Artist Jen Richards, has been obsessed with marine life for as long as she since she can remember. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to interview her and talk about her most recent and ongoing project, Sharks and Rays for 31 Days. Jen has challenged herself to illustrate a different species of shark or ray every day throughout the month of July to raise funds for conservation. She will be auctioning off these unique pieces of art and donating all of the proceeds to one of our favorite projects, Shark Advocates International.
Let's start with your art. When did you start becoming interested in art? And why do you focus on wildlife, particularly marine animals?
It sounds so cliche, but I've been interested in art since I can remember! Some of my earliest memories involve drawing dinosaurs on everything I could find. I've always had a massive interest in the natural world, so the more I learnt about animals the more I wanted to draw them. I was eight years old when I saw an orca for the first time and they were all I could draw for years afterwards - sorry, dinosaurs! I just had such a curiosity about animals that I wanted to draw them to show other people; I wanted everyone else to see how awesome they were.
Where do you get your inspiration? Do you have a favorite medium?
I get constant inspiration from the animals themselves - so much so that there are days when I can't figure out what I want to paint first. Ever since I was little I've been an avid watcher of anything and everything from the BBC Natural History Unit, which enabled me to see so many different species and environments around the world from my little seaside hometown of Torquay, England. Sir David Attenborough remains one of my greatest inspirations. My favourite medium is acrylics because I really enjoy their versatility, but I'm a big sketcher, too.
What role and/or impact do you feel art has in environmental conservation?
For almost eight years now I've worked professionally in environmental education on both sides of the Atlantic, which has allowed me to both teach the public about animals (another thing I'm passionate about), and have the opportunity to meet some incredible creatures in person. Being able to get to know individual animals and their personalities, as well as see research and conservation efforts firsthand, is endlessly inspiring.
Two of my favourite artists are the utterly brilliant David Shepherd and Robert Bateman, both of whom have used their spectacular art for outreach, and I greatly admire that. I feel very honoured to have seen my work play somewhat of a similar role; because I like to feature some more "obscure" species I've had people who follow my art tell me that I inspired them to find out more about that animal - and I love that! One of my favourite things to do with my artwork is to spread awareness of specific issues, such as protected areas for Maui's dolphins and the disastrous shark cull in Western Australia and link visitors with ways they can proactively help. I was also an official supporter of Shark Saver's brilliant "Shark Stanley" campaign that helped to see several shark and ray species added to CITES protections. Additionally, I love to contribute directly to conservation by taking part in special events. Earlier this year I completed a black rhino painting for the Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser in Los Angeles and will be doing the same for the July 22nd event in Georgia (both events are put on by the American Association of Zoo Keepers and 100% of the proceeds raised go to rhino and cheetah conservation in Africa).
Now the 31 day challenge. Why sharks and rays? Have you ever had an up-close experience with a shark or ray?
Sharks have always been special to me. When the National Marine Aquarium opened in Plymouth, UK in 1998 I would drag my parents there at every opportunity and became smitten with sandbar and blacktip reef sharks. There was just something so striking about their appearance and the way they moved; I was mesmerised. I quickly became an advocate for them myself, jumping at every chance to correct someone about a shark-related misunderstanding (something I haven't grown out of). Though there's more public interest in sharks right now than I've ever seen, I still feel like there's so far to go with regards to fixing their terrible reputation. And rays barely even get a look in! There are so many species to learn about and appreciate that I feel like I have the responsibility to help people learn - and art can help me do that.
Through my environmental education work I've had the privilege to experience several sharks and rays up close. The most memorable experience was when I saw a wild basking shark while conducting a mini eco-tour in my home waters in south Devon. I was so excited to see one in person I tripped over a metal step on the boat and went flying, but kept going just to snap a few blurry photos. The bruise was worth it! I've also scuba dived in an aquarium setting with whale sharks, manta rays, sand tiger sharks and several other species, and have handfed spotted eagle and cownose rays. My ultimate goals include seeing whale sharks in the open ocean and diving with oceanic whitetips - but really, any opportunity to see a shark or ray in person is a dream come true. It's so incredibly difficult for me to narrow it down to a favourite species - it tends to be whatever I'm currently looking at! But I've always had a soft spot for blue sharks, oceanic whitetips, whale sharks, and wobbegongs, as well as manta rays and lesser devil rays.
Why did you choose Shark Advocates International? And what prompted you to do this particular project?
I first discovered Shark Advocates on Twitter; I follow a lot of marine scientists and conservation organisations there so it was inevitable. I'm particularly interested in SAI's focus on conservation policy and being a voice for sharks and rays where it especially matters: in the laws and regulations that are supposed to protect them in the long term.
I've been a supporter of lots of organisations over the years but this is my first time creating and doing a challenge in support of a cause. I was thinking for a long time about doing something on my art blog during Shark Week to celebrate the less "showy" species that probably wouldn't get prime screentime, but compressing my love of sharks into just seven days would have been impossible. Then I thought about how often I draw sharks in general, and thought to myself "I bet I could draw one for every single day of the month." Very quickly that turned into the idea of setting an actual goal for myself of 31 different species, and then auctioning those off in support of SAI. July's always a good month for sharks on social media so I hope that my efforts help to create some new interest in some of these species and raise funds to fight for them. Sharks and Rays for 31 Days was born!
Do you expect any challenges? And what do you hope to achieve with this project?
The biggest hurdle with this challenge comes with selecting species to highlight in the first place. I even made a tentative list at the end of June with ones that I definitely wanted to do, but I keep thinking of more to add! I've also made sure to leave spots open for people to suggest ones they'd like to see - they'll be bidding on the originals, after all, and it's also interesting to me to see which species everyone likes. I definitely have "the classics" planned, like the white shark and whale shark, but also look forward to portraying ones like the prickly dogfish and longcomb sawfish. This is also a fun challenge for me as an artist - it's really quite motivating to have a task to complete each day and an opportunity to explore more styles and mediums. I'm also really enjoying drawing and painting species I haven't ever tried to do before. Each piece so far is a bit different and I intend to carry that all the way through the month. Some days I know I'll only have time to do a sketch or pencil work, and other days I've set aside to focus on a painting. As long as I can stick to my commitment of a species a day I'll have accomplished a personal goal at the very least! The real focus, of course, is getting more people involved with SAI's work and the way they can help sharks and rays wherever they are in the world. If the way they do that is by finding my art and liking it enough to support the cause, then I'll be absolutely thrilled!
And what will you do next? Because we are definitely interested!
Well, I know that I'll keep drawing sharks and rays! I'm actually going to be launching a series of educational colouring books by the end of this year. I've created colouring pages before as tie-ins to events like International Whale Shark Day and they've been a big hit. There are so many kids interested in the natural world - especially marine life - beyond just the standard species that get featured in these kinds of products (not that there's anything wrong with white sharks or bottlenose dolphins!), and I'd love to create something to celebrate that curiosity. Maybe that little girl who colours in a picture I drew of a flamboyant cuttlefish will grow up to be a teuthologist. And naturally... there will be a shark and ray-centric one!
Find the Sharks and Rays for 31 Days artwork up for auction here.
Check out Jen’s artwork on her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She still has 15 days left to create some more amazing pieces. YOU can bid on her artwork and support marine conservation at the same time!
For more information on Jen Richards and this project, visit her website.