A field study of adversity
A nature expedition through dystopia
For decades Derek has been studying and depicting the migration of birds and has followed them from Africa to the Arctic through their migration routes across the Mediterranean and their home ranges in Europe. Birds are used as warning indicators of environmental change - the changes we now observe in their migration patterns reflect significant climate and habitat changes.
The flightways of birds have become the routes of flight for refugees.
Our responses to the issues of environmental change and the refugee crisis in the coming few decades will define who we are, the societies we create and how we live. These issues are extremely complex, but are linked. Studies by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and other institutions have indicated causal links between climate change, civil war and refugee disasters.
Derek's observations of wildlife and his choice of nature as a subject of study are influenced by the direct and elemental character of these creatures and focuses on questions of what our place is in the environment and what it means to be alive. Grievously, the experience of refugees and migrants is often to be reduced to the same brutal and immediate question of survival.
"A project that is sensitive, thoughtful, provocative and compassionate."
The project has entailed researching and creating a collection of work from studies in the Jungle camp in Calais and Scotland, in the Mediterranean, Sicily, Cyprus and Jordan where his paintings overlay depictions of refugees and migrants with studies of migrating birds. The paintings blend stories, song, tradition and acute, personal observation. Video documentaries of the project and the paintings can be viewed on Derek's You Tube channel by clicking this link.
Something quite extraordinary...Artists And Illustrators Magazine
Like walking through a personal experience...The Herald
Nature's dark underbelly... The Herald
The Jungle Camp Calais Art activities and sketching people and birds around the migrant camp.
"I did a series of sketches around Calais and the Jungle migrant camp there over a number of days as the camp was pulled down and the remaining sections were smouldering or on fire. I accompanied members of the charities Calaid and Care4Calais and did some art activities with the unaccompanied children in the camp who were still being registered for settlement in official camps or for asylum in the UK. I completed a lot of sketches of birds migrating as well as general views around camp with small crowds of Sudanese and Afghani children watching over my shoulder. The imagery of birds migrating through a smouldering wasteland and over razorwire fences was profound and moving."
"Les Petits" was sketched on site in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Migrating birds such as goldcrests were flying through the scrub bordering the camp and a sparrowhawk was hunting them. The sparrowhawks also migrate with the smaller birds - predating them on their journey. "Later that day I was taking part in an art activity with refugee children when there was a sudden flurry as first the few girls in the camp and then the smaller children crouched and darted away behind the taller men. It was a like a predator response. All at once, there was a hail of stones and a riot broke out. A crowd ran past us, away from trouble and then another group rushed forward brandishing knives and iron bars."
"Les Predateurs". Painted on site in and around Calais, this piece depicts the detritus Derek found around the docklands - knives, crowbars and chisels used to try and break into the backs of lorries; piles of wet, discarded clothing abandoned after unsuccessful attempts to swim across to the port landing. Men would swim with a plastic bag filled with spare clothes to change into but if they were deterred by the guards and their dogs, they would return, change into their dry stuff and abandon the wet clothes. You can also see an owl which Derek sketched in the scrub along the side of the camp. These owls migrate with the smaller birds and prey upon them as they travel. The figures in the background are people smugglers. "I sat in the beautiful Parc Richelieu and watched as individuals arrived with a rucksack and sat in the park. Two or three men would appear on bikes - always racing bikes, never mountain bikes- and there would be a lot of business transacted on mobile phones, they would then race off and return later, more phones and a deal done."
"Les Abandonnés". In the final days of the camp, all the tents were flattened by diggers and what remained was on fire. The adults had mostly been registered and transported to official camps but there were hundreds of unaccompanied children still to be processed. When the other part of the camp had been cleared a year before some 200 youngsters had gone missing and charities feared that many had fallen into the hands of people traffickers. On the final day of registration, the process descended into chaos. "On that last day, I was told that the French authorities ran out of room to accomodate the children so they simply closed their books and left. Whatever the case, I could see that there were over 100 children with nowhere to go now that the camp was demolished. Somehow, the charities found accommodation in a local church for some of them and as I watched, they dragged together mattresses and tarpaulins. The children slept there that night in the rain under plastic sheeting while the flames consumed what was left of the tents. The charity workers stayed up with them to make sure they were ok overnight and could be registered the next morning."
