Reef Art: What is it Good For?

by | Jul 24, 2023 | Reefs in Art | 1 comment

One of the great things about having incredibly talented people in your life is that when you need an outstanding gift for someone, it’s easy to nail it. The older I get, the less I want to give or receive material things as gifts, as so much of this stuff just ends up as clutter in our lives. I mean, how many books on the ancient art of tidying up does a person need. One exception I make in this department is original artwork. And in the aquarium world, we are blessed with some amazing artists who, have made it possible for me to show my appreciation for very important people in my life.

This spring, a dear friend graduated with her doctorate degree from East Carolina University. I spent weeks wracking my brain trying to think of a gift suitable for such an accomplishment, from a person who has made my life immeasurably better. Although I may have forgotten hundreds of other details from our conversations, I did remember this one little thing: that her favorite fish was the queen triggerfish. It was easy because it’s also my favorite fish. So, I messaged the one-and-only Nori Vossen to ask if she had any paintings or drawings of this species available. She didn’t. I was momentarily defeated…. until Nori suggested that she could make one for me. What an amazing idea! The only thing I could think of that’s more special than a piece of original artwork, is a piece of original artwork commissioned for a
specific occasion. The result was spectacular! I felt like a genius for coming up with this idea. But truth be told, the idea really came from Carrie, the recipient of Nori’s triggerfish drawing.

“Carrie’s Queen Triggerfish” by Nori Vossen

A few months earlier, she presented me with the best material gift I have ever received. She found a photo of my son and I walking down the beach when he was about two years old and commissioned her friend Susan Steinberger, another very talented artist, to paint it on canvas. There are no words to express the feeling that painting invokes in me. So, I may not have invented this gift-giving hack, but I am now 100% committed to using and promoting it. Also, I will do anything to avoid the stress of shopping at big stores.

“Beach Walk” by Susan Steinberger

Another recent occasion I’ve had to call on awesome talent from our industry arose after my son got his SCUBA certification last summer. His instructor was Dottie Benjamin from Olympus Diving in Morehead City. She did such a wonderful job with Finn that we really wanted to do something nice for her when the class was over. Dottie was one of the first people from the local dive community that I met when we
moved to Eastern North Carolina. We bonded instantly over some common interests. I told her about some of the fishes that we were breeding at the Biota NC facility at Carteret Community College. When I mentioned Gramma dejongi, the Cuban Basslet, she told me she had seen and photographed one in Little Cayman the year before. She took out an album and showed me the photo. This was really exciting. I had heard rumors of them popping up elsewhere in the Caribbean, but this was the first photographic evidence.

As we stood there and marveled about the fact that we both had a connection to this fish, we also discovered that the ichthyologist who named and described it (Benjamin Victor) was a mutual friend. Small world! Then she told me about another fish she had seen there that was kind of a big deal. She took out a photo and showed it to me. It was a blue spotted jawfish. A Caribbean blue spotted jawfish! If you’ve been in the saltwater aquarium hobby for a while, I don’t need to tell you the importance of this. If not, I’ll bring you up to speed in a future post. Apparently, Dottie is the first person known to have photographed this fish and while it might just be an extra blue color phase of Opistognathus gilberti, it may also be a distinct species. Dottie told me, with a sheepish look, that if it turns out to be a new species, she hopes the common name, Dottie’s Jawfish, will stick.

“Dottie’s Jawfish” by Jason Langer

At the end of Finn’s SCUBA course, he and I discussed what we could do for Dottie. I remembered the jawfish and I thought about a beautiful painting on a block of wood that I had at home. It was a painting of the Cuban Basslet by the world-famous fish cookie guy, Jason Langer. I wasn’t sure there was enough photographic material in existence for him to be able to do an anatomically correct painting. I also wasn’t sure he had the time to take on this project. But he made time, and with the help of Ben Victor, we got all the known photos together as well as some full body shots of O. gilberti and got to work. The painting arrived yesterday, and the result was nothing short of spectacular. This afternoon, Finn and I found Dottie at the Olympus Dive Center, presented her with Dottie’s Jawfish, and headed home with our hearts full.

Obviously, there are plenty of other extraordinary artists in our midst (I also have pieces by Karen Talbot and Frank Baensch around my house) and I encourage you to support all of them.

  • Todd Gardner

    Todd Gardner is a professor of Aquaculture and Marine Biology at Carteret Community College in Morehead City, North Carolina where he oversees a partnership between the college and The Biota Group, a world leader in sustainably cultured marine life. Todd's life and career have been shaped by his passion for ocean life and he has written numerous scientific and popular articles about his research and experiences collecting, keeping, and culturing marine organisms. Todd’s professional background includes work on a National Geographic documentary, commercial aquaculture at C-quest Hatchery in Puerto Rico, and an 11-year term at the Long Island Aquarium where he spent much of his time developing techniques for rearing marine fish larvae. To date he has raised more than 50 species. In 2013 Todd received the prestigious Aquarist of the Year Award from the Marine Aquarium Society of North America (MASNA). In his spare time, Todd dives, photographs marine life, runs marathons, and makes music.

1 Comment

  1. Sandy

    Love this article.


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