Louise Pallister, 51
Artist by vocation
Fellow animal by instinct
Born and brought up in the North East of England, currently living in Berkshire, planning to move to North Yorkshire in search of a home-studio space.
How did you CONNECT with Nature?
It was my dad who passed a love of nature on to me, his respectful approach shaping how I relate to other animals and nature as a whole. I grew up in a village on the edge of town, what you might call the ‘suburban countryside’ where town gives way to scrubby fields. Roaming in the fields and woods, unsupervised in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we got muddy playing in unsuitable places, knew birds by their calls, whistled through blades of grass, and collected leaves, conkers, even birds eggs for the school nature table. Our dog was my trusted teenage companion and, like others before me, I found in her a better confidante than many humans.
When I wasn’t outdoors, I was drawing animals, reading nature stories, or being introduced by Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough to a world of teeming wildlife or shaking a tin to ‘Save The Seals’. Circuses and zoos made me hesitant, I wanted to see the animals but they made me feel uneasy, and besides, as my dad said, "Animals don’t like to be made fools of."
How did you EXPLORE Nature?
Animal others were an inseparable part of my family life and so they also appeared in essays, drawings and craft projects, from school homework through to sketchbooks in college, finally becoming the main theme of my work when I returned to making art around 7 years ago.
Art and nature, I realised, are indivisible for me; animals are the only subject that really hold my attention for making art, everything else is second place. I tried to capture the essence or defining quality of an animal: fast or heavy, menacing or dignified, but I soon felt that simple representation was inadequate and didn’t describe their circumstances.
My MA Fine Art, of 2013-14, required some hard thinking about why animals are so important to me, and how that should shape my work. My art had to alter in response to my sympathy for nature: erasure, repetition and revision now evoking indistinct and ambiguous states in place of certainty. Nowadays I describe my practice as a means of bearing witness to elusive, endangered and extinct species and its output as extended field notes in which I can reflect on my experiences.
How did you FLOURISH in Nature?
A close connection with nature was at the margins of my adult life until quite recently but animal companions have been more or less constant. I feel enormously flattered to be of significance to individuals of another species. Our one remaining feline; old and unwell, teaches me patience and humility every day.
Nature now has a much more central place in my life, informing my thinking and my work. It’s more of a vocation than an occupation. For years I simply wandered round in a creative and philosophical wilderness, ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’. Finally accepting that ‘my things’ are art and nature, has given me both creative satisfaction and a sense of purpose. My MA course made me reflect upon my own ethics - becoming increasingly vegetarian – and consider the philosophical aspects of our relationships with other animals that animate my work. It’s a journey that has enhanced my appreciation for the world around us.
Focusing on nature in my work has also reminded me to get outdoors more and experience it first-hand. There’s a sense of relief in being away from the glare of screens and the noise of traffic. I feel sure there’s something very beneficial to being in a green wood surrounded by birdsong and walking is such a physical link to the earth. It clears and resets my mind in a way few other things do.
How do (and will) you DISPERSE your positive experiences of NATURE?
Someone asked me recently if I see what I do as activism or art? I make art because I’m an artist, it’s the thing I do to better understand the world. It happens that my subject matter is under threat on many fronts and that is of personal importance to me; if my work can make a connection, highlight an issue or have a positive impact then so much the better. I think most people who make art do so as a form of communication. Much of my work is about negative states in nature but I hope a recognition of that can lead at least to some positive thinking. There’s a Native American saying, “Who speaks for wolf?” I think it’s important we use our voices to speak for matters that concern us, particularly in support of the voiceless or vulnerable. Lately I’m making work about the impact of captivity on zoo animals and thinking about those conditions influences my approach to the work.
I’ve also turned some of the notes and research for my artwork into essays in which I examine related topics such as the ethics of making art about extinction, the meaning of the animal gaze and the possibilities for human-animal communication. Through making art and writing about nature I’m using different channels to explore our relationships with the natural world. I like the flexibility of working with different mediums; whether images or words, they’re just different tools for thinking with.
As an artist my work is often solitary and I’ve found social media, particularly Twitter, a useful meeting place for those with similar interests: artists, writers (including Hannah, of course) and academics that I otherwise might not come across and it’s a great place to read and research and, of course, share my own work.
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?
I love that the broad development of ‘animal studies’ unites the arts, humanities and sciences, making diverse connections possible. My art has been shown in various exhibitions (currently the Collyer Bristow show ‘Exceptional’ in Holborn, London until 14 June) but it’s also exciting that adding writing into my practice has connected me with nature lovers from other fields. Discovering the online journal ‘The Learned Pig’ led to their publishing my art/nature essays ‘The Extinction of the Image’ and ‘Significant Others’. As a result, Dr Wahida Khandker, who lectures in philosophy at MMU, became interested in my work and the thinking behind it. She’s using it as a reference point in her own research on animal advocacy, recently citing my ‘Stereotypy’ series (based on the pacing of a caged tiger - see left) in a seminar for Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre. In future we hope to collaborate across our disciplines and that might lead to new connections and new ways of relating to nature.
Any other comments:
When thinking about ourselves and other animals I often refer back to the wonderful writings of John Berger, and I’m always inspired by his observation:
‘Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises’
It’s a beautiful and powerful phrase, I think worth holding onto.
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.
Nurtured by Nature: Connect / Explore / Flourish / Disperse.