"Les Transitoires". Sketched on site in the Jungle refugee camp while watching diggers flatten the tents and clear the ground. There were still over 500 adults milling around the edge of the camp being watched or stopped and interrogated by the French Special Police. At that time, there were large flocks of migratory thrushes flying over the camp and through the bushes bordering the roads and edges of the industrial park. "It was very strange to be working on these sketches in the camp, drawing the birds and what was going on around me - as I was painting this study I had a group of about 7 Sudanese boys behind me, watching over my shoulder and asking me questions".
"The Snow Blows Where It Will". Derek studies snow buntings near his home in Fife. He catches and fits rings to the birds to see where they go a spart of long term studies of migratory behaviour. Environmental change has caused a rapid shift in the migration pattern of this species. These birds migrate from the Arctic to England and France in the winter but now more of them stay further north. Another researcher in Calais studies the snow buntings there and there is an exchange of these ringed birds seen moving between Fife and Calais. "You can see the diggers flattening the camp and the newly erected high fences paid for by the UK government silhouetted in the background."
"We Were Never So Cold." Watercolour, acrylic and collage inspired by studies of refugees and migrant birds in and around the Jungle camp in Calais. As November closed in the weather became colder and colder for the ill-provisioned refugees who were attempting to avoid registration in official camps. It was to prove the coldest winter for decades across some parts of Europe. Documentary of this painting on this You Tube Channel.
Derek traveled to Jordan where he visited and interviewed Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi families who had settled there. He taught a series of art classes to children at a refugee school and accompanied a team of ecologists through the desert. The population of Jordan has doubled in recent years and over-extraction of water has led to reversion of oasis towns to desert. The effect has been measured immediately in a dramatic change in breeding bird populations and the consequences on migrating birds which now have to try and cross larger areas of arid ground.
"The Desert is Full of Promises". A watercolour study completed in Jordan. The horned larks manage to thrive in very dry desert. Migrating birds now struggle to cross desert areas where the oases have turned to desert. Water extraction has increased as the population doubled over the last few years because of the influx of refugees. " We saw a small group of Bedouin children who had found a bee-eater. I think it had come down to the roof of the abandoned blue, bus thinking it was water. The children got a saucer of water and some cardboard boxes to make a little shade for the bird. It rested, drank some water, and recuperated enough to fly off." There is an Arabic saying which is "Do good and throw it in the river and you will be rewarded in the desert." - a documentary is on You Tube here.
"For The Wayfarer That You Meet". Field study completed in the Jordanian desert. Derek traveled through the desert with Jordanian biologists and ecologists who were monitoring changes in bird populations and observing how these indicated desertification and ecological change. "The generosity of the Jordanian people was overwhelming - both at a personal level and nationally, in giving shelter to millions of refugees."
The painting incorporates
some of the story of the "The
Desert is Full Of Promises" with
sketches from a number of
picnic-stops in the desert to
drink tea and eat. The studies
refer to the courtesies and
hospitalities exchanged between
guests and hosts.
"Wretched Refuse Of The Desert". On the desert road out to Syria, there are a number of oasis villages with a mix of modern facilities and refuse dumped at the edge of town. There are also a few refugee settlements and camps in these out-of-the-way places. Some big camps are situated right on the Syrian border. "We found this modern car with Syrian plates and riddled with bullet holes, parked up among rubbish at the edge of town where refugee children were playing on an old set of swings among the debris. A stagnant ribbon of water among the refuse had attracted a migrating bluethroat that flitted from the shade of the car."
"What Colour Are The Wheatears". A study painted in the desert over a colour mixing demonstration sheet. Derek held a series of art classes for schoolchildren at a refugee school in the desert where he talked about his artwork and the links between artwork, environment, animals and the people who live and work in the landscape. "The children called out the names of the colours for me in Arabic - which are scribbled into the sketches. Later that day, we drove through the desert and I sketched migratory and resident species of wheatears."
"The Gardens of The Desert"
Watercolour and collage. Inspired by visits to refugee camps, gardens and farms in the oasis villages of the desert in Jordan. "The hospitality of the Jordanian people was overwhelming. They were joyous, generous and welcoming in a way that continually impressed and surprised you."
