It was about a decade into my career as a wildlife artist when I first asked myself the question, “is wildlife art really working for wildlife?”
I had reached a stage where I was no longer feeling satisfied with the work I was producing. From a technical stand point, I was. However, I felt that my drawings had very little meaning, and if anything they were only helping to pedal a false narrative about the health of our planet's wildlife. When over ninety percent of all rhinos disappear in just one lifetime, for no other reason than to give some wealthy people a false sense of virility and status, shouldn’t we perhaps be focusing more on that detail?
I realised that my work was missing a storytelling element. The landscape for how we communicate is now largely online. It is fast-paced and fickle. The ability to create quality visual content is an advantage when competing for eyeballs. With this in mind I felt that the story had to be told within the image itself. Sadly, when it comes to wildlife, most of those stories are not happy ones.
I have written about this for the BBC and I am now trying to put words into action. Whether or not these works have any impact remains to be seen, but I do feel happier in my skin knowing that I am painting a more accurate picture for those who can’t speak for themselves.
Perhaps a differentiation should be made between a wildlife artist and a wildlife artivist? When approaching a new artwork, the former focusses on the animal in isolation, capturing a moment in time, such as an expression or behaviour. The resulting artwork is usually a representation of what that animal looks like. The latter adopts a bigger picture approach from the outset, not necessarily concerned with what the animal looks like, but rather what are the challenges it faces. Using a legal metaphor, the wildlife artist might be the courtroom artist, documenting who is in the room, whereas the artivist is the barrister pleading the case for the accused.
Both artist and artivist alike love wildlife, and are usually well informed about the challenges facing their subjects. During the creative process a wildlife artist may well experience a deep sadness, influenced by an understanding of those threats. However, what emerges does not tell you anything about them. It is not to say that this type of work holds no value to the animal. Historically wildlife art has played an important role in helping to raise vital funds for conservation, which is essential to the survival of many species. The artivist simply provides additional PR to help conservation advocates plead their case. Ultimately, we need not be one or the other. We can be both.
Through discussions I’ve had with the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a new competition was established for creatives with a more activist agenda. The ‘Human Impact’ award runs alongside the annual ‘Wildlife Artist of the Year’ exhibition, and is open to artists between the ages of 17-22 years:
If you are of age and thinking about entering, you may find some useful tips in this video of the judges discussing the competition, which is now entering its third year: