A Vision of the Bay Invasion

Artist-in-Residence Tamar Assaf creates artwork articulating subtle social and ecological commentary on the environment. Her work raises awareness of the human influence on animals in the wild and how entire ecosystems function as a delicate balance of interdependencies. Throughout the month of August, Assaf invites visitors to engage in hands-on activities at the de Young as they experience her creative process of research, preparation, creation, and presentation of artwork. Today, Assaf takes us inside her artistic process.

In the field

Photo by Neta Assaf

I paint and sculpt animals that are influenced by human activity. A new body of work always begins with research. I gather as much information as I can about my subject animals, their lifestyles, habitats, and how they are influenced by people’s actions—whether the creatures flourish and multiply, are pushed to near extinction, or simply change their behavioral patterns and customs.

While researching Bay Invaders: Non-Native Species are Changing the San Francisco Bay Ecosystem, the series I plan to create during my de Young residency, the name of Dr. Andrew Cohen came up time and time again. Dr. Cohen, director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions (CRAB), is an expert on the many new species—aliens to the San Francisco Bay—that are steadily taking over the native biosphere and completely changing the Bay’s unique endemic biodiversity.


Photo by Neta Assaf

I was fortunate. When I approached Dr. Cohen for advice and guidance, he generously offered to spend a day at the Bay with me. Scheduling the field trip to coincide with the lowest tide, we met just as the sun was rising and spent the entire day in our rubber boots, digging in the soft sand, turning rocks, scouting, and exposing the creatures that have made the Bay their home.

Bay scouting

Photo by Neta Assaf

San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento all have busy ports that accept cargo, fishing, and leisure vessels that introduce new species to the Bay. These non-native foreign species, often referred to as exotic species, are introduced to the Bay in several ways: from ballast water that balances ships traveling through international waters; as hitchhikers attached to ship hulls; or as byproducts of commercial fishing discharged into the Bay’s water.


Photo by Neta Assaf

Is this trend sudden and uncharacteristic? Not at all. Ships have been docking in the Bay for centuries. But in the past, there was less traffic coming in and conditions in the Bay did not support these alien species’ survival.

Unfortunately, global changes have not passed over the Bay. A slight rise in the Bay’s water temperature is the main reason for worry because species that could not survive here in the past now find accommodating conditions. With the absence of natural competitors or predators, these new species flourish, reproducing rapidly with practically no mechanism to stop them. Many of these species become invasive, impacting the local ecological balance as they harm and disrupt the entire Bay ecosystem.

“Once a new species has been detected,” says Dr. Cohen, “It is almost always too late.” California is aware of the Bay invasion and is trying to crack down on the problem. New regulations regarding ballast waters are being established to prevent future invasions. Researchers are looking into methods of destroying the foreign stowaways before the ballast waters are released into the Bay. However, the technology is expensive and many of the ship owners cannot afford to comply. In other words, the threat has been detected, but the solution is not yet within our reach.

The photographs I took on my field trip with Dr. Cohen serve as the reference point for the series on which I’ll be working during my residency here at the de Young. I stain wood panels in greens and blues, utilizing the wood grain to imitate water movement. I paint exotic species, working in layers to slowly build up a visually and texturally interesting surface.

Tamar at work

Photo courtesy FAMSF

Stop by the Artist Studio in the Kimball Gallery at the de Young Museum to see Assaf’s work in progress, and to try your hand in creating art using her materials, Wednesday–Sunday, 1–5 pm (until 8:45 pm on Fridays).

Winsor & Newton and Blick Art Materials are generously providing all paints, medium, and canvas boards for the public engagement portion of Assaf’s residency.