Testaments of Loss

Loss of biodiversity and habitats and the consequences of trophic cascade are considered as serious an environmental threat as climate change (to which each is intricately linked).

 

In this new project, I am creating a series of direct paintings and sketches documenting small-scale incidents of environmental loss. These will be collected to form a large wall of 100 or more paintings that give a sense of scale and range beyond their small and immediate observations. I've have begun these using the same methods I use for other field sketching. They are A3 and 13cm square sketchbook pages -direct sketch observations annotated with notes in the field. They are framed as objects, