July Eco-Artist: Miriam, Under The Sea Art
Under The Sea Art Shark Guardian Interview Questions
Q1. Hi, Miri – We’re thrilled to have you as our Eco Artist of the Month for July 2021! Tell us a bit about yourself for those who are not familiar with your work.
Hi! Thank you so much for having me! My name is Miri, I’m from Germany and obsessed with everything OCEAN. I have recently finished my Master’s in Marine Biology at Stockholm University in Sweden, have spent my last year before COVID-19 working as a shark researcher and intern trainer in South Africa and before that I worked as a dive master in Mozambique. It’s only really this year that I would actually call myself an artist as well, so I feel very honored to be your Eco Artist for July!
Q2. When did you get started as an artist?
I started painting in November last year (I painted a lot as a child, I apparently had an obsession with painting orcas, but since then I hadn’t touched a paintbrush in probably over 15 years). Art was all a big coincidence that has now turned into one of my favorite things in life! One evening the then two year old niece of my boyfriend Greg was just finishing her painting and left a lot of paint. The “don’t let anything ever go to waste”-kind of person I am, I just thought I’d use up all that leftover paint and quickly painted a humpback whale. Much to the surprise of Greg and his sister Sam, the whale was actually recognizable as a whale. It wasn’t anything special or good at all, but they both saw a talent in me, that I didn’t until much later. In October I handed in my Msc thesis and as a graduation gift Sam gave me this watercolor painting set (when she gave it to me I thought to myself “wow she really has a lot of confidence in me”. But yeah, from November on, we went into full lockdown and without studies to do or a full time job, I all of the sudden had lots of time to paint. Now it’s June and I haven’t done much else. My painting has rapidly improved so that I now have my own Etsy shop, a clothing collection, a book about a shark that will hopefully be published in the future and I have just had my first job as a scientific illustrator. So really this is all thanks to my niece and her mum, which I will be forever grateful for.
Q3. What attracted you to painting orcas throughout your childhood?
I’m born in the 90’s and Free Willy was my absolute favorite movie. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my parents took us to the Oregon Coast Aquarium to see Kaiko in his rehabilitation home after he was rescued from a Mexican performance park, and before he was released back into the wild (Side note: I am absolutely against the captivity of whales, or any animals really). I remember my sister and I painting all these paintings of releasing Kaiko and Kaiko being reunited with his family in Iceland in support of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. I knew that it wasn’t natural to keep him in a tank, but I probably didn’t really understand what it actually means and takes to re-wild an animal that has been in captivity for so long. As a child it surely had an impact on me seeing such a beautiful and large animal up close – growing up in the black forest in Germany I couldn’t have been much further away from the sea (back home you know the mountains, not the ocean), however I wish everyone could see these animals in the wild (maybe seeing Kaiko in the Aquarium switched on the first little conservationist genes in me). None of my family or friends particularly share or even understand my passion for the ocean and my mom still shakes her head and wonders where I got this from. What I find fascinating is however, that ever since I started painting I’ve had more people interested in what I do and conversations about the animals I paint than when I was actually working with sharks. I guess it’s just always about what people can relate to. Not many people particularly want to get close to sharks, yet most people like art – so really it’s been such a new way for me to connect other people with the ocean and I absolutely love it.
Q4. What was the most interesting thing you learned about studying marine biology?
Not one fact in particular, more like a general realization that you don’t have to grow up where you can swim and dive everyday to immediately have this connection and knowledge about the sea, you can develop this connection much later on in life - it doesn’t matter where you grow up. In Germany there is no Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology so I had to study Biological Sciences first before I could then specialize for my Master’s. I believe education should be free for anyone and I went to Stockholm University, where, as an EU citizen, I didn’t have to pay any study fees. And while I always feared that a “free” degree couldn’t compete with one from universities like James Cook, Hawaii or Plymouth, I know now that the most important thing is how hard you are working! If you really want to do this, you can! Yes, you need to work harder for opportunities and you have to be more independent – but it’s possible: Make connections, study hard, do extra work that you think no one acknowledges and do that project you’re not actually so keen on, go the extra mile to make it work – it will all pay off eventually.
Q5. What’s the most impactful / inspirational thing you’ve seen underwater?
