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NUWC Division Newport oceanographer relieves life’s stresses through art

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | Feb. 5, 2019

NEWPORT, R.I. — At work, Michael T. Garr, a Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport scientist in the Sensors and Sonar Systems Department, sketches 3D concept drawings. In his off-duty time he creates works of art that have been on display in several Rhode Island galleries.

Garr, a resident of Kingston, Rhode Island, has been drawing most of his life, but his only formal training was “Basic Art” in his senior year of high school in Valley Cottage, New York. He took up oil painting in 2012 and began working with Lorena Pugh of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, who he considers his mentor. Garr became a member of the Monday Night Masters, a group of five artists who meet weekly at Pugh’s studio. They paint together, encourage each other and, most importantly, critique each other’s work.

Since he began working with oils, Garr has completed 120 paintings. He believes that art is a way of life.

“I’ve always drawn. It’s part of who I am,” he said. “It complements my work in the sciences.”

Garr’s love for creating art came from his mother, he said. He recalled a time in 2007 spending time with his mother at Beavertail State Park in Jamestown painting scenes of Narragansett Bay. His mother later told him that it was one of the most wonderful memories she had with him. Garr cherishes the 20 to 30 artworks that his mother gave to him.

He also passed his love of art to his son, Albert, who is now a graphic designer in Hawaii, inspired by watching his father “make art that gives you a sense you were actually there.”

Garr, who has a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island and has been at NUWC Newport and its predecessor organization in New London, Connecticut, since 1987, is a scientist in underwater acoustics, measuring bottom backscatter. He has applied his artistic talent to his work, sketching 3D concept drawings. One of these was of the pattern of the beams projected from a tilted towed acoustic source aimed down at the seafloor. The image also showed the pattern from a receiver beam and how two different types of bottom could be contributing to acoustic returns at the same time after transmission, a process called insonification.

NUWC Newport’s Graphics Department used the geometric pattern of insonification to create a more finished graphic illustration that allowed audiences to understand how the sonar was being used to make direct path bottom backscattering measurements. The drawing was in pencil and took about 15 minutes to complete, and Garr has used it in all of his presentations on making these types of measurements.

Along with his own imagination, Garr’s inspiration for his art while off-duty includes architecture, people, the play between light and shadow, the sea and boats, and the old masters, especially Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, a nineteenth century French landscape and portrait painter and Rembrandt, the Dutch draughtsman, painter and printmaker. His favorite method for painting is to just get out and enjoy the surroundings, even in bad weather. He enjoys doing seascapes and is currently doing a series of trees, noting how much he admires trees drawn by Corot.

Garr enjoys quick art, impressionistic yet realistic, and minimalistic. His most recent work has concentrated on depictions of “our earth in its splendor and the light of the people who inhabit it.”

“There are interesting subjects all around us,” Garr said.

Recently, while Garr participated in a sea test to measure the sounds made by some new sonar equipment deployed from a surface vessel on the underwater acoustic range facility on San Clemente Island, California, he spent his off-duty time painting an outdoor watercolor.

Not only has Garr’s art brought stress release, it also has had some commercial success.  Some years ago, a posting on Garr’s website of a drawing of California’s Golden Gate Bridge caught the attention of a graphic designer, a former Rhode Islander living in San Francisco. He sold his image for use on a soup can and along with the money, he also got a case of soup out of the deal.

Garr’s artwork can be found on display at art galleries throughout Rhode Island, most recently at a two-person exhibit held at The Hive RI in North Kingstown. He also has exhibited at the South County Art Association in South Kingstown, and the Naval War College Museum, where he was part of the Navy artists’ juried exhibition. Garr has submitted work to Newport’s Spring Bull Gallery annual “Fakes and Forgeries” show and has sold pieces through Arnold Art Store.

Coworkers often attend Garr’s shows and some of his friends from New London have commissioned him to do drawings of their houses.

Garr is also starting to paint portraiture and recently created a self-portrait drawn while looking in a mirror. Instead of working from photographs, Garr prefers to sit with each subject. His goal is to capture the essence of what he’s painting or drawing. He enjoys painting with oils more than with pen and ink, noting it allows him to learn more about color and value. 

“A lot of great painters did oil in the studio and watercolor outdoors,” he said, citing Winslow Homer as an example.

After retirement from Division Newport, Garr plans to explore combining inks and watercolor.  Garr’s art pieces are available as signed and numbered prints. He donates half of his art sale proceeds to charity and frequently donates pieces for charity fundraisers. Sales have benefited the Newport Art Museum, Peace Dale Congregational Church, Save The Bay, Clean Ocean Access and the ALS Association. 

“It’s a great way to be able to contribute to charity through my own creativity. It’s the most satisfying way to get artwork out there,” Garr said.

NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Washington.