Publish date:

Fish out of Water

Guy Harvey's paintings are found on canvases, T-shirts and even a bridge

The most sought-after autograph at the Florida Marlins' April 12 home opener belonged not to their quicksilver centerfielder (Chuck Can) or their slugging rightfielder (Gary Sheffield), but to a 38-year-old Jamaican ichthyologist. His name is Guy Harvey, and he's the most popular marine-life artist above sea level.

Under a mackerel sky, more than 2,000 spectators lined up for Harvey at a mezzanine booth in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium. The queue threaded past a hotdog cart, through a couple of concrete columns and around a frozen-lemonade stand. Everyone held something bearing a Harvey design: Marlin T-shirts, pennants, magazines, even tickets. "I'll sign anything," Harvey announced as he scrawled his name on a woman's chest.

"Guy's the Van Gogh of fish T-shirts," says Barry Shulman, whose company, T-Shirts of Florida, produces an entire Harvey line. "Fans know they're not just wearing a T-shirt: It's a collectible, a Guy Harvey original. And they know that fine art lasts forever." Or at least until it has been through the rinse cycle a couple of dozen times.

Harvey is not of the cartoon-fish school. His sea creatures are anatomically correct, often frozen in a moment straight out of a fisherman's fantasies: sailfish charging into a regimented mass of flying fish; yellowfins scattering to avoid a marlin's slashing bill; mako sharks poised to devour fleeing swordfish. Harvey's stuff is sometimes larger than life: One mural—of a 26-foot-high leaping sailfish—is mounted on Fort Lauderdale's busiest bridge, the Brooks Memorial Bridge, where it draws gapes daily from thousands of boaters and six-pack-toting grunt fishermen.

Raised on a cattle ranch in western Jamaica, Harvey became an accomplished diver and angler early on. At eight he was packed off to England for schooling. It was there that he became entranced by The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's story of a Cuban fisherman's struggle with an enormous blue marlin and a school of sharks. "The book made me aware of the marlin's majesty," Harvey says. "But I remember being vastly disappointed that the old man didn't come home with the whole fish." At 15 he rewrote the fish tale, setting it in Jamaica and giving it a happy ending. "My instructor found my version too repetitive," says Harvey. "But, really, that's what fishing is like."

To relieve homesickness at boarding school, Harvey sketched the fish he remembered from back home. Though he had no formal art training, he had a scientist's eye for detail. After graduating from Aberdeen University in Scotland with a degree in marine zoology, he returned to Jamaica to work on his doctorate at the University of the West Indies. His thesis, which he completed in 1983, examined the ecology of coastal pelagic fish. Herring and sardine enthusiasts regard the 520-page study as a minor classic.

Praise for the paper's 119 illustrations was so lavish that in 1985 Harvey put on a one-man show of his work in a Kingston gallery. The heart of the exhibition was a series of 45 pen-and-ink drawings inspired by The Old Man and the Sea. The show made quite a splash, and within three years Harvey had given up marine biology to become a full-time game-fish artist. Today his paint-drip signature appears on everything from $25 posters to $25,000 works in acrylic. "My hobby has become my profession," says Harvey, "and my profession my hobby."

Harvey the marine biologist is a vocal proponent of the catch-and-release ethic. "People must be taught that marlin and other billfish are worth far more alive in the ocean as game fish than dead on the deck," he says. "These animals are a limited resource, and if you continue to deplete their populations, they won't be around for future generations." Since 1986 Harvey has been Jamaica's representative in the International Game Fish Association. "Guy led the fight to get his country to go to release," says the IGFA's president, Mike Leech. "We now use Jamaica as an example to all the other islands in the Caribbean."

Harvey donates original artwork to conservation causes for fund-raising. "Guy has been extremely generous," says Leech. "He's raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for conservation through art."

His friends and fans agree: Harvey is the kind of Guy who will give you the shirt off his back—assuming it's not already framed or hanging in a gallery.



Fort Lauderdale's boaters sail by Harvey's largest work.