Do you ever come across a piece of art that stops you scrolling on your timeline or newsfeed and you kind of just stare at it? A piece of art that just speaks to you? A piece that understands you?
That's how TFUI Founder Melissa feels every time she sees Skylaar Amann's art. It's like welcoming in an old friend- warm, comforting, and nice to see again.
Make no mistake, Skylaar and Melissa have never met outside of the internet, but Melissa is a big fan on her work and excited to have her here with TFUI to discuss her important job of capturing wildlife through art. As The Fins United Initiative expands, so will our "Behind the Fins" interviews to not only include shark scientists and conservationists, but those who work with these animals in a different way, and those who capture these animals in action, such as behind a lens... or in this case, a brush.
The Fins United Initiative: First off: what got you interested in capturing wildlife through art?
Skylaar Amann: I’ve been interested in wildlife and the natural world for as long as I can remember. I grew up on the Oregon Coast, and having the incredible biodiversity of the Pacific Ocean and its coastline right in your backyard is a constant inspiration. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, and wandering through dense coastal forests and along foggy beaches opened an ever-expanding world of life and learning, from the tiniest tide pools to the tallest trees.
TFUI: How did you get into this career?
SA: I have been drawing and writing since I was a little kid, and I still remember the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean at five years old. I was awestruck, and that experience began my lifelong love affair with the sea, and especially the coastlines and rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. I volunteered at the Hatfield Marine Science Center as a kid and spent countless more hours there as a visitor and student. I went to college for art and made zines and artist books for years before returning to ocean illustration. I’ve been developing my skills and style over the last couple of years and am now pursuing children’s illustration—and continuing my sciart work.
TFUI: What is your art based on-- loosely pictures people have taken or images in your mind?
SA: For my sciart images, I refer to photographs and research papers, to get specific details right, like patterns or the shape of whale’s tail. For example, I relied heavily on research from Asha de Vos, PhD, when I did my illustration of Omura’s Whale. But at the end of the day, I don’t identify as a traditional scientific illustrator. I am more interested in capturing the inspiration, wonder, and stories of the natural world, which allows me to bend the rules a bit (like adding googly eyes to a shark if I feel like it). For my wider body of illustration work, I sometimes use photo reference, but it’s important to me to use my imagination and to train my hand and brain to retain information like anatomy or landscape formations so I can make an illustration my own work, not just a copy of a photograph.
TFUI: Do you think exposure to marine art can lead to better conservation initiatives/policies in the long run?
SA: Yes! Marine art is a great way to connect people to the ocean and science in general. We can understand imagery before we can read, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak. I have a background in both corporate communications and creative storytelling, so I believe in the power of story to connect an audience emotionally and personally to an idea. When you make a painting or drawing, you get to emphasize what you want the viewer to find important, so drawing a cute whale or writing a fun blurb about a shark can make people care about the ocean, or even learn something. As humans, we protect the things we care about, and art can be the gateway to that understanding. I also think there’s a place for fantasy and make-believe in illustration inspired by the natural world to get kids engaged and proactive about conservation. (And no, that doesn’t mean I think megalodon is still alive!)
TFUI: Bless you, haha.
TFUI: What do you think is the best way to get the general public interested in the ocean?
SA: Sharing stories. Data is crucial to understanding our world and creating policy. But translating data into personal connection is key to changing minds. In communications, we call this influencing behavior change. It relies on having people you trust deliver easy-to-understand messages frequently and repetitively, especially in the constant bombardment of information, and misinformation, online. It takes strategic planning and the ability to flexibly respond to changing stories and readers in real time. We’re lucky that the ocean is so magnificent. There’s no shortage of awe-inspiring stories or creatures or phenomenon to share. I do think we need to strike a balance between depressing stories about very real climate change dangers and optimistic stories about recoveries and activism. It’s easier to make small changes at home when you see evidence of positive change and don’t feel completely hopeless.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country/state have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
SA: I am lucky to live in a state that cares about our oceans. Oregon has a robust marine science community, and many of our coastal residents are committed to ocean health in their everyday lives, from picking up trash on the beach to participating in citizen science projects, to voting for environmental protections. We also have a large commercial fishing industry in Oregon, and more than ever, the fishing community works with scientists on sustainability and research, which is heartening and beautifully symbiotic. I am starting to see more ocean activism here in Portland, but it’s amazing how “out of sight, out of mind” the ocean can be just a hundred miles inland from the shoreline. So much of the United States is far away from the ocean, so there is a bit of disconnect for some people.
To do better, we need policy makers and influencers (including CEOs, scientists, and artists), not just in coastal states, who are committed to the oceans. And we all need better access to good information.
TFUI: What about elasmobranchs?
SA: There is so much conflicting information about shark fin bans, marine reserves, fishing, and so on, and even great scientific information isn’t always written in plain language designed for reading on the web. But the other issue is creating that sense of wonder Rachel Carson talked about. If you have that wonder, that strong emotional connection to the sea and the environment in general, it changes your perspective—and your habits. That’s where art and storytelling come in!
TFUI: What do you hope 2018 changes for sharks in regards to their image in the media?
SA: Ugh! I’ve already read so many disparaging articles this year about sharks, and it’s only March! I hope to see more stories on how amazing and diverse sharks are. There’s a fine line between writing a story about how weird and scary something is and how wondrous and special it is. I’d love to see the tide turn toward celebrating these amazing animals, and their important roles in the ocean’s health. The media has an obligation to share accurate information about sharks. Sensational headlines about ferocious attacks are clickbait. A good storyteller with the backing of a popular media outlet could get the same clicks while sharing engaging, accurate information about sharks. With the rise of social media though, I see more and more scientists offering good content and regularly engaging with their readers. Each of us can be careful to read and share accurate information online.
TFUI: What are some tips you have for those who want to follow a similar path as you?
SA: Draw! Observe! Learn! There’s no one right path for artists. An art degree, a science degree, or both might be right for you. But the most important things are to draw, observe, and learn as much as you can. Draw from life, practice copying the masters, stay current on science and policy. Learn as much as you can about the species you want to illustrate, and what their relationships are to human behavior. And keep your imagination healthy. It can be hard to use the analytical and creative parts of your brain at the same time, but it’s crucial for telling good stories, especially about science. And connect to like-minded people. Social media is an amazing tool. I’ve met artists and scientists all around the world just from using Twitter and Instagram. You have to be self-disciplined and proactive to be a working artist. It’s really hard since a lot of us are introverts, but you have to be willing to reach out to people, put your work out there, submit projects, move past rejections, and keep working!
TFUI: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
SA: I love when kids connect with my illustrations. It gives me hope for our future and makes me feel like I did something right, like I was able to communicate my idea effectively. It’s also meaningful when marine scientists like my work—it’s very validating! (Scientists are my rocks stars!) Anytime someone says no a straw or changes which fish they eat because of something I said, wrote, or drew, I am rewarded. We can all make these small changes that add up to a revolution.
TFUI: What’s next for you?
SA: I am working on a few children’s book stories about the ocean and am writing a young adult novel that features some coastline conservation issues. When I get the time, I’d also like to start either a Patreon or newsletter/community to share art and ocean news in an easy-to-digest format. And I’m planning to develop some classes in the future about ocean illustration and communications. I’m definitely still in the early planning stages, so if you’d be interested in learning about either of these topics, let me know!
You can check out my work at skylaaramann.com or connect with me on Instagram and Twitter! My illustrations are for sale on Etsy and Inprnt too!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK skylaar FOR HER TIME AND
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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