You might remember Rachel Smith as head mermaid and mermaid trainer at Sacramento’s glamorous Dive Bar, where you can go out any night and blow kisses at mermaids swimming in the 7,500-gallon tank above the bar. I interviewed her here last September about her unique line of work while trying to not be too jealous of Sacramento’s drinking options generally. More recently, I spoke with her about her other vocations: mermaid illustrator and paper-doll maker.
Can you tell me about your mermaid illustrations?
I have been drawing, sketching, painting, doodling, sewing, printing and otherwise visually creating mermaids for as long as I can remember. They are the perfect subjects for any artist, combing the raw power and mystery of the sea and the fun and life of aesthetically interesting women. Right now, I am very inspired by historical mermaids, as well as the real-life mermaids that I work with at The Dive Bar in Sacramento. Drawing the mermaids and mermen that I work with brings a personal connection to an otherwise totally fantastical illustration; I feel that art is always made stronger when the artist has a clear concept or storyline behind the work. That’s also probably why I am attracted to historical mermaid characters—their stories are rich and fascinating, usually drawing heavily upon the watery regions of the world in which they originate.
I recently did a lot of research into mermaid television and mermaid films and created a paperdoll series based off my findings. Sirens of the Silver Screen is that paperdoll; I really enjoyed revisiting my favorite mermaid films and discovering some pretty interesting obscure ones! I put a lot of time into correctly recreating the tails/costumes for the doll, I think she’s really fun! I also created another mermaid paperdoll based on several mermaid myths from Polynesia. I feel that the playful nature of mermaids lends itself naturally to a medium such as paperdolls, and I love creating them! They are both available on my etsy page.
Why do mermaids appeal to you as a subject?
Most of my illustration work is centered around figures and animals so of course merpeople are the perfect hybrid of the two! As I mentioned before, I really like putting a lot of visual research into creating any work I do, whether it’s checking out how a certain costume might move underwater or scoping out different species of fish for tail inspiration. I definitely think one of my favorite things about illustrating mermaids is figuring out what mermaids from different parts of the globe would look like, depending on the local plant and fish life; it’s sort of a oceanologist approach, but I try and keep a level of the fantastic in my work as well.
And on the superficial side, it’s always fun to draw pretty women/men. I’ve done lots of work of people in their mermaid states; it seems to be something that people are always interested to see or to use for their companies. Mermaid popularity is on the up, which is good news for illustrators like me who love to create images them!
Has actually being a mermaid affected your art work?
I really feel as though it’s given me a ‘fin up’ on how to create the feel of suspended animation you get underwater, and as I mentioned before my gorgeous and talented coworkers are a constant source of inspiration. I also find when I am creating the tail portion of the mermaid, I keep thinking about how functional it would really be underwater…then I usually ignore that and create something as bizarre and splendid as I can possibly envision. One of the reasons I love being an illustrator is because I can create worlds, situations and objects that I could never interact with in the waking world, but I get to intimately and obsessively know them when I create my work.
It has also affected my artwork in a slightly negative sense, in that I just want to paint and draw mermaids all of the time! When I was working on my children’s book Manuel’s Murals (available on Amazon or from 3L Publishing) I had to fill my sketchbooks with mermaid sketches to appease my aqualust. It’s hard to concentrate of my real ‘work’ with mermaids swimming around my brain!
Do you have any favorite mermaid art?
I really adore the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; there’s something so appealing about that perfect balance of naive honesty and over-the-top sentimentalism (cheesiness?). Waterhouse in particular has some really fantastic mermaid/water nymph paintings. Arthur Rackham is one of my favorite all time illustrators and he does wonderful mermaids. He was just SO prolific, he created hundreds and hundreds of beautiful images for books. Scott Gustafson has done really adorable paintings of pirates and mermaids, he’s worth a serious look. Mermaids and Mythology Magazine just had a lovely article on an Victor Nizovtsev… I really enjoyed the way he captured soft, ethereal light on all of his mermaids, and the golden glitter of their scales was very well done.