All Things Connected by Water
By David Rolland
“Not a week goes by where I don’t get two or three texts from people saying ‘I’m on the water and I’m passing by your artwork,’” artist Dennis Friel says in amazement as he takes a break from his studio to chat with The Atlantic Current about his life and art.
The mural that he’s referring to at the moment is a massive 283-linear-foot rendition of underwater life that spans the Atlantic Boulevard Intracoastal bridge in Pompano Beach. He titled the work “Atlantic Harmony” because, in his words, “There’s so much diversity. If you go fishing in Pompano you can catch so many different species of fish. But the double meaning with the title is there’s also a lot of diversity in our town.”
Friel grew up in South Florida. In high school he had two major obsessions, the ocean and creating art. “I grew up fishing, diving, and surfing. Water was the main fabric of my life,” he remembers, and then goes into detail about how he was also always doodling and drawing. “Being an artist isn’t what I do, it’s what I am. I don’t remember ever not being an artist. I was the class artist that people would come up to whenever they needed someone to draw a logo or a poster. Then you know how you have to take typing or computer classes in high school? My mom went into the office and said ‘Dennis doesn’t need to take those classes. He’s going to art school after graduation.’”
Sure enough, Dennis did go to art school at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. After graduation he took a job in the music business where he was a creative director leading a team of people in providing promotional artwork for CDs and DVDs. He worked in that industry for close to 17 years. But on nights, weekends and whatever spare time he could find, he was earning extra money painting murals and providing artwork for apparel with his signature sea life. “After a while my wife saw I was running myself ragged. She said I needed to pick murals or music. I picked fish.”
Only a few years after he quit his day job, Friel got a call from the city of Pompano Beach. “They said they loved my artwork and, especially as a homegrown Pompano guy, they wanted to see if I could do something for the bridge.”
The city of Pompano gave him a lot of freedom, Friel said. “Once we showed them conceptual sketches, they left me alone to do my work. They had their wish list of what they wanted to include. They wanted the lighthouse on there, and they wanted a diverse array of fish species, which we were happy to include,” he explained. While it might not be obvious from photographs or if you’re driving over the bridge and passing by the art at 30 miles per hour, the mural was not painted directly on the bridge. Friel explained the process as, “The art had to be wrapped on to the bridge. It was more economical to do it this way, but more importantly the salt water would have eaten all the artwork off the bridge in a couple years. No point of them doing it if it was going to deteriorate right away.” And nearly three years after its 2019 opening, the sharks and turtles on the bridge haven’t lost any of their brilliance.
Beyond bridges, Friel and his team also take commissions for custom artwork, bringing his underwater renditions to everything from books to boats. Just like his collaboration with Pompano, Friel finds most of his clients are super easy to work with. “Most of my customers say they want a certain species in the art, but then they let me do my thing. People usually come to me because they want what I bring to the table. Once in a while you get a micromanager, someone who might want me to keep changing the direction the fish’s head is pointed at,” he admits with a laugh, “but most people want me to do my thing.”
Friel’s laidback relationship with his customers helps initiate a different passion for him, his Connected by Water podcast. “I used to spend all those long hours painting listening to something. First it was music and then I started listening to podcasts.” Back when his studio was in Coral Springs, Friel started noticing he was almost doing a podcast in his workspace only without recording it. “A lot of customers would get their money’s worth after a long drive to the studio to talk my ear off. I was having all these great conversations, we figured we might as well record them.”
His wife helped him come up with the name. “Liz asked me how all these guests would be connected. I realized all our relationships were because of the water. She said that’s your name.” Dennis liked the name so much that he changed his whole company to be named Connected by Water. “It’s how all sides of the business are connected. The apparel, the murals, the podcast, the community, and the culture. It’s all connected by water.”
Cast Dennis a line to learn more about his aquatic creative company, why he’s always ready to kick back with some Papa’s Pilar rum, and how you can snag some of his merch and get invited to his gallery.