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How 'Shark Girl' came to be

Ashley Hirtzel

When Shark Girl moved into Buffalo in August, she started a conversation via social media as to where she came from and what her creator Casey Riordan Millard was thinking in creating her. WBFO’s Ashley Hirtzel talked with Canalside visitors and sat down with the artist and to find out how Shark Girl came to be.

Casey Riordan Millard began drawing Shark Girl in her journals and sketch books in 2003. She started drawing the girl with a shark head, because of her childhood fear of sharks.

“When I was a kid I had an irrational fear of sharks in swimming pools. So, when I started to try to work through my rational fears it somehow calmed me to think it feels the same as the shark in the swimming pool and I know that’s not real and I was okay. So, yeah, I’ve always been fascinated and terrified of the anatomy of a shark,” said Millard.

Shark Girl often dawns Victorian dresses, bloomers, and dainty pink or red shoes. Millard says her attire was inspired by the work of illustrator Kate Greenaway.

“I have always loved her work and I used to try to copy it. I still sometimes do. That’s where that came from, sort of this idea of things I have always found to be precious, clothes that I’ve always found to be precious, that make me feel better,” said Millard.

Millard says the illustrious Shark Girl also ended up becoming a way for her to cope with other personal fears.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO
Artist and author Casey Riordan Millard and WBFO reporter Ashley Hirtzel

“Right after I got married I started to have panic attacks about my husband dying. I just remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking; oh my gosh, one of us has to watch the other die. It had never occurred to me through all the romance and I couldn’t get over it. I was so sad and of course I was at a place in my life where I wasn’t willing to ask a professional for help, so I was going to solve it on my own. So, Shark Girl became my solution,” said Millard.

Q: “Is Shark Girl you?” said Hirtzel

A: “She used to be, before the little dress with the bow. She was me in my bath robe with a shark head, me hugely pregnant, and me feeling dumpy and frumpy with a shark head. That’s how she started then she started. Then she started to become more of a character,” said Millard.

Millard’s other artwork includes drawings of dark clouds that say, “I’m sorry I Can’t Save You” and another could that says, “I Can’t Even Save Myself.” But as time has passed so has the darkness in her artwork. Millard credits seeking professional help in her personal life for the brighter Shark Girl pieces you see today.

“…Just getting help dealing with depression and anxiety. Then also with alcohol, and having small children and not trying to do everything yourself, plus career and act like everything is okay all the time,” said Millard.

Shark Girl was being displayed in Cincinnati, Ohio when the city decided they couldn’t take care of her anymore. Her care was left up to Millard who hired a restoration expert to rid her of graffiti and that’s when she was approached by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery about bringing Shark Girl to Buffalo. The public art fixture that’s captured the hearts of many now resides at Canalside.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO
Shark Girls' view of the city from Canalside

“I thought it was pretty cool. I’ve never seen anything like it before so I think it’s cool. It’s interesting, said Canalside visitor Jared Threat.

“It’s just fun and I love it. It lets your imagination run wild,” said Kendra Eck.

Millard says she loves the attention Shark Girl is receiving. She says she never expected it in a million years.

“It makes me really happy. I love especially when I hear kids ask if they can borrow her dress for the first day of school. I can’t imagine any better critique then that,” said Millard.

But, as much as many love Shark Girl, she also has her set of critics. Buffalo resident Mil Bikic says she didn’t understand the piece.

“It’s cute, but at first I thought it was really weird to be honest. I didn’t see the point, but I guess people liked it,” said Bikic.

Rob Eck from Buffalo says there’s one thing residents can’t deny, Shark Girl is bringing a lot of attention and visitors to the waterfront.

“I think it gives people a reason to come down and check out the waterfront and areas that they might not have thought about coming down before. They may have said, “Its not safe downtown and I don’t want to deal with the parking.” But we have something as fun as this and it’s a great place to have your picture taken,” said Eck.

Millard says she doesn’t expect everybody to like Shark Girl.

“There’s a lot of artwork I don’t like. My kids don’t care and they don’t like it and that doesn’t bother me,” said Millard.

Millard says her only hope is for people to be distracted from their daily lives, even if it’s just for a moment.

Hear the entire sit-down interview with artist and author Casey Riordan Millard below:

Full interview with Shark Girl creator Casey Riordan Millard