“Entrepreneurs Grow Coral for Research and Art,” The Miami Herald, July, 1, 2012.
To Colin Foord, corals are a metaphor for life in Miami. He speaks lyrically about the parallel between the living underwater urban structures and the city.
“The essence of Miami was here before the city was here itself,” Foord says. “Miami is a colorful, neon, tropical city. Well, corals are too.”
That Foord weaves narratives about coral and its importance to the oceans, humans and the city itself is a testament to his passion for the aquatic animals.
His fascination was born early and instantly on a vacation in Cancun with his parents. He came upon a brain coral while snorkeling, and to his 5-year-old eyes, it was the most beautifully complex marine animal he’d ever seen.
“I was simply amazed at how brain-like it really was,” says Foord, now 30 “Obviously, there was something special about these animals.”
His love of corals has guided major life decisions. It’s the reason he left New Hampshire to study marine biology at the University of Miami. It’s the reason he traveled to Indonesia to work on coral farms. And, now, corals are the center of his business in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.
With an entrepreneur’s vision and do-it-your-self spirit, Ford and his childhood best friend, Jared McKay, founded Coral Morphologic, a company that combines aquaculture and visual art to sustain long-term research.
Foord’s overall vision is that Miami will embrace coral as part of its identity. He points out that most of the city was built on dredged limestone from the ocean, essentially dead coral.
“Miami is the … city where this resonates the most because all of the infrastructure is basically recycled coral structures,” he says.
Coral Morphologic’s mission of reimagining Miami as a coral city has received support from the Knight Foundation, including a Knight Arts Challenge grant to build coral art installations around the city. The latest is on display on a high-definition video wall in the lobby of the JPMorgan Southeast Financial Center downtown. Their next installation will debut at the University of Miami’s Marine Science Building in the fall.
Foord’s dream is to put Miami on the map as a coral reef destination. He and his team hope a new grant will help them apply their expertise in coral research and art installations to a contentious project: the PortMiami dredging.
To mitigate damage to coral during the port expansion, state environmental officials will be transplanting coral species to a new 10-acre artificial reef. Foord and his team have joined Miami artist Bhakti Baxter in proposing a mitigation reef that would be both artistic and practical.
“Rather than dump a lot of rocks, why not organize those rocks into something that is interesting,” Foord says. “If we are going to do this, we might as well make lemonade out of this sour situation.”
For the last five years, Foord and McKay have cultivated one of the largest collections of Caribbean coral in captivity in an old warehouse that is now equal parts art studio, coral greenhouse and research lab.
“We’re walking a line of art and science,” Foord says. “It’s more important than art, it’s more important than science.”
Most days, the team spends its time caring for nearly 50 species of coral under aquatic blue lights in a lab. They clone the coral and sell the reproductions to aquarium owners. Profits help fund their long-term research.
Their most recent work has helped coral researchers at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan, identify three new species of coral that live on Miami reefs. The Journal of Marine Biology is scheduled to released the findings in an article titled “Species diversity of shallow water zoanthids (Cnidaria: Anthozoa: Hexacorallia) in Florida.”
To promote their work, Foord and McKay produce visually stunning videos of their coral collection.
While coral art is a recent addition to their portfolio, it was part of their original vision. They received commissions for work shown locally during Art Basel and internationally at the Royal Observatory in London.
“For the first time since the ’60s there is a very strong trend in the contemporary art world to make art that is meaningful and relevant socially,” says Dennis Scholl, who oversees the Knight Foundation’s arts program. “Their passion for saving reefs and environmental conservation is reflective of that growing trend.”
But even in the beautiful world of marine biology, working with coral can be contentious. The prevailing view is that corals are delicate marine creatures that should be shielded from human impact. The federal government is considering adding 82 species of stony coral to the endangered species list.
Consequently, Foord’s work is not received well by all marine researchers. But professors who worked with him at the University of Miami point out that Foord’s work is guided by sound scientific principles and his hunger to learn from corals.
“Colin is developing a new way to culture coral and to do coral research, and we can only benefit from his work,” says Dan DiResta, coordinator of Marine and Atmospheric Science Program at the University of Miami and one of Foord’s former professors. “He’s using it for his art and I think he’s doing fine.”
The artificial reef proposal is a finalist for a Knight Arts Challenge grant. If it’s funded, the team plans to build a geometric reef that would be visible from space. Foord envisions the work as a living underwater art exhibit of colorful coral species that would make Miami a destination for eco-tourists.
And while he recognizes that the port dredge will damage sensitive marine ecology, he reserves judgment. For him, the overarching goal is to preserve coral life and raise awareness about its importance in the global ecosystem.
“We want to translate the corals into something that inspires people and helps them understand corals,” Foord says. “And we want people to understand how humans and corals really have a lot more in common than they would have ever guessed.”