Christian would love this...
A massive bird painted on an urban wall. What the hell’s that? What’s it here for?
It’s not graffiti. It’s street art. It's making a point.
Mark Anthony’s paintings caught my eye on Twitter (you can see why!). His artist's statement: "My paintings are a celebration of birds, a reminder of what species once lived here and could again with more consideration and improved habitat." I was intrigued so I investigated. And I’m so glad I did because there are many stories hidden behind these arresting images...
I speak to Mark, aka ATM Street Art, on the phone. He lives in London.
He tells me about the street art he made, after moving away from the illegal stuff. His first bird was a snipe, painted in 2013 (see below), to brighten a blank wall within the ‘grim’ South Acton Estate in south London. The council asked a group of artists to come up with ideas and Mark’s bird won their approval. Not only would the bird bring colour to the concrete jungle, but the snipe harked back to a time when the Bollo Brook flowed in the area, meandering through a patchwork of water meadows and small farms, in which habitat the snipe thrived. The brook, now covered with concrete and tarmac, and snipe unheard of.
“People had no idea what the bird was,” explains Mark. “Occasionally they would ask why I was painting it, but most just said how nice it was. How it cheered them up. One Somalian father remarked there was no way his son would ever get into trouble if he was standing next to the snipe - it gave the brutalist cityscape a touch of humanity: after all, a person’s environment affects their behaviour.”
How did Mark come to be painting birds? “Well,” he tells me, “I was obsessed with birds as a kid and I would draw them all the time.” He grew up in north west Rochdale, north of Manchester, an area covered in contrasting open moorland and steep wooded valleys with derelict water mills to explore (relics of the Industrial Revolution). Birds were everywhere. But when he went to art college his love for birds was ’knocked out’ of him as bird painting wasn’t taken seriously. Birds were no more… until 2013 when his passion returned.
Birds then adorned his canvases, but they never appeared as street art because, ‘[I] assumed it would take weeks to paint birds on such a large-scale, but outside you don’t have that luxury of time because of the weather and the logistics. There is an urgency. But I learnt, with the snipe, that it was possible.”
Mark went on to paint a grey partridge and a barn owl on the South Acton Estate. Why these particular birds? “I wanted to educate people. They are a symbol of the whole depressing decline of British farmland birds (70%-90% in the last 30/40 years), and the associated decimation of insects and wild flowers in the food chain. It’s so important to me that things change - I just can’t believe that most people don’t even know these creatures exist, and certainly don’t realise they are in serious decline.
“I’m often in a state of despair that we are destroying habitats blindly and people don’t seen to care about it - they only concentrate on social and political issues. But ultimately we depend on the environment and we’re going towards crisis point. Our disconnection from Nature, thinking we’re somehow separate from it, and our lack of respect for other living things is the key issue - we kill everything that impacts negatively on our food production or lifestyle.”
Take hen harriers. They are persecuted by gamekeepers because they hunt grouse. Mark’s artist colleague, Ben Oakley, found him a hen harrier-related painting site on an isolated spot in Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey. This area is directly under the migratory flightpath of hen harriers on their way to nesting grounds on the moorlands of northern England. The vibrant painting (see below), of a male hen harrier, contrasts starkly with its concrete wall home and can be seen from passing boats.
Mark also takes his street art on tour and created a turtle dove installation at Glastonbury Festival. “Again, most people don’t know the bird even exists, let alone its place in British history, literature and folklore."
Since his work at South Acton, Mark has been asked my multiple conservation organisations and councils to create bespoke street art. For example, he varied his subject for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, by painting a hedgehog in Ipswich as part of their Hedgehog Project (see below). “The Trust was looking for new ways to engage the next generation and street art works. With my paintings I want to portray the birds, and animals, accurately and inspire a love for the animal at a grassroots level - on the drab city streets where they come as a surprise to people. Art shouldn’t be in a gallery; it should be part of the everyday environment. Nature paintings should be in the middle of shopping centres.”
When not painting, Mark spreads his message in other ways. He gave an impassioned TEDx talk at Imperial College about re-naturing/re-wilding cities, to show people they had overwhelming power to help Nature by doing small, empowering actions: stopping their use of garden weedkillers, planting wild flower meadows, constructing insect hotels and guerrilla gardening.
He also works with Ealing Council, running a Summer Arts College at Brent Lodge Park, where children with criminal records, at risk of reoffending, get involved with creative ecology activities, such as mosaic making. The idea that Nature can nurture kids is gaining ground.
