Gabrielle’s Smithsonian Summer

Posted by: Mellany Artmstrong

Gabrielle Wharton’s summer internship of creating illustrations for the Smithsonian’s Ocean Initiative Department went, well, swimmingly.

“Her first project was a sea lion illustration,” said Emily Frost, the Ocean Portal managing editor and Wharton’s supervisor. A sea lion had pulled a young girl into the water in Canada in May, and a researcher at the Smithsonian was studying the swimming dynamics of sea lions. Wharton, a senior illustration major, showed how sea lions, unlike other ocean creatures, use their front flippers to swim so strongly and smoothly.

“Gabby was able to make it a little bit simplified for somebody who’s coming in with no science fluid dynamic background,” Frost said. The story and Wharton’s illustration then found a broader audience when it was posted online for Smithsonian Magazine.

“I have always loved the idea that through art, an incomprehensible idea can be transformed into an easily communicated concept,” Wharton said.

In addition to the graphic design and illustration experience she gained during the internship, Wharton, a recipient of the Penny Fox Internship Fellowship, also soaked up some science.

“I was in California, and we were on the beach, and my friends were like, ‘Oh, look at all those seals,’ and I was like, ‘No, those are sea lions,’” she smiled.

Other projects she worked on included illustrating the different ways sharks use their tail fins, how octopus suckers work, and a cross section of a hurricane.

“The great thing about her stuff is that it’s gorgeous and beautiful to look at, but we’re also trying to make sure that it’s scientifically accurate and informative,” Frost said. For example, for the shark illustration, Wharton had to get the proportions of the sharks correct.

Wharton, from Vineland, N.J., had never been to the Smithsonian before starting her internship, and described it as ‘super awesome.’ She also got to spend time with botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini in the National Museum of Natural History, who’s been there for 45 years.

Because living in Washington D.C. would have been very expensive, Wharton was able to do a ‘virtual internship’ – she stayed in Philadelphia to do most of the work, participating in informational telephone calls a couple of times a week, and sending her files digitally to the Ocean Initiative Department. She did spend two weeks of the internship in D.C. The second on-site week didn’t start off as smoothly as the first.

Wharton arrived at her D.C. hotel at 11:30 p.m. July 30 and was told by the night staff person that she couldn’t check in because she was not yet 21 – never mind that Wharton had stayed at this same hotel for her first on-site week.

“I made the hotel girl think that I was sleeping in my car to make her feel bad,” Wharton said.

Feeling a bit distraught at the prospect of driving back to Philadelphia at midnight, Wharton called Frost.

“She was like, ‘No, don’t worry, you can sleep on my couch,’” Wharton said. “I ended up sleeping on the couch with the cat.” Wharton found an Airbnb the next day.