Sam Garcia, Jr. interview

PicturePhoto of Sam Garcia, Jr.

As a collector of fine art, I have always appreciated the skill of individuals who can paint or draw an image that closely emulates the real thing. The interviewee for this post is one of those people. In fact, that may be one of the few talents that equals his expertise as a cichlid keeper. Let me introduce Sam Garcia, Jr. Sam is an artist by vocation, where he owns and operates Scalz Fine Art and Illustration art studio. As the company name suggests, Sam specializes in fish illustrations and art. I own a couple of Sam’s prints, and they are simply gorgeous. Sam also serves as an administrator for Cichlid Keepers, a Facebook group for cichlidophiles. Without further ado, let’s get started.

The Cichlid Stage: How did you get started keeping cichlids?  

Although my first cichlids were a Texas cichlid (Herichthys cyanoguttatus) and a White-spotted Pike (Crenicichla saxitilis) when I was only 9, I did not become serious about them until I started helping take care of a Rift Lake cichlid fish room at age 14. I was enthralled by all of the variety and colors available, and was intrigued by the natural history and speciation of Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. I started my book collection at around that time and never looked back.

TCS: What are some of your favorite species to keep and why?

I enjoy keeping all species of cichlids but, for the unique adaptations and amazing diversity, I am very fond of Tanganyikan species, particularly sand dwellers. ​

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Image courtesy of Sam Garcia, Jr.

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Image courtesy of Sam Garcia, Jr.

TCS: In addition to being an artist and aquarist, you’re also a naturalist and conservationist. Please share some of your thoughts on the importation of wild cichlids for the hobby, even though many species are now successfully bred domestically.

I actually am a strong supporter of wild caught fish. Wild collection allows new genetics to constantly enter the hobby, allowing genetic diversity as well as keeping the trade open when new species are discovered. It also allows local fishermen to have a sustainable income without having to clearcut land for farming, overharvest fish for food, or mine the land for gold and diamonds, which all lead to more damage than tropical fish collection ever could. The key is management of the resources without causing environmental destruction. A balance of domestically bred and wild caught fishes will keep the hobby healthy and growing. Such a balance can also benefit conservation by preserving species that are losing their natural habitat due to pollution, dams, and other issues caused by human interference, as well as losing ground due to competition with introduced exotics. Project Piaba is a sustainable collection program in South America.

TCS: As a cichlid group administrator on Facebook, what are some of your pet peeves with respect to posts made by group members? 

What some people on social media fail to realize is that the aquarium community needs to be united rather than segregated by cliques or elitist groups. Being behind a keyboard means that someone can speak their mind without regard to immediate consequences. Some young and immature group members often use vulgar text or profanity to state their positions, and it leads to arguments rather than educated discussions. That is where being an admin helps to control the type of people on the groups. There also tends to be some misinformation being perpetuated regarding veterinary treatment of fish and species identification. Overall, I believe the groups, particularly on Facebook, are a very positive way for novice aquarists to mingle with more advanced keepers to learn, share, and have a great time.

TCS: If you had a 250 gallon tank and an unlimited budget, what would you stock it with?

In a 250 gallon aquarium, I would likely recreate my favorite tank of all time; a Tanganyikan biotope with Cyathopharynx foai, Enantipous melanogenys and a Callochromis species. Perhaps I would include a school of Cyprichromis leptosoma ‘Kituta’.

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Image courtesy of Sam Garcia, Jr.
TCS: What are you some of your favorite cichlid species to draw and why?

While I tend to draw and paint a lot of South and Central Americans and Malawi species, this is more because of demand than my personal obsessions. Although I love to paint colorful species, I also like to focus on rare species and those that may have more subtle hues and reflective colors. The species I may have painted and drawn the most are the Butterfly Dwarf Cichlid (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi) and the Alenquer Discus (Symphysodon aequifasciata).

TCS: When I invited you to be interviewed for the blog, you mentioned some of your art work would be appearing in a major publication soon. Tell us a bit about that and some of your upcoming plans.

I have several shows and a few articles in 2016 and 2017 that will feature my work, but the articles will be announced just prior to publication. To see my work and keep up to date on upcoming shows and projects, anyone can follow me on Instagram @samscalz or like my Facebook art page Scalz Nature Artist.

TCS: If you could give cichlid keepers (novice or expert) one piece of advice, what would it be?

Aquarists should learn about the natural history of each cichlid they plan to keep. I strongly advise getting familiar with biotope aquariums that replicate the natural habitat of each species. So many new aquarists are content with keeping the few domestic line-bred and hybrid species commonly available at chain stores. There are close to 3000 species of cichlids with over 1200 available to hobbyists. Independent fish stores will often carry many rare and uncommon species and will even special order some for you. If you plan to breed fish, don’t try to experiment with unnatural crosses. Focus on species that are in need of help. Overall, try to enjoy fish keeping and mentor others rather than isolating yourself. We all need to cooperate to keep the aquarium hobby going strong!

TCS: You mentioned above that cichlid keepers should focus on species that are in need of help. Can you elaborate on that and let the readers know how they can become more aware of which species are actually in need of help?

Certain species in the hobby have been compromised by unscrupulous cross-breeding. Fishes from Lake Victoria and Central America are commonly seen as hybrids, and pure strains of some species are becoming increasingly rare. Also, some species are bred by farms in massive quantities. There is no need for hobbyists to focus on these species when many others are rarely bred in captivity. In addition to the fine work of the American Cichlid Association with The Cichlid Room Companion, there is a program called CARES (Conservation, Awareness, Research, Encouragement and Support), which lists species that are threatened and in need of greater distribution to aquarists worldwide. These are the species that breeders should concentrate their efforts on.

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Image courtesy of Sam Garcia, Jr.

TCS: Perhaps also share some general strategies for becoming more “conservation minded” with respect to the cichlidae family of fish.

Being aware of the natural biotopes where cichlids are found gives us a better understanding of how we should keep them in captivity. Learning about the sympatric fishes and other fauna, as well as the plants and natural makeup of their environment allows us to better comprehend their behavior. This is just a part of becoming conservation minded. Supporting properly managed wild-caught sources of fish helps to fund conservation as well.

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