Mike DeCamp belongs to the ocean. Mention the sea to him and his eyes will instinctively brighten, flashing as blue as the cerulean waters off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida, where he was born. As the grandson of the famed artist and doll maker Norma DeCamp, a predetermined pathway into a career in art seemed almost unavoidable for Mike growing up.
“I spent my childhood in an art studio”, DeCamp says, “studying the great masters, perfecting technical disciplines through years of repetition, over and over again until it became second nature to me.”
The skills he honed under the tutelage of his family of artists may have become second nature, but the ocean was always his first true love. Mike DeCamp has never lived far away from the water. He left St. Augustine as a kid to spend a few idyllic years surfing the beaches of Costa Rica before finding a permanent home on Providenciales.
“I grew up here. I graduated from Clement Howell High School”, he laughs, dropping a bit of the local ‘cred’ associated with the country’s largest public school. “I’m a true island boy. I earned that,” he says with pride.
There was a time, before Mike turned 16, when the symbiotic relationship between his art and the ocean hung carelessly in the balance of youth and an unhurried exploration of the sea through kite boarding, fishing, diving, and sailing; the weightless peace of a life aquatic. Then, like a hurricane obliterating the calm of a summer day, Mike was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. It’s an aggressively degenerative form of inflammatory arthritis that destroys the mobility of the joints whilst causing agonizing pain during day-to-day movements until its victim becomes completely debilitated.
Facing a prognosis that he would not be able to walk by the age of 21, Mike decided to give up his art for the soothing embrace of his first true love – the ocean. Fighting against a ticking clock, chronic pain, and advancing immobility, DeCamp gave his all to the sea.
At 18, he became a dive master. He worked on charter boats and sport fishing vessels professionally teaching fly fishing, bottom fishing, marlin fishing – you name it. Those years of living in the ocean as an escape from reality painfully came to a halt five years ago.
“At 29, my body finally gave out,” DeCamp says. “It was done. I couldn’t be on boats any more, my body couldn’t handle it.”
Facing confinement to the nothingness of a hospital room’s four walls under paralyzing pain from the advancement of his disease, Mike started to paint again.
“I had never really done fish before. I was always practicing from books and references to other artists, but that period of immersion in the water gave me my love. A deep love for something that inspires you endlessly… that’s what allows you to create truly original art.”
In the physical, it may have appeared DeCamp was restricted to land, but his mind never actually left the sea. With surreal memories of close encounters with magnificent marine creatures as a life raft, Mike’s art lead him back to open water.
Paintings and murals of hunting marlins and feverish bait balls brilliantly constricting into formations designed to fend off Yellowfin tuna began to burst involuntarily from his brushes. In his work, each meticulously painted squid, turtle, jellyfish, and dolphin bathing in streams of glorious sunshine viscerally translates a preternatural realism that seems plucked from an underwater dreamworld. The indescribable colors and patterns of the marine life subjects DeCamp elucidates from memory are often bejewelled in silvers and tropical fluorescents.
For anyone hoping to see the ocean through his mind, a trip to Mis Amigos Mexican restaurant on Providenciales’ Leeward Highway plunges you into it, especially at night. Once the sun goes down and the lights are dimmed, the oceanic wonderland Mike DeCamp truly belongs to pierces through the darkness, illuminating his art, his soul, his love.
(Photo Credits: Dominique Rolle/Caya Hico Media)