The homogenizing of nature

Wildlife and Words

Homogenization means to make something ‘uniform or similar’, it is a concept with connotations of blandness and repetitiveness. It could easily be applied to Britain’s high-streets, which are increasingly becoming rows of identical big-name franchises – every town in the country is now guaranteed to contain a Costa. It is one of my greatest fears for the future that this very thing will happen to the natural world as well.

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Birds, Birds, Birds!

Dinosaurs in drag.

That’s effectively what birds are. The scaly-legged, scaled-down and more decorative great-great-great-great grandchildren of the dinosaurs. Whether you believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs or not (but you really, really should), it’s hard not to be fascinated by these animals. Whilst some people are terrified of birds to the point of hysterics (see, it;s the dinosaur connection again!), most find them truly mesmerizing.

From the lonesome, lustful traveller to the birdwatcher to the ornithologist, birds hold a special place in our imagination. Whether it is their beautiful song, elaborate plumes, architectural prowess that rivals the best interior designer, or simply the quirky hopping, head-bobbing that they do so wonderfully. It’s really no small wonder that birds have been depicted in art for centuries. They have symbolised everything from purity to wrath, witchcraft and everything in between. As an artist I find that the bird makes for a truly unique and evocative subject, with a versatility that is difficult to recreate with mammals or other subjects. Birds have their own wonderful colour palettes and their own ready-made canvases, ready for us artists to pounce on.

Below, I’d like to share some of my favourite modern and traditional examples of the beauty of the bird in art and why they appeal to me in the way that they do.

Birds, 1914, Franz Marc

Birds in Art Blog

Hardly surprising that Franz Marc is on this list, but this  particular painting is here for a few reasons. This painting to me is not about a particular bird, or a particular species, but it captures the essence of what it is to be a bird: the pointed beak, the flap of the wings, their vocalisations. This painting evokes that startled feeling that you get when a flock of pigeons suddenly springs up into the air from just under your nose.

Illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599


Whilst wildly inaccurate, these very early illustrations of Birds of Paradise from Papua New Guinea were not the work of over-imaginative artists, but the restrictions of working from dead specimens collected and traded half way around the world. The trade in paradise birds was booming, but the specimens were dried and traded without any legs or wings, so their beautiful plumes could be shown off in even more exquisite detail. But for early illustrators and ornithologists, this proved something of a puzzle. The theory was that these birds lived in heaven – Paradise, so didn’t need wings or feet at all. A truly beautiful story about a remarkable group of birds, and one I think any bird lover should take the time to read about. More beautiful than any designer dress!
Dodo, F. Hart

This 19th Century painting is sad reminder of the unfortunate story of the Dodo, a bird much loved by artists, writers, and much mocked and exaggerated too. This over-sized, flightless Mauritian pigeon has fascinated me from a very young age, ever since reading Dodos are Forever by Dick King Smith. Again, we don’t know how accurate this painting is as there are very few specimens around today, but this stunning piece of art and others like it are sobering reminders of humanity’s impact on the environment, and the vulnerability of specialised and isolated island species.

Modern artists too can’t help but fall in love with birds. Below are a few contemporary examples that I simply love, and yes, there’s one of mine in the list too!

For Me? You Shouldn’t Have!, Kimberly Kelly Santini

This absolutely charming little painting projects the little diva that seems to shine through in even the tiniest of birds. From singing with gusto to flashing their dazzling plumes, the smallest birds are often the boldest, the most brazen, and some of the most beautiful. If you can’t get out to see them in the wild; go to a sanctuary, an aviary, a pet shop, anywhere you can, and just take a look. Whilst searching the length and breadth of this island for guinea pigs a few weeks ago I got lost in the dazzling array of canaries, finches, quails, sparrows….I was astounded at their little variations, the unique qualities of each tiny little bird; perhaps that is how Darwin felt!

Carmines, Emily Lamb

The beauty and simplicity of this painting does all the work it needs to. The rest is up to the imagination of the viewer.