"Day Trip To Syria". Watercolour on paper. A bullet -riddled car in the desert on the road out to Syria. In the hot expanse of open ground, this was the only shade for miles and larks sheltered in the shade below it.
"What We Lost In The Desert"
Watercolour and collage inspired by interviews with Syrian refugee families in Jordan. " I met, ate and drank tea with people who had fled from their homes - sometimes with resources and their possessions, but often with nothing at all. I spoke to teachers, taxi drivers and even men who had served in the Syrian army. The tales I heard were inspiring, harrowing and unimaginable but these accounts were so often interspersed with laughter, games, singing and dancing. These were tales of loss, of lives put on hold, but the sense of determination, achievement and hope was disarming and inspiring."
"Whispers From The Desert"
Mixed media and collage on paper
"The Wounded Lands"
Watercolour and collage on paper.
Above. From left to right. "Between The Refuge And The Fire", "Refuge Box", "The Narrow Way". Assemblage boxes made from collage of wood, paper and fabric scavenged from discarded material around refugee camps and transit points in Calais, Jordan and Sicily.
Below. From left to right. "Refuge of Fences", Refuge of Thorns, "Compass Box". "I swapped my artist pencil case with a broken pencil/compasses box from a Syrian boy in Jordan. It became the material for the "Compass Box" assemblage depicting a whinchat that was hopping in the scrub beside the school."
Between study trips overseas, Derek visited refugee families and people working with refugee communities in Scotland to try and get an insight into their experiences here. This also led to a series of paintings referencing the Scottish social history of emigration and depopulation of the land. - a documentary is on You Tube here
"Chairmen Of The Observatory" Watercolour. The interior of the fishermens' bothy on the Monach Isles off the coast of Benbecula. This had been the schoolhouse on the island which had a history of abandonment and resettlement and subsequent evacuation. For a while in the early 20th Century, the building was used as a bird observatory and study base by some eminent biologists who were researching storm petrels and other seabirds. "I stayed on the island for a week helping a team trap and ring storm petrels for a modern-day study of these birds. The wreckage of missiles and target drones from the firing range at Benbecula littered the beach where many seabirds were nesting".
"Beach Of The Nine Living". Shellfish are not generally eaten by the Highlanders. Perhaps because they have a social history as starvation food. There is a beach on Tiree with the name of this painting because a widow and her 8 children survived a winter there during a famine living only on shellfish and seaweed. The Highlands and Islands have a strong tradition of peoples' flight from starvation and eviction. "As a child, my wife was taught to sing the Gaelic song 'S Trusadh mi na Coilleagan (I will gather the cockles) which describes a clamour on the shore. Many evicted men were forced to the dangerous subsistence of fishing which took it's toll of deaths. This joyful song seemed to me to echo something darker and deeper."
"A' Chaim" was inspired by another Gaelic song of that name, written by a gamekeeper who is snow-trapped in a bothy in the hills. The song is an exchange of verses between him, stuck inside, and a stag singing back to him from outside. The interior is a real place - the inside of the bothy on the Shiant Isles between Skye and the Outer Hebrides where Derek has stayed, painted and helped to research the seabirds. The snow buntings are a link to Derek's visits to Calais and the painting reflects on ideas of belonging, loss and dislocation as well as our place in and responsibilities to the environment. The name can mean a corner, a place of refuge, but also is the Gaelic version of the biblical name of Cain .
Above are Derek's field studies done of the Syrian refugee community in Bute, which has the largest percentage refugee population in the UK. Clockwise. "Something Biblical", a recently arrived Syrian couple and their Scottish baby. "The Way Home", Children coming back from playing at the park and harbour. "Alloted Land", digging in the community allotments. "Mr Disarani's Shop", barber's shop in Rothesay.
"We Fly At Night". Watercolour. Inspired by a conversation with a man in Edinburgh who had fled Aleppo. One night he grabbed a rucksack and ran, leaving his parents and brother, and his home, forever. virtually nothing of the city remains. Aleppo stems from the word white and has the same root as the Gaelic name for Scotland, Alba.