As for the future, Mark’s next painting projects include a common tern on Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park’s visitor centre and a (as yet undetermined) marine animal for National Marine Week for the Wildlife Trust in Portsmouth. His work is in demand - a sure sign that the future of public engagement with Nature will need to harness the creative powers of the artistic community.
After our phone call, it suddenly occurs to me that I hadn’t asked Mark why his passion for painting birds returned after a long hiatus. His answer, by email, was lengthier than expected - as always the untold story lurking in the background is often the real eye-opener. And in his case, Mark, like myself, really has been nurtured by Nature. I’ve slightly edited his response and reproduce this with Mark’s permission. He told me: “It’s the first time I've spoken about my physical/mental health in relation to what I do. Previously the focus has been on the birds and why I paint them."
“In the late '90s I was working doing public and community art, but eventually found that this was taking up all my time and I had no space for painting. So I decided to go to Berlin where I could get a big, cheap studio in a very stimulating environment, to try to resurrect my painting life. I went through a lot of different styles and subject matter, trying to find my voice. I had some good exhibitions in so-called 'off' galleries - ones which were set up by individuals just because of their love of art and not run on a commercial basis. I didn't get taken up by any of the commercial galleries I came into contact with.
Then after two harsh winters in a very cold, draughty, damp, concrete studio (it was an old factory), I got really ill. So much so that I couldn't function there and had to come back to London. I got some kind of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME and fibromyalgia.
That was ten years ago. For a few years I did almost nothing, I even thought I was dying I felt so weak and ill. I've still got these conditions and sometimes they affect me really badly, at others times I can function to a certain degree, but need lots of rest and recuperation.
Anyway, it was while I was ill lying in my bed thinking about my life, that I started to remember what my passion as a child truly was. It was then that I realised how much that was still in me and I started doing some little bird paintings again. It was also that I didn't give a damn any more about what the art world saw as serious art. My attempts at being taken seriously by the art world and being a successful artist on their terms had failed, so I was more inclined just to follow my own instincts. Then a couple of years later I got the chance to paint on a wall and did the snipe, all pared down and simplified. Since when I really feel I've found my voice. Maybe it's ironic, but had I not got ill, I might never have found this way of painting.
I still often work feeling really ill with lots of pains, and then get really burnt out, and that is why I absolutely need the recuperation time out in nature. When I went to the New Forest recently I literally just sat there staring at trees for hours, listening to the song of birds, absorbing that energy and movement, calming my brain down.
So in a nutshell, that's my story of the last few years.”
I suspect there are many people reading this, myself included, who will take strength from Mark’s words. In my own life, when the search for my missing brother brought me to my knees (mentally & physically), it was only then that I returned to my childhood love of Nature and found some stability… and awe, wonder and purpose.
Thank you to Mark for being so open.
MARY COLWELL, 56
Writer and Producer
Born in Germany (as my dad was doing National Service), but grew up in Stoke-on-Trent. Now living in Bristol.
How did you CONNECT with Nature?
My dad used to take me walking in the Peak District near Stoke-on-Trent. I loved the rough moorland areas around the Roaches as well as the softer White Peak with its limestone cliffs. One day we broke open a chunk of limestone and inside was a perfectly preserved shellfish. I still remember feeling overcome by the wonder that I was the first person to see this creature. I also remember being astonished that something that lived in the sea was now in a rock in a place about as far from the sea as you can get. That was the spark that sent me on to do a degree in geology and find out more about life on earth.
How did you EXPLORE Nature?
I came to backpacking and camping late – in my 20s – but have spent so much time out since then, including exploring the Himalayas, S America and the British Isles. I was also lucky enough to work for the BBC Natural History Unit and travelled to many places filming wildlife. Whether for work or for pleasure, exploring nature is always rewarding, and it doesn’t have to be on the savannah or in a rainforest – there is as much wonder at home. Seeing the winter starling roost over the Somerset Levels is hard to beat anywhere. And it was hearing and seeing curlews camping in Scotland that set me on a journey to find out more about them, and eventually to work towards their conservation.
How did you FLOURISH in Nature?
On a work trip to California I came across the Muir Woods National Monument and spent a few hours wandering around. I had never heard of John Muir, but along the walkway were quotes from his books. It was like meeting a great teacher. Muir’s merging of spirituality and nature was inspirational. I bought every book I could find and have loved reading his work ever since. He inspired me to spend some years working with the Catholic Church encouraging a re-connection with nature. After all some of the world’s most diverse habitats sit within Catholic countries – the Amazon, the Philippines, large areas of sub- Saharan Africa, the Congo, etc. Our spiritual lives are fed by nature, we are challenged and nourished by it.
