I am so excited to interview fellow wildlife artist, Ronelle Reid, who hales from Australia. Ronelle’s work touches a cord in my heart, as she often paints wildlife living a precarious existence, and she is not afraid to paint some of the rarer and more unusual species. Ronelle has even painted some of our own iconic New Zealand native species. I was delighted when Ronelle took time away from her amazing paintings to talk to us.
What is your background?
I wanted to be an artist from a very young age, I was determined and very focused all the way through university. But I found my passion wasn’t paying the bills and I didn’t have any experience running a business so I got a job working in animal welfare, I worked for RSPCA for 20 years, quietly continuing to make art in the background. In 2020 I made the jump to focus on my art full time again.
Why did you decide to become an artist?
I can’t really remember what made me decide to be an artist. I was 6 and my dad bought me a little oil painting kit and I painted the tree in the backyard. I remember being very competitive with my older sister at drawing horses as well. It was just always what I was going to be. I never went through a fireman, doctor, princess stage.
What inspired your wildlife artwork?
I have always been fascinated by nature in all of its majesties. When I was in university I was focused on the museum environment and how natural history is portrayed in museums. It was very scientific and cold. Then I worked in animal welfare and saw first-hand the impacts on animals from habitat loss and human impact. My work soon followed that path trying to draw attention to the balance of ecosystems in a quirky way.
What media/techniques do you use and what is your art process?
I am a pretty traditional artist. I prefer a solid surface so use birch wood panels. I use oil paint, watercolour pencils and ink in various combinations to get my work on the boards. I paint with tiny brushes and take way too long to make every piece.
Do you work from photos or life?
I like to go out and do sketches from life, take lots of photos and then when I am back in the studio I work from a combination of those parts. Often my animals need to move around other animals that they are not normally living with so I need to use a bit of ingenuity to make the magic happen.
What was your most challenging artwork and which is your favourite and why?
That is a hard question. The most challenging and hardest is usually the one I am working on at the time. I like to challenge myself so learning new anatomy can be a challenge for me. I recently painted my first pangolin, I had to use reference images as I haven’t met one personally and the bottoms of their feet are totally flat!
What advice or tips can you give to other artists?
Believe in yourself. No one can do what you do and if you stick at it you will become an expert doing your art. If you believe in what you do, it is easy for other people to believe in you as well and buy your magic.
What creative project are you working on at the moment?
I always have a few things going at the same time, I am working on a watercolour work of bilbies for the Save the Bilby Fund, a few postcards for an exhibition in New Zealand and a large scale oil painting of a nautilus.
What is your favourite animal and plant and why?
My spirit animal is the octopus. I love how alien they are, so different to everything else, adaptable and intelligent. As for plants, I love to surround myself with ferns. I think they take me back to a more primitive time when dinosaurs walked the earth.
If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only take your most necessary art materials, what would they be?
A sketchbook and I could make charcoal, so I would be set.
What is your greatest challenge as an artist?
The same as everyone else – making the ends meet. Coming from a nice fortnightly paycheck to sporadic income is difficult but I am making it work.
How do you stay motivated, productive and disciplined?
I have always had a really good work ethic with all things I do. I treat it like a job, start at 5 am and going to work. The part I have a problem with is switching off. I find stopping making art and taking a day off the hardest thing to do. I always am making art – everywhere I go, even when I go away.
What is the biggest challenge in selling your work and where do you sell it?
My work always has a complicated story behind it – a conversation I have with the animals I depict. Sometimes I find I get too immersed in that story and forget to tell people they are actually for sale. I have found that a mixture of online galleries and physical gallery spaces is working for me.
What are your thoughts about using social media to expose your work?
I like social media as a platform to create a portfolio of your work and to give a look into the background work that goes into making it; but it is a time sucker if you let it. I try to have an idea of what posts I am doing a month ahead ( it doesn’t always work that way)!
Do you have any social media links you would like to share with our readers?
Like many people, I have done my best to avoid buying products in single-use plastic bags and opted for cloth bags when buying fresh produce, because of the damage to the environment and to wildlife caused by plastic bags.
Recently, nanoplastics from clothing, have been highlighted in the news. When synthetic clothing is washed, microscopic pieces, called nanoplastic, fragment from synthetic (plastic) garments and remain in the water, draining into water treatment systems and even the ocean. Synthetic (plastic) fibres are ANY fibres which not natural fibres like wool, cotton, linen, silk, etc.
