Do you ever have those friends who you feel have always been in your life even though you know that isn't true? That's how Ryan's friendship is to TFUI Founder Melissa -- she can scarcely remember a time he wasn't in her life. They became fast friends, bonding over their mutual love and respect for the ocean, and since then Melissa has greatly admired her friend's work (hint, hint, hubby). When TFUI decided to expand the Behind the Fins series, she knew Ryan Sobel was one of the artists she wanted to be a part of it. Not just because of how much she adores his work, but because his passion is infectious. Learn about Ryan and his breathtaking work with TFUI here...
The Fins United Initiative: First off: what got you interested in Chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays, chimaeras)?
Ryan Sobel: My interest in marine life, including Chondrichthyans, began during my childhood. Growing up nearly 800 kilometers from the coast in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, the ocean was somewhat of a mystery, and I found myself infatuated by the unknown. The undersea world that filled the pages of my bookshelf seemed so foreign compared to the ecosystems surrounding my neighborhood. I wanted to learn all that I could about the marine environment and the animals that called the sea home.
TFUI: Any one marine environment or animal in particular?
RS: In particular, I found myself fascinated by the bizarre and unusual; leading my attention to the deep sea. I can recall memories such as: doodling hydrothermal vent communities in my school notebooks; using glow-in-the-dark fabric paint to create my own t-shirts featuring bioluminescent life; and playing with an unusual array of stuffed toys - a goblin shark, viper fish, and giant squid amongst others. (I have to give my mother credit for finding the coolest toys!)
TFUI: THAT sounds epic. So we haven't talked to a scientist yet who demonstrates such an impactful messages (such as conservation and education) through art. How did you get into this career?
RS: My love for creative mediums began with simple pencil sketches. As a child, frequent trips to the local zoo and parks near our home became routine. With pencil and sketchbook in hand, I would arrive back home with a plethora of doodles and drawings of the various wildlife I had encountered each day. To be quite honest, I disliked painting as a child.
TFUI: No way!
RS: I saw it as sloppy and for a while stuck to my pen and pencils. Until the day something compelled me to give it a try. Before long, I had fallen in love with my paints and brushes, leaving behind my sketchpad for canvas; painting the creatures and scenery from the underwater world. I began my journey into environmentalism by allying with a few public aquariums in the eastern U.S., including the Greater Cleveland Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium, whom aided me in setting up displays of my artwork.
TFUI: That's fantastic of them- and two great aquariums!
RS: These initial showings gave me the opportunity to share my conservation message while also showing others the beauty I see in the world through my art. I felt that if I could lead someone to see beauty in mere dyes and brushstrokes on a canvas, then possibly, they would see that this fascination is real, and feel driven to preserve it. This led to the foundation of Sobel Designs – an official front for the creation of my artwork and conservation efforts.
TFUI: We love that! Now, are your pieces based on pictures you (or someone else) has taken or something else?
RS: Typically, when creating a new work of art, personal experiences inspire an idea. I take that idea onto paper and mold it into a tangible concept. Once I have a composition in mind and a rough sketch created, I look toward field guides and photography books to build a collection of suitable references needed for the final painting. Every pattern has its place and each curve plays a critical role in the appearance of the final work. These photo references help to ensure that no details are overlooked.
TFUI: What is your favorite technique (in regards to your art style)?
RS: My medium of choice is acrylic paint. Compared to oil paints, this water-based medium is rather fast drying. This can be a blessing, or create challenges, as I often find myself racing the clock to blend colors on my canvas before the paint dries. While there are ways to combat this attribute, such as finely misting the canvas to keep newly applied paint workable, experimentation has allowed me to develop techniques that use this quality to my advantage.
TFUI: What kind of techniques?
RS: One such technique is a dry brush effect. For this approach, I first apply my base layers, including light and shadow gradients. I then apply a small amount of color onto a completely dry paintbrush. Spreading the paint amongst the bristles using a napkin or cloth, I can then use the remaining paint to lightly brush a controlled gradient of color onto the canvas. The longer I continue to brush, the more pronounced this color becomes. This effect is enhanced by the texture of the canvas, giving the faint brushstrokes an organic appearance. This technique is effective for painting wispy clouds, beams of light, highlights, iridescence, and other instances where bold brushstrokes may look unnatural.
TFUI: So do you think sharks are demonized in your local media in different mediums?
RS: In Hollywood films, it’s still commonplace to see sharks given a villainous role.
TFUI: Yuuup. [laughs]
RS: They’re often portrayed as stealthy, malicious, or as obstacles which the protagonist must overcome. This comes as no surprise, for as humans, we love our monsters. The folklore of our ancestors told of monstrous beasts that filled the seas and forests. Gathered around fires, these accounts were passed from generation to generation; surviving centuries, or even millennia, in countless cultures around the globe. While today we know these tales to be largely fictional, we still love to imagine such beasts exist by exaggerating the characteristics and behaviors of known creatures.
I do see this tendency make its way into my local news media as well. Jupiter, Florida - my current city of residence - has a reputation as being one of the most popular cities in the state for shark tourism. Located only 80 kilometers from Grand Bahama and situated closer to the Gulf Stream than any city in Florida, a multitude of shark species congregate in this region year-round. Given this, it’s not uncommon for sharks to appear on the local news. The media’s demeanor towards the sharks seems to swing in either a demonized or victimized direction depending on the nature of the story. I will applaud them for frequently consulting specialists in the field of marine science, however, more work still needs to be done.
TFUI: Agreed! So what do you think can be done to remedy this?
