November Eco-Artist: Rachel Brooks Art
Rachel Brooks Art - Shark Guardian Interview Questions
Q1. Hi, Rachel – We’re thrilled to have you as our Eco Artist of the Month for November! Tell us a bit about yourself for those who are not familiar with your work.
I am so honoured to be your Eco Artist this month! I’m Rachel, I’m an internationally selling British wildlife artist living between the West Highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides where I spend my summers at sea. I have always felt a deep connection to the natural world and studied Zoology at university which only amplified my passion and gave me a greater understanding of my subjects. Though I found my course fascinating it was in the field I always wanted to be and after graduating I left the UK to travel as a scuba instructor. I have been working full time in the dive industry for the past seven years, and currently work as operations manager at Basking Shark Scotland. My experiences and years of working beneath the surface have inspired much of what I do, and I hope to be able to introduce others to this environment. Art had been a big part of my life growing up but had been put on a big pause until I returned to the UK in 2019. I was finally feeling that creative spark and started ‘Rachel Brooks Art’ so I could start sharing my work with others. My mission as an artist is to convey my passion for the natural world and conserving biodiversity, by celebrating its beauty and intricacies and all the weird and wonderful creatures I have met along the way! I hope it can inspire the same amazement and joy that I felt in seeing these animals first hand, and introduce these wonders to others.
Q2. You mention on your website that you were volunteering at a whale and dolphin conservation project – Was this what sparked your love of the ocean or was it earlier than that?
This was a definite turning point in my life, though my love of the ocean came way earlier. Growing up in the pennines the sea was only really somewhere we would go on holiday, but I was always felt drawn to it. I would spend as much time as possible in the water and when I was 15 we travelled to the red sea and I was able to do my first dive course, at that time I could never have imagined how big a role diving would play in my life. When I was 17 we had a talk at our college from a member of the Atlantic Whale Foundation, I went home that night and told my parents I was going to the Canary Islands - they rightly told me I couldn’t afford it! Not one to be easily defeated, my friend and I fundraised our whole trip and that summer I spent a month at sea monitoring cetacean populations in the Canaries. Being on boats daily and living amongst a team of young volunteers, I felt not only inspired but a sense of belonging - everyone was joined by a common purpose and passion and it felt so far away from the little town I grew up in. I knew then that this was what I wanted to be doing, I felt so alive at sea and before traveling here I had never really considered that this was a field I could work in. When I returned home I went back to college and begged my tutor to let me change all of my A-levels mid way through from Art so I could apply to study Zoology at University. I was initially told no, but a very supportive biology teacher conceded and I gained a place at The University of Leeds. I went back the next summer to spend another season in the canaries, the time I spent there was the first steps in the ocean becoming my life focus, i’ll always be so thankful I took that leap and made that trip happen.
Q3. You were an artist before you studied zoology, then you went traveling & became a dive instructor and now you have returned to art… That’s an amazing journey that we will definitely chat more about on our Instagram Live! Did you still draw and paint when you were traveling?
I didn’t draw as much as I would have liked when I was traveling, initially I was backpacking through India and couldn’t carry very much with me. I sketched in my journal, but seeing all the colours I was constantly thinking about paintings in my head. It was photography that became my artistic outlet whilst I was away - I took photos everywhere I went, eventually under the water too. Working in the scuba industry can leave you with very minimal free time, but every now and again I would sketch to unwind and I was always really complimented for my work. When I was thinking about taking a step back from instructing one of the key reasons for coming home was to give myself the opportunity to see if I could make a living out of art, it definitely wasn’t a direct path! Those trips and experiences shaped me into the artist I am today. My art tutor at college was really quite angry when I told her I was going to be a scientist - she was right in the end, art is what I am meant to be doing. I just needed to discover that in my own time.
Q4. Was there a part of your travels that has particularly inspired your art?
I’ve been so fortunate to travel and live in some beautiful places but a couple definitely stand out. I managed a dive centre in the Lembeh Straits for a year where I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time exploring the sandy slopes in search for incredibly rare marine life. Lembeh really blew me away, I had gotten a taste for muck diving working in Borneo, but this was something else. It was the octopus there that really stole the show, they had so much character and such a sense of awareness that makes encountering them so different to any other species. Lembeh inspired my piece ‘Ocean Ink’ which is the first of a series that will celebrate cephalopods. The dark background is reminiscent of black volcanic sand slopes of the Straits and a style I have many more plans for.
The other place that stands out to me is the Ningaloo Reef in the far north west Australia. Completely the opposite to Lembeh, here I was working with megafauna rather than microscopic creatures. I was guiding manta ray and whale shark swims, but everything about the Ningaloo is magic. I plan on making art works about all the places I have lived, and this is one I’m definitely looking forward to exploring again!
Q5. Tell us what your favourite shark is and your favourite (non shark) ocean creature is…
I’ll start with non shark because that is an easy answer for me - humpback whales. I think they are just magical and I cry every time I see them! My favourite shark might have to be the basking shark - spending the last two years out in the Hebrides in search of them I have spent more time in the water with them than any other shark. As ops manager for Basking shark Scotland my day to day life involves talking about these fish a lot and I have grown quite an affinity to them. Sharing the water with them is an incredible experience, they are so large and very prehistoric looking, they belong in the wild landscapes of the Hebrides.
Q6. You have dived in some amazing places – What has been your best shark encounter so far?
This is such a tricky one! I have worked with both whale sharks and basking sharks and each time you share the water with something so much larger than yourself it is such a humbling experience. The Hebrides is a special place for basking sharks and we can see large numbers of them aggregating here over the summer. Sometimes we see what we call ‘shark trains’ where the sharks exhibit close following behaviour - the conditions were amazing and we were offshore in very calm water. I had my group lined up for a swim when the sharks came past they started to turn and follow each other in a circle around us! (Amongst our team we call this a ‘sharknado’!) These individuals were all around 10m in length on the larger side of sharks we see here, floating still in the middle of these gigantic animals was amazing. Every basking shark swim is different but they are always special. A close second would be being circled by a tiger shark!
Q7. Do you prefer the tropics or wild Scotland?
I am one of those people who always feels the cold, so the UK is somewhere I completely disregarded when I first started working in the dive industry! A big part of my heart will always be in Australia and Indonesia, I do miss the sun, the corals, living in flip flops and diving in 30 degree water! But I have to confess I fell deeply in love with the Hebrides. Wild is the right word to use when talking about being at sea in Scotland, the conditions here can be very challenging, but the Sea of the Hebrides comes to life in the summer with birds, dolphins, whales and of course sharks. It’s really a place like no other, the kelp forests, rugged landscapes and atmospheric skies appeal to the artist in me. The islands are beautifully wild and remote, being out here is an escape for the soul, and somewhere I feel I could explore forever.
Q8. What’s been the most challenging piece that you have created?
I think this would have to be my ink work titled ‘The Anthropocene’, it’s an A2 ink drawing which is the largest ink piece I have created to date. The concept behind it is inspired by the theme of extinction, and with such an important message I really wanted to do it justice. It is a large hourglass with the top showing a colourful biodiverse ecosystem, with both the land and ocean slowly trickling through to extinction where the layers of sand show fossilised species and those recently declared extinct. I spent hours researching the species to include in this piece and I’m so proud of the finished work. It’s a piece that evokes emotion in people and sparks thought, I hope to create more artivism pieces which help spread a message and get people talking, art is an amazing tool to communicate.
Q9. Is there a marine creature that you would love to draw or paint but haven’t had the chance to yet?
So many! I would love to draw more sharks, whales and seabirds. In an ideal world I would just draw marine life, but time escapes me a lot at the moment, with work, commissions, having bought a house this year and being a mum to a 9 month old labradoodle days have a habit of disappearing! I would love to draw some seahorses and sea dragons, I’ve dived with them a lot and I think they are so stunning. I also have plans to paint a very specific grey seal named Ariel that I had some wonderful encounters with this summer, she was so full of personality and I visited her over a few months - she was such a special animal and I think she will make a great subject for a painting.
Q10. What current projects are you working on?
I have a few projects on the go at the moment, my head is always overflowing with ideas, I have had some paintings sketched out in my head for almost two years now. I will be doing some large scale works based on the ‘Sea of the Hebrides’ soon, as well as a collection of shark pieces that will focus on their connection to the environment. Some of these will hopefully be part of a very exciting project that I have to keep quiet for now! I will also be working on my ‘Ocean Ink’ collection so there will be more squid, cuttlefish and nautilus involved in that! November is a really busy time of year with Christmas just around the corner so on top of this I’m making sure my small business is ready for the festive season. More people seem to be shopping with independent businesses and it’s amazing! I have a few new products launching this month, including reusable water bottles, organic cotton beanies and hoodies in addition to prints and original pieces which can all be found on my website!
Keep checking out our Mondays posts for more of Rachel’s amazing artwork! We will be having a giveaway soon, too, so keep your eyes peeled for that. If you loved hearing about Rachel’s story then join us for our Instagram Live chat with her - You will be able to send in your questions for her through our stories and direct messages.
Check out Rachel’s social media for more amazing artwork and her website for originals, prints and all of the fun stuff she mentioned above!