Synthetic (plastic) fibres were created for several good reasons. They are not susceptible to moth damage, dry quickly, crease less (making them immensely popular with those who hate ironing), are cheap and not dependant on successful fibre crops and harvesting.
They are, however, unhealthy for humans, as they:
Are ‘airtight’ and prevent skin from breathing, leading to clogged pores and skin infections.
Create nanoplastics, through friction during washing, and while wearing the garment. Even handling or touching these fabrics in your clothing or cloths can cause microscopic particles to be inhaled, transferred to your hands, and then be ingested causing several severe health issues, including cancers. Microplastics are being found in the placentas of prebirth babies and in new-born babies.
Cause air, ground and water pollution through their manufacturing process.
Create air, ground and water pollution through their disposal.
THIS IS SERIOUS.
There are implications for wildlife and the environment, since most synthetic fibres are not recycled and are dumped in overflowing landfills.
I have decided any clothes I buy will be natural fibres, as far as possible. I live in a very cold, wet climate and I do not know if there are eco-friendly, natural windbreaker/waterproof jacket options – but I will keep my eyes open for them. Maybe we need to return to good, old-fashioned oilskins and quilted cotton jackets.
Yes, I may need to do more ironing – or I can embrace wearing creased and wrinkled clothes.
Yes, I will have to set moth traps to keep moths away from my wool wear.
Yes, I may not have as many choices, but how many pairs of trousers do I really need?
Currently I need very few clothes as I have a wardrobe full of them, and I will wear them until they perish. Only then will I selectively replace them, even if it means saving up and spending more for fewer, better quality, natural fibre garments and homeware.
Will you join me in turning away from wearing synthetic fibre clothes?
Some people have commented that the products I sell are too expensive. Evaluation of expense is relativeso what is too costly for one person is easily affordable by another. However, the last thing I want is to profiteer – and at present I am running at a loss because art involves such a huge outlay of time and cost for materials that it is almost impossible to recoup unless/until an artist becomes fashionable. To be perfectly honest, I cannot afford to buy my own products at the moment but I hope to bless those of you who can afford them. For those of you who are as cash strapped as I am, we may need to depend on big retailers instead of craftspeople.
There are practical reasons why my products cost more than those available through mass-production retailers.
My Decision to Only Sell Natural Fibre Merchandise on my Store
Since I paint endangered species, which are often affected by pollution and habitat destruction, it is ethical to ensure that my products are:
Consistently raising awareness of threatened species.
Created from natural fibres or products, which are not pollutive.
Environmentally-friendly: producing little or no pollution during manufacturing and do not pollute when washed and finally disposed.
Healthy for the customer wearing or using them.
Durable – natural fibres last longer than man-made (synthetic, plastic fibres).
Where possible, are organic – just as nature intended, and not impregnated with nasty pesticides/herbicides, toxins, etc.
Excellent quality, so that the merchandise is well worth the cost.
Manufactured locally and/or through ethical manufacturers who do not exploit their labour force.
Beautiful but useful – it is possible to create products that have both characteristics.
By purchasing cotton garments, we are supporting farmers rather than fossil fuel industry.
My aim is to produce GUILT-FREE products that only positively impact customers, wildlife and the planet.
An organic cotton & 100% cotton baby-wear and children’s t-shirt range is available on my online store, as well as 100% cotton adults sweatshirts and hoodies.
I am so impressed by the quality of these garments. All artwork printing is done in New Zealand by Digitees, using environmentally-friendly inks on ethically manufactured garments. My garments are only printed when a customer orders, so there is no waste, and Digitees ships the garments in a compostable bag to the customer, which is cheaper for the customer and better for the environment. Bumble-Bees and Digitees are both passionate about being as eco-conscious as possible.
Are you ready to start purchasing more durable, natural clothes and homeware?
Despite good intentions to write a blog and newsletter every month, my workload over the last few months has made it impossible. Having to shut my website and transfer the data to the online store, working on several urgent and very time-consuming projects and trying to push my wildlife illustration business to the next level has kept me flat-out busy (and this isn’t counting my tutoring commitments either).
FYI, if you search AuntieBettyIllustration.com, you will automatically be transferred to my online store, www.bumble-beesartandcrafts.com where you can now find my portfolio and other website information.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I am please to add, that several exciting development announcements will be made soon. So, watch this space!
To get back to our interview. I am so excited about today’s chat.
Emily is a good friend of mine.
