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Volunteer Spotlight: Damon Pla, Animal Rescue

Damon Pla is not your average Animal Rescue volunteer—he moonlights as a celebrated artist! With a scope of work ranging from imaginative landscapes to surreal compositions, Damon draws inspiration from the afternoon sun, his dreams and his surroundings.

Damon brings his talent to the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue team with stunning marine murals and life-sized works of art. At outreach events on the Eastern Shore, you can spot his six foot leatherback sea turtle or his representation of the seals that travel down our coast in the winter.

Seal paintings. Image courtesy of Damon Pla.

Image courtesy of Damon Pla

But it’s the 60 foot inflatable sei whale that Damon partnered with Chuck and Ellen Erbe to create that is the real show stopper. Pulling back the plastic and stepping inside the balloon, you’re met with an enormous, hand-drawn whale skeleton. Volunteers lead groups inside to learn about sei whales, and kids line up to see just how they measure up to a life-sized whale rib.

Inflatable sei whale

We recently chatted with Damon about his creative process and how he began volunteering with the National Aquarium:

National Aquarium: How did you first get involved with the National Aquarium?

Damon Pla: My neighbors, Chuck and Ellen Erbe asked (many moons ago) to help build a Sei Whale out of plastic. Ellen found some directions of a whale project online. I was intrigued immediately. I wanted to help put this together just so I could see the result myself. That was the beginning of a small string of projects I did for the National Aquarium. Since then, I have painted a handful of seals, turtles and dolphins on wood for the National Aquarium Outreach Program.

NA: What is your favorite project you’ve done for us? Why?

DP: Every 'latest' project is my favorite. I think any artist can attest to that. Any 'new' work is a refreshing view of what you have learned to this day...from the very beginning of the artist's journey.

I helped make the first Sei Whale for the Aquarium 6 years ago, so when I approached this latest whale build, I had room for improvement. After slight modifications to the structure, new fan location, a 'medical drawing-like sketch' of the skeleton and a tail, I was certainly proud of building a more 'improved' Sei Whale this go around.

Jason drawing on inflatable sei whale

NA: Tell us a little bit about your process in creating pieces like the whale.

DP: My process (for any painting/project) is like pacing the floor knowing you have to clean the entire house before your wife gets home, only to accomplish said task 5 minutes before she walks in the door, but you have thought about it all day. There's something about swimming in the idea of any creation that brings me a sense of well-being. It means I get to hit the 'undo' button in my brain and start from scratch. Constantly going over endless possibilities. Or enjoying my surroundings, like in a dream. This allows me to absorb the energy of whatever I am working on only to live it, breathe it, eat it, drink it.... This is actually one of my favorite parts of the process of creating anything.

Once I make it past that 'sink or swim' stage, I suddenly find myself immersed in an idea that I nabbed from the air and I am just going at it. Working. From A to B, then B to C, etc... (but really B to M, K to Y, W to A, then backwards from there) As if I am running for the finish line. As if the clock is ticking. I know this all seems a bit vague, but it's authentic. The skills themselves that manifest the project are as natural as flipping on the blinker to turn left onto a busy street or quickly shutting the front door behind you as you come in from the Winter cold.

NA: If people could take away one thing from your work, what would you want it to be?

DP: Hmmm. My work for the Aquarium is selfless. It's not really about me in those projects. It's using my ability/skills/passion to share the wonder of nature to others. It's that simple.

If there is one thing that I would want others to know about the foundation of my work for the Aquarium, is that... I am a scientist at heart. A biologist. An oceanographer. An astronomer. I have a passion for the wonder of our planet and it brings me a sense of well-being to be able to share it through visual art.

For more on Damon’s work, click here.

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