds of artistry and analysis collide? The answer: collaborative innovation.

One such example is the interdisciplinary work between the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Jonathon “Jon” E. Goebel, an associate professor of art, and John H. R. Burns, an assistant professor of marine science. Goebel is a master printmaker, chair of the art department, and print studio director of the university’s Artist Print Edition project. Burns specializes in the study of coral reefs and developed the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) lab at UH Hilo. The combination of their expertise is how the three-dimensional (3D) coral project was born.

Jon Goebel stands next to 3D coral
Master printmaker Jon Goebel stands in his studio next to 3D modules depicting coral that he created using 3D printer. Later, the pieces will be assembled, painted the vibrant colors of a living reef, and put on exhibit. The artist says the large size of the completed sculpture will convey the scale of coral from fishes’ perspective. Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi.

“Jonathan and I worked closely together developing the data visualization class at UH Hilo, which combined students from art, computer science, and marine science,” says Burns. “The goal was to create an interdisciplinary course that combined the student skill sets to create digital outreach tools to share important environmental information.”

The pair had several students that really enjoyed the 3D reconstructions of coral reefs, some of which were featured in a 30-day art show on O‘ahu. Since then, they have worked to create a massive 3D print exhibition as a way to captivate audiences and share information about the importance of coral reefs.

“Having taught with Dr. Burns on several occasions and learning a great deal about coral ecology, I wanted to create a sculptural piece that conveys the scale of a coral from a fish’s perspective,” says Goebel.

To create an accurate, to-scale representation of the coral, Burns lent his scans of the coral species, Pocillopora meandrina, to Goebel. (Click to explore 3D interactive model of Pocillopora meandrina colony from Wai‘opae, Hawai‘i Island.) These scans were taken in Waiopae on Hawai‘i Island and are about a cubic foot in size. Goebel then enlarged a portion of this coral by 80,000 percent.

Large 3D printer in plexiglass box.
A 3D printer was used to create the sculpted modules that will be assembled into the completed piece. Photo by Jonathon Goebel, click to enlarge.
3D models on table
The modules were created with a 3D printer and will be assembled into a large sculpture of the coral Pocillopora meandrina.

Goebel then began creating this larger-than-life piece using a technique called photogrammetry.

“This process entails taking hundreds of overlapping photographs of a subject and using 3D software to stitch together a 3D model,” he says. “The original model was not intended to 3D print so the model needed to be cleaned up for the 3D printing process.”

Once this was completed, the coral was sliced into fourths, with the goal to enlarge and print one quarter of the original coral, piece by piece.

“In order to print the model on such a large scale, the coral needed to be cut into approximately two hundred modular pieces,” explains Goebel.

Jon Goebel holds a modular pieces of the sculpture.
Jon Goebel holds a modular piece of the sculpture in progress. “In order to print the model on such a large scale, the coral needed to be cut into approximately two hundred modular pieces,” says the artist. Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi.
Jon Goebel stands next to a tall white sculpture of 3D modules.
Jon Goebel stands next to a partially assembled 3D sculpture of the coral Pocillopora meandrina. Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi, click to enlarge.

The project is funded with several grants through both the arts and sciences. Additionally, the project is supported by the Academy for Creative Media, a UH systemwide endeavor based at UH Mānoa that provides technology for the UH Hilo art department.

After one year and over 1,000 hours of 3D modeling cleanup, structural engineering, and printing, only about one third of the project has been printed.

As for the actual construction of the piece, Goebel says, “The entire project is printed from polylactic acid (PLA), which is a bioplastic made from the starch of plants such as corn, sugar cane and sugar beet. The parts are designed such that simple nuts and bolts are used to fasten the parts together. This makes the final sculpture modular and it could potentially be sent anywhere for installation.”

A print of colorful coral.
Jon Goebel, a master printmaker, plans to paint the 3D coral sculpture in bright color, something similar to real coral as is depicted in this print he created entitled “Incandescent.” Photo of print by Kirsten Aoyagi.

He adds, “Once complete, the model will be textured and painted to resemble a healthy coral colony, with some creative liberties taken, of course.”

Goebel’s immediate goal is for the final product to “serve as an eye-catching, greatly enlarged, yet anatomically correct representation of the coral colony.” He continues, “The experience of seeing this structure in real life from the perspective of a smaller aquatic organism is meant to provide a perceptual shift in the significance that corals play in the ocean’s ecosystem.”

His long term goals extend even further. “I see this project as a showcase piece for what is possible through modular design and fabrication using 3D printing, but more importantly as a means to increase visibility and public understanding of corals and their role in marine ecology,” he says. “I hope to use this project as a prototype for a much larger project, perhaps the size of a building.”

The resulting artwork will also serve as a reminder of the value of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“It has been an exceptionally fun experience working with Jonathan on this project,” says Burns. “We are both passionate about showcasing the often overlooked crossover between art and science. Creating art is a science in itself and science often captures the beauty of nature so there is so much potential for combining the two fields.”

When reflecting on his experience working with Burns, Goebel says, “We can all learn from each other’s areas of expertise. Being an artist is about taking risks, trying new things and venturing into the unknown. It’s how we grow as artists and people. I’d do it again for sure.”

The project between Goebel and Burns is an example of how differences in studies and passion are not to be viewed as hindrances, but as potential avenues for growth.


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.

Photos and video of 3D project by Kirsten Aoyagi, who is earning a bachelor of arts in communication at UH Hilo.


Update: March 16, 2021.

The manufacturer of the 3D printer used in this project did a Zoom interview with Jon Goebel, now on YouTube.