10 Student Stories to Celebrate 10 Years: Ainsley Cunningham
February 1, 2021
In celebration of 10 years of Bow Seat’s Ocean Awareness Contest, we are showcasing some of the young artists who have helped turn this competition into a global community of creators and changemakers working on behalf of our blue planet.

Ainsley is a high school senior from Chappaqua, New York. Her connection to the ocean was forged during the many summers spent on Jeju Island, South Korea. Ainsley has been involved with Bow Seat’s Ocean Awareness Contest since she was in eighth grade. She has won multiple awards for her submissions to the film, poetry, and visual arts categories. She is passionate about the ways that art and science intersect, and is eager to apply them in her studies, activism and the world beyond. Ainsley serves on Bow Seat’s 2021 Future Blue Youth Council.

Did you consider yourself to be an activist before participating in the Ocean Awareness Contest? Do you consider yourself to be one now?

The gravity of the environmental crisis that now confronts us is so severe that we all need to be activists. Activism is the positive side of the coin that takes us to a brighter future, while the other side of the coin is ignorance and denial. When I first started contributing to the Ocean Awareness Contest as an 8th grader, the problem of ocean pollution seemed too big, and it didn’t seem like I, as just one kid, could bring about any real change.

Now, I realize that I have my own role to play. This contest has provided me with a mechanism for affecting other people’s attitudes about important issues. I think what it is so amazing about the entries to Bow Seat every year is that they remind us of the responsibility we have to advocate for and protect the environment, but they also show us how each and every one of us can fulfill that responsibility by contributing our own unique voice and talents to this movement.

Why did you first participate in the Ocean Awareness Contest, and why did you continue to  participate?

I had just done a unit on ocean pollution in my 8th grade science class when I stumbled upon Bow Seat’s website online. I was immediately intrigued by the program, and as I began work  on my first entry, I viewed other students’ submissions and became aware of this wonderful community of young people that were committed to the goal of protecting the ocean and its marine life. I found this incredibly empowering, and still do to this day.

The Bow Seat community is an international community that we are all members of, not by accident, but by way of  something that we have each chosen to care about and pursue. The energy and passion of this community inspires me every year, and pushes me to create more work, so that I may advocate alongside artists from around the world and stand with them in the fight of our generation.

“The thousands of powerful, moving entries to the Ocean Awareness Contest every year demonstrate just how necessary it is that we use and value art as a medium for advocacy.”

How do you think your work or creative practice has developed or changed over time?

When I started working on my very first ocean awareness project, the issue of ocean pollution felt somewhat abstract and impersonal. In my second year of participation, I entered my first film, and for the audio, I used mostly other people’s voices–clips from news programs, interviews, and other films.

But as time progressed, I came to realize that all of this affects me directly, and that none of this is impersonal at all. I realized that ocean pollution affects everyone in a very personal and real way, and so for this year’s submission I wanted to use my own voice to provide more immediacy and authenticity to my words. I was always afraid to have my own voice on the soundtrack, but I knew that it would be more powerful for the viewer to hear the whole thing narrated by my own voice–so this year I pushed myself to do so, and create something more personal.

Are you working on any creative projects right now?

In my art history class this past school year, I became acquainted with the mandala, which is a symbolic representation of a perfected state that can be achieved through focus and dedication. I have become fascinated with Tibetan art and iconography and am currently exploring ways to use the mandala as a vehicle to express other visions of perfected futures, concentrating on climate change and ocean pollution.

For my entry in the art category this past year, I thought that it was a great idea to apply this concept, as the mandala presents a perfected future state that has not yet been realized, which is essentially what we  imagine when we discuss the idea of “climate hope.” Mandalas focus our efforts and ensure that we have a clear vision of the future we wish to achieve. I think that a similarly focused and  dedicated approach is what we need to combat climate change and its many effects on our ocean. Only by envisioning this future and taking concrete steps forward to reach it can we save the ocean. We need to start making all of the right choices right now in regards to climate change, and with a clear image of what we have to do, I do believe that we can do it. I hope that by creating more mandalas and other artistic pieces with this goal in mind, I can effectively communicate this message of urgency and hope.

How did participating in the Ocean Awareness Contest affect your attitudes toward our ocean?  Toward using art as a tool for advocacy?

Over the four years I have been involved in Bow Seat, I have come to realize that the problem of ocean pollution is far vaster than I had thought, and I have begun to realize the true depth of this  environmental crisis. We can’t rely on others to solve this problem and must instead engage with it ourselves. But what my participation in the Ocean Awareness Contest has shown me most of all, is that people can engage with issues like this in a myriad of entirely different ways.  Art, for instance, constitutes a way of appealing to people that might not be reachable through debate or argument.

Prior to my participation in this program, I never thought that I could combine my love of art with my desire to advocate for current issues, but the thousands of powerful, moving entries to the Ocean Awareness Contest every year demonstrate just how necessary it is that we use and value art as a medium for advocacy. You don’t have to get on a stage in front of people or give a speech to have an impact and advocate for change. Artists  have a role to play in this movement as well, and we can effect real change through our work.

The 10th annual Ocean Awareness Contest: WATER RISING, is accepting submissions through June 14, 2021. Learn more about how to participate >

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10 Student Stories to Celebrate 10 Years: Ainsley Cunningham

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