By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
At an age when most people still are trying to launch their careers, Kelly Quinn is ecstatic she’s managed to obtain a position that allows her to pursue her two passions: art and nature. The 22-year-old is The Florida Aquarium’s Artist in Residence.
“It is so inspiring to be working at a place where everyone is dedicated to wildlife and conservation,” Quinn says. “What they do here aligns so perfectly with my personal mission to try to connect people to wildlife.”
The University of Florida graduate’s vivid paintings powerfully convey the beauty and vitality of marine life, be it a sea turtle, shark or an octopus.
Visitors may see her painting in a number of areas around the Aquarium. Moreover, she was recently featured on a local television news program during The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week as she worked on a mural of sharks outside the Aquarium’s coral reef exhibit.
While Shark Week television shows typically focus on sharks’ ferocity, Quinn took a different approach.
“I painted six of the most endangered shark species,” she said. “I wanted to show we need to save these beautiful creatures, who serve an important function in the ocean.”
The endangered sharks were the whale shark, great hammerhead, oceanic white tip, shortfin Mako, tiger shark and the nurse shark.
Families watching her paint these magnificent creatures might have heard her talk about how the slow-reproducing sharks’ numbers are threatened by fishing operations. Shark finning is a particularly cruel practice. Fishermen slice off a shark’s fin and leave it to die a tortuous death. The fins are used for shark-fin soup.
Quinn says many sharks also are killed as “bycatch” when caught in the net of fishermen targeting other species.
Don’t worry about disturbing Quinn if you encounter her in The Aquarium. She is not a temperamental artist who hates distractions. She wants to engage with people – about her art and wildlife.
“I love for people to ask questions,” she says. “And if it is early in the painting process, I will let children do some of the painting. It is a great way to inspire kids about nature and painting.”
Quinn herself was inspired by the outdoors early. She grew up near Kissimmee and spent a lot of time, “hiking, kayaking and sloshing around” in the nature.
She noted, “My father had an airboat, and we used to get out in the middle of nowhere … I loved it.”
She came to see that everything in nature had its place, including “bugs and gators.”
Quinn’s love of the outdoors eventually evolved into a personal mission to use her artistic talents on behalf of conservation. The Florida Aquarium seemed to her the perfect location to do it. And she was not shy about pursuing the partnership.
“When the Working Women of Tampa Bay went on a tour of the Aquarium, I approached Debbi Stone (the Aquarium’s vice president of education) about it.”
Stone followed up on her request, and before long, an arrangement had been made for Quinn to be the Artist in Residence. She usually paints at The Aquarium Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
She volunteers her time, and loves watching the animals and interacting with visitors and staff. She eventually would like to initiate an art program at the Aquarium.
Quinn also runs her own studio. Her artwork can be viewed at www.kellyofthewild.com.
Her latest focus is the preservation of coral reefs, which are dying around the globe. The Florida Aquarium is a leader in coral research.
She recently participated in effort to plant coral in the Florida Keys. “So many fish depend on the reefs. People need to know why they should care about the little coral.”
Beyond studying the creatures in The Aquarium, Quinn continues to explore the wilderness and always is discovering new wonders.
Though she grew up on the Kissimmee chain of lakes, seeing ospreys “every day of my life,” a recent kayak trip illustrated how nature can always surprise – and inspire.
It was gusty, and an osprey family was “playing on the wind,” a behavior she’d seen before but never so close. According to Quinn, “They were flying directly above me, circling and spiraling, only about 60 feet off the surface of the water, and they were all taking turns looking at me like I was an oddity … which I probably was considering I was in a red kayak on the edge of a remote lake.”
“What made this moment special was their tolerance for my presence during their family play.”
It is such magical moments that Quinn wants to share with others and help them to better appreciate wild Florida. That is why Quinn says storytelling is essential to her art. She wants viewers not just to see a pretty picture.
“I don’t want this to just be a memory for them,” she asserts. “I want to help them develop a long-term relationship with nature.”