Interview: Ethan Estess

Ethan Estess, 22, is Masters student studying environmental science at Stanford University.  His academic interests include white shark ecology, mechanical engineering, and sculpture, with an overarching focus on marine conservation. Born and raised in Santa Cruz County, his love for surfing, creativity, and family is an ocean in itself. Last spring he constructed a 12ft by 20ft kinetic sculpture of pelicans flying in a sine wave motion. The piece used mostly reclaimed materials – scrap metal, fishing wire, discarded wood. The sine wave motion tells the story of the California Brown Pelican’s rebound from near extinction.

Tell us about your Dumpster Diver project. How did the idea come about? What was the goal?

I took a kinetic sculpture class at Stanford with a group of students and visiting artist Reuben Margolin to create a kinetic sine wave sculpture of 800 soda cans oscillating like the surface of the sea. The class changed the way I looked at nature; I see it as a tremendous source of knowledge and inspiration. A few months later I was surfing at Carmel Beach when a flock of California Brown Pelican’s flew by in a perfect sine wave pattern and I sat there mesmerized. I became pretty much obsessed with modeling that behavior in a large-scale sculpture from there on.

My intention for the piece shifted the more I thought about it. I didn’t just want it to solely be a model of pelican flight but to have a deeper meaning, and a narrative evolved as I thought about what my parents had taught me about Brown Pelicans. My dad grew up in Santa Cruz too, and he would always mention how he never used to see pelicans in the old days but now they’re a common sight. I did a little research and learned that pelicans were one of many bird species hit hard by the pesticide pollution in the 60’s and 70’s. They were listed as Critically Endangered in 1970 and as the result of well-focused environmental activism, the use of one of the worst pesticides, DDT, was banned in 1972. Pelican populations have since rebounded to healthy levels- a true success story for marine conservation. The connection between this science concept and the movements of this kinetic sculpture is the idea that humans are causing the pelicans’ population to rise and fall through a complex set of mechanisms.

How long did it take you to build? And what materials were used?

This piece took 9 months from inception to completion. Five months of this were spent designing it while studying abroad in Australia and the next four were spent collecting materials, prototyping, and fabricating at full speed. I did a solid amount of dumpster diving, but got most of my materials from scrap yards, reclaimed lumber yards, and damaged inventory piles from industrial distributors.

It seems like a visual depiction of an environmental issue makes it much easier to understand and relate to. How do you think projects like yours will influence people to investigate a bit deeper and make change?

The bottom line is that humans don’t make decisions based off of scientific studies- they act based on the value sets of their surrounding culture. To me, the idea of changing culture to create a sustainable society is really exciting. Art is one of many aspects that influences culture, and I love making sculptures so that is the approach I plan to take.

I think sculptures like Dumpster Diver can be effective at getting people to think differently about how they interact with the environment because if they’re done right, they create an emotional connection between the piece and the viewer. As I see it, combining an emotional connection with a simple scientific subtext can be an extremely effective communication approach.

What other installations/sculptures do you have planned for the future?

I am currently doing a student artist in residency program at Recology, the San Francisco dump. I will spend the next four months scavenging materials from the dump and creating sculptures to display in a show in January. I’m super pumped on that! I hope to make more kinetic sculptures, but none as large or complex as Dumpster Diver.

You also shape surfboards. Tell us about your surfboard shaping exploits. How did you learn? How many boards have you made? What types of boards do you make? Any special construction that you work with?

When I was fourteen I watched a friend make a board in his back yard and I got hooked right then and there. I studied the John Carper VHS shaping and glassing videotapes religiously and taught myself through practice. I’ve made thirty boards since, and I’ve learned something new every time. I’m not very tall/heavy so I usually make little five foot something air fishes and short boards, along with a few longboards and guns. I typically use epoxy on sealed polyurethane blanks to keep my boards light and strong. I’m hoping to make a switch to more sustainable materials once my course load at school lightens up and I have more time to experiment. One thing I always do, though, is to add colored pigment to my glass jobs so my boards don’t get sunburned and thus stay looking good longer. This way I’m less likely to replace them for looking haggard.

With the wide variety of boards and shapers in today’s surf industry, who has influenced the boards you are making?

I don’t follow the surf industry very closely. I would say instead that growing up in Santa Cruz County has had the biggest influence on my board design because it has such a diversity of wave types. I have focused on making boards that are suited to different spots, from the softer, more rippable point breaks in town to the punchy beach breaks to the south.

How does surfboard building influence your other art?

Making surfboards taught me about the creative process- from visualizing a form in your mind to physically working materials to achieve that vision. It also was a source for learning random but very useful design techniques from how to make a symmetric 3D form to using different types of composites.

Beyond surfboards and sculptures, what kind of science are you involved in?

In the summertime I do research at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove in a lab that studies lamnid sharks (makos and white sharks) and tunas. I’m obsessed with white sharks, and even though it means sitting at a computer all day for the entire summer there’s nothing more interesting to me than sorting through data from satellite tags that were positioned on real white sharks. Satellite tag technology is really incredible- it enables us to learn so much about the lives of these super mysterious creatures. It’s only within the last 10 years that we learned that California’s white sharks leave the coast on long distance migrations to an area near Hawaii, and we’re just beginning to figure out what these top predators are doing while they’re on these open ocean migrations. Communicating this kind of science to people from all walks of life is something I’m really passionate about.

As far as surfing and the sea, what is inspiring you the most these days?

The ocean itself is definitely my greatest source of inspiration. It’s just pure dynamic beauty, and I hope humans can evolve their thinking to keep it that way. To get inspired to make something or just to re-center, I sit on my board and look out to sea. Inspiration is just one of many resources that the ocean supplies us with, and we should do our best to keep it clean and full of life. Thanks for talking, Korduroy!

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