Water pollution. The chemicals found in sunscreens. Excessive amounts of sunlight. These account for the white ring of coral—coral replicas—that line the inner ring of an otherwise colorful grouping of these marine invertebrates. A scuba diver, hardly more than an inch from fin to glove, is almost suspended, clear as day inside that frame of white.

“White Out” is the miniature sculpture by Julia Karls, a senior at Orono High School. It’s also a piece that stood out among some 5,300 entries to this year’s global Ocean Awareness Contest sponsored by Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs.

Karls earned the Pearl Award and a $300 cash scholarship for her polymer clay reef, sharing sixth place with a girl from South Korea. Karls donated the scholarship money to the World Wildlife Fund.

“My work is inspired by the detrimental effects climate change has on coral reefs. As temperatures rise, reefs fall prey to coral bleaching—a process where coral turn completely white,” wrote Julia Karls in a reflection she included with her contest submission. “I hope the viewers of my artwork are also inspired to create change and lessen the impact of climate change on coral reefs.”

Karls said her tiny scuba diver was meant to reflect how people may feel that preventing further harm is beyond reach, always outpacing our efforts to turn the tide on climate change.

“I feel like a lot of people don’t think they can do enough,” Karls told Laker Pioneer. “Take us in Minnesota. We don’t live by an ocean where we can go and do ocean cleanup or do something like that to help. We have to do the little things, like conserving water.”

Karls said her project took her about a week to make, but that was at a rate of 9 hours a day. She was aided by a decade of experience working with polymer clay and by what she said has been an innate interest in the plight of endangered animals, coupled with a long-running enjoyment of science.

No stranger to eco art, Karls launched the website Endangered Earth in 2019 for selling her polymer clay charm necklaces in support of the World Wildlife Fund.

Pre-pandemic, Karls would also teach people how to make clay pots while promoting education about sea life and what people can do to limit ocean contamination—what they can do to protect the world’s “playas,” Spanish for beaches. That program of hers, “Pots for Playas,” Karls started earlier this year, and its proceeds benefit ocean cleanup efforts in Costa Rica.

The current health pandemic has moved “Pots for Playas” entirely online, but the money raised from each $10 kit still goes Operation Rich Coast and its efforts to keep the ocean free from contamination.

You can find Karls’ work online at www.endangeredearth.online

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