“Liturgy of the Shelf," a senior thesis exhibition by Mick Chivers, explores the tensions of commercial fishing as the industry grapples with overfishing and the impacts of climate change. Photo by Mick Chivers.

Date March 13, 2024
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Senior thesis exhibition at Brown explores ritual, decay of fishing industry

"Liturgy of the Shelf" draws on student Mick Chivers’ experiences as an artist, commercial fisherman, aspiring surgeon and advocate for sustainable food production.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Current visitors to Brown’s List Art Building may notice something unusual upon entering: the smell. What Brown University senior Mick Chivers notices is the lack of it.

“Out of respect for the professors and classrooms in the building, I didn’t make it as vile as I would have liked to,” Chivers quipped as he stood next to a hermetically sealed cube containing nine complete tuna skeletons and the sludge of tepid saltwater.

The cube, elevated in a glass display case above a mirror, invites viewers to peer into the unknown — a liminal space that has become quite familiar to Chivers and one he explores in the culmination of his senior thesis exhibition, “Liturgy of the Shelf.”

On display at the List Art Building, “Liturgy” reflects the way Chivers balances his identities as a visual artist, a commercial fisherman, an aspiring surgeon and the son of a war correspondent.

Chivers is enrolled in Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), an eight-year track that enables students to combine both their undergraduate and medical school education at Brown. He will earn his bachelor’s degree in visual art in May. Then he plans to take a gap year to run a small oyster farm near Point Judith, Rhode Island, before returning to Providence to begin his studies at the Warren Alpert Medical School.

To some, his pursuits may seem to lead to three distinct career paths. To Chivers, they’re inseparable — and sometimes harmonious — parts of his daily life. 

In “Liturgy,” Chivers highlights his chaotic, seemingly diametric and ultimately ritualistic daily life through the lens of participating in the commercial fishing industry — amid a steep decline due to overfishing and the impacts of climate change — as a person who deeply cares for the living things he harvests.

microscopic photo of fungi growing on fishbone
“Life Goes On. (who will know what was?)” is an 800x-magnified image of fungus growing across a fish bone Chivers had in his collection.
“It’s about wonder, how incredible it is and how horrible it is,” he said. “It’s about this sort of tension between really intense sorrow, guilt and loss — and this celebration and worship and appreciation.”

Chivers has been fishing in one way or another since he was a kid — he wrote his admissions essay to Brown about being a commercial quahogger — but didn’t fully dive into the profession until the months leading up to his first day at Brown, when he took a gig with an offshore lobster vessel and later, a squid boat.

Science, too, has long been an interest.

“In high school, I was a hardcore STEM kid, really gunning for medicine,” Chivers said. “And then I got to Brown, with the Open Curriculum and PLME program, and I was basically like, ‘Oh my god, I have the golden ticket to explore with artistic form and social and ecological meaning, while still preparing to serve vulnerable people in the medical field.’”

In addition to the science classes he knew he wanted to take, Chivers experimented, following one of his friends into an introductory-level visual art class. He liked it enough to register for another the following semester, this time a sculpture course led by Daniel Stupar, an adjunct lecturer in visual art and a studio and exhibitions manager.

That was a turning point for Chivers, who discovered that a lifetime of working with his hands lent itself well to the art of sculpture. Plus, he had a wealth of inspiration and material to work with: fish. 

“Fish live in the medium [water] — they’re not constrained by gravity like us,” Chivers said. “They develop these amazing skeletons that then become these crazy narrative objects where it’s this in-between of something that was and something that’s going to be.”

Chivers began creating intricate, delicate fishbone sculptures that formed the foundation of his portfolio.

That’s where a lot of my art comes from — that access I have to this unseen world.

Mick Chivers Class of 2024
Chivers holds one of his sculptures

But three years later, for his senior thesis exhibition, Chivers wanted to move away from his signature sculptures and create a body of work that captured the surreal experience of industrial fishing and its associated decay. In addition to the exhibition’s sculptural pieces and microscope photography, Chivers used layered image transfer techniques of photos he took while at sea, experimenting with form and color to create pieces that are intentionally disorienting.

“I sort of treated ‘Liturgy’ like I was on an offshore squid trip,” Chivers said, estimating that he spent roughly 118 hours of a 130-hour stretch in the studio to prepare the exhibition — not including the 500 hours that went into actually making the pieces it comprises. “It’s almost directly paralleling the schedule at sea, where you’re just working constantly. It’s put me in this state where I’m sort of back out there.”

When he’s out there — 100 miles offshore, sometimes for a week at a time, accompanied only by crewmates and marine life — it’s like he’s somewhere else entirely.

“A lot of times, the only thing on the horizon is blue,” Chivers said. “I think it’s the last wilderness left, and it’s really, really special to be out there and see it. It’s something I’m going to carry for the rest of my life. That’s where a lot of my art comes from — that imagery and that access I have to this unseen world.”

fishbone sculpture on oak pedestal
Chivers said he aimed to create a body of work that helps him better process the dichotomy of his life at sea and his life on land. Photo by Mick Chivers.
Chivers’ access to often unseen and chaotic worlds began during his earliest years, when his family lived in Russia and his father covered the second Chechen war.

In 2008, his family moved to southern Rhode Island, where they began homesteading and raising poultry. That’s also when Chivers’ father bought his first fishing boat. The act of fishing together, which the father-and-son duo had been doing since Chivers was 3 years old, soon became a larger symbol of healing and homecoming.

“‘Liturgy’ is all about ritual — the ritual of the industry, but also this ritual in my own family, when my dad would come home from conflict and he would take me out on our small center console,” Chivers said. “How important that was for me — it fused both this desire to understand and counteract violence, and this intense love of fishing as community and bonding. It’s the thing we did every time he came home."

Their conversations at sea also helped sharpen Chivers’ focus on medicine: he hopes to pursue trauma surgery and sees it not as contrast, but rather a complement, to his work in the art studio.

“You’re healing people, fixing their bodies for them, improving their lives and alleviating suffering,” he said. “It’s the highest form of sculpture.”