Well I’ve had my most inspirational moments with manta rays as they are not only fully aware of you, but there’s something so mystical and dreamy about them that you only really understand when you were lucky enough to have had one of these interactions. The most impactful things I’ve seen underwater can’t be narrowed down to one particular moment, but the sum of many dives conducted on dead reefs, bleached reefs, with shark that have their fins cut off, hooks in their mouth, fishing line entangled around their body and plastics floating on the surface. One memory that sums up human stupidity to me is from a dive in Raja Ampat, one of the most diverse and pristine underwater worlds worldwide, where we drifted past a massive brain coral on which someone had carved in the words “I was here”. The coral was at a depth where only SCUBA divers would have carved that in, so unfortunately there are divers out there that claim to love nature and the underwater world, yet they do things like that...probably not even knowing that corals are animals. Another memory that pops into my head is when we were conducting research in SA and we spotted a fishing boat in an area were fishing was not allowed, we drove towards them but before we could tell them they had quickly backed off. What we did see on the surface was a big grouper struggling on the surface. Our manager back then told us to get in the water quickly and help the fish back underwater. Greg grabbed his rashvest, wrapped it around the stressed fish and freedived down with it to around 10 m where he let go to see the fish slowly swimming away. I hadn’t even realized until then: it’s swim bladder must have expanded when being caught and as stressed out as the fish was it hadn’t managed to gain control over it. That was another moment where I realized how us humans just don’t have a problem with letting other species suffer. I do hope that in the future we will see relationships to animals differently, no matter whether it’s a dog, a fish, a cow or a shark.
Q6. Is there a species of shark which is still on your bucket list to see?
Has to be a great hammerhead! Working in both South Africa and Mozambique allowed me to tick off lots of sharks from my list already (bulls, scalloped hammerheads, silvertips, duskies, raggies…I even had a short glimpse on a tiger shark one day and have done white shark cage diving years ago), so I count myself super lucky already – but the great hammerhead is definitely top on my list.
Q7. Do you have a favorite marine life species (and a favorite shark species)?
My favorite is the oceanic manta ray (sorry it’s not a shark, but at least they’re sort of cousins;)). Manta rays are the reason I started studying marine biology and they are just absolutely captivating. I learned diving relatively late (again, not much diving in the black forest haha) when I was in Mozambique. Because I was doing an internship I did my advanced diver immediately after my first dives in order to dive on the deeper sites and I remember on my first deep dive I was a bit nervous because I hadn’t quite figured out negative entry yet. So I was all swirling around on the surface trying to just get underwater when I heard our instructor rattling – I looked down and saw this absolutely massive manta ray cruising 20 m below me, next thing I know I’m at the same level and all worries are gone. From then on I was hooked, forgot my doubts and never wanted to study anything else but these animals. Without sounding too cocky, I think I am a little bit of a manta whisperer as during my time in Mozambique and Indonesia I just saw manta rays on soo many of my dives while others didn’t. As a dive master trainee I had one incidence where I dropped us on the wrong side of the reef – we had super strong NS current and we dropped South, so we had about two minutes on the reef before we drifted into the blue. Luckily for me, even out in the blue we encountered a reef manta that stayed with us for half the time. So even though my instructor wasn’t happy about my mistake, our guests were happy as some of them had just seen their first ever manta ray! Crossing fingers I keep my luck. My favorite shark species is probably the blue shark. I snorkeled with them last year in Cornwall and they are definitely the most curious and interactive sharks I’ve ever been with, also they are just generally cute sharks!
Q8. Tell us about the book you co-created and illustrated with Greg.
When I first started painting last year, we both sort of jokingly said that we should write a kid’s book about sharks. We were in lockdown with Greg’s family and their nature is to “just do it” instead of letting it pass by as just an idea that was never thought about again. So we did it. I wanted to create a book that children can relate to, and I wanted it to be a happy story, rather than focusing on conservation of sharks. We work so much in this sector that I just felt like having a break from all the sad and negative things surrounding sharks. So, our book is about Coco, a thresher shark that is afraid of the dark –she gets bullied by other sharks because of that, but one day she meets a swell shark that glows in the dark a.k.a is bio-fluorescent. Together they explore the underwater world at night and Coco learns to love the dark! A few months ago we have teamed up with the talented Ellie Wyatt, a children’s song writer and founder of Eco Action Families, an organization that we have both been involved with in the last year. Ellie was brilliant at rhyming our story, so together we are a pretty good team. Other work has put this project on hold for the last few months but we will get back onto it this summer.
Q9. Your artwork has made it onto a few different products that you sell… Prints, mugs, reusable water bottles, bags and t-shirts. What’s your favorite thing to see people use and why?
It is definitely the prints. It still fascinates me that someone would just want to buy something that I painted, simply because they find it pretty. There is this one couple who I don’t actually know but they have bought nearly all of my prints from the shop to hang it up on their newly painted walls and it just makes me feel so honored that someone would decorate their whole home with my art. That just makes me so happy.
Q10. What’s coming up next for you? Any future projects already in the pipeline?
It has been full on with different projects and campaigns the last few months which was amazing and within the next few weeks I’ll be working full time on all the illustrations for Greg’s shark course which will be released in collaboration with the Shark Guardian in mid July. We also want to keep working on finalizing the book.
Q11. What are your other interests outside of painting and scuba diving?
Sustainability. Freediving. Photography. Eating pasta. Watching friends. I used to do competition dancing and I really miss it, but lately I have never been at a place long enough to join classes again. One day I’ll get back to that for sure.
Q12. How can people best support Under The Sea Art?
Obviously through buying our products and the shark course, but also through sharing our work on social media and supporting the campaigns and fundraising projects we work on.
INSTAGRAM: Under the Sea Art