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Ocean Artivist: Janina Rossiter

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Janina Rossiter painting a penguin

Janina (pronounced Yaneena) Rossiter, a.k.a. Nina, is an ocean artivist, conveying evocative conservation messages through her art. Having aspired to become a children’s book author at a young age, her stories and illustrations aim to instil a sense of ocean stewardship in children. She spoke to Suzanna Hayek about what triggered her to become an ocean conservationist.

Rossiter’s soft features and tied back blonde hair appeared on Zoom. Her living room in her home near Paris could be seen. In the background, there was a large poster depicting a jellyfish, which had plastic bags on each of its tentacles, mounted on a board. It was a picture she illustrated for her book, "1,2,3 Who’s Cleaning the Sea?" to raise awareness that sea turtles are often mistaken plastic bags for jellyfish. Right next to it, there was a surfboard.

Rossiter's children's book about plastic pollution

Rossiter explained that she had just shown the jellyfish board to children in a school in Singapore over Zoom, commenting how delighted she was that it has now become possible for her to reach schools across the world. Preferring to make a long-lasting impact on children’s environmental awareness, the multi-award-winning children’s books author, illustrator, and artivist (someone who uses art as activism) only agree to work with schools long-term – usually over a school year with several visits.

When Rossiter was in high school in her hometown of Hamburg, she chose to complete art training, although she did not feel encouraged to pursue art. There is a widespread belief in Germany that you cannot make a living out of artistic endeavours. “I think we are more aiming to become doctors, scientists, accountants, and marine biologists. And I think the art kind of is still a question of what you’re going to do afterwards. I think it’s challenging to make money by being an artist,” said Rossiter.

At the age of 17, Rossiter lived in Louisiana in the USA as part of a foreign exchange programme. The art-valorizing culture she experienced there led her to study Communication and Illustration Design at university. “I think living in the US for one year helped me to believe in going down that route because, in the US, artistic work is so much more appreciated and also pushed in terms of a career,” Rossiter explained.

Rossiter’s connection with the sea was born out of her love for swimming. “I was a competitive swimmer since the age of four or five. When I swim, when I'm in the water, I feel like I can forget the world. And this is a little bit what also helps me now dealing with environmental issues because sometimes that can get quite overwhelming,” she said.

Growing up in Hamburg, Rossiter would often cycle - despite having a car - because of her heightened environmental conscience. “I thought that I was living environmentally friendly, but looking back, I would say it wasn’t enough. I wouldn’t go further in the way of thinking – where do my clothes come from? Where is plastic being made? What is plastic?” remarked Rossiter.

Assuming plastic waste was being repurposed for reuse in Germany, Rossiter used to purchase food packaged in single-use plastic without much thought. But it was a trip to the aquarium with her children – which revealed the detrimental effects of plastic pollution and its sheer scale.

“I went to the aquarium for research purposes as I was writing a book about sea creatures. I often took my children with me, as the aquarium has fun shows for kids as entertainment. But that one time they were talking about plastic pollution, and they asked the children to help to clean up the ocean,” Rossiter said. She thought it was unusual that they had chosen to discuss a serious subject with children at the aquarium this time.

An illustration of an octopus by Rossiter

Intrigued, Rossiter began to research plastic pollution and came across eye-opening images by wildlife photographers and documentaries of, as she put it, “kids growing up in houses with plastic underneath them and rivers completely polluted and beaches full.”

The shocking plastic pollution discoveries led Rossiter to transform her book about sea creatures into an environmental storyline. “So it's '1,2,3, Who’s Cleaning the Sea?, A counting picture book about protecting our planet' and that they don't have a choice anymore and that they're starting to bring it back to us and say: 'OK, this is enough.'”

It soon became apparent to Rossiter that the very system she had been relying on to recycle plastic was flawed. “I figured out that most of this was because we are exporting our waste to countries that cannot deal with it. And I discovered that I was so much part of the problem because I am using these things, and I am trusting in systems that are actually broken. I was so shocked, actually.” According to Greenpeace, about 241 truckloads of plastic waste from across Europe arrive in Turkey every day.

"... basically the idea was that the sea creatures are drowning in our trash...

Rossiter's illustration of the earth in a baking tray, covered with cling film

Rossiter immersed herself in the subject of conservation and connected with activists who have been in the field for many years. The more Rossiter learned about the ramifications of consumerism, the more guilt-ridden she felt about the time she spent not living a sustainable lifestyle.

“After I launched my book, I wanted to do more to help, but when I started to raise awareness of these issues, I felt quite new in the world of conservationists and activists, as I wasn’t an environmentalist or a marine biologist. I almost felt like I didn’t have the right to be an activist because I realised I was part of the problem for so long. So I was a bit lost […] And I had actually two really good conversations with two people that were activists. Both of these people were telling me not to worry too much about what I think about how I behaved in the past and to make it my mission now to change things,” explained Rossiter.

Over the past three years, Rossiter has volunteered her artistic skills for several non-profit organisations and is currently helping The Marine Diaries – an ocean science, communication, and education non-profit – with their educational graphics of different ecosystems.

This project was featured alongside an illustration of Rossiter’s in the Environmental, Coastal and Offshore Magazine (ECO) UN / IOC UNESCO special edition, focusing on the UN Ocean Decade.

In December 2020, Rossiter released her latest children’s book, "Diamonds, Hearts and Sea Stars" – which educates children about endangered marine animals through rhyming riddles and Rossiter's magnificent illustrations.

Rossiter's children's book about endangered sea creatures

Despite her immense talent and vast knowledge of marine issues, Rossiter remains humble. She says she is not good at marketing herself. Rossiter used to work in communication design for 15 years, during which she worked with many leading brands. But now, she is trying to do ocean conservation art full-time.

Rossiter prefers clients who are socially and environmentally involved. However, she is often approached to do voluntary work and finds it challenging to have a steady income stream.

On artists pursuing artivism, Rossiter commented: “I would suggest to artists, who want to protect the environment, to find the cause they care about and then, wrap their arms around it and bring it to the attention of other people and not to use it as a fashion trend.”

An inspiring ocean conservationist, Rossiter believes anyone passionate enough can become a conservationist without needing to be a specialist when they start.

“The problems we are having with our oceans are so immense and so important. If you're passionate, you can do a lot more than the person who can read the science report because you can actually get people to care. But I also think it’s important that we all work together - scientists and artists.”

Rossiter emphasised the importance of highlighting conservation issues at every scale. She added that art, imagery and photos have the power to move people and are communicated universally.

An illustration by Rossiter to raise awareness about sharks

All image credits: Janina Rossiter

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