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Watery canvas

Visualize images of the ocean, represented through painted layers beneath delicate illustrations that are characterized by a humorous and animated quality.

This is the artwork of Sven Atema. His exhibit, “Above & Below Sea Level” is the newest addition to the Mills Museum and will be on display until Nov. 3.

From afar the paintings appear as simple, charming, flawless sketches. They appear as black ink illustrations against snowy or cloudy backgrounds. Up close, layers of paint can be seen beneath the initial color; depth of coloring and texture emerge.

“His paintings are very cartoony, initially you see the light side, but upon closer inspection you see many layers of paint and a really detail-oriented mind,” said Museum Director Stephan Jost.

This sort of duality between seriousness and comic relief seems to describe both the paintings as well as Atema himself. He’s a “very thoughtful, quiet person but his sense of fun comes through [in] his art,” Jost said.

Atema explains his fascination with the ocean as originating with his father, a marine biologist, and continuing with his son, who loves the natural sciences. He grew up in Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by water. He said he returns there as often as possible.

As part of his ocean-permeated world, Atema performs a sort of exploration of marine life by “behaving like a jellyfish: meaning floating for a long time until the rising tide washes you on the beach,” which he claims takes an extraordinary amount of patience. More of Atema’s aquatic pastimes include: “trying to swim quickly backwards (not the backstroke) like a squid. And sinking to the bottom of the ocean with a heavy rock, observing the light that slices through the water as you go down.”

Further meditating on the ocean and on his own art, he said, “it becomes a suitable metaphor for the subconscious, for those realms that are always around you yet…seldom delved into and understood.”

Atema’s work is mostly shown in Paris, where his paintings are shown on a regular basis at a gallery appropriately called “Curiosities.” It is here in the states where he hasn’t quite caught on and is still unknown.

In addition to his own work, Atema is also a museum proprietor for the Oakland Museum and also does art restoration. Jost said that work requires, “incredible hand-skills, amazing chemistry knowledge, and the patience of a saint.”

Atema looks forward to displaying his work in the museum which Jost said he helped remodel. Furthermore, “he’s happy to talk to students,” said Jost.

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