Who says art and science are entirely separate disciplines?
We care about what we see — and the more closely we observe, the more we understand. And there’s no better way of observing closely than through creating art. And what we create, we care for. So any scientific endeavour involving conservation, species diversity or habitat sustainability, depends on our power of observation.
Tomorrow’s scientists should start sharpening their skills of observation today. That’s why we’re embarking on a cultural project for young people in Brazil and beyond, combining education, art and conservation awareness in Amazonia.
In February 2016 wildlife artist and illustrator Laura House – she’s my daughter – will be running a series of workshops for local children in the lower Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon. I’ll be travelling with her as the fixer, dogsbody, companion and writer. The objective is to combine art, education and conservation in a playful package that helps the children in riverside communities to interact with nature surrounding them in creative ways, and to appreciate its beauty.
If Amazonia’s children are, as many conservationists believe, best-placed to become the long-term guardians of the region’s sustainability, then engaging their enthusiasm and inspiring their participation is a work of great importance not just for life sciences, but for maintaining species diversity — and perhaps even helping to mitigate climate change.
Here’s the proposition for the workshops set out in visual format with Laura’s captions in Portuguese:
That’s why Laura will be bringing her skills both as an artist and as a teacher to the Rio Negro to run a series of workshops with local children in local schools. At this time of writing we don’t quite know how many events there will be. But we do know that between 1st Feb and 16th Feb these will take place in Tumbira, on the river’s western bank, and later at Tres Unidos, an inidgenous community on the opposite bank. The coordination is being arranged by Amazonia’s leading NGO, FAS (Fundação Amazonas Sustentável) which has its field base in Tumbira. The core proposition of FAS — to make Amazonia’s forests more valuable standing than when cut for lumber — is one we wholeheartedly support. Likewise we support the strategy FAS has developed to make this possible: keeping Amazonia’s ribeirinho people in rural communities in order to make a life based on traditional yet sustainable extractive industries that become economically viable thanks to financial support from donors (these include Coca Cola, Samsung and others).
You can read the background to this trip and its inspiration in the work of the 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (who visited the Rio Negro 160 years ago) by clicking here. You can also see Laura’s animal drawings and engravings here. A background document describing the Rio Negro Project can also be accessed by clicking here.
Laura is experienced in giving workshops: you can see more of her drawings by clicking on this website and at this Facebook page. Since October 2015 she has been working in Colombia and has visited schools in remote areas of the Orinoco River basin not dissimilar from the Brazilian Amazon.
She was born in Brazil and speaks Portuguese. She’s also a qualified teacher as well as holding an MA in education and leadership. She currently works for UK educational charity TeachFirst, where she coordinates the work of primary school teachers in London. Recently she has been helping to train new teachers in Colombia.
We don’t of course, know what animals will turn up. For the children in Brazil, Laura will be working with familiar animals living in close proximity with communities. Some may be pets, some predators or pests – and some may habitually turn up on the plate. The common thread is that these creatures are best understood when observed with care through the artistic process. Learning how to look is an essential feature of learning how to draw, no matter whether the creature in question may be great or small.
Laura will encourage the children to bring their imagination, their narratives, their stories – and even their pets to workshops, where art materials will be provided.
It’s hoped that part of the collective output will be murals painted by the group, as well as individual artistic efforts. Drawing live creatures isn’t always easy, as they tend to jump around. Here’s an image of some of the lemurs Laura has been drawing in London zoo.
The images created on the Rio Negro by Brazilian children under Laura’s guidance will be collected, and we hope evetually to produce a book that shows young people all around the world – including young would-be scientists – what it’s like to live in an environment where the pristine forest of a century ago has gone forever, yet where nature can still intervene in village life in unexpected ways.
Above all, we hope the result will help to ignite the enthusiasm of young people for the conservation cause — no matter whether their interests focus on animals wild or domestic, or plants of the edible or inedible kind.
What’s important, of course, is that children are entertained and find that conservation can be playful and engaging in its own right – not as an imposition from the adult world.
Other products may emerge from these workshops too. In Colombia, Laura has been experimenting with the interface between the very traditional draughtsmanship skills of the illustrator, and the high-tech world of IT and software. Specifically, her drawings of well-known Colombian birds (Colombian sparrow and falcon) have been used to create 3D models burned/cut into wood panels by laser printing technique.
These shapes can then be painted by children, pressed out and assembled. The idea is that they make an informative and also creative teaching tool for the children of Colombia to gain better understanding of the creatures around them.
Perhaps as a result of the Rio Negro workshops, Laura’s work can help Brazilian children to gain better understanding of the birds and animals of the Amazon using similar painted wooden cutouts. For that to happen, we’ll need some technical and financial support with the model making process.
Until quite recently, being a scientist meant you also had to be an artist. Before the invention of photography, the discoveries of natural historians visiting remote places would only be credited if they were able to draw what they’d seen. Today the ability to observe, record and describe is still important.
Let’s close with the words of one young scientist, describing his excitement as he set off on his own journey to the Amazon. The date was 1848 and the 24-year-old traveller was Alfred Russel Wallace. These are the opening words of A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro:
“An earnest desire to visit a tropical country, to behold the luxuriance of animal and vegetable life said to exist there, and to see with my own eyes all those wonders I had so much delighted to read of in the narratives of travellers.”