Wall of Birds Project, Ink Dwell Studio



This massive-scale, stunning work comprises  270 species of birds from all over the globe. This unique piece of art includes many extinct and living bird species from the Dromornis to the Kakapo to the Wandering Albatross, and many other species that have a special place in my heart. Another unique aspect of this piece is that every bird is painted life size and in stunning accuracy and detail, for a magical, bird-map view of the world.
Laysan Waltz, by Me!

Albatross Painting for Conservation
The albatross is my love-affair, my chocolate, my drug of choice. The albatross is a bird that is like no other; mating for life, performing perfectly-synchronised and often comical dances, boasting nature’s most magnificent wings. This seabird is a one of a kind, but unfortunately, it is also under threat in many of its key nesting sites, from Midway Island to Macquarie Island,  so it is a bird that we need to pay close attention to. The more I learn, the more I fall in love with them. You can read more about the making of this painting here.  (This painting is available for €500 to the first person asking kindly. A percentage of the sale will go towards The Foundation for Antarctic Research. I urge you to go and support such a worthy cause!)

Is there a particular species that moves you as an artist? Be it a painter, a writer, musician etc, is their a subject that captures your imagination like no other?

I Eat Meat

This is not a blog about activism, or elitism. This is a blog all about what makes us individual, what makes us human. The ability to rationalise, reason, formulate opinions, and to politely agree or disagree.

I eat meat.

I am a passionate wildlife artist, advocate for conservation, and firm believer in animal rights and animal protection.

But yes, I do eat meat.

Meat has been a part of the  human diet for at least the last 2.6 million years, and even our closest living relative the chimpanzee is known to indulge in meat-eating on occasion.

Our teeth are omnivorous, our brains require extremely high-energy foods, and our digestive system resembles more that of a carnivore than a herbivore – we don’t have a four chambered stomach, a rumen, or an appendix that does anything more than go septic and occasionally rupture.

But my argument here is not that meat is or isn’t an important part of our diet. It is about how we can eat it.

I am very lean, so whilst I admire those who adhere to a plant-based diet, I feel that our diet, and mine particularly, should be just that, plant-based, not plant-only. A good dose of healthy protein fuels our brains, our energy levels, and provides us with vital nutrients and minerals that plants simply can’t provide.

I believe that the eating of animals is not ethically wrong, but the way that we consume them certainly is. Nature is cruel; animals are slaughtered on a daily basis; babies ripped from their mothers’ wombs by hungry, slavering predators, wild dogs chewing on the legs of their prey, consuming them alive, or the Komodo dragon, that gives one bite and leaves it victim to die an incredibly slow, painful death from infection.

But nature doesn’t know any better. We humans have the unique perspective of rational thinking, of empathy, and I suspect that this insight developed pretty early on in our meat-eating habit. We developed weapons and hunting tactics to dispose of our prey as quickly and as cleanly as possible, to avoid unnecessary injury to ourselves or our victims.

As the intelligent species, we have a moral obligation, if we do wish to consume meat, to do it in a way that causes the least suffering. Why condemn a hen to a life of confinement, disability, darkness and disembowelment, when that hen can be provided high quality food, adequate movement and a flock? Financial gain, increased productivity and a twisted air of superiority.

There are more cattle than humans on the planet today. The more our human population swells, the more our demand for beef swells with it. Cattle are an enormous contributor to global warming, producing vast amounts of methane, and they require large amounts of land and grain to bring them up to slaughter weight. In fact, cattle need ten times more land then pigs or chickens do.

Switching away from beef, we can perhaps save vast amounts of land and grains that could be directly consumed by humans. We can use this surplus land to raise pigs and chickens in more ethical conditions, giving them sunlight, room to move, socialisation and enough freedom as any pet deserves.

Eating meat is not without its problems. We are rapidly running out of space for ourselves and our need for food. Climate change is exacerbating the problems of drought, famine, over-cultivated and deforested land, making it more and more difficult to grow crops, to feed  our animals.

