Through scientist-artist collaborations, UH Hilo alum seeks to increase inclusion in coastal resource management

In a summer fellowship, scientist-artist Avalon Paradea is helping Hawai‘i Sea Grant program incorporate art into environmental education to boost engagement with diverse communities.

Avalon harvests pods from a bush, sloping field in background.
Avalon Paradea harvests ‘a‘ali‘i capsules for dye, which entails kilo ‘āina (observing the environment) and respectful foraging. (Courtesy photos in this story from Avalon Paradea on Instagram)

By Susan Enright.

Avalon Paradea pictured in lei.
Avalon Paradea

As part of a summer internship program, a recent graduate from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is investigating ways to collaboratively use science and art to strengthen inclusion, accessibility, and stainability in coastal communities.

Avalon Paradea (who uses they/them pronouns), an artist from Waikōloa on Hawai‘i Island who has science degrees from both UH Hilo and UH Mānoa, received a Peter J. Rappa Resilient and Sustainable Coasts Fellowship, a paid internship of the UH Sea Grant College Program (Hawai‘i Sea Grant) based in Honolulu at UH Mānoa.

Paradea graduated from UH Hilo’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science (TCBES) graduate program in May, specializing in the ways human communities develop pilina (relationship) with place. Before their graduate work, Paradea studied anthropology (major) and ethnobotany (minor) at UH Mānoa, graduating in 2014.

Paradea is a scientist-artist, a practice commonly called sci-art in which science and art are viewed as collaborative endeavors rather than two separate fields as is usually found in academia. The foundation of sci-art is built on collaboration between scholars and practitioners of science and art that not only benefits the participants, but also the greater community. Showing and explaining scientific concepts through art can be a powerfully effective way to educate the public.

The Peter Joseph Rappa Fellowship is named in honor of the extension agent who pioneered Hawai‘i Sea Grant’s focus on sustainable coastal development and smart building design; fellows are supported in their training and research on coastal sustainability and resilience. Recently, the Hawai‘i Sea Grant program, which is part of a national network of 33 programs that promote better understanding, conservation, and use of coastal resources, became interested in exploring sci-art as a collaborative way to strengthen and expand its outreach into local communities.

This investigative work is a perfect task for Paradea because the talented ʻāina-based (land-based) scientist-artist also is passionate about the concept of community in all its myriad forms.

“Community came to life in a huge way at the start of 2020, when I ran a successful crowdsourcing effort to purchase a collection of historic kapa, which was donated to the Edwin H. Mookini Library at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo,” Paradea explains. “Teaching and, in turn, learning from others, both human and non-human lifeforms alike, is at the heart of my practice.”

Paradea’s primary artistic interests are in making kapa (bark cloth), working with local plant dyes, and creating and painting with earth and lake pigments. Most of the materials Paradea uses are from personal foraging in the wild, an activity the artist describes as “deeply grounding.”

“With a background in anthropology, ethnobotany, archaeology, and environmental conservation, my creative spirit is inspired by the intersection of local culture and the natural landscape of our incredible islands,” Paradea explains. “Too often, our species is seen as separate or other from nature. I strive to bridge this gap by co-creating with honua, with the earth.”

Paradea was recognized for this outstanding work in April when awarded 1st Place for Best 10-minute Talk for the presentation, “Kuku Kapa and Pilina ‘Āina: Barkcloth-making and Relationships with Nature,” delivered at UH Hilo’s 2023 Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Symposium.

Engaging sci-art to enhance inclusion, accessibility, and sustainability

During this summer’s Rappa fellowship, Paradea is working under the mentorship of Beth Lenz, a marine biologist and assistant director for diversity and community engagement at Hawai‘i Sea Grant. Lenz works closely with the director and associate director of Sea Grant to ensure justice, equity, accessibility, diversity, and inclusion are integrated throughout all Sea Grant’s research, extension, education, and communication activities.

Woman holds up long scroll of kapa with a series of manta rays swimming down the piece.
Scientist-artist Avalon Paradea shows a work done on kapa (charcoal, indigo, hematite, spirulina, koa sap, gum Arabic), an entry for the Hawai‘i Nei Art Exhibition held Nov. 5-Dec. 16, 2021. It is the largest kapa the artist had ever worked on, “it was a challenge, but a fun one at that,” showing the fluid, flying movement of hāhālua, manta rays. Showing and explaining scientific concepts through art can be a powerfully effective way to educate the public. (Courtesy photo)

The title of Paradea and Lenz’s summer project is “Engaging Sci-Art to Enhance Inclusion, Accessibility, and Sustainability in Coastal Communities.” This entails connecting with local artists, scientists, and venues to assess how Hawaiʻi Sea Grant might be able to support collaborative projects of benefit to scholars, students, and a diverse public.

“Folks of various backgrounds are increasingly recognizing the value in bridging the gap between arts and sciences,” states a description of the project. “These practices have long been presented as opposite ends of a false dichotomy as enforced by western modes of thinking. In truth, science and art flourish best in tandem, inseparable from one another, a fact well understood by Indigenous scientists and creatives in Hawai‘i and around the globe. Incorporating imagination into environmental education both encourages and enhances engagement with diverse communities.”

As an artist with a background in science, Paradea is well suited to help foster these types of connections between people and organizations throughout the pae ‘āina (group of islands).

“During my current fellowship with [Hawai‘i Sea Grant], I am working on developing an internal guidance document to help them with future Sci-Art programming throughout the islands,” explains Paradea on Instagram. “If time permits, I hope to make a public guidance document, as well. Talking story with creatives over these past few weeks has helped me tremendously in visualizing what these collaborations might look like.”

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Fellowships awarded to UH Hilo students support future environmental leaders’ graduate studies

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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