From intricate illustrations to bold outdoor murals, the work of Celeste Byers is a colorful celebration of nature. Through her work with PangeaSeed and her independent contributions as an illustrator to publications like the New York Times, Byers brings a distinctively surrealist style to all she creates. Below, she shares her journey to using her art to advocate for the oceans.
What’s your background as an artist, and how would you describe your style?
I always loved to draw, and when I was in high school I learned how to paint. I decided to go to art school and I graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2012 where I studied illustration and design. I started out doing editorial work for the New York Times and Lucky Peach magazine and then ended up traveling to Sri Lanka, where I met Aaron Glasson and who got me into painting murals. Since then, I have been freelancing, doing illustration, murals, and art installations.
What first sparked your interest in using art as a form of activism or storytelling?
I first was introduced to using art for activism when I started working with PangeaSeed Foundation, an ocean conservation organization whose main mission is to use art to start conversations about pressing ocean issues. They have a project called SeaWalls: Artists for Oceans, and the idea is to bring messages about ocean conservation and awareness into urban environments. Since working with them, I’ve come to realize how powerful art can be when used to spread positive messages, and now I’m trying to use my work as a message for other issues besides ocean conservation.
What’s your relationship with oceans and the environment? How has that relationship impacted your work?
I grew up three blocks from the Pacific Ocean, and see it every day. I love the ocean so much and hold great awe for nature in general. It’s the most fascinating thing to me, and it is everything. I am inspired so much by the natural world and its creatures, textures, patterns, intricacies. Earth is where we came from and we are a part of it, so I think it is our duty to love and protect it.
Talk us through your artistic process for a piece you’re proud of. How do you come up with a concept, and how do you bring it to life?
My mural that I am most proud of is one I printed in New Zealand called Penguin Paradise. I was asked to paint a mural for the SeaWalls project in Napier, New Zealand, and I chose to paint about the Fiordland penguins. The inspiration to paint about these creatures started out by traveling to an area where they live and learning about them. Not only do they live in the ocean, but they nest on land in the forest! I thought this was so amazing, and really wanted to paint them. Once I come up with a subject, I usually look up photos related to the subject, then make a quick sketch based on what I’ve found. Sometimes I will compile a composition in Photoshop to look at while I paint. Then, I start painting the wall by sketching out the whole thing with a loose line.
The interesting thing about this mural that makes it different from my other ones is that when making my sketch, I didn’t realize how long the wall actually was; when I went to go paint it on the actual wall, I realized I’d only designed enough for half of it! I had to make up the entire right side of the mural on the spot. I also didn’t decide on my colors before I started the actual painting, so it was all a surprise to me—and it made it really exciting to paint.
What’s one of your favorite experiences of your career as an artist and ocean advocate?
One of my most memorable experiences was when I went to Isla Mujeres in Mexico for a SeaWalls project and swam with the whale sharks. I remember looking out at these gigantic animals sticking their heads out of the water to eat the plankton that was on the surface, and thought it was so amazing that one of the largest animals on earth was eating such tiny creatures. Another beautiful thing was that a fellow artist on the same boat as me didn’t know how to swim—but despite this, he put on a life jacket and lowered himself into the water just a couple meters from a whale shark. The look on his face was so beautiful, and it was so cool watching him experience it. I was swimming next to the whale shark and following it for about five minutes. Since I was looking through my snorkel mask, I remember thinking it didn’t seem real—and I was worried that all these humans around the whale shark were bothering it, because I wouldn’t like if small creatures were swarming around me while I was trying to eat.
What reaction would you like people to have to your work – and what message do you want them to take away?
Through my ocean-related work, I hope I am able to translate my love and appreciation of the ocean and its creatures—and make other people see the beauty as well.
Follow Celeste on Instagram.