How do (and will) you DISPERSE your positive experiences of NATURE?
I worked with the Catholic Church. I also went on a 500-mile walk for curlew conservation to raise awareness about their decline. As a result of the walk I organised, with others, two conferences on curlews and am in the process of setting up a third in Wales. I also made many programmes on nature and conservation with the BBC. I wrote a book on John Muir and am writing the book of the curlew walk now. I also write articles.
"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty." John Muir
Have you been responsible for CONNECTING someone in particular (or a group of people) to Nature and what have they gone on to do, or plan to do?
The curlew conferences resulted in curlew conservation groups being established which have put in place measures to protect the birds this year. I launched a petition to get a GCSE in Natural History established, to help re-connect young people with nature and learn about the life that is around them. This year I am co-organising the New Networks for Nature conference which is held in Stamford in Lincs – it brings together scientists, conservationists, writers, artists, musicians, poets – anyone who wants to explore nature in different ways. I also hear from people that some of the lectures I gave on faith and nature inspired people to get involved with conservation. Sometimes it is hard to know what happens when you put yourself out there – but I feel sure good things come out of reaching out to people.
Any other comments:
I hope your brother [Christian Velten] gets in touch and I wish you every success with what you do.
[Thank you, Mary. x]
[Are you one of 'Nature's Messengers'... please get in touch.]
Christian would love this...
Following on from walking in Lewes, with naturalist Steve Homewood (who learnt how to interact with Nature from his grandad, who'd lived in the Congo jungle with pygmies for nearly three years - it's a great story), I started to see animals in a different light. Steve had told me (succinctly):
‘Noise shouldn’t come from you, it should come to you.’
‘Don’t just hear things… really listen.'
‘Don’t just look at things… see them and understand what’s going on.’
This was really immersing yourself in Nature's activities - using your senses to work out what was going on. Animals were something to study. To lose yourself in their world.
A few days later I go on a walk with School of the Wild (an 'experimental nature school' based in Brighton) to connect with Nature, again, but with a different focus. The workshop, 'Becoming Animal', is led by Alistair Duncan who (the blurb says) has a 'keen interest in our psychological and sensory connection to the land'. His aim is to get our group to "drop out of neo-cortex thinking and reconnect with what the body does instinctively" - in short, tapping into what our mammalian body is capable of sensing. We would be experiencing this in woodland within Stanmer Park, just outside of Brighton (pictures below show our progress from the village of Stanmer to the woodland).
So, rather than observing an animal as a naturalist would, I was to become an animal. "Why do you want to do that?" asked my husband, who was to be on child-wrangling duty while I went and played in the woods. Well, I'd been given a book by my dad - Being A Beast by Charles Foster - and it was intriguing. In the 'Earth' section (woods), Charles takes his 8-yr old son, Tom, off into the Welsh woods on a hill-side to 'become' a badger for the summer. They live in an underground sett, adapt their body clocks to nocturnal snufflings, eat earthworms ('tastes of slime and the land'), crawl along tracks in the woods and doze in the sunshine.
We obviously weren't going to those extremes in the three/four hours allotted to 'Becoming Animal', but I wanted to see what I'd experience.
As we enter the woodland, Alistair reminds us that we are now walking into an existing community, a home: we should ‘dial down’ to connect into that environment and be aware of the sacredness of the magical woodland - be at one with it.
This sets the mood nicely, as the group stops chattering and we take time to look about us and open up our senses to the existence of life outside of us. Walking through a grove of sycamores (see below), you can hear them whisper gently.
Now ‘dialled down’, we can start on the process of becoming more ‘sense-aware’ which involves moving, seeing and hearing in a more instinctive way. Once settled into the beech woods (see below), Alistair takes us through some visualisation and breathing exercises to bring us to a ‘basal state’ to ground us, reducing our stress/emotions (I won’t reveal everything - go on the workshop!). At this point, my head feels very light, spaced-out, while my body is heavy and rooted to the damp, beech-tree mulch beneath our feet.