Thank you, Emily, for your willingness to share your ecology and art journey with our readers. I have wanted to interview you for a long time, to share your love and knowledge of the tiny, water creatures that are invisible to the rest of us and so important for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Emily is a freshwater ecologist, with a love for New Zealand’s unsung microorganism heroes, which are fascinating and beautiful.
What is your background?
I did my academic studies at Massey University in Palmerston North, with an undergraduate in Ecology and Zoology, and an Honours in Ecology. I did my Honours thesis on freshwater macroinvertebrates (more on them later!).
What inspired you to become a biologist?
I think I have been on track to becoming a biologist for as long as I can remember! I have always had a strong interest in biology (particularly in animals), love being outdoors, and love being able to do practical, hands-on work. My interest in laboratory science was no doubt aided by having parents who are both biologists and educators. Much of my after-school time as a kid was spent at the university where my dad was a microbiology lecturer, and we were encouraged to be involved in whatever he was working on (a great learning opportunity for us, and free labour for my Dad!). When I discovered, during high school, that ecology was something you could actually study and get a job in, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind that it was what I wanted to do.
What inspires your work now?
As many people are becoming increasingly aware, protection of freshwater resources is a crucial issue, both from a conservation perspective but also from a human health and wellbeing perspective. To make good decisions about how to manage water, it is essential to have good scientific data on the state that water ecosystems are in and understand the complicated combination of factors that affect these systems. It is my hope that the work I do will contribute to understanding this bigger picture and help with good decision-making for the future.
On a personal note, I am also inspired simply because I love the work that I do and am fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues that also love their work. I always get excited when I can talk to other people about the cool critters that I work with – it reminds me how lucky I am to do the type of work that I have always wanted to do.
It is special when you can discuss with others what is important to you. They understand what makes you tick and share your enthusiasm. We can also trade ideas and help each other.
What does your job involve?
I am a freshwater ecology scientist, which means I study and report on the health of freshwater systems (mostly rivers and streams), am involved in giving advice about how to maintain or improve these ecosystems, and sometimes I get to be involved in the practical elements of protecting native species and improving the habitat that they live in. Our projects can involve a range of things, and I really enjoy the variety. On some days I might be wading in a river taking samples and measurements or catching fish or invertebrates. On other days I am in the laboratory identifying invertebrates under the microscope, or at the computer doing administration or writing reports.
What is your greatest challenge as a biologist?
I suppose one of the biggest challenges for ecologists is prioritising and finding ways of working on the most critical conservation issues with the limited time and resources available. As with many things, one of the major limitations is funding – someone must be willing to pay for a project for it to be made a reality! Another big challenge comes at the end of a project, and that is finding ways to clearly communicate scientific findings so that people understand and care about the results and change their behaviour in response.
If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only take the most necessary equipment, what would it be?
A good net and a bucket to catch freshwater critters, and then some way of recording what I find.
I know what you mean. My dad is a mining engineer, who studied geology. The back seat of the car was always loaded with a variety of interesting rocks found on our holidays. He later became an Environmental Systems Manager and occasionally let us hang out with him while he was water testing. This is partly why I find your work so fascinating because he loves the work you do.
What do you think are the greatest conservation needs in New Zealand?
I think habitat loss and degradation is one of the biggest issues in conservation in New Zealand (and worldwide). One of the key reasons that populations of so many species are declining is that there is a decreasing amount of suitable space for them to live, find food, and reproduce. In the freshwater ecosystems that I work in, habitat loss can happen in a range of ways, including drying of waterways caused by excess water consumption; building of dams, weirs, and other structures that block movement of fish upstream and downstream; removal of vegetation along riverbanks that animals rely on for shelter; pollution of waterways to the degree that they can no longer support sensitive wildlife; and draining of flowing waterways and wetlands to make space for human land use. There is an urgent need to stop further habitat loss and look at ways that we can restore degraded habitats.
Looking at it from the positive side, the advantage to focusing conservation efforts on protecting and restoring habitat is that it benefits an entire ecosystem and all the indigenous animals within it.
Which New Zealand creatures do you think need greater exposure?
Most of the animals that I work with are smaller and less glamorous than the bigger, cute, and/or cuddly animals that we are used to seeing in conservation media campaigns. For example, most native New Zealand freshwater fish are small, not particularly brightly coloured, and are mostly active at night. These characteristics can mean that they are overlooked when it comes to conservation efforts, and yet 76% of our native freshwater fish species are considered to be threatened or at risk of extinction.
