Local artist Laura Palermo champions the plight of the sea turtle 

Art as Activism

Artist Laura Palermo works on her latest painting from her Pitt Street Studio

Jonathan Boncek

Artist Laura Palermo works on her latest painting from her Pitt Street Studio

The sea turtle has a friend in artist Laura Palermo. And a more unlikely friendship there never was: a young woman raised near the industrial haven of Pittsburgh in artistic alliance with a reptile who spends the majority of its long life out at sea, returning to shore only briefly to lay its eggs. How exactly did these two meet?

As Palermo describes it, it was love at first sight. After moving to Charleston to be closer to the ocean, Palermo was fishing with friends off Sullivan's Island, when a sea turtle swam up to their boat. The turtle stuck around, bobbing on the surface, light reflecting in dazzling patterns off its shell. Palermo was intrigued. She wanted to know more about this majestic and peaceful creature. So she hit the books and the internet. The more she learned about the plight of the threatened species, the more determined she was to help them — and to capture their spirit and stories through painting.

She began experimenting on a small scale with different mediums, styles, techniques, and colors, from watercolor pencils on paper to painting on small wood panels, before ultimately settling on acrylics on canvas. The diluted acrylics achieved the look of refracted light shining onto the turtle's carapace.

"You can't really paint something you know nothing about," says Palermo in her light-filled home studio on Pitt Street. She hands me a sheet of data she has collected with interesting turtle facts and stats. "I find it remarkable that sea turtles basically have their own internal GPS system. Their brains are configured to sense the earth's magnetic field, so they can navigate the globe and know exactly how to get back to the beach they were born on."

When you consider the odds against the survival of a sea turtle, it's difficult to fathom how they exist at all. From egg poaching to predators who eat the hatchlings on their way to the sea, oil spills in the Gulf, boat propeller injuries, and getting caught in trawler nets — Is it any wonder that only one in 1,000 hatchlings reach adulthood?

"They just found a leatherback in Beaufort. It's very rare. They can grow up to seven feet long. The largest leatherback ever recorded was killed by a single plastic bag," Palermo says. That such a magnificent creature, perhaps as old as your grandfather, could be killed by ingesting trash that it mistook for a jellyfish is just downright sad but common.

And yet there is hope, ironically enough, in the form of the very creatures who have done them such harm: humans, Palermo among them. A landlubber turned ocean advocate (she is learning to surf and getting scuba certified), Palermo follows over 100 sea turtle conservation programs along the Southeastern coast via social media. 

Helping their return is the 10 percent Palermo donates from her turtle painting sales to the S.C. Aquarium's Sea Turtle Rescue Program. She has spent a good deal of time at the basement hospital, observing, photographing, and learning the nuances of turtle expression and behavior. Here amidst the echoing drone of aerating tanks, roughly a dozen turtles (mostly loggerheads and Kemp's ridleys) rest in various stages of diagnosis or recuperation at any given time. Many arrive covered with barnacles due to a lack of mobility from whatever injury they received. The luckier ones (those easy to treat) are downright feisty, circling and raising their E.T.-like faces above water to eyeball visitors during popular midday tours. One recent turtle arrived so sick and dehydrated that she actually died momentarily. She was also the first turtle to be brought back to life by the team (and with hope, one of their success stories in progress).

"I've always been an animal lover," says Palermo, who worked at animal shelters and kennels throughout high school and college. "But what attracts me to sea turtles is that they are gentle creatures. Their diets consist of sea grasses, algae, sponges, jelly fish, and various mollusks. Other than scavenging for food, they wouldn't harm anything unless they felt they were in danger.

"I am also drawn to their different patterns and colors in their flippers and shells. Each sea turtle is unique. With seven different species, there are many different perspectives to paint from."

If you take a tour of the sea turtle hospital, chances are at least one of the turtles will seek you out and give you a soulful eye, and your heart will flutter. That feeling of connection is probably in your mind, not the turtle's (humans love to project their own traits onto other species). Unlike the hip, surfer dude turtle surrounded by little turtle dudes in the classic children's movie Finding Nemo, sea turtles go it alone. 

Yet there's something. Something in their eyes and demeanor. A connection deeper than we can verbalize — the connection of looking into the eyes of a creature whose history extends back over 110 million years, a creature whose ancestors grew to be as large as 15 feet long.

Not only does Palermo donate proceeds to the turtle hospital, but with each sale of her paintings, she provides a write-up detailing the story of that specific turtle, hoping that the owner of the painting will then pass it along to viewers to help spread awareness of the struggles they face. And that is how the sea turtle makes new friends. 

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