I first encountered the work of Natalie Arnoldi at a friend’s house. Presiding over the dining table was a life-size painting of a great white shark. It was realist and ominous, and at one point I could swear it was eyeing my fish taco. I checked out more of her work online. Her wave paintings seemed to spawn from the ocean’s unconscious—the sort of waves you come across in dreams.
“Natalie’s a surfer,” my friend told me. “She spent something like a decade working in shark labs. She’s up at Stanford getting her PhD in Marine Ecology.”
That was when I knew I had to talk to her.
Natalie and I met at a café in Malibu when she was home for the holidays. Focused, intentional, well-spoken, she exuded a scholarly vibe. At the same time she had the levity of a wave rider.
How did you get into painting?
My dad’s an abstract painter, my mom’s a writer, so it’s a very creative household. I grew up around a lot of artists. I had basically a studio in my bedroom when I was a little kid. I never thought I would be a professional artist. When I was six or seven I went snorkeling, and there was this giant aggregation of leopard sharks, and I got out of the water and thought, ‘I’m going to be a marine biologist.’ And I never got over it. I didn’t start oil painting until I got to college. And then sort of serendipitously, my dad had a painting of mine hanging in his studio, and this curator from New York who was putting together this group show goes, “Who did this? It’s so good. I want to include it in the show.” And my dad said, “Oh, my 19-year-old daughter.” So I was in that group show, and then another group show, and it kind of snowballed. By the time I graduated from college, I had this art career that was kind of taking off. But I was also continuing on in science.
Tell me about that work.
So I got very into shark biology. By the time I graduated high school, I could tell you something about pretty much any kind of shark species you brought up. For a long time, I worked in a lab for a woman named Barbara Block, who is probably the world’s foremost bluefin tuna expert. In her lab we did a lot of satellite tagging and other types of tagging of large marine predators. We did a lot of studies looking at great white sharks: what is their behavior, what is their movement? I went from working in a lab that was much more behavior-oriented, to now, I would say I’m a marine ecologist, which means I study how animals interact with each other, the environment, and humans. What motivates me is this more system-type thinking. I’m still a shark nerd, and I study big predatory fish, but in the context of: what is their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, how do they interact with people, what are the implications of this knowledge for conservation, sustainable management?
What was it like working with sharks?
I always get questions about great whites and surfing, and I think there’s this really interesting relationship between surfers: either you’re scared, or you actively try not to think about it. Working in a great white shark lab, one of the ways we collect data is we have a piece of carpet cut-out to look like a seal. The things we use to lure the shark to the boat are the jankiest, most MacGyvered. You have to be very strategic with where you put your money in science. But anyway, we have this fake seal that we mount a GoPro to the bottom of, and put out behind the boat, so that we can watch how the sharks approach them. And it’s very rare they come up and just bite. They’re very curious and cautious. So they’ll come up and check it out, leave, check it out, and then they might bite. Which I thought was very interesting from a surfing perspective, because living in California long enough, in all likelihood a white shark has probably checked you out at some point, and you don’t even know it. But they’re not hunting us. They have very similar vision to us. They’re visual predators. And that has sort of changed my relationship to thinking about sharks when I’m surfing.
What should we be worried about in the ocean?
Everything. [laughter] Being any sort of natural scientist is tough these days because there is no place left on Earth that is unaffected by people. You have climate change, pollution, which is not just trash and chemicals but also sound and light pollution, which we don’t talk about very often. Ocean acidification, global warming. It’s pretty dire. At the same time, we created the problem, and we’re working on ways to fix it. The problem that I am probably interacting with most is overfishing. I study big, predatory fish, and a lot of their populations have been decimated by overfishing, and other human impacts. I get asked very often if I eat seafood, and I do. I try to be very conscientious about the seafood that I eat. I think it is inevitable that we will always eat fish. The ocean is the last big, wild resource for food that we rely on, and I think it’s more important to support the people who are doing it well and doing it right than just not eating fish at all. Because in order for us to transition fully to sustainable seafood, we need the people who are doing it right to succeed and be able to grow their operations and do it on a large scale.
There’s a real great integration with your painting and your love of the ocean. Does surfing feed it—sitting on the water waiting for a wave, taking it all in?
Definitely. I think all my work is very emotional, it’s very place-based, and I’m very much trying to create a certain atmosphere and emotional experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of my giant wave paintings with the wave cresting at the top, which, for some people they love, for other people it’s that ‘Oh shit, I’m about to die’ moment. [laughter] Also, the underwater paintings. What I love about these is for people who don’t get the chance to interact with the ocean, are afraid of the ocean, don’t get in the ocean, it’s a way of creating that interaction. And I find that to be powerful.
Follow Natalie at @natalie_arnoldi