I have of course, barely touched upon the cruelty of animal slaughterhouses, not because I wish to shy away from the topic, but because this subject is already extremely well-known and contested. But at least there are people within animal husbandry seeking to change this; take Temple Grandin and her work with some of the biggest cattle raisers in the US and around the world, adopting simple yet radical tactics to ease an animal’s suffering once its fate is determined. Even such simple things as changing the way they are led into the slaughterhouses; the colour and the texture of the ground the walk on, can all ease their journey.

As much as I enjoy meat, I feel that it is my responsibility to make the right decision, even though it may be a sacrifice to choose one item over another. I am lucky, I can make that choice. We are victims of our own success; we can raise and enjoy such a huge quantity of beef is a great sign of progress, however, taken to an extreme, the consequences start to outweigh the benefits. There is no need to go to the extremes of raw eating or veganism either, it’s all a matter of common sense, and a little bit of empathy. Obviously eating less meat is good for us health-wise, and environmentally.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/beef-uses-ten-times-more-resources-poultry-dairy-eggs-pork-180952103/

http://www.nature.com/articles/nature16990.epdf?referrer_access_token=Dvw4Oy4jOcYXUeaNGq1HhtRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0M8YcVenEcO7CgRz5HSvoTFoxs-22vo5cVzlc-7sejkjL83ZSX8tCP9TAi4GEE5frJaJMgJRLWWJOIVMjH_elhYqsIPOiJI5TaBhYGLDw1ehi1v_AH5K1C2YWQ4wP9TT8S5w6WQcrc78tOVXtZS8mezAVwWMde_WZRvetX3FPXoo_SnbBgNY1hePpzJ-7oDAA8%3D&tracking_referrer=time.com

http://time.com/4252373/meat-eating-veganism-evolution/

http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/19/temple-grandin-killing-them-softly-at-slaughterhouses-for-30-years/

The Story Behind the Painting: Life at Last Light

Life at Last Light represents the resilience and adaptability of the raven to an urban environment.

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If you’re visiting New York, you might just catch sight of a raven. Just goes to show that if you can make it here, you really can make it anywhere. Oils on Canvas, 2017, available for €350 for the first asking nicely

Ravens are highly intelligent, sociable, and highly adaptable, but even with their skills, life in an urban environment is tough, from winging your way through glass disorienting skyscrapers to traffic, pollution and an unhealthy and unnatural diet. But the raven is one of nature’s hardy immigrants, and has embraced life in the concrete jungle. This article of Crows and Ravens Making a Comeback in New York was part of the inspiration for this painting, as I was searching for a suitable species to represent my feelings of home, as an immigrant myself (born in the UK, now living on the island of Malta).

This painting is the first of two in which I am reflecting on home, perhaps with homesickness, perhaps with admiration, and more than a little humility for the millions of refugees that have been forced out of their homes due to famine, conflict, political uprising, or all three. I talk about this in two previous blog posts here and here.

A House We Call Home

Sometimes, we feel at home, and sometimes, we don’t.

For humans, home means many things. Home means the place where we were born, or the place where our parents lived. Home is the house that we built with hard labour and machines, or the one we simply opened the door to. Home can be a particular corner of a particular room; somewhere where one can feel familiar, safe, and content.

Shelter is one of our basic needs; like food and water, but very few of us in the world live in just a rudimentary shelter the way some animals do; not even isolated tribes and cultures that still maintain a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer existence. We create artefacts, paint our front doors, decorate and re-decorate, or, as in Malta, we give our homes unique and often times questionable combinations of the husband and wife’s name.

Maltese House Name
A not so typical house name, including…a pet? Source: http://anecdotesfrommalta.blogspot.com.mt/2009/08/crazy-maltese-house-names-1.html
Ndebele Painted House
The beautiful geometric designs of the houses of Southern African Ndebele.

