Activist artist: Rio Rossellini
- Published: 16 January 2010
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British artist Rio Rossellini has a passion for dolphins and cetaceans. This has inspired her art in both a personal and political sense. She spoke with Katrina Fox.
Please say something about how your passion for animals inspires your creativity and art. I believe you have a particular connection to dolphins and other cetaceans?
I have always loved dolphins and remember reading about the famous dolphins of Monkey Mia, Australia, many moons ago when I was in a dentist’s waiting room. Years later whilst attending a convention against animal cruelty in London.
I found out that there was a wild dolphin, Fungie, whom one could swim with in Dingle, Co.Cork, Ireland. I visited him several times and then heard of a dolphin called Freddie right on my doorstep in the UK. Freddie and I had some amazing swims and I really bonded with him. Sadly, he disappeared, prompting me to head off on a two year whale and dolphin trip around the world.
I spent six months at Monkey Mia, camping in the outback, getting up every morning to do my yoga and meditation and then going to swim with the dolphins when they deigned to appear. I had some incredible times, swimming belly-to-belly with Holey Fin, the matriach, playing seaweed games with Nicky unless she had her ‘don’t mess with me’ glint in her eye and cavorting with Finnick, her son, who was a very playful soul.
I used to swim so far out with the dolphins that onlookers would later comment they thought I wasn’t coming back! And it was these dolphins to whom I am indebted as they inspired me to put paint; to translate onto paper my emotions about these beautiful creatures who were allowing me to share their space.
My first dolphin painting was in dots as I vividly recalled a photo in the UK newspaper The Guardian of a black jazz player where the pixels were enlarged making a very striking image which I wanted to recreate. The positive feedback from visitors at Monkey Mia encouraged me to continue and I have never looked back.
Why do you use the technique of pointillism?
I don’t know if my technique is truly pointillism as I am self-taught. All I know is that I love creating paintings from millions of tiny dots, by hand, as it gives an end result which I cannot be achieve with other mediums.
I paint several layers over a period of time which I feel adds to the texture, depth and movement of the art and, with the pen only being 0.05mm (or thinner as time progresses), I am able to paint in minute detail. It’s a very meditative process and I have been known to sit and dot for 12 hours non-stop. An average A3 painting takes me three months to complete.
What do you aim to achieve with your art?
I hope to highlight the beauty of animals and our ongoing need and responsibility to protect and conserve the species. I gift prints of my work on a regular basis to help raise funds for societies such as Sea Shepherd, Safe Animals From Exploitation (SAFE) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Agency.
And I happily reserve a space in my public exhibitions as a political platform for leaflets and information to be displayed about important animal conservation issues such as the threat of extinction to the 112 New Zealand Maui dolphins or the annual barbaric killing of 20,000 dolphins in Taiji.
I would like my art to gently nudge people’s consciences and to inspire others to lead a humane and compassionate lifestyle.
What are the key similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals?
I feel that humans and non-human animals are surprisingly similar in the range of emotions they experience and exhibit including happiness, mischieveness, compassion, contentment, humour, awareness, pain, panic, and grief. Many non-human animals have evolved social networks similar to humans, a fact ignored when animals are captured and thrown into concrete tanks to live a miserable existence or made to perform in circuses or kept in zoo’s - all in the name of ‘entertainment’ or ‘education’.
For me, non-human animals are far more superior to humans in that they have lived in harmony on the planet for millions of years. Animals are true carnivores as they pounce on their prey and eat it at body temperature whilst humans are better described as necrovores, or eaters of rotting flesh, similar to vultures, because the time involved between killing an animal and eating it could be an hour or it could be years.
Why is compassion towards animals a good thing for us as humans?
If we can take our blinkers off and see all the cruel things we are doing to animals then we are naturally led to the path of vegetarianism and veganism.
Many of my meat-eating friends tell me that they would like to become a vegetarian but they find confronting reality and the process of change more uncomfortable than the act of eating meat. I find that really strange as I’d be physically sick if I had to eat somebody else’s flesh.
