Aquascaper: Steven Tet Wei Toshio Chong A 20 year old College Sophomore with Big Dreams Three years ago, I walked into the pet store in Kahala to buy some fish for my community tank. I usually did not go to that side of the island, so it was an unusual visit for me, but would forever be a memorable one. That is the first time I ever saw a real aquascape—if you’re an aquascaper in Hawaii you probably remember Robert Lau’s 55 gallon riccia tank. Amano might not have thought much of that tank when it appeared in the AGA contest, but for me, a complete neophyte to aquatic plants at the time, it was a mind blowing experience. Robert’s tank felt like stepping into a world of soaring mountains, rolling meadows, and dense forest. The tank seemed to pulse with life—fancy guppies, balloon rams, zebra plecs, rare corycats—a hodgepodge of fish rare and common, but all seemed more alive than any fish I had ever seen before in my life. It was a mind-numbing experience that, with each tank I design, I always wish I could recreate. At that time I thought to myself: “This, this is . . . more than anything I’ve ever experienced before . . . this is art.” And then, “I, I also want to . . . no, I must do this!” Moving into aquascaping was very natural for me. Since I was in kindergarten, I have always loved drawing and painting. I was always, “that really great drawing kid that all the grown-ups gawk over.” Between first and third grade, if I did not spend my recesses drawing, I spent them in the library. Over the course of those two years, I worked my way through every single book about crabs, lobsters and shrimp. I read Holling Clancy Holling’s Pagoo near 30 or so times in my spare time. The teachers struggled to get me to read fiction books all the way to the fourth grade. When I got tired of crustaceans I moved on to lizards, snakes, predatory mammals, dinosaurs, insects, birds of prey—not all the books, but a good many of them. I was “a walking encyclopedia.” Even after I started playing with other kids at recess in the 3rd grade, when I got to 6th grade I switched back to spending my time painting murals of hawks in the art room. As a child and now, I have always thought of landscape painter Hiroshi Tagami as somewhat of an idol. It does not seem strange then, that a lover of art, and a lover of nature, finding himself before an aquascape for the first time in his life, would wonder to himself: What have I been doing up until now? From that moment on, I worked hard to improve as an aquascaper. I was so inspired, that my instructors said that my drawing and other art also suddenly started improving at a rapid pace. In my heated search for information, of course I soon came to Amano Takashi and his Nature Aquarium World books. I remember when I bought my copy of his first book in English, and it blew my mind away. The book had such great beauty, not only of work, but also of thought. If you have read Nature Aquarium World I, then you know that it is full of wonderful stories and philosophies like no other text in Aquascaping. Reading that book was like experiencing that first aquascape a second time. At the same time though, I never once had a thought of doubt. When I finished the book I wondered to myself, “I wonder how long it will take me to reach that level.” Very long, and still a long ways off. From then, until this year, I have always been frustrated by my inability to get the supplies I needed. Aquascaping is expensive. It is only this year that I have the first set up with pressurized CO2, high lighting, and a canister filter. However, even with my limited means, I never once stopped practicing what skills I could gain—hand skills (muscle memory) for planting and construction, an eye for design in creating lay outs, gaining experience with all sorts of plants and fish, and expanding and sharpening my “memory pool.” In those last two years of high school I set up and took down over 30 different tank lay outs. In my senior year, 12 of those 30 lay outs (most of which never got to stay up for more than a month) built up the concentration for my AP art portfolio that let me pass the test. My experience with the science of aquascaping is very limited—but my experience with setting up and designing tanks is much deeper. Last year, my frustration reached a point where I decided to do something drastic: Use my computer-illustration skills to draw out plans for aquariums. Hence came the birth of my “aquasketching.” I have been asked a few times, why I did not go to an art school. Simply put, none of them would have taught me much about aquascaping, or tolerated my single-minded desire to dedicate myself to aquascaping. So, instead I am studying at the Claremont Mckenna College, a small liberal arts school on the west coast. I may still be in school, but I finally managed to get a whole serious set up together. My plan is to compete, from this dorm room, for the next 3 years until I graduate, using the semesters as timeline for starting and finishing lay outs. At the same time, I will be as active as possible on deviantart.com; besides becoming a great aquascaper, I have the goal of making aquascaping better known in the art world as well. Though it might be just me at deviantart, I hope that I can make a difference in that regard. Why not go there and start an account to help me spread the knowledge of aquascaping? After 3 years of frustration and hard work, I still have the desire to become a professional aquascaper. I am that type of focused, idiotic guy I guess. If I had to give myself a number on Tom's "Stages of an Aquascaper" scale . . . it'd have to be . . . a 12. XD Based on the rule, that if you don't believe in yourself, you won't go far. If you think you'll lose, you'll lose. If you think you'll win, you might just win. "Anyone can be humble. It's much harder to claim the title of 'best.' It's a whole different level of responsibility." That said though, I'd also argue that there's a lot LOT more beyond number 12 . . .