Local teen wins VIMS Art Contest

  • Grand Prize Winner
    Grand Prize Winner   Grafton High School 10th-grader Lauren Wheeler won the grand prize in the 2015 Marine Science Day Art Contest for her drawing of a gulper eel.   Photo by Erin Fryer
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Voting for People’s Choice Award now open on Facebook

Grand prize in the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s annual Marine Science Day Art Contest goes to Lauren Wheeler, a 10th-grader at Grafton High School.

The contest offers community members of all ages a chance to design the artwork for VIMS’ biggest event of the year, which this year focuses on the Institute’s 75th anniversary. This year’s Marine Science Day celebration will take place on Saturday, May 30th and will feature new anniversary-inspired activities, including the opportunity to interact with a digital timeline of VIMS history.Lauren Wheeler's artistic interpretation of a deep-sea gulper eel.

Wheeler admits her artistic interpretation of the gulper eel (Eurypharynx pelecanoides) is somewhat different than the actual species because she wanted to make the design her own. “I started off with the idea of the gulper eel and then I just did what I wanted from there,” she says. “I picked the color blue to represent the deep ocean, and I tried to make the top lighter to represent the top of the ocean, and a deeper, darker blue to represent the deeper depths.”

VIMS Professor Eric Hilton, an internationally known expert on fish anatomy and evolution, says VIMS has several specimens of gulper eels in the VIMS Ichthyology Collection, and several different specials will be on display during Marine Science Day.

Hilton describes gulper eels as a “weird group of eel-like fishes.” “True to their name, they have gigantic mouths,” he says. “The theory behind these large mouths is that the eels can better consume the large prey that they come across.”

Hilton says gulper eels can be found in all oceans—with the exception of the Mediterranean Sea—at depths of 1,000 to 3,000 meters. “Gulper eels have a caudal organ that—as seen in the artist’s rendition—is luminous, presumably as an attractant for prey, to lure them closer to their mouths.”

Professor Deborah Steinberg—who studies how the rain of organic material from sunlit surface waters affects deep-sea food webs—agrees with Hilton and says she was impressed to see Wheeler’s depiction of the gulper eel’s bioluminescent lure located at the end of it’s whip-like tail.

Hilton says together with their large mouths, gulper eels have distensible stomachs that form a pouch and can accommodate very large food items. “The scientific name of the taxonomic order they belong to, the Saccopharyngiformes, is Greek for ‘bag throat’,” he says.Lauren Wheeler: Winner of the 2015 Marine Science Day Art Contest.

Wheeler says her passion for marine biology—and the deep sea in particular—was her inspiration to draw the gulper eel. “I love the intricate designs of deep-sea creatures, and the gulper eel was something that attracted my attention because it is such a strange and unique animal.” Her original idea was to draw a goblin shark, but then decided the gulper eel would be more fun and interesting to draw.

In order to meet this year’s requirement to include the number “75” in the artwork, Wheeler created her own special font. “I wanted to make sure the number 75 matched the design, so I created the font and tried to make it interact with the eel’s tail,” she says.

Wheeler admits she has great interest in pursuing a future career in marine biology, but she also loves art and has been drawing since she was two years old. “If you ask my classmates, they’ll tell you all I do is draw,” she laughs. “When we finish our assignments for the day, I use that time to draw.”

In addition to her interest in marine science and art, Wheeler is also a writer, and is currently working on several different stories. “Writing is also something I definitely plan to pursue in my future,” she says.

This is Wheeler’s second time winning the Grand Prize in an art contest. In 6th grade, she says she entered a contest for realistic portraits, and drew the Mad Hatter from Tim Burton’s rendition of Alice in Wonderland. “I would like to enter more art contests but it’s hard to find enough time to draw,” she says. “When I found out we were going to get to work on our art work for the VIMS contest in class, I was excited.”

Wheeler’s Grand Prize artwork will be used in advertisements and featured on the official 2015 VIMS Marine Science Day T-shirt, with limited numbers of these on sale in the VIMS Gift Shop during the event.

VIMS is still accepting votes for its “People’s Choice Awards,” a separate category of the Marine Science Day art contest. The kid’s and adult artwork that receives the most "likes" on the VIMS Facebook page between now and May 16th will be recognized along with Wheeler and other contest winners during the Marine Science Day awards ceremony on May 30th.