Karla Klay is the founding director of Artist Boat. She has 30+ years of experience in arts and environmental education, eco-tourism, public engagement in coastal experiences, and development of programs to teach students and members of the public about coastal and marine ecology along with actions that result in improved environmental quality. Artist Boat was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2003 to provide inspiring and unique coastal experiences to people of all ages through art, science, and conservation. Since inception, over 180,000 participants have engaged in Artist Boat’s unique eco-art programs, each receiving a minimum of four hours of hands-on, place-based, and experiential learning formed in the context of marine ecosystems and coastal margins of the Texas Coast. The budget of Artist Boat has grown from one of approximately $65,000 in 2003 to $4+ million in 2022. The staff of experts delivering programming and stewarding conserved land has grown from 2 – 14 in 19 years. Over the past 19 years, more than $14.7 million have been awarded through Karla’s leadership to conserve 810 acres of land on West Galveston Island – forming the Coastal Heritage Preserve.
Through her leadership, 180,000 underserved youth and members of the public have paddled our estuary, restored 60+ acres of coastal habitats, created public art interpreting coastal ecosystems on 50 campuses and the Galveston Seawall, conserved 810+ acres of land, and created habitats on eight campuses. Participants are empowered to educate others, trained to conserve or restore natural resources, and changed to protect the biodiversity of our gulf.
The ”BIG” vision is to conserve a bay to beach complex of 1,400 acres finalizing the formation of the Coastal Heritage Preserve and build an internationally recognized Gulf Coast Environmental Education Center situated within the Coastal Heritage Preserve.
Karla was raised in the Florida Keys by parents who developed the technology to ship live sharks all over the world to large educational aquariums. Her neighbors worked with dolphins of the Dolphin Research Center. She had a very unique childhood with sharks in the backyard and dolphins as childhood playmates. This shaped an individual that has an extreme love of coastal margins, the marine environment, and the Gulf of Mexico. Recent events have shaped a “leader”, working in environmental education that is deeply concerned with preserving coastal ecosystems that will create a more resilient coastal environment for citizens and wildlife. Karla proudly served on City of Galveston Hurricane Ike Long-Term Recovery Committee. Two of the recovery projects approved by the city adopted by Artist Boat are to acquire and preserve 600+ acres on the west end of Galveston Island (Coastal Heritage Preserve) and to restore ecosystems from the beach to the bay damaged by Ike (Habitat Restoration Adventures). These recovery projects are both well underway and over the past decade have surpassed many goals.
Karla Klay holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Southern Methodist University and a Bachelor of Science from Texas A&M University in Marine Biology. She completed the Yale Conservation Finance Course on scholarship in 2011. She completed the Rice University Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives in 2013. Karla was selected by the National Audubon Society in 2012 as a national leader receiving the TogetherGreen National Leaders Fellowship Award for her role in conservation on the Gulf Coast. Lastly, she was awarded the Gulf Guardian Award in 2013 by the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program for her contribution to the Gulf of Mexico communities in the field of environmental and place-based learning. Karla has also served on the Galveston Park Board of Trustees Beach Maintenance Advisory Committee, Tourism Development Advisory Committee, the East End Lagoon Committee, the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and the City of Galveston Arts Commission.
Karla is married to Kristopher Benson, a NOAA Fisheries Biologist who shares her passion for nature and was pivotal in founding the Artist Boat. Together they enjoy great travels around the world to dive places in Indonesia (Komodo and Bunaken), Honduras (Cayos Cochinos), and the Florida Keys (Looe Key and Coffins Patch); bird places on the US coast lines to see whooping cranes, shorebirds, migratory fallouts, and pelagic species; and collect textiles in Latin America and Indonesia. Karla lives to see marine animals in the wild and hopes someday to swim with Sperm Whales or Humpback Whales somewhere on this great planet.