If we could resist media manipulation, increase our compassion and acknowledge the pain and suffering involved in the process of killing animals then not only are we contributing towards a peaceful co-existence with others on the planet but we will, as a bye-product, be able to avoid a lot of chronic illness and eating disorders in the Western World.
It would be great if conservation societies could follow the example of the crew of Sea Shepherd and many members of SAFE, who are totally vegan, because what’s the point of working so tirelessly and passionately to protect animals if you then go home to eat a dead one off your plate?
In what ways can animals enrich our lives?
Being aware of the sheer beauty and diversity of the animal species in the world provides an amazing backdrop against which we can live our lives.
What can we learn from them?
I think watching and observing animals can alter the way we view our own world and lead us to make positive changes in our daily actions: we can learn to live more in tune with nature and be more aware of the impact our thoughts and deeds have on the planet and on those around us. We can become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
On a personal level, how has working with animals or painting them changed your life?
Since my technique of pointillism has evolved over the years I have found that not only have my levels of patience, by necessity, increased but so too have my levels of awareness and powers of observation.
I find myself scrutinising scenes for ages, like a ladybird sipping dew water or flax leaves framing an oceanic view, because I am imagining what it would be like to paint that image. Becoming more aware and appreciative of the beauty of animals has also meant that I have moved on over the years, almost imperceptibly, from being a vegetarian to a vegan, as I examine the ripple effect my every action has on the world and strive to avoid being involved in anything that is connected with animal cruelty.
Swimming with dolphins is documented as being healing for humans – if you have any experience with this, can you say something about it.
Yes, you are right and I know Dr Horace Dobbs, in the UK, has done much work on the positive effect of swimming with wild dolphins for people suffering from depression. It’s really hard to describe the emotions experienced during and after you have swum with a wild dolphin - to try almost demeans the experience.
Each encounter can be different. I can only say that overall one is filled with an incredible elation - it’s quite a euphoric feeling and it is long-lasting and easily recollected in dreams. ‘Lost and Found’ alludes to dolphins ‘being there’ for humans when they are in the depths of despair. Other works such as ‘Without Words’, ‘As One’ and ‘Connections’ celebrate the shared joy found in human and dolphin interactions.
What are your hopes for the future in terms of human-animal relationships and how humans perceive and treat animals?
I hope - and believe - that in the not-too-distant future people will look at how we are treating animals with horror and will no longer tolerate all the awful things that we are still allowing to take place such as murdering whales, bear bile farms, shark finning, dolphinariums and seal killing. I believe that eating animals will be slowly but surely be recognised as being unnatural (and physically unhealthy) behaviour for humans and will be viewed with abhorrence.
I hope that all animals will be treated with love, kindness and respect and I hope that we can slow down the destruction of the planet and renew the habitats for those creatures that have not already been rendered extinct by our previous actions.
You're from the UK but have an eco-house in Kaikoura, New Zealand, right?
I’m a Londoner who is on a constant dolphin trail and has stopped awhile in a spectacular coastal town called Kaikoura, Aotearoa New Zealand, where whales and dolphins pass through regularly.
I have a very old, wee, wooden character house which I saved from demolition and I am now restoring using eco-materials. I’m not connected to the grid and live off my solar power whilst embracing an organic lifestyle.
There is never a day goes by when I do not stop in my tracks to gaze in awe either at the incredible sunrises and sunsets, the beautiful ever changing mountains, the shy Hector’s dolphins, the azure ocean, the native birds who swoop around the eaves, or the canopy of stars which light up the night. I feel very fortunate to experience such tranquility.
I aim to regenerate my land around the house to resemble the native bush which exisisted over a hundred years ago. I guess, in essence, my goal is to spend contented days doing my art, time swimming with wild dolphins when I can and to leave a shallow ecological footprint on the planet whilst I’m here.
For more on Rio Rossellini, visit her website or email her at riorossellini [at] ihug [dot] nz
Photos courtesy of Rio Rossellini. From top: Whale Eye Insight; Dreams; Untitled.