Aside from our native fish, anyone who knows me well will know that my real soft spot is for freshwater macroinvertebrates. Invertebrates are animals without a backbone (like insects, snails, worms, etc.). There is a huge diversity of invertebrates that live in lakes, rivers and streams – these are often referred to as freshwater “macro ”invertebrates, because they are invertebrates that are generally big enough to see with the naked eye (compared to “micro” invertebrates that are only visible under a microscope). Many freshwater macroinvertebrates are the larvae or nymphs (babies/juveniles) of flying insects like mayflies, stoneflies, midges, and dragonflies. There are also some freshwater invertebrates like water bugs, beetles, snails, and crustaceans that live their whole life cycle in the water.
Freshwater invertebrates are an important part of the food chain (the aquatic stages are eaten by fish, and the flying adult insects are also eaten by birds) and they help to break down plant material that falls into streams. They are also valuable to freshwater ecologists as indicator species – we can look at what types of invertebrates are living in a particular place, and it gives us an indication of how healthy the stream is. I think most people would be surprised at how many different things are living in our rivers, and how interesting they all are!
What advice or tips can you give people interested in improving the chances of endangered species in New Zealand and around the world?
As I mentioned before, I think advocating for habitat protection and restoration is one of the key ways that people can help endangered species. First and foremost, this can mean speaking up against further habitat loss by whatever means are available to you. For example, if your local council has opened public consultation on any issue which will impact on at-risk species, take the opportunity to speak up.
Community groups can also provide a great opportunity to get involved with conservation issues in your local area. Well-established community groups will often have people with a great wealth of knowledge, and they can be an excellent tool for learning about issues that you are interested in.
If you are interested in pursuing ecology as a career – absolutely go for it! Most people working in jobs like mine have some sort of tertiary qualification in ecology/zoology/environmental science, but I would strongly recommend making sure that you do your research into what kind of jobs a given degree will lead towards, as it might not always be what you think! In addition to getting a qualification, the most important thing you can do is seek out any opportunity you can to get practical experience. This might mean volunteering or getting summer work in an area that interests you. This will help you to figure out what kind of work you are most interested in and will also give you practical skills to make you stand out to future employers.
Finally, although it can seem like a bit of a cliche, there is a great deal of value in educating kids from as early an age as possible about our incredible wildlife and the importance of conservation. I think most kids have a fascination with some aspect of the natural world, and the more you can encourage and foster that with any kids in your life, the better!
Are you able to tell us about the project you are currently working on?
Working for a private consultancy, I tend to have lots of projects on the go at any given time. A few examples of the types of projects that we work on include long-term monitoring projects (in rivers, streams, and estuaries), AEEs (Assessments of Environmental Effects – looking at how a proposed human activity will impact the health of a waterway), and processing macroinvertebrate samples from waterways all over the country to identify the invertebrates living there as an indicator of how healthy the waterway is.
One slightly more unusual type of work that we do on a regular basis is fish relocation. When there is an activity (like construction in a waterway) that may impact on the fish, we are often called upon to temporarily move them out of harm’s way. We usually shift them to an area close by so that they can naturally swim back to the area that they came from when the work is finished, and temporary construction barriers are removed.
I also get to work with school kids as part of education and engagement programmes developed and run by the company that I work for. This usually involves taking kids down to their local stream and teaching them how to monitor stream health using the same types of methods that we as ecologists use in our own surveys. This empowers the kids to collect their own scientific data and participate in understanding and improving the health of their stream. Teaching the kids and seeing them get excited about what is living in their local streams is one of the great joys of my job.
What is your favourite endangered animal and why?
I would probably give a different answer every time I was asked this question because there are so many to choose from and I am always learning about new ones! In case I have not already made it clear, I have a bias towards invertebrates, and one problem for these little guys is that for many of them we still don’t have enough data to know which ones are endangered and which are not.
Some of my favourite invertebrates are the cased caddisflies, and there are some species of these in New Zealand that are endangered. Caddisflies are aquatic in their larval stage and are flying insects as adults. Fly fishermen will know caddisflies because they are commonly used as a model for fishing flies.
Cased caddisflies are really cool because they build themselves protective cases that they carry around with them (a bit like a snail or a hermit crab in that respect). These vary from straight cases to spiral cases (such as species in the genus Helicopsyche). Different species use different materials — some use hollow sticks, while others spin cases out of a silky substance and cobble together tiny bits of plant material or stones into amazing mosaics! They will use all sorts of unusual materials too, depending on what is available to them. I have seen cases that have incorporated tiny snail shells, with the snails still living inside them (I do wonder how the snails feel about that!). I have also seen cases where an individual caddisfly has taken an empty case from a completely different species of caddisfly, and then made its own additions to the top end – like someone building an extension on a house. Sadly, we also sometimes find cases that include pieces of plastic rubbish, a sign of just one of many impacts humans are having on our waterways. I love caddisflies not only because they have such cool behaviour and are fantastic to look at, but they are also generally sensitive to degradation of streams; wherever we find them, it is a positive sign for the health of the stream.
You are also a talented painter. Are you painting anything now?
Thank you – that is quite a compliment coming from an incredible artist such as yourself! I have been dabbling a bit in watercolour painting recently, but I generally feel much more at home working with acrylics. My paintings are all wildlife-based, although no freshwater critters yet. As far as New Zealand species go, I have painted quite a few of our native birds. My most recent subject however was an introduced bird species, the California quail.
I did about a fortnight ago when I discovered that my supposedly biodegradable cellophane packaging is not actually biodegradable, nor is it real cellophane – it is biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP). I was horrified, as I thought I was using environmentally friendly packaging for my artwork and other merchandise.
I am angry that manufacturers and retailers are selling ‘cellophane’ that is NOT cellophane. True cellophane is made from plants containing cellulose, hence its name. Cellulose is the structural component of plants. It was popular for gift and food wrapping until the 1960’s but demand for it has declined due to the increased production of petrochemical-based plastics like single-use plastic. Cellophane is biodegradable – breaking down in less than 6 months. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to find true cellophane, and even harder to find it made in the sizes needed for artwork packaging.
In my search to find eco-friendly packaging, I realised there is little geared specifically for artists. There is some packaging available for clothing and food retailers, but not much for artworks. Since my original paintings, drawings, giclee prints, embroideries and other merchandise need to be waterproof and acid-free, my options have been small. I am constantly researching to find better alternatives so when I need to re-order packaging supplies, I am ordering the best eco-friendly packaging available at the time.
My aim is to raise awareness of endangered species and plastic pollution is a threat to many species around the world. Like many other nations, soft plastics are not currently being recycled in New Zealand and I believe that each country should be responsible for recycling their own waste, not shipping it to another country! I am determined not to add to single-use plastic pollution (which adversely affects our environment), so am using recyclable or reusable paper packaging wherever possible.
Once it arrives, my new packaging will include:
Glassine Bags: these are 100% re-usable and recyclable, since they are 100% biodegradable paper. Glassine does not contain silicone or poly additives or coatings, and is acid-free, archival (long-lasting) and humidity resistant, making it perfect packing for our giclee prints and greeting cards.
Jiffy Rigi Mailers: made from recycled paper and can be recycled.
Compostable Bags and Mailers: the compostable zip-lock bags are perfect for re-use and home composting. They are not fully transparent but are clear enough to see your order. I have less control over mailers, as some of my merchandise is sent to the customer, directly from the manufacturer. This reduces unnecessary transportation, postage and interim packaging and I have elected manufacturers based on their willingness to use compostable mailers, rather than other plastic mailers.
As original artworks are expensive and irreplaceable, most of them will be packaged in waterproof polypropylene (PP) bags, which I would like to replace with an enviro-friendly option when a suitable type is found. I would like to encourage my customers to re-use any protective plastic packaging in their parcels. In addition, I will be re-using any plastic I receive, so you may receive merchandise wrapped in re-used plastic.
In stores, polypropylene (PP) bags or biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) bags are necessary to protect art products. All my products are accompanied by a friendly reminder to re-use these bags, so they do not contribute to single-use plastic pollution.
To help my customers identify the future disposal of the packaging, I will stamp each piece of packaging with the following symbols:
All paper packing (incl. glassine bags & cardboard mailers) is recyclable.
The zip-lock bags can be composted in your home compost. Please check the directions for the compostable mailers.
All packing is re-useable.
Please join me re-using all plastic and paper packaging.
In the future, I hope to be able to package my artwork and merchandise in 100% environmentally friendly packaging, but until such a time, please compost, re-use and recycle your packaging. If you know of any packaging suppliers, who offer environmentally friendly packaging suitable for artwork, giclee prints and other merchandise, please comment. I would love to be able to offer guilt-free packaging.
Please join me in March, when I interview Kiwi artist, Anna Mollekin.