Then come the ‘tuning in’ exercises:
So, off we go, newly 'sense-aware' and following our instincts. We explore for ten minutes. Personally, it is a strange experience as I begin to feel like a fox - I know, a label - but moving so slowly I feel stealthy. I can feel the undulations in the ground, become aware of the shadows in the dappled wood, become startled by sudden bird sounds and bike riders crashing through on the cycle track, can feel the wind direction and see the wind moving through the connected trees. I am one with the environment in a way I’ve never experienced. When Alistair blows the cow-horn ‘bugle’ for us to regroup, it breaks the revere and I laugh at its incongruity.
I suddenly feel tired - in fact, many of us start to yawn. I suppose we are using ‘muscles’ in our brains so under-used that they are exhausted.
As we have tea, brewed from ground ivy (see left) which Nigel Berman (the ‘curator’ of natural workshops/founder of 'School of the Wild') picked en-route, talk turns to the writings of cultural ecologist/ecopsychologist David Abram. David’s books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, had blown Alistair’s mind when he was trapped in the corporate world and their insights propelled him to seek voluntary redundancy and explore the human bond with Nature. The books are now on my reading to-do list.
The next stage of the workshop moves us to a clearing in the woods where Alistair constructed a circle of logs a few years ago. Here he tells us of the final part of our animal experience - being blindfolded. With Nigel as my ‘guardian angel’, to ensure I don't fall down a hole or get knocked over by cyclists, I am given ten minutes to experience moving in the wood without sight. My goodness. You slow down. You become aware of warmth from the sun. You notice the sloping ground. You can ‘feel’ the presence of a tree in front of your body. The smells. I even begin to ‘see’ the wood on the inside of my black felt blindfold. When I come to a barrier on the ground, my instinct is to drop down and feel what is there. I take up a handful of leaves, or a snatch of moss, to smell (see below). Inhaling the damp earthiness of my surroundings. It is an incredible experience.
(Alistair pictured below, in background, with a blindfolded me. Nigel's image.)
Being ‘guardian angel’ to blind-folded Nigel is interesting purely because he’s never been able to take part in this exercise because he's usually ‘in charge’. The way he manoeuvres his way through the obstacles of tree trunks, branches and rotting logs is a joy to watch.
The final exercise sees us all ‘dumped’, still blind-folded, at a distance from Alistair and as he plays tunes intermittently on a tin whistle we have to navigate our way to him. With this focus, the senses become attuned to noise, much like an animal hunting moving prey - the peaceful exploratory movement of earlier is replaced by sharpened reflexes. It sets me on edge, back to the stealth mode I experienced during the initial exercise.
On the walk back down to Stanmer village, the sun warms us after the chill of the wood and chatter breaks out among the group. We are back to our reality. But 'Becoming Animal’ certainly opens a door in my brain and driving home I keep the radio switched off and use my peripheral vision to check the wing mirrors - I’m going to keep experimenting with my newly-unearthed animal senses.
Christian would love this...
Once upon a time, parish councils found money to spend on creating green spaces for their children; somewhere for them to frolic safely and freely, as children used to do - without parents hovering in the background. One such council was Danehill Parish Council, East Sussex, who, in 2012, bought some private land in Chelwood Gate and turned it into 'Jubilee Green' - a magical place which I have only just discovered on my doorstep.
Part field, part woodland, Jubilee Green (possibly some connection to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee?), is a village asset which backs onto Ashdown Forest. Five years ago, the council brought in a team of specialists, mainly locals, to create what is still maintained beautifully today by Cllr Rodri Lewis (nordiclife.co.uk). The original team cleared the invasive rhododendron, laid paths and built wooden play structures. Some of the work was done by prisoners on day release.
Today, the Green is mainly used by the local community, especially the nursery (as part of their learning experience - lucky them!) and the Parish Council have just granted use of the site to a newly-created forest school. I only found the place when it was suggested to me on Facebook... I took the children and Duffy along to explore and we stepped straight into a fairy tale.
I was lucky enough to grow up with my brother, Christian Velten, on a farm where fields and woods were our playground. I remember digging holes, making mud pies (and getting stuck in the mud), watching kingfishers, paddling in the streams and making dens, without adult supervision. I'm trying to give my children similar experiences - it would be wonderful if every child had the same access to the wonders of Nature. Re-connection may be difficult against a background of helicopter/shadow parenting and screen infatuation, but being able to explore in Nature (emotionally, physically, creatively and spiritually) will create the next generation of Nature Messengers, whatever walk of life they end up in: scientists, naturalists, artists, film-makers, teachers, researchers...
Let's do it for the kids and connect them - like the creators of Jubilee Green have - to the magical fairyland which is Mother Nature.
Nurtured by Nature: Connect / Explore / Flourish / Disperse.