We sat down with artist Abby Wynia, an artist and fish ecologist from Ontario, Canada. Alongside her important scientific work in Canada’s fisheries, Abby creates incredible wood burnings and paintings of the fish species she interacts with. Read below to learn more about Abby’s background in the outdoors, their passion for fish and conservation, and her amazing artwork.
Flylords: How did you first experience the outdoors?
Abby: I spent the majority of my shaping years around the rural areas of southern Ontario, Canada near the Saugeen River and its tributaries and an hour-long drive from Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. My family moved from a small bungalow in the city to a 100-acre farm north of Mount Forest, Ontario when I was about six. The house barely had heating and we had to install indoor plumbing, but the access to hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities in our own backyard made the move one of the best decisions my family ever made.
Growing up I was surrounded by people who had a deep connection and respect for the outdoors. My grandfather on my dad’s side spent his first few years in Canada as a prospector touring around the boreal forests of northern Ontario. He shared what he learned with my dad and his siblings and they passed it onto my cousins, my sister and me. We often spent our summers camping in Ontario’s provincial parks or up at our family hunt camp in the Parry Sound area of central Ontario. I had a great deal of exposure to the hunting and fishing community at a young age, though female mentors were hard to find. Recreational activities like camping have always been a large part of my life, but fishing and hunting came into my life in a significant way in my early 20’s.
Flylords: What inspired you to pursue fish ecology?
Abby: In 2012 I departed for Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario for both my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science/Studies and my Master of Science in Ecology and Conservation Biology.
Late in my undergraduate degree, I scored a summer job as a fisheries technician through a federal student employment initiative. Learning about the complexities of fish habitat and the implications of invasive species for delicate yet resilient ecosystems around the Great Lakes helped me decide that fish ecology was the career path I wanted to journey down. I am now a member of a five-person ecotoxicology lab based in Ontario. We research and monitor the impact of aquatic contaminants on wild fish populations in Canada.
Flylords: What do you think people should know about Ontario’s fisheries?
Abby: Ontario has bountiful opportunities for every angler. The province borders four of the five Great Lakes, each offering a unique angling experience. The smaller, inland lakes are also full of opportunity for everyone from the brook trout angler to the smallmouth bass, walleye or muskie enthusiast. Ice fishing is a huge recreational activity here, and if you haven’t had the chance to chase perch or trout through the ice I totally recommend giving it a shot.
Flylords: When did you first learn to fish?
Abby: I remember my parents taking my sister and me to a kids’ fishing derby at a local conservation area when I was about 12 years old. From that time on I recall occasionally picking up the rod and reel when there was an opportunity for it, but I’d say I became more serious about fishing when I started working as a student fisheries technician. My crew leads would spend their evenings fishing for walleye or perch during our field trips. I eventually got involved in fishing salmon tournaments on the Great Lakes (Huron and Ontario) and running downriggers and spoons bigger than anything I initially had in my tackle box.
Since then, I’ve dabbled in spring steelhead fishing on the Saugeen River and trolling for brook trout and smallmouth bass out of canoes in Algonquin Provincial Park. In the winter months I get my fishing fix on the frozen lakes of Ontario like Lake Simcoe, in the Muskoka’s, or the lakes bordering Algonquin Park. As for fly fishing, I am still learning. I received my first fly rod as a birthday gift this year and had grand plans to take it out to Alberta with me to pass the slow time during spring fieldwork. But mother nature had other plans and we were required to overhaul our entire field program, resulting in minimal opportunities to get some practice in on the fly rod.
Flylords: What does fishing mean to you?
Abby: Fish and fishing have made an incredible impact on my life. Prior to working with fish, I intended to pursue a career in the field of water science. This changed immediately after I spent a summer working as a fisheries technician in the coastal marshes of the Great Lakes, and I haven’t looked back. Beyond my career as a biologist, fishing sparked an ecological awakening for me. I’d say that fishing is like opening a door in your house you’ve never looked behind before. Each waterbody, access point, and cast holds the potential for surprise. It provides us with a glimpse into this parallel, aquatic world that hosts an incredible diversity of plants and critters we may overlook due to lack of recreational opportunities, perceived nuisance, or simple disinterest. Fishing has opened my eyes to the value of conservation and protection and propelled me beyond the idea that under that glistening, rippled surface are just some fish and some weeds.
Flylords: When did you first develop an interest in art?
Abby: For as far back as I can recall I have always been creative. I remember thoroughly enjoying art class in elementary school and continued to take art as an elective in high school. However, my interests were very broad and I would bounce from hobby to hobby. Apart from some high school art classes, I am a self taught artist.
Flylords: How did you narrow your work down to pyrography and painting?
Abby: I’ve always had an interest in watercolor. There’s something about blending colors and control over pigmentation that I find comforting in painting. Pyrography came to me a bit later and was inspired by the need to procrastinate on my thesis in grad school. In October of 2019 I agreed to do a piece for a friend. With my wood burner out of storage, I started experimenting more and began to like the slow, sometimes grueling process of taking a blank piece of wood and creating something with permanence and beauty. The improvement in my skill over the last two years has been a huge motivation to continue with the medium, though I do enjoy making time for painting too as a break from burning.
Flylords: What is your process for creating a wood burning?
Abby: Many of my pieces start with inspiration like the opening of a fishing season, the species found in a local water body, or a species I catch myself. I love to work with trout, and often need to remind myself there are other species out there. I proceed with a trip to my local wood supply shop and find a unique live-edge or bias-cut piece of maple, cherry, pine, or birch. I put each piece through three rounds of sanding, finishing with a fine-grain hand-sanding sponge. I sketch my initial draft out and I use my small knife-tip pen (for the wood burner) to throw down an outline. Next, I begin an initial shade of the body and start filling in fine details. I usually finish by working on the fins and adding a final layer of shading. I use a tung oil finish on all of my pieces, which offers great water resistance and is food safe, so it’s perfect for coasters and serving boards.
Flylords: How does your work as a biologist impact your art?
Abby: Working in the discipline of fish ecology has greatly opened my eyes to minute differences in species and habitats, and that has transferred well into my artwork. With each new piece, I remind myself that I have brought into this world because it brings me joy, and if that creation also happens to bring joy to someone else that is more than any artist could hope for.
Flylords: Where can we find your artwork?
Abby: If you’re interested in some unique, original artwork please visit the custom order application on my website, or contact me through my email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
My current, available pieces can be found on my website www.fishfulthinkingart.com. My Instagram page showcases all of the pieces I have worked on and am working on. I have a few shows in Ontario this year, which I will be posting about through Instagram and the website. If you’re in town swing by and say hello!