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Ruby Free: The Power of Art to Inspire Conservation

This week’s guest is the lovely Ruby Free, a conservationist, wildlife guide, artist and illustrator.

Ruby grew up in Dorset, in the Southwest of England, which fostered her love for the ocean. Now living in Cornwall, where Ruby has been based for the last two years, the Cornish landscape is a continual source of inspiration.

Ruby found a passion for marine conservation after working as a water sports instructor for three summers in Dorset, following her studies to gain a Diploma in Outdoor Adventure and Sport Science. This work inspired a deeper appreciation for the ocean and desire to help the wildlife that depends on it. This led to her volunteering with many organisations, such as becoming a Surfers Against Sewage Representative and organising large-scale beach cleans; and travelling abroad to work on marine conservation programmes, including one in Tenerife working to help whales and dolphins. This lit a fire to continue action like this when Ruby moved to Cornwall.

Ruby has been a Marine Mammal Medic for the past three years. Winter is a particularly busy time for this work, with many animals in distress around the UK. In the past year, Ruby has been working for The Cornish Seal Sanctuary, which is a charity rescuing and rehabilitating grey seal pups from around the Cornish coastline.

Ruby’s passion for marine wildlife is profound and this translates into her art and illustration, which she does on top of all her conservation work! Read on for a deep dive into Ruby’s journey into conservation, the magic of living in Cornwall, and her favourite art medium.

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

As a creative person, who also has ADHD, I wanted to work somewhere that allowed me to express my passion and energy for what is important to me. Working at the Seal Sanctuary is perfect for this reason! Currently as of lockdown, I’m on furlough at home but I still get called out for “Seal Shouts” on behalf of British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR).

This work is closely linked to my creative practice. Witnessing animals that have been negatively affected by humans and our activities inspires me to want to protect them in any way that I can. I often photograph what I see when at work to be able to share both the impacts of our actions with others, and to also share how beautiful wildlife can be. I donate 10% of my art sales to conservation charities.

At the beginning of the March lockdown in 2020, I created Instagram Live Lessons to be able to share virtual presentations about marine life and all the weird and wonderful animals that you find in the sea! The project really grew during this time, and through it I ended up meeting a lot of people online who were also interested in the same conversation work as me.

Where I work has allowed me to gain a lot of amazing contacts and it continues to light a fire in me to inspire others to care about conservation too.

"Witnessing animals that have been negatively affected by humans and our activities inspires me to want to protect them in any way that I can. I often photograph what I see when at work to be able to share both the impacts of our actions with others, and to also share how beautiful wildlife can be."

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

When it comes to my drawing practice, it is usually very sporadic. Sometimes it occurs in what could be quite an unusual location, such as when I’m out on a hike, or even outside in the rain! The process is usually quite random, but I find that the best things I create don’t come with a plan, they come from being randomly inspired. For example, recently I was watching a new David Attenborough episode and I thought, “Wow, I need to draw this!”

I really enjoy using watercolour. I find it very easy to use and I love how the paint is quite unpredictable. However, if I want to do something that is more precise, for a scientific illustration perhaps, then I tend to use a mixture of watercolour and acrylic. This is quite unusual, but I find mixing the two works really well.

I would say that I’m drawn to watercolour and its fluid nature because of my work in marine conservation and my passion for the ocean. When I received my first art set as a child, most of the other mediums got left behind except for the watercolour paints. Watercolour and the ocean do seem to go hand in hand and I find it very easy to depict ocean imagery with watercolour techniques.

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

Not only is wildlife, in the broadest sense, my main subject of inspiration, but also the feeling of freeness when you are outside surrounded by nature. Not only do beautiful animals inspire my work, but I find I can be inspired whilst surfing or swimming in the sea.

I didn’t want to be too specific on the name of my art business, Wild and Free, as I wanted to be able to encompass everything that is "wild and free." One week I might be interested in mushrooms, the next it could be to do with surfing, the next I might be inspired by whales… It includes everything that I get inspired by and, as I mentioned, this includes the feelings that I get when I’m outside in the natural world.

I also read a lot about other people’s experiences with nature. I’m inspired by certain artists who write and illustrate their expeditions and wildlife encounters, which they often document it in that moment.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a few projects on the go, although some are on hold at the moment due to the current situation.

One thing that I’m hoping will go ahead this year is something I have been working on with visual artist Georgia Tucker, who is incredible! She was commissioned by the BBC to create a virtual reality experience of being in the ocean, including the litter and waste that you can see within it. Georgia asked for my input on information about the marine environment to create a realistic view. I also designed the graphics for some of the information booklets. This is an ongoing project but hopefully it will eventually be on display at the National Marine Aquarium and documented by the BBC.

Recently, I have been in conversation with a fellow ocean activist Amy Gosney who, along with her partner Harry Denis, finds ghost fishing gear and turns them into products to reuse. She has asked me to illustrate a book surrounding a wildlife story. I’m just at the beginning of this at the moment. It will be my first book illustration so it’s very exciting!

I also have a daily doodle. Sometimes this doodle turns into a more detailed piece of art work that I want to turn into prints, and sometimes it’s just a doodle that stays in the back of a book. Occasionally, I will also get commissions for a specific piece. Usually they are capturing someone’s memories of a wildlife encounter. Christmas was a busy time for this. I enjoy this work as I love to hear about the backstory of an encounter and the feelings behind it.

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

For me, sense of place is not necessarily a specific place, it’s the feeling that I might get when I’m in a certain location. This tends to occur particularly when I’m near the sea or on a rugged coastline, and because of where I grew up this makes me feel very much at home. For example, in Ireland, even though it’s miles away from Dorset where I grew up, I feel at home there. This also made it much easier to move away from home to Cornwall a few years ago as of being surrounded by the sea and a rugged coastline. I never feel homesick when I’m by the sea.

