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Bruce Cowden: Man of Many Talents

May 3, 2013
Bruce's hard hat

Bruce’s hard hat hanging with his life jacket.
Image courtesy of Liz Baird, Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition. NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

Watching Bruce Cowden work is like watching a coach get his team to the championship. He supervises the deck crew in everything from running the cranes to keeping lookout on the bridge. He does what is needed to keep the ship “ship shape,” coordinating cleaning, painting and maintenance of the equipment on deck. In addition to his leadership, what makes him stand out on deck is his hard hat – covered in an intricate design with faces and fish, swirls and parallel lines, reminiscent of traditional Polynesian or Inuit images.

Bruce’s family includes mariners and artists. His first trip on a ship was when he was 12. His dad had come to America on board the Queen Elizabeth  bringing  German prisoners during World War II. Before the ship was retired he took has family on a vacation aboard her. Bruce knew then that working at sea was his calling. He has a great great grandfather, Peder Balke,  who is a Norwegian painter and whose image of a lighthouse was featured on the 1000 Kroner note. Bruce worked on schooners and Navy minesweepers before joining NOAA in 1988.

Bruce has been drawing as long as he can remember. His mom used to give him a pencil to draw on the back of the church bulletin to keep him from wiggling too much during the service.  He is self-taught, primarily using pen and ink. He will work on most any medium, from carving Tagua nuts into sculptures and pendants to watercolors on paper. He has illustrated 5 books, including “Kira’s Undersea Garden” written by Verena Tunnicliffe from Vancouver, Canada about a spider crab near a deep ocean vent.

Bruce with GoPro

Bruce positions the GoPro to get shots of the ROV going in.
Image courtesy of Liz Baird, Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition. NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

Bruce has an avid interest in photography and video production. He remembers trying to figure out special effects with a Brownie camera. He now uses a GoPro out at sea – mounting one on a stick to get a shot of the ROV going into the water or setting up a time lapse of the launch. While fun, these videos also serve as great training tools, capturing the entire process at sea.

Bruce holds a styrofoam wig head covered in illustrations

Bruce holds the wig head he has decorated before sending it down on the Jason.
Image courtesy of Liz Baird, Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition. NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

One of his artistic mediums is particular to the deep sea work – drawing on Styrofoam. When you submerge Styrofoam  to great depths, the water pressure squeezes the air out of the foam and compresses it into a miniature version of the original. Many people send cups to the bottom on ROVs, submersibles and even CTDs. Bruce creates artwork to send down. Before this mission he illustrated a foam wig head with a beautiful Maori-inspired face, a detailed brain and two octopuses entwined on the back of the head.  He has another wig head to illustrate, and invites our blog readers to submit suggestions via the comment box as to what he should draw on this one.

Bruce enjoys being at sea and spending time with “some of the greatest minds in the world.” Although it is a hard lifestyle, he says that if you have an adventurous soul and are ready to deal with the challenges of living at sea, that it is a wonderful opportunity for traveling and seeing the world.

Just as sailors used to carve designs on scrimshaw, Bruce continues to bring art to the sea.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2013 2:24 pm

    Bruce’s work looks awesome! Can’t wait to see the head when it comes back up with the ROV.

  2. megan permalink
    May 13, 2013 11:38 pm

    Hooray art and science!

    • lizbaird permalink
      May 14, 2013 8:30 am

      Thanks Megan!
      Reminds me of the way the Museum uses nature journaling to help people improve observation skills!


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