RS: I believe one of the most effective ways to change the public’s image of sharks is through social media platforms. It’s been shown that repetitive viewing of ads makes an individual more likely to purchase the product it represents. This same strategy can be used to shift the public view of sharks. By regularly sharing media that portrays the true nature of these animals, we can alter the perceptions of those we are connected with. While we each may only influence a handful of people, ocean advocates united can create a wave of change.
TFUI: Do you think exposure to marine art can lead to better conservation initiatives/policies in the long run?
RS: I do believe that artwork can have a profound impact on environmental conservation initiatives; whether they be marine or terrestrial. It’s known that artists often attempt to convey messages through their work; as at one time or another, we’ve all come across a piece of art that caused us to pause and consider its meaning. I value these experiences as they shine a light onto novel points of view and invite our minds to consider the feelings of another individual. This exposure to the perspectives of others better equips us to make decisions when creating policy.
TFUI: Interesting point.
RS: Artwork is also extremely effective when trying to promote such initiatives. Artwork is one of the most fundamental and potent methods of human communication, tapping into human emotion. It’s a visceral medium, which has the ability to transcend the sociological barriers we encounter with those around us; such as language and cultural differences. Artwork is driven by emotion, and with artwork you have the potential to evoke feelings within your audience. This emotion is the catalyst with which you can kindle an importance for the message behind your work.
TFUI: You've been invited as a speaker (on panels, oral presentations, etc) many times before in regards to your artwork. What message do you usually portray in these presentations?
RS: I'm often asked, "Why art?" or “What role do creative mediums play in shaping conversations about environmental conservation and promoting real change?” Through my presentations, I offer insight to not only these questions, but also offer advise the audience on how they can incorporate artwork in their own conservation or preservation projects.
TFUI: What do you think is the best way to get the general public interested in the ocean?
RS: I’ve always thought that the most impactful way to inspire someone to care about our oceans is by creating a personal connection to the sea within that individual. Easier said than done, this task is often a challenge for environmentalists, especially when the individual you are hoping to inspire lives hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the region or organism you are trying to protect.
However, this I feel is where the value of artwork in the sciences can truly be appreciated. Artwork - whether it be film, photography, painting, sculpture, etc. – can have a profound impact within an individual by creating that emotional connection. From this, the seed of inspiration can be sewn.
TFUI: Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment? RS: For a state surrounded by the sea on three sides, I feel there is still much work to be done to improve Florida’s relationship with its largest natural resource. While the sea influences much of the culture in Florida, this doesn’t always seem to have a beneficial effect on the environment. Many game species have been overfished and reefs have been destroyed in the wake of growing tourism.
TFUI: What about their relationship with sharks?
RS: Sharks too have faced challenges as they are commonly sought after by recreational fishermen and still feared by beachgoers. With these struggles, and more, the state of Florida has much work to do to preserve its beautiful coastline, but there are situations that have given me hope. I continue to meet passionate individuals and grassroots organizations that are tirelessly building a better future for our oceans and the marine species that call it home.
TFUI: What has been your coolest elasmobranch encounter?
RS: My most memorable elasmobranch encounter occurred in October of 2016 while diving 220 kilometers off the coast of Northeast Australia. At this site lies Osprey Reef - an ancient volcanic atoll with shear sea walls plummeting 1000 meters into the deep. On our first day of diving at this location, we had beautiful weather and exceptional visibility. I felt that I was living a dream; spotting marine life that I had only read about in books. However, the highlight of this day arrived near its end.
TFUI: Ooh! Do tell!
RS: With the sun drifting closer to the horizon, we decided to make use of the remaining light for one final dive. As we descended onto the reef wall, a faint movement caught my eye in the endless expanse of blue to my left. Moments later, I could see the object creating this movement was indeed alive, large, and drawing closer. Unsure whether to be alarmed or excited, I froze in place, eyes fixed on the entity. Suddenly, a smile grew upon my face, causing my mask to fill with water, as the creature’s identity was revealed – a massive manta ray with a wingspan of nearly 5 meters. We watched in awe as the manta approached, performed a summersault-like flip only meters away, then continued on it’s way into the blue.
TFUI: Oh my gosh, I am so jealous!
RS: While mantas can be a common sight for divers in certain regions of the South Pacific, I treasure this memory for being my first encounter with a manta in a natural setting. Drifting weightlessly in a silent underwater world, I felt alone with this creature and dwarfed by its size. This not only became my most memorable elasmobranch encounter, but one of my favorite wildlife encounters of all time.
TFUI: What are some tips you have for those who want to follow a similar path as you?
RS: For those who are passionate about an art form and would like to use their work to promote a cause, I would encourage that you not be afraid to collaborate with others. There’s no doubt that we can accomplish much more when we work together to complete a task, and the same can be said for environmentalism. Some of my most memorable moments as a marine artist have been the times where I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside amazing organizations by creating works of art that highlight their conservation efforts. I encourage those who find themselves artistically inclined to reach out to organizations or individuals whom you admire. More often than not, they would love for your assistance!
TFUI: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
RS: The most rewarding part of my job as an artist has been the countless encounters with incredibly passionate individuals who are working to change our world. During public events, or after giving a presentation on my work, I’ve been thanked by audience members claiming that I left them feeling inspired. Though, more often, I find that I am the one feeling inspired after these events.
TFUI: What’s next for you?
RS: My next chapter in life has led me into a different region of the biological sciences. I’m currently an undergraduate student at Florida Atlantic University, studying to become involved in biomedical research. While I’ve always been captivated by the beauty of the natural world, I’m also interested in the discovery of compounds, originating in various plants and animals, that may play a beneficial role in human health. I hope to someday join the forefront of medical science, providing data that may lead to novel treatment options, giving individuals a second chance at life.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK RYAN FOR HIS TIME AND WE WISH HIM WELL ON HIS CURRENT/FUTURE PROJECTS!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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