 

Like the bower bird’s flair for interior design to impress his mate, we too decorate our houses to show off our individuality, our ancestry, and to display our sexual and financial status. We choose unique artefacts that have symbolism only to us; we keep memories of childhood, of past and future. We show off our best and conceal our worst.

And of course, no home is complete without its lodgers!

Springer Spaniel

I wonder if I’ll move from the house I’ve come to call my own for the last year and a half; the one I helped design and finance. The English in me says I will; we’re like Monarch butterflies, journeying over the generations (most often returning to the same place where we were born!), the restless in me says I’d like to travel and try homes in other countries. The artist in me says I must.

House Sketch
Sketch of my childhood home, from memory.

In the final of this three part blog I’ll be pondering on animal houses, and talking about the paintings that inspired these blogs.

What Does Home Mean to You?

“A home without books is a body without soul.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

Oxygen, food, water, sleep, shelter. These are the five basic needs for human survival, and these are the fundamental characteristics of our species, and of many others. It is the way we have adapted and expanded upon these basic needs that has enabled us to evolve and flourish as a species. But over millennia these needs have seen huge changes, and have become some of the defining features of our species. We have turned food into an art form and an indulgence which is becoming a disease, we dedicate whole rooms in our houses and hours upon hours for sleep, doing something that very few other species do; we make beds, we sleep in them, and we mate in them.

Most animals survive with little or no shelter, but humans have taken this need further than perhaps almost any other species. Most animals will seek shelter during a torrential rainstorm; whether it is simply huddling together in a herd, gathering under a tree or, as our great ape cousins do, making a rudimentary umbrella out of broad leaves. But there is a vast difference between needing shelter and desiring a home.

What does home mean? Is home a basic human instinct, to build a shelter to protect oneself from the elements? Is it a den where one can raise offspring in safety away from predators? Is home a means to show off one’s wealth or status? Is home simply a feeling?

And what of about our animal relatives?

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Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home

Why is it that sometimes we feel at home, and sometimes we don’t? What is homesickness, and is the concept of a home changing?

I’ll be exploring these quandaries in a couple of blog posts to follow. I want to look at the definition of home by looking at what the word means to humans across the globe, and also looking at non-human animals, to gleam the origin, the root of this domineering human need. And of course, at the end of this exploration in words, there will be an exploration in paint!

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Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home

Art for Conservation

As a child, and I confess even as an adult, it is the work of people such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall that warm my south, and inspire me to believe that there is good in this world, and we are making positive steps towards change.

In the face of climate change, globalisation, war and overpopulation, animals are under greater threat than ever before. However, in 2017 we are in a better position than ever to protect and conserve them. Conservation has never been easier than it is in the 21st Century: we have social media, email, worldwide broadcasting and many other forms of media to share stories of struggling species, but also to share success stories and to encourage people and communities to work together.

David Attenborough Art Conservation
David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 was an epic explosion of art inspiration and admiration. You too?

For me, art is just an extension of this means to spread the word of conservation and its importance. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey and Peter Singer (to name just a few) each have their own unique platform, presenting to use conservation not necessarily through heart-wrenching images of suffering or tragic tales of failure, but through provoking in us a sense of awe, wonder and hope.

For just one example, read about Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Programme, a  marvelous initiative helping communities to learn about the environment, and actively participate in it.

For me, art is conservation, Through paintings of rare and unique animal species and presenting them at exhibitions, showcasing them online and turning them into wonderful stationery and household products, wildlife is taking centre stage in a medium previously reserved for landscapes or religion. Beautiful paintings, just like those of Franz Marc, or those that I myself am painting, give us a unique insight into the world, and encourage us to care.

Through the promotion and sales of such paintings, we can also actively participate in conservation projects, through donating a percentage of sales and commissions to worthy conservation projects. It is your choice. This is why I paint, to inspire, to conserve.

Albatross Painting for Conservation

Click here to view the paintings currently up for sale for conservation.

Art Inspired by Nature – this is my passion project