David Rock painting Island Life mural

Famed Artist Creates Life-like Backdrop in Tennessee Aquarium’s New Island Life Gallery

Sitting cross-legged on wooden scaffolding 10 feet off the concrete floor of an atctive construction site at the Tennessee Aquarium, David Rock’s face is a mask of poise and concentration, rarely shifting more than a foot or two away from his enormous canvas.

A muralist with more than three decades of experience, Rock is a specialist in crafting transportive landscapes to serve as backdrops for exhibits in zoos, museums and aquariums. He has worked in 33 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, Portugal, Kuwait and in the restless gallery of a cruise liner.

From high atop his current airy perch in the depths of the Aquarium’s Ocean Journey building, Rock is surrounded by an arsenal of brushes and a dozen automotive paint sprayers.

Wielding these implements — and with just a few reference photos and memories of his experiences in the Pacific Northwest to guide his hand — Rock has embarked on an artistic blitzkrieg scheduled to last just a few days. With stunning speed, the Portland, Oregon native has rapidly transformed a previously blank wall into a scene of mysterious elegance with ranks of shadowy conifers marching off toward a mountain range hunched beneath misty, iron-gray skies.

“It’s surprising how much detail one can get with a spray gun,” he quips.

Rock’s landscape is designed to transport viewers to the wilds of British Columbia. Stretching along a 20-foot-long swath of wall, the mural will set the scene for the Vancouver Island tank, the dynamic centerpiece of the Aquarium’s new Island Life gallery, which is poised to open on March 15. The mural is designed to be a window to the landscapes Rock is so familiar with from his time hiking, camping and kayaking in the Pacific Range.

“My job has always been to help advance the story the exhibit designer is trying to tell,” Rock explains. “My goal is to paint a mural that blends with the foreground and enhances the exhibit.

“It’s my opinion that the mural should not draw attention to itself but make the exhibit seem bigger by adding the illusion of dimension and space. I also believe in the philosophy of ‘less is more’ when it comes to content. The mural should tell a story, not be an encyclopedia of images filling every square inch of space.”

The Island Life project is Rock’s second time working with the Aquarium. His work can also be seen in the frigidly life-like mural depicting the Antarctic coastline in the Penguins’ Rock gallery. At 250 square feet, the Vancouver Island project is about as large as the one in Penguins’ Rock, but the muralist’s portfolio includes pieces encompassing a wide range of sizes, from 10 square feet to more than 8,000.

Some artists’ paintings will be exhibited, undisturbed, in the pristine confines of an art gallery or residence. Rock has made peace with the fact that his creations are bound for the kind of existence that might make his peers wince in sympathy.

“The presence of animals will affect any mural by scratching, rubbing or defecation,” he says. “There are some sealers that will slow the effect of rubbing, but if a tiger wants to claw at a mural, nothing will stop him from damaging it.”

A stickler for accuracy, Rock says he realized days into work on the Vancouver Island project that the trees he’d added to the foreground were “wrong,” so he painted over the offending section and started over from scratch.

David Rock in Island Life gallery

“In my work, you can’t be in love with your art,” he laughs, shrugging.

Still about three weeks away from the opening of Island Life, the mural already creates a compelling illusion of immense depth in the exhibit, which will host a variety of cold-water invertebrate and fish species native to the Pacific Northwest.

Rock’s mural is the final artistic flourish that will help viewers feel transported more than 2,500 miles away from Chattanooga to Canada’s west coast, but his work builds on the tank’s other novel place-setting features to fully set the scene. The only thing missing will be the region’s notoriously rainy weather.

When the gallery opens — just in time to greet a rush of spring break visitors — guests viewing the Vancouver Island tank will be able to watch waves rushing along the sinuously curving acrylic panels to crash against an upright viewing window at its far end. Inside the tank, a lifelike “rock” wall crafted by Cemrock Landscapes features realistic clusters of mussels sculpted out of hard rubber that further sell the sensation of being whisked away to a distant shore.  

The Vancouver Island tank is the largest exhibit in Island Life, but the gallery features a wide variety of other habitats housing animals from all over the world. As they explore the new gallery, guests will also encounter:

  • Critically endangered Radiated and Spider Tortoises, poisonous Mantella Frogs, psychedelically patterned Panther and Carpet Chameleons and many other reptiles and amphibians found only in the biologically unique environs of Madagascar
  • More than two dozen different varieties of brilliantly colored tropical fish found in the species-rich waters of the vaunted Coral Triangle marine area in the Indo-Pacific Ocean  
  • A glimmering school of bioluminescent Split-fin Flashlight Fish, whose bacteria let them “flash” like a swarm of underwater fireflies
  • An oceanic “Odd Couple” display of venomous Anemone landlords and the Clownfish that serve as their sometimes-tenants-sometimes-protectors

At the center of this globetrotting experience, however, the Vancouver Island tank undeniably is the gallery’s showstopper. If guests find themselves mesmerized by the rolling waves and convinced they can feel a brisk, salty breeze on their cheek, Rock says he’ll feel like his work is complete, even if the mural fades into the background.

“It’s all about enhancing the story the exhibit is designed to tell,” he says.

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