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Giant 15-foot lionfish mural comes to life on Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center

A larger-than-life lionfish is coming to life on the side of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center, thanks to the work of local artist Harley Van Hyning.
Artist Harley Van Hyning standing in front of his lionfish mural on the side of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center

A larger-than-life lionfish is coming to life on the side of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center, thanks to the work of local artist Harley Van Hyning.

  • The 15-foot by 15-foot mural, commissioned by the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Tourist Development Department, depicts a lionfish from a side profile perspective. 

For Van Hyning, a Fort Walton Beach native, the opportunity to create public art for his hometown holds deep personal significance.

“I was born at Eglin Air Force Base and have grown up here,” he said. “Especially with where I’m at now with the community and all the great friendships here, it’s a great place to be.”

Van Hyning first explored his passion for art as a child under the tutelage of his mother. He continued art classes through high school and college at the University of West Florida. Over the years, the water, especially our Gulf of Mexico, Choctawhatchee Bay, and Santa Rosa Sound, has been a constant inspiration for his creative pursuits.

  • “I grew up on the beach as a kid. I would surf fish and fish in the Sound every weekend when it was warm,” he said. “Now painting fish and doing this as a living, it’s like my life revolves around the water every day, all day.”
Gnarly Fish Prints

In recent years, Van Hyning’s “Gnarly Fish Prints” studio has become renowned locally for gyotaku: a traditional Japanese art form of fish printing. The meticulous process involves making a direct rubbing of the actual fish to transfer its form and colors onto the canvas. 

Van Hyning often coordinates with local fishermen where he paints the fish as they hit the docks, and then covers the fish with the canvas to transfer the paint. His elaborate gyotaku rubbings capture not only the unique contours of various marine species, but also their vivid colors and textures. 

  • Lionfish, an invasive predator threatening Florida’s native ecosystems, have been a frequent subject for him, as he has done several lionfish pieces of art.
Gnarly Fish Prints

Van Hyning’s ties with the Tourist Development Department have led to various commissions, including T-shirt designs for the Emerald Coast Open lionfish tournament, as a sponsor. A painting of lionfish that he had painted was also turned into a sticker that the TDD uses in their promotional material.

  • When it came time for the Tourist Development Department to see a mural painted on the convention center, he was a natural choice.

Still, tackling a wall mural has pushed Van Hyning outside his normal comfort zone, as he has only ever done one other mural before. Rather than printing a fish, he’s been tasked with freehanding one larger than life across a textured concrete facade.

  • “This is the first mural that I’ve done outside,” he said with a laugh. “So this is definitely getting out of my comfort zone — especially the scale of this.”

Van Hyning carefully considered how to best showcase a lionfish on the large wall space when drafting his initial concept sketch. Seeking an intriguing but approachable perspective, he landed on a side profile view that highlights the species’ distinctive stripes and fan-like fins. 

“I chose this perspective initially due to it being on the front of the building off of Highway 98. Obviously it’s to draw eyes to the building,” Van Hyning explained. “Some of the head-on perspectives with lionfish with the fins out just aren’t so appealing and had a scary look. Whereas this perspective is a little softer.”

With the general pose and placement decided and the sketch complete, Van Hyning utilized Photoshop to mock up the mural design to scale. Careful proportions ensure the details will translate properly on the 30-foot wall canvas. He settled into a grid system using the building’s existing grooves and lines. 

  • From there, it was onto outlining with painter’s tape and laying down the first sweep of background color.

The lionfish itself has come alive through Van Hyning’s sure hand, fin stripes and details materializing across the wall as he moves down the mural section by section. Staying true to his artistic passion, he’s taking care to render the fish as accurately as possible.

  • “It’s a very technical fish,” he said. “There’s so much going on, especially the bottom fins.”

As a point of civic pride, Van Hyning is thrilled to contribute his talent toward the area’s public arts scene.

“I never would have thought of painting a mural like this in my life,” he said. “Being a part of the community and having the relationship and rapport that I have with the TDD to work locally and do something like this … I’m very grateful for the opportunity and the relationships.”

That sentiment is shared by Alex Fogg, Coastal Resource Manager for Okaloosa County. As founder of the Emerald Coast Open lionfish tournament, he’s been at the forefront of liofnish research to understand their impacts and now promoting the species through tourism. This mural represents a new milestone.

  • “Five, six, even seven years ago, when we were really starting to ramp up these coastal projects and starting to showcase lionfish as a tourism product, I would have never thought in a million years that we would put a lionfish on the side of the convention center,” Fogg said. “But here we are today and it’s really cool.”

The concept for a mural began when the county wanted to add some art to the side of the Convention Center. Various marine themes were considered, but lionfish stood out as a signature of local ecologies and events. Combined with Van Hyning’s history of depictions, the concept clicked into place.

Now, situated along the heavily trafficked Highway 98 on Okaloosa Island, Fogg expects the mural to be seen by millions of visitors annually. He believes it puts Destin-Fort Walton Beach in a league above other beach destinations.

  • “Other destinations showcase sea turtles, dolphins, stingrays or sharks on the side of their buildings but I’m pretty sure that no one else has a lionfish,” he said. “This mural is something that we’re going to be able to highlight and talk about when we’re talking about tourism all around the destination and abroad.”

For this year’s Emerald Coast Open competitors, the mural will provide an epic welcome. Fogg hopes its completion will galvanize even more excitement leading up to the tournament.

“We have the Emerald Coast Open kickoff event here in a few weeks and this mural will be complete as people drive by this on the way to that event,” he said. “Hopefully when this is done we’ll be able to share this with a bunch of people here locally and I hope it turns into something bigger with some more murals around the county.”

For Tourism Director Jennifer Adams, this is not only a great way to work with a local artist, but also a segue into education.

  • “We are very excited to not only showcase our talented, local artists, but to highlight one of the many species in our water,” she said. “People have always been intrigued by Lionfish and this mural will help with educating our visitors about this amazing yet invasive creature.”

With sunny skies overhead this weekend, Van Hyning is working to put the finishing touches on the lionfish. Mindful of the painting’s visibility, he wants to ensure his work makes the best impression on all who view it.

  • “With it being visible on Highway 98, there’s a little bit of pressure,” he remarked between brush strokes atop the boom lift. “But I’m super honored and it’s an awesome opportunity to be able to paint something like this.”

Now part of the coastal backdrop along Highway 98, Van Hyning’s giant lionfish adds a new dimension of local artistry and ecologic symbolism to Destin-Fort Walton Beach.

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