Left- "The Welcoming" in Edinburgh provides language classes and support for refugees and some of the students have set up a reciprocal Arabic class. "I was very kindly invited to a couple of these and sat in the classroom, learning some Arabic while birds sang in the trees and bushes outside the window. The tutors were from Somalia, Syria and Iraq with an infectious and humorous enthusiasm for language".
Sketching and traveling in Bute
Derek traveled to Sicily. A well known stopping point for migrating birds, the island has become a transit route for people crossing from Libya. Boats are very often intercepted by the Italian Navy or coastguard and taken to processing centres where people are registered. Those from countries considered "safe" - often questionably so- are forcibly returned without appeal. Once registered, they cannot travel to other European countries. Consequently, anyone landing tries to go underground and travel further onward.
"The Graveyard Of Refugee Boats". Pozallo Harbour. The boats only travel one way and are abandoned. They are towed ashore as a danger to shipping and there are a number of these "graveyards" next to the ports. "I wandered into the compound and painted these all day - you can see the x and letter marks with which they have been recorded by the port authority. some had holes knocked in them to make them un-seaworthy. I didn't realise this area was out of bounds and was (very politely) escorted off the site by a caretaker and two armed customs police."
"The Fire Is In The Cornfield". A field study painted at Puertopaulo. Some of the boats had been set on fire, burning an adjoining cornfield. Masked shrikes scavenged insects that had fled the blaze. "The charred wheat heads were strangely ominous. A smell of smoke still lingered around the charred hulk of the ship that was painted in a very strange colour scheme.
The Arabic script for "Hopeful
Pilgrimage" and an eye were
painted along her bow. Inside,
the wood was charred and the
heads of thousands of nails
-like nails in a coffin- were
exposed and rusting."
"Nesting Sparrows, Graveyard of Boats."
A field study of the refugee boats at Pozallo. The Sicilian sparrows are a hybrid mix of migrant Spanish and resident Italian sparrows. These Spanish- looking ones were nesting in one of the abandoned refugee boats.
"The Ghost Boat". This abandoned boat was floating, unmoored in one of the harbours. It was full of detritus. Presumed by the fishermen at the port to be from Italy, they thought it had somehow been taken to Libya and back to Sicily full of refugees. Migratory swallows flitted around and over the boat as it floated in the harbour.
"Abandoned Lifejackets". Some of the abandoned material in one of the refugee boats at Pozallo.
"Bird Studies In Dystopia". One of the unofficial shanty-camps which had sprung up all over Sicily. This one was on the edge of town below a motorway. It was a small camp but squalid and chaotic. Derek sketched shrikes and wagtails that were migrating through the scrub around the camp while he spoke to some of the men who lived there. "I was there for a few hours and everything was friendly. I worked on this painting while I spoke to them. I had given some of the guys there some food and water and handed out some cigarettes while we talked but then I was asked for some money . It was very polite, but I suddenly noticed that three of the men were holding knives. After some haggling they took my money, watch and phone and I managed to get to a spot where - frankly - I was able to run away."
Dark Tides. Refugee processing centre at Pozallo. Refugee boats are towed to designated ports by the navy and coastguards (and by NGO boats) where people are disembarked and processed behind gated compounds. "When I was at the port,a boat came in with 600 Africans. I couldn't get into the compound but spoke to some of the officials there and was able to sketch through the fence. The migrants were each wearing a new, white t-shirt that they had been given. They were huddled in the shade like one, dark shadow. They had marathon-number sheets pinned to their shirts and were herded into lines to tables (where their details were taken) by soldiers brandishing guns and wearing surgical masks. Their possessions were all laid out in a line on the concrete for inspection. Off in the corner, 3 soldiers had laid aside their guns and masks and were playing a game of football with some of the children. "
Back in the studio. Once the research and field studies have been completed, Derek began working on a series of paintings that tie together some of the main themes of the project.
