Reeftock 2010 is now a pleasant memory. The aquascaping “ Throwdown” between myself and my new BFF, Freshwater “Iron Aquascaper” John Ciotti, was a smashing success, bringing aquascaping to the forefront of the marine hobby world, if only for a day. Some valuable lessons were learned, and some new ground was broken along the way in the world of marine aquascaping. Our mission was to demonstrate the many ways that we can express ourselves with our aquascaping.
Both John and I were given identical 48”x18”x18 rimless glass aquariums, a choice of fantastic quarried rock from Marco Rock, and 4 hours to create aquascapes that could enthrall the panel of aquatic celebrity judges, and the chance to inspire the 300 plus attendees. John deservedly won the contest, but the larger victory was for the hobby, which had its first exposure to a new way of thinking about marine aquascaping. Both of us expressed our passions in our rockwork, showing that the road less travelled can certainly be a pleasant one.
Coming from different backgrounds, but sharing many thoughts on design, John and I embarked on completely different aquascaping journeys, much to the delight of those in attendance. We created totally different compositions, demonstrating on a small scale that there are countless alternatives to the “rock wall” so dominant in the marine aquascaping arena.
John, a master of the freshwater “Iwagumi” style of rock arrangement, embarked on a design that, while somewhat common in the freshwater game, was, in my opinion, positively groundbreaking in the marine arena. His design consisted of two opposing vertical elements of slab rock, with an open area in between. On either side, the sand was terraced and buttressed with a variety of smaller rocks, creating a dramatic, yet somehow comfortable setting. Much care was demonstrated in providing a central area of open sand and an unusually tranquil feeling. The beautiful influence of Japanese rockwork technique was everywhere- and was stunning. The terracing of the sand was something few, if any hobbyists in attendance have ever seen-nor attempted before.
Lesson One: We need to open our minds to the many possibilities that exist to create dramatic aquascapes, as inspiration can come from many different places.
My aquascape took a more “conventional marine approach” (is there really such a thing?), relying on strong fundamental rockwork and utilization of some simple- but highly under utilized design elements. The “Golden Ratio” of 5/3 was utilized, putting the focal point of the composition about 18.5” from the left side of the tank. The left side and center of my aquascape consisted of two strongly vertical elements, with one breaking the surface of the tank, and the other sloping downwards into a small field of broken rubble. The sand was sloped gently from back to front , following the contours of the ‘scape. The right side of the scape had a strong, yet natural configuration of rock with a slightly lower vertical element, instead following the slope of the overall rock work from left to right.
Lesson Two: By embracing just a few common principles of design, we can effectively translate our vision to a tangible work.
All was going well. Both John and I were in our “zones”- you know the feeling: That oddly relaxing, yet somehow quite stimulating place that you take yourself when deeply engrossed in your endeavor. Even though we were smack dab in a bustling room of 300-plus people, it was easy to concentrate on the work at hand. It was gratifying for John and I to take an occasional stroll over to each others’ tank and share a thought or two. Under the illumination of state-of-the–art plasma arc lighting, we happily worked away the hours.
What was more gratifying was that we had lots- and I mean lots- of people watching us work throughout the competition, asking questions, sharing thoughts, and just plain staring…deep in thought. When we did glance up from our work, we could see the “wheels of thought” spinning in peoples’ heads- the look that said, “What if I try THAT idea in my tank?” Could it get any better?
Lesson Three: We all have aquascaping talent within ourselves- we simply need to act on our aquascaping visions and express ourselves with our work.
From a competitive standpoint, failure to embrace Lesson Three was where I took the fateful turn that would ultimately cost me a contest win, according to the judges…
Despite what I felt was a strong, and very unique vertical structure on the left side of my tank, projecting to the water’s surface and beyond, I somehow felt that it needed something more…something perhaps more familiar. What did I do? I decided to link my two left-side elements by creating…an ARCH…. capping it with a smaller rock. One rock changed the entire composition, taking my aquascape from dramatically different to somehow contrived.
Scott Fellman’s submission to the aquascaping competition
John Ciotti submission to the aquascaping competition
One rock, as I was told by each and every judge in the evening post party that followed- made the difference between winning and losing the contest. I never- and I mean-NEVER-have been a fan of arches- they rarely work, and evoke an absolutely artificial feel 9 times out of 10. And as a believer in “natural style” aquascaping, such structures are something I avoid like the plague. Yet, I somehow felt it necessary to stray off my path and try something that I knew would not work. Why? I believe it was something quite simple. Fear. Fear to try something just a bit unconventional. I had a strong belief in what I was doing, yet reversed course. Interestingly, I received many, many compliments about how cool the arch was…and that, as pointed out by a couple of the judges later- should have been my first tip-off that I was playing to the masses- and not being true to my vision. I was not fulfilling my responsibility to the hobby. Ever one to attempt to pull something from the jaws of defeat, I believe that another valuable lesson was learned:
Lesson Number Four: Follow your instinct. If you believe in your design and your vision, take the road less traveled and don’t stray from it.
In the end, what will be taken from this contest is not who won or who lost…John and I both felt that not only did we BOTH win- but the hobby won as well…Because we expressed some ideas that others may not have expressed before. Perhaps just a few people will go home, look at their tank and say, “I want to try that thing that the guy did at the Reefstock aquascaping contest”. And THAT is the real victory.
Till next time,