Fall 2019 class in the School of Art & Art History at the University of South Florida, co-taught with professor John Byrd, focused on coastal ecology, climate change and material strategies – part of a 2019 Kennedy Family Artist Residency at USF. Byrd, TA Maxwell Parker, the students and I formed the Coastorama Cooperative to make the collaborative Coastorama dioramas for the Sponge Exchange exhibition at USFCAM, curated by Sarah Howard.

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Student Participants

Veronica Brewster, Leonardo Claudio, Mackenzie Erickson, Vivian Fisk, Dalton Howard, Jhen Lee, Alex Lopez, Samantha Redman, James Ritman, Ashley Rivers, Andrew Ryan, Jessie Saldivar, Marissa Snow, Daniel Sulbaran, Margherita Tibaldo, Alejandro Wolf, James Wysolmierski


Course Description

Sponge Exchange focuses on South Florida’s contemporary coastal ecology issues in order to conceive and produce a series of dioramas, taking inspiration from the Spongeorama Museum in Tarpon Springs, FL. Spongeorama is an idiosyncratic and materially varied depiction of the history of the sponge diving industry of the village, which we will visit early in the semester. Through independent research, readings, presentations, field trips, conversations with visiting experts, material demonstrations, and consultations with your instructors; you will form small working groups or partnerships in order to produce an original diorama that presents both a specific ocean ecology issue and an animal affected by the problem. We will work toward this with a research presentation early in the semester, followed by a two-dimensional rendering of your diorama plan and a three-dimensional animal prototype, and finish with a complete exhibition-quality diorama. Our goal is to form a research and production collective and finish a body of work to be exhibited in the January 2020 exhibition “Sponge Exchange” at the USF Contemporary Art Museum. We will have support in the construction of the dioramas’ vitrines, but the curious, inventive, communicative, multispecies content is up to you.


The Sponge Exchange Class: Coastorama Cooperative 

The Sponge Exchange class was born of Hope Ginsburg’s pedagogical project Sponge (2006–2016), which produces hands-on, collaborative projects that transfer knowledge experientially. A community of engaged students, artists, museum professionals, and scientists had the opportunity to make a new iteration of Sponge at USF in fortuitous proximity to Tarpon Springs, “The Sponge Diving Capital of the World”. The goal was a series of cooperatively-produced coastal ecology dioramas for exhibition at USFCAM, inspired by the 1960s-era Spongeorama sponge-diving dioramas of Tarpon Springs. Ginsburg, co-teacher USF Professor John Byrd, Teaching Assistant Maxwell Parker, and the students began with a series of questions. Which coastal climate issues would the group research? Which species would symbolize these crises? Which material processes would be used? Most importantly, what would the dioramas look like and would they incite curiosity, empathy, even action in viewers? The class began by honing a list of research topics via readings, discussion, and visits with experts. Small groups presented findings to the class and cohorts were formed for the next step: pairing each coastal phenomenon with an impacted species. Students participated in material process demos such as sculpting with paper mache; they were also asked to consider and record the environmental impact of their material choices. The group made additional field trips, including the Florida Aquarium’s Coral Arks at Apollo Beach, where Atlantic hard corals spawned in a lab for the first time. The students, by then appropriately named Coastorama Cooperative after their nascent Coastorama dioramas, revisited the idiosyncratic presentation strategies of Spongeorama for inspiration. Concept development came next and students presented drawings and 3D animal prototypes. Curator Sarah Howard and visiting critics from the USFCAM joined class critiques as students refined their ideas, beginning to move sculpted elements into their custom diorama boxes. From midterm through the final critique students experienced real-world conditions, working with others within budgetary and timeline constraints to prepare artworks for exhibition. Cooperation, learning-by-doing, experimentation, knowledge-exchange, and engagement with site are the DNA of Sponge, which has vigorously evolved through the Sponge Exchange class and its collaborative environmental project.


Thank you to Wallace Wilson, Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of South Florida and to the Kennedy Family Visiting Artist Residency at USF.




Professor John Byrd demonstrates papier-mâche techniques
TA Maxwell Parker assists with diorama assembly
Remotely teaching a session from home in Richmond, VA
Students on field trip to Tarpon Springs, FL to see Spongeorama, the inspiration for the Coastorama diorams
Visiting with sponge diver Captain Taso Karistinos on field Trip to Tarpon Springs, FL
Alejandro Wolf and James Ritman learning papier-mâche techniques
Veronica Brewster and Vivian Fisk working on a manatee prototype
Field trip to the "Coral Arks" at the Florida Aquarium's Center for Conservation
Field trip to the "Coral Arks" at the Florida Aquarium's Center for Conservation
Proof of concept for "Corals: Ocean Warming" diorama
Proof of concept for "Manatee: Harmful Algal Blooms" diorama
Proof of concept for "Sea Snails: Ocean Acidification" diorama
Proof of concept by James Ritman for "Lionfish: Invasive Species" diorama
Drawing by Veronica Brewster for "Manatee: Harmful Algal Blooms" diorama
Remote viewing of manatee-in-progress
Drawings by Leonardo Claudio for "Sea Snails: Ocean Acidification" diorama
Students preparing their custom diorama boxes
Photo: John Byrd