The role of art in marine conservation (with Debby Mason)

Marine conservation has never been more necessary than it is today with our oceans facing threats from all angles, most of which we have created. It is therefore more important than ever to inspire and educate people about our oceans and the marine life that inhabit them. One of the main ways I know how to do this is through scientific research and communicating that to the wider public, but this doesn’t work for everyone and there are many more paths to aiding marine conservation via different yet equally effective methods. A big example of this is art. So I wanted to find out more about how marine artwork can be used to help marine conservation efforts, but to do this I needed to talk to an expert.

Diving
Debby preparing for a scuba dive in Plymouth Sound

Step forward Debby Mason, an award winning artist and printmaker with over 40 years’ experience in using her stunning artwork to inspire people to love our oceans. Debby specialises in etching, in particular a 17th century printing technique known as Mezzotint, and creates limited edition prints of marine creatures using hand crafted copper plates. Her amazing work (shown throughout this article) has been featured in exhibitions around the world and helped raise money for a number of marine conservation charities, making her something of an expert when it comes to art and marine conservation. This week I was lucky enough to sit down with Debby and talk to her about her work, inspirations and thoughts on marine conservation and the role art can play in it.

I began by asking her how she got into printmaking and in particular what inspired her to focus so heavily on marine life. She told me that her love of marine life in particular was rooted deep in her childhood. Early family holidays to Cornwall gave her access to a wide range of marine life that captured her imagination. As well as trips further afield to places like the Musée Océanographic in Monaco where she became captivated by collections of shells on display. Her father, a GP studying asthma, also worked alongside researchers at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth and so family friends often included marine biologists and oceanographers who told wild stories of creatures a young Debby couldn’t even begin to fathom. Watching the likes of Jacques Cousteau and reading books by Jules Verne were also hugely influential to her at a young age.

“All my work comes from memories of people, books I’ve read and places I’ve been”

I wondered then if this environment ever compelled her to study marine biology herself. But she assured me she “never” considered it and that for her it was “always” about art. She went on to tell me how she had been “extremely lucky” in having access to etching whilst studying A-levels at Plymouth College, something she thinks would be hard to access nowadays. From there she went on to do a foundation course at Exeter College of Art and Design before studying printmaking at West Surrey College of Art where she got her BA (Hons) degree. But despite enjoying her time away studying she told me that London was “too far away from the sea” for her liking.

Leatherback
‘Leatherback’

Debby now lives back in Plymouth beside Hooe Lake where she draws and etches marine species in her garden workshop. She also studies specimens at the Natural History Museum, aquariums and from those collected by helpful fishermen, who keep back anything rare they catch for her to use. Her work is time consuming and extremely delicate, but as a result she manages to re-create accurate and beautiful designs of almost any marine species you could think of. “I always try to capture some form of expression and character in them” she told me and you can definitely see that in her pressings. As a result her work has featured in exhibitions and festivals around the globe and been used in magazines, posters and even cook books.

“I have been very lucky where I am and the access I have had”

As well as drawing marine life Debby also enjoys getting up close and personal with her subject matter and is an avid Scuba diver. She has been diving since 1986 and loves getting to spend time with some of the amazing marine creatures living in Plymouth Sound. I asked her how her diving experiences have changed over the 35+ years she had been diving there and unsurprisingly the big difference was manmade. In particular plastic. The pollution of plastic is something that Debby is very passionate about helping to organise litter picks in her local park and beach cleans in the surrounding areas. She has even been known to rescue birds she finds tangled up in the stuff, joking with me that she is starting to run out of bird seed.

In fact conservation in general is something that is rooted in almost everything Debby does. She told me our impact on the marine environment is something she has always considered and shared with me a story of how as a child she remembered walking through the tar on a beach created by the Torrey Canyon oil disaster in 1967 which has a lasting effect on her. She is also passionate about ghost fishing gear and the sustainable use of our marine resources, in particular seafood. “There is a definite disconnect between people and the sea” she told me “especially as an island nation”.

Hammerhead
‘Hammerhead’

It is because of this Debby has used her art as a way of championing marine life and raising money for marine conservation charities. She sells her limited edition prints online as well as cards, mugs, aprons and other items featuring the same patterns, with a percentage of the sales being split between charities close to her heart – including the Natural History Museum, Zoological Society of London, Project Seahorse, Shellshock, National Lobster Hatchery and the Fishermen’s Mission. She also holds exhibitions to raise money for these causes and told me of how at one show she raised enough money to buy a boat, engine and driver for a year for Project Seahorse in the Philippines which made her feel “extremely proud”.

“I love painting fish and I just want to give something back”

In addition to raising money for conservation charities Debby has also contributed her skills towards local projects aimed at raising awareness of the variety of marine life in Plymouth. One example she is particularly proud of is a poster she made in collaboration with the Plymouth Trawler Agents which beautifully highlights the marine species found in Plymouth. She enthusiastically showed me the poster featuring everything from common animals like mackerel and crabs to more ‘exotic’ species like octopus and cuttlefish. Since making the poster in 2018 it has found its way into schools and fish shops across the city.

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“I am always surprised when I talk to people and they have no idea at how much marine life we have in UK waters” she told me explaining that in some of the schools where the posters were sent, an alarmingly high percentage of children had claimed to never have been to a beach before. It’s not just children though Debby believes it is a problem that effects most people, “when we buy fish from a supermarket we don’t know where it comes from, its just fish” she says “people don’t know what the fish they are eating look like”. But Debby believes that raising awareness of the incredible array of marine life on our doorstep would seriously change opinions.

Talking to Debby I realised that this was a big advantage art gives marine conservation that things like research science cannot. People like her capture the beauty and uniqueness of marine life that facts and figures cannot. It can also be a lot more accessible to people than journal articles or books. “Art can be a way of spreading a love for marine life outside of academic circles” she told me “I think science can learn as much from art as art can learn from science”. However as much as Debby is an advocate for art, she is also a strong believer that everyone can make a difference when it comes to marine conservation. She explained to me that “If everyone who went to the beach picked up some litter it would make a big difference. It’s easy to think you can’t do anything as an individual but you can.”

Mackerel III
‘Mackerel’

I finished off by asking Debby what advice she would give a young artist starting out today. Her main advice was that you have to be “very thick skinned” to deal with criticism and the very up-and-down income and lifestyle of an artist, but that it was also important to “love doing it” like she does.

 

A big thank you to Debby for taking the time to talk to me. To find out more about Debby or to look at more of her fantastic work please visit her website or follow hr on twitter @Debby_Mason.


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