"We Shall Not Return". Watercolour and acrylic. - documentary on You Tube here
"Lines of Flight". Small watercolours on paper. Bald ibis were once relatively common and migrated seasonally from Europe to Africa. Environmental change, water extraction and draining of the marshes wiped out these populations until just a tiny colony of non-migratory birds remained in Morocco. Then, three birds were discovered breeding in Turkey. They were thought to migrate to winter in the Arabian peninsula, perhaps staging in the marshes of Syria and Iraq. Shortly after their discovery, Isis took control of these areas and the birds disappeared. The birds would teach their chicks the safe migration routes and stop-overs. Now that this population has gone, that transferred knowledge has disappeared too. You can still see bald ibis in captivity. They are being bred so that they might be released back into the wild if conditions improve and there is a program with a colony of these birds at Camperdown Wildlife Park in my home city of Dundee. Sadly the heritable memory of their migration routes is lost.
"Where Three Roads Meet". Watercolour based on sketches from Sicily. These studies of tree pipits were worked up from birds I saw around an unofficial refugee camp in the centre of the island. Many of the people staying there had arrived without being intercepted by the authorities and had avoided mandatory registration.
"Three In Lago". Watercolour based on sketches from Sicily. The camp was under a roadway where three roads met. There were shrikes and wagtails migrating through the scrub around the camp but three tree pipits flew through the site. "The scientific name for these birds is Anthus trivialis. It was only while researching for the painting I discovered that trivialis derives from Latin for a place that three roads meet, coming to mean commonplace and then transferring into English as the word trivial".
"Dark Roads To Travel". Watercolour composed from sketches made in Sicily. "I was very politely mugged at the same camp by three men (from Chad, I think) who took a phone and some money off me. They said please and thank you but they had knives and it was all seemed a bit unreal. Speaking to refugees in Sicily, it was clear that they were in a constant survival state of fear and anxiety and most were living in absolute poverty. Everyone I spoke to who had made the crossing from Libia had been kidnapped, robbed of everything, or assaulted in the course of their travels".
"When You Have So Much" Watercolour based on sketches made in Jordan. "At the end of a long day I was stopped by a Syrian boy about 12 years old who was hassling me to give him money and aggressively trying to sell cheaply made wooden whistles. He had a long and dramatic story about what his family had suffered and how he was trying to support them as the only man in the family. I was exhausted, a bit unwell, felt pressured and cornered, and responded angrily by telling him to clear off. The title is his response as I stormed off with a heavy wallet and a pocket full of change on the rest of a journey that probably cost enough to feed his family for a year. I have reflected on this exchange and my own, personal shortcomings, a lot in the work I have done on this project since".
Migrations - Fragments. At the back of my sketchbook I always keep a few square off-cuts of coloured paper. While I am waiting for my field sketches to dry, or for rain to pass, I do small studies on these squares and often work them up into finished paintings back in the studio.
"When We Crossed The Desert" Oil on Canvas - a documentary of this painting is on display on You Tube here
"Children Of The Clouds" Oil on collage and canvas. Video about this painting - follow link here.
The Migrations project was launched at the Lush 2018 Summit in London
Individual paintings from the collection have already been shown in the USA, London, Edinburgh and Italy.
The collection was exhibited and I delivered a series of talks at the Scottish Parliament in May 2018 at a reception sponsored by Christina McKelvie MSP, Convenor of the Human Rights Committee.
Exhibitions to date have also included invited artist at the Pittenweem Arts Festival where the Migrations show was reviewed as Critics' Choice in the Scotsman and the Independent. Other exhibitions include Nature in Art in Gloucester 2019 and Glasgow University 2019. Further talks and presentations included the National Watercolor Society in the USA, New Networks for Nature in Stamford and the annual BTO Conference as well as numerous local charity and school events. Individual paintings from the collection have been shown in shows in London, Edinburgh, Italy, the USA, France and China.
Talks and Presentations
Lush Summit, London February 2018
Glasgow University March 2018
Scottish Parliament, April 2018
OSME Blog 2018
Pittenweem Arts Festival August 2018
New Networks for Nature, Lincoln 2018
BTO Conference Swanwick December 2018
Glasgow University March 2019
Nature in Art May 2019
OSME Conference June 2019
Papers and Publications
Forced Migration Review, Oxford University Press Jun 2018 in assoc Glasgow University
Birdlife Magazine Jan 2019
Artists And Illustrators Magazine, March 2019
British Trust for Ornithology News, March 2019
Ornithological Society for The Middle East. June 2018
The Sound Approach podcast June 2018
Glasgow University, Naturally Speaking podcast/Linked Migrations June 2018