Volume 17 Number2
The Art of Survival
01 April 2004

Kenneth Noble looks at the importance of the Earth’s Biodiversity and, first, meets two daring artists who aim to let nature speak for herself.
A large, rather austere studio off Ladbroke Grove, London. White walls, exposed metal girders and a large extractor fan below the roof-lights which are the only source of outside light. A few chairs and a sofa. Yet wildlife painters Olly Williams and Suzi Winstanley seem faintly embarrassed about it. ‘For 10 years we didn’t have a studio,’ says Suzi. ‘The bush was our studio.’

‘Bush’ is meant in the general sense of the great outdoors. For, as the title of their recent book* suggests, arctic, desert, ocean and jungle have been the scenes of their collaborative paintings. Some of their works are so dramatic you wonder they survived to bring them home—few artists can have landed on an ice floe near a polar bear in order to paint it in its natural environment; or swum among sharks clutching paper and pens.

Olly and Suzi are passionate about their work. But it is not just art for art’s sake— they aim to share their love for the animals they portray. At the beginning of their book they say: ‘Through live and direct interaction we aim to document the passing of animals, habitats and tribes that are here now but may not be for much longer.’

Their best known painting is probably one of a great white shark which, when finished, they let drift upon the sea. Today it bears the ‘most beautiful marks’ of a shark’s fearsome teeth. Not that fear is a word you associate with Olly and Suzi. It certainly doesn’t prevent them from sitting patiently waiting in the Arctic tundra for a wolf to approach, or from working collaboratively alongside wild dogs in the heat of Tanzania. Olly’s brother, photographer Greg Williams, accompanies them on some of their expeditions so their book provides plenty of startling images of them getting ‘up close and personal’ with grizzly bears or hoiking an anaconda shoulder-high through an Amazonian swamp.

When asked what is most important to them, their art or the wildlife they portray, Olly says, ‘We are artists first.’ But there is no doubting their passion for the wildlife, habitats and, lately, tribal people that they paint. Olly points out an enormous photograph on the studio wall of lions lying near the remains of a kill beside a waterhole in the Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania. ‘There are 13 lions there. That’s not just a happy coincidence. It’s called The Last Supper. In the Serengetti, about 300 miles from there, there’s an Aids-like disease killing lions. Twenty years ago there used to be 300,000. Now there are 20,000. In ten years they could be endangered.’

Their next expedition, to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, will be their 11th to the polar regions. They are outraged at plans to drill for oil in such an ‘incredibly delicate and massively diverse ecosystem’. ‘Six years of desecration in order to provide 1.9 billion barrels of oil— enough to keep the US going for six months,’ fumes Olly. He outlines in some detail the threat to the caribou which breed there and on which the Gwichen Indian people’s traditional way of life depends.

‘Our message is a positive one,’ stresses Suzi. ‘We’re not just standing on a soapbox saying, “Isn’t this awful; the whole world’s falling apart.” We’re saying, “Look at this; this is beautiful; this creature’s wonderful.” ’

‘We’re not Greenpeace activists,’ adds Olly. ‘We’re not brave enough.’ (This I doubt.)

I ask about a large painting hanging on the wall—an intricately woven pattern of animals, including an elephant, a psychadelic dragonfly and, unexpectedly, a curved dagger. ‘This is our latest theme, tribal peoples,’ explains Olly. ‘This is Nepal. It shows the similarities between people as well as the differences.’ And indeed it is echoed by another work of similar size in which a Sami knife and creatures of Lapland appear.

Olly and Suzi talk in turn, each picking up the thread where the other leaves off. They paint in the same way, leading Australian broadcaster Clive James to write in his introduction to Arctic Desert Ocean Jungle: ‘Olly and Suzi are a unique artist.’

Their collaboration began at Central St Martin’s School of Art, London, in 1987. They cannot say exactly how, but within a matter of weeks they had decided that ‘we should always work in this way; hand over hand on the same painting at the same time’.

They found that they shared many common interests—art, photography, cinema, music and travelling—but they had different friends and recreational pursuits. ‘When we came to paint together our varying sentiments, visual perspectives and moods acted in our favour, providing a dynamic catalyst for our painting.’ Their collaboration evolved and ‘slowly we gained a huge respect for each other’s ability to finish the other’s line, and began to refine the growing arsenal of marks and creative techniques that would soon form our collaborative style and artistic signature’.

In 1988 they took up an exchange scholarship at Syracuse University, New York. Finding the course inadequate, they abandoned all classes, rented a large unfurnished house and started painting. Mohawk myths and learning about the universal Native American respect for animals, which are seen as relatives, quickened their interest in the environment. On a visit to New York city, they were struck by a mural of a giant hippo on a warehouse and on their return to Syracuse ‘started to make paintings in earnest’. Later, a university tutor called unannounced, saw their prolific output (some 25 large-scale works and hundreds of drawings), interceded with the head of the course and saved them from expulsion. In fact they were given top grades, and were asked to speak to the other students about ‘self-motivation’.

During their final year at St Martin’s they concentrated more and more on predators, especially sharks. Upon graduation they began work in the fashionable London district of Chelsea— when they weren’t on their frequent travels. Their first solo exhibition was in Stuttgart in 1991. Five years later, in search of fresh inspiration, they decided to make ‘the wild’ their ‘studio’ by making their work on site. This phase, which is the main focus of their book, gave them great freedom. They could live more cheaply in remote places than in London.

Now both of them have families, so constant travel is no longer an option— though they are quick to assure me that they still do three or four expeditions to remote areas each year.

From July 2001 to May 2002 they worked with the London Natural History Museum’s scientists as artists-in-residence. Their works, both inside and outside the museum, showed interactions with predators under the general title, Olly and Suzi untamed.

Olly and Suzi write in their book: ‘The hunter sees before anyone else what is happening in the forest.... He is the eyes and ears of wild places and ultimately holds in his hands the future of the wilderness.... A traditional respect and understanding for what he loves most is at the centre of his being. To try to understand the wild without understanding those who depend on the wild for their survival is to miss a valuable point.’

To stretch Clive James’s phrase, Olly and Suzi are a voice that needs to be heard.

* Arctic Desert Ocean Jungle by Olly and Suzi, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003.

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