Artist of the Month: Paul McPhee
A shark-inspired artist with a rocker background.
- Published:March 10, 2017
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“I was a huge Jaws fanatic when I was a little kid,” McPhee says. “I was nine years old when the movie came out. Ever since that day I have been fanatical about sharks and fishing.”
His love of fishing and apex marine predators led to gigs as a deckhand, working on Southern California head boats. Growing up in Huntington Beach, California, he also got into the expanding music scene in the 1980s and played guitar for a bevy of rock bands in LA.
“I’ve lived quite a life,” McPhee says. “The LA music scene. Sunset Strip, playing those clubs. Girls. Partying. It’s a wonder that I’m alive but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was lucky to be a part of it.”
While he enjoyed some commercial success with music, McPhee was eventually called back to his love of the sea. At the age of 26 he began dabbling in art, and found himself focusing on sharks, his favorite fish.
“I just stumbled into it,” he says. “I went to the Fred Hall show in ‘87 and I saw Guy Harvey’s work and it kind of moved me. I just thought I would love to do something like that.”
"I'd rather spend a week fishing and get one giant than catch small fish all day."
McPhee kept working at his art, learning as he went and painting more fish including marlin and tuna. His following grew, and his artwork is now seen all over the world, at tournaments and on apparel, even on TV -- he has designed many of the shirts for the crews on Wicked Tuna.
“I like to paint billfish, and I do a lot of work for tournaments, mainly in Kona, Hawaii, but the great white is still my thing,” he says.
McPhee looked to the artist Wyland, who became a prominent figure in the 1980s, painting large whale murals. Wyland’s work was pivotal in the Save the Whales campaign which brought awareness to many conservation issues facing whales and porpoises.
“When I first started painting I wanted to be a shark guy the way Wyland is a whale guy. It was silly then. No one cared about sharks. There were no organizations doing anything to save sharks. Now sharks are like the new whales,” McPhee says.
With issues such as overfishing and shark finning, shark populations took a nose dive over the last few decades and McPhee began working with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy which educates the public about white sharks and works to change the public perception while conserving the species and ensuring biologically diverse marine ecosystems. He’s taken part on numerous tagging expeditions, including OCEARCH’s Expedition Cape Cod which placed a tracking device in a 3,456-pound great white named Mary Lee, after expedition leader Chris Fischer’s mother. Mary Lee has traveled more than 34,000 miles to date and really set the tone for the presence of giant white sharks off Cape Cod.
McPhee gives his time to these conservation efforts and often donates his work to causes. He recently painted a shark-themed license plate for Massachusetts, for example.
To create new art, McPhee pulls from the scenes he has witnessed on the water: “I’ve seen a lot of great white sharks,” says McPhee, who can be found towing a seal decoy in his free time to get the giant predators to breach.
His most visible piece, however, does not hang in a museum or on the wall in some man cave. In the late 1990s, McPhee was asked to paint an album cover for the rock band Great White. The band had roots in the same LA rock scene as McPhee, and he often went shark fishing with the lead singer, Jack Russell. The album cover for Can’t Get There from Here earned Paul a Grammy nomination.
“I’ve known those guys since the early 1980s,” McPhee says. “When Jack handed me the album cover he said, ‘I told you you’d make it on a major label!’”
Now based in Martha’s Vineyard (he was drawn to the small New England island from its role in the filming of Jaws), McPhee works full-time as an artist. He paints mostly in oils, does some watercolor and even sculpts a bit.
“I usually have two or three paintings going at the same time,” he says. “With oil you have to let the paint dry so you can work on another piece as one is drying. I've also started painting people’s boats with their favorite fish on high-resolution NOAA charts that I have printed on canvas.”
During the summer he spends time on the water chasing giants and tagging sharks with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. They tagged 100 last summer, including some 15- to 18-footers.
“I’m strictly a monster fish guy,” he says. “I’d rather spend a week fishing and get one giant than catch small fish all day. I just like big fish. Though it’s painful winding them in at my age,” says the artist who is now 50, but holds onto his rocker style with long hair, a scattering of tattoos and a pierced nose.
“What inspires me most is watching things going on naturally out there. Some of the things you see are just surreal, like five or six huge bluefin tuna flying out of water with bait showering all over. We have a lot of whales here also, watching these animals do their thing is inspiring,” he says. “I feel fortunate to be able to do something I love after I was done with music. If it were not for painting, I’d probably be pumping gas.”
To contact Paul McPhee, visit his Facebook page.
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