Muralist Margot Datz goes under the sea with latest mural

Nis Kildegaard

Living on Martha’s Vineyard, we’re accustomed to being surrounded by the ocean — specifically the Atlantic Ocean. Now, thanks to the latest mural by artist Margot Datz at the Edgartown library, Islanders have the chance to see what it would be like to be surrounded by four very different ocean zones — the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Indo-Pacific, and the Indian.

When she was approached by the library staff in 2017 to create the mural, Datz found her inspiration in talking to Debbie MacInnis, who served as the children’s librarian for 40 years before retiring last year. “She and her husband like nothing better than diving over coral reefs,” says Datz of MacInnis. “She picked coral reefs. I created a rendering to show the board of trustees, but very early on I realized through my research that I had painted fish together that would never have coexisted in real life. The last thing the ocean needed was another corny cliché.”

So the renowned artist and muralist launched an ambitious plan to depict four different ocean zones as accurately as possible. “I probably spent 120 hours researching various fish, corals, sponges, octopi — really digging in and becoming much more informed,” she says. “I became a total ocean nerd. I would sit at night with a cup of tea, spend two hours watching octopi.”

The result of a year’s worth of six-day workweeks is spectacular. Not only is the variety of life forms impressive, the renderings are truly animated. There is nothing at all static about the mural. You can almost feel the gentle rhythm of the ocean, and each creature’s individual style of movement is expertly portrayed so that the scene comes to life. The viewing experience is like walking through the most fabulous aquarium one could imagine — with each of the various ecosystems’ representatives playing a starring role.

In doing the research, Datz dove deep into her subject. “I felt so unbelievably fortunate,” she says. “I got to look every single day at the most mind-blowing, beautiful stuff that nature has to offer.”

The experience gave the artist a further appreciation for the wonders of nature. “The general population knows so little about the ocean, even though it covers four-fifths of the globe,” she says. “It’s infinitely beautiful and fascinating, and still so unexplored. I really understand how someone could chose marine biology and never want to come up for air.”

In seeking models for her subjects, Datz found that two dimensional pictures weren’t sufficient. “One of the challenges was to make things look like they were moving — to create an underwater sense of dimension,” she says. “Most of the shots I looked at were of fish from the side. I needed to rotate these things in space to get the angles I wanted. God bless Google images.”

Videos also proved very helpful. Datz not only used online footage to help her visualize the various forms of sea life, she also learned a lot from the wealth of ocean videos she studied. “It breaks my heart that coral reefs are so threatened right now,” she says. “As a learning experience, this mural was my favorite. I walked out of this project changed. For one thing, I can no longer eat octopus.”

Datz has created hundreds of commissioned murals, including large-scale projects for a number of public spaces. On-Island, one can see her work at the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal, the hospital, the YMCA, the Oak Bluffs children’s library, and the Old Whaling Church. Off-Island projects include murals for the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Central DuPage Hospital of Chicago, and St. Joseph’s Daytime Recovery Center in New Orleans. Datz has recently commenced work on a series of panels for the Chilmark library representing scenes of the town done in the style of Thomas Hart Benton.

For another recent project, the trompe l’oeil walls of the Whaling Church, Datz was restricted to a monochromatic palette. This time around, she got to dip into the entire spectrum. “What was so fun is that the lifeforms in the ocean are so diverse,” she says. “So many of them are just unbelievably colorful. I got to go nuts with color. You compare that with the Whaling Church’s 13 shades of gray.”

Sometimes even art takes a village. Datz explained that this project was only possible because of “the generous contributions of so many, including grants from the M.V. Cultural Council, the Rotary Club of Martha’s Vineyard, M.V. Savings Bank, South Mountain Co., the Edgartown Library Foundation, Beagary Trust, as well as private donations raised by the Friends of the Edgartown library.”

Datz’s rainbow undersea world has proven very popular with the children’s library patrons. Schoolkids stopped in every day during the process, asking questions, making suggestions, and creating their own work to hang alongside the mural. The commission became a true community event.

Perseverance, research, and attention to detail are hallmarks of Datz’ work, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a chance to have a lot of fun and express her originality in every project she undertakes. For her own noncommissioned work, Datz often plays with fantasy scenarios — anthropomorphic animals, unlikely apparel, and, most notably, mermaids, the subject of her popular illustrated book “A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids.”

Ocean life proved to be a perfect fit for Datz. “As far out as I could possibly imagine something creatively, that’s almost where the ocean begins,” she says.

Although she stuck to reality this time around, the artist did include one touch of whimsy in the mural. At the right-hand side of the wall, a mermaid toddler sits at the ocean’s bottom waving a greeting to visitors. Datz says that her granddaughter was the model for the the mermaid, but one has to imagine that there’s quite a lot of the artist herself in this little nymph who’s clearly enjoying the aquatic life, surrounded by creatures of the sea.