However, having said that sense of place is not a specific place, there are a few locations that do hold a special memory. Recently, I saw my first humpback whale at Lands’ End at sunset, which was incredible. I was completely in awe! Lands’ End is somewhere I have visited a lot throughout my childhood so it will always be a very special place.

Another place that has inspired a lot of my art work is along the Jurassic Coastline in Dorset. My first memories of wildlife encounters and being out in the wild are of hikes there with my family, and camping on the hills of the Purbecks. This area of the coastline, from Old Harry’s Rocks around to Lulworth, is pretty special. Although you do find similar areas of rugged coastline elsewhere, I haven’t seen anywhere else like this, especially the White Cliffs. They are incredible. These places where I have found a deeper internal connection are often in my mind when creating art work.

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

As I’ve mentioned, all of my work is inherently inspired by the natural world.

One thing I would like to mention is that there are specific species that I am completely in awe of. When I’m drawing a particular animal, I will often include a backstory taken from my experiences as a wildlife guide. The art work then becomes a learning tool about these specific species.

During one of my first jobs as a wildlife guide, I had to learn and memorise 25 different species of birds. This was out at sea, so being able to identify differences between the birds was challenging at first! I learnt all their differences by drawing the birds, which helped to solidify their identities in my mind. This inspired me to share information about the species alongside my art work, which I think other people enjoy. People who enjoyed my Live Lessons during lockdown now follow Wild and Free too, so there is a cross-over between both the facts and the art. I tend to do this for commissions too. If I’m drawing a specific species, I will include a letter or facts about it alongside the painting.

I’m also inspired by the seasons. Winter is one of my favourite times of the year, particularly here in Cornwall. Everything is so quiet; when there are less people there is more to hear and more to see. I rarely get bogged down about the time of year as every single season brings its own joys that you won’t get at other times of the year.

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

From a young age, I have always needed to be outdoors. With ADHD, I have a very busy, over-stimulated mind, and this was only diagnosed after I finished school so the outdoors has always been like a medicine, providing a sense of calm. I think this is one of the reasons why I love surfing, water sports, and rock-climbing. When you are putting all of your focus on one activity – not because you are trying to focus, but because you have to in order to be able to do it – it can be very calming. Being out on the water, focusing on that one thing… This is very integral to who I am.

My favourite outdoor sport has to be surfing. I first discovered it on holiday with my family. I was on a stand-up paddleboard and this feeling of gliding on water came over me, and I just thought, “This needs to happen again!” I got my first surfboard at age 13, and ever since then it has become a bit of an addiction. In Cornwall you sometimes get seals that will swim up to you, which is super cute!

When surfing, as in life, you do go through processes of thinking you can’t do it or that you are not as good as you once were. But then you go out on another day and you realise everything is fine, perhaps you were just in a weird headspace. It’s constantly fluctuating depending on your board, or the conditions of the sea – no surf is ever the same. Windsurfing, which I also love, is often a similar experience each time you go out, however surfing always has a different environment and consequently a different experience.

"Winter is one of my favourite times of the year. Everything is so quiet; when there are less people there is more to hear and more to see. I rarely get bogged down about the time of year as every single season brings its own joys that you won’t get at other times of the year."

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

There are so many people I could mention!

When I was growing up, we always had an “art place” in the house with all sorts of art materials. This was as needed as a kitchen. My Dad is an artist himself – he used to sell his work but now he is an art therapist. It’s a way of using art that connects to our internal feelings and emotions. He is a constant inspiration to me.

I recently met artist Maia Walczak in Cornwall, who I'm lucky enough to now be friends with. She grew up foraging, which is at the forefront of her diet and she is very knowledgeable in this area. She is also a surfer and spent years travelling to surf in cool places! Maia has published a few children’s books, one being called Wylder. It has beautiful illustrations that are quite aboriginal in feel. She has a very beautiful, individual style.

Another person who I often look to for inspiration is Francesca Page. Her work encompasses scientific ocean illustration. She also has one of the top diving qualifications that you can achieve, and she has done all sorts of crazy dives all over the world! She draws her underwater wildlife encounters. Although they are very accurate and precise, she incorporates a sense of memory and feeling into it, such as the way the light is shining through the water.

Living in Cornwall, there are a lot of artists here who are inspired by the sea. I live near St. Ives which is a haven for art galleries. There is always a lot of inspiration to be gained from being here.

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

This is so much easier said than done, but finding your own style is hugely important. The inspiration you have behind what you create almost makes this second nature. Rather than looking at another person’s work and thinking you have to create something as good, find your own subject of inspiration.

Another thing I would say for anyone looking to sell their work is not to feel like you have to set up everything at once before you can start selling. I went into the deep end and set up Instagram, a website, and Etsy before I was ready. I don’t have an Etsy page anymore as I found it was much easier to connect with more people solely through Instagram instead. I’m thinking about returning to Etsy this year, but I would recommend slowly making your way in so that it doesn’t become too overwhelming.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

No matter what, always see yourself as part of nature and not as something separate from it. This is obviously harder to see if you don’t live somewhere that seemingly has nature in abundance, but this message can make all other aspects of life so much easier. It puts your life into perspective. There is value in understanding your place within our ecosystem.

The other thing I would say, with all the craziness going on in the world right now, is to approach every person with kindness. Try to be as open as possible, but at the same time if you see something that you don’t agree with, call it out.

To see more of Ruby's work head to Instagram @ruby_free_ and @wild_and_free_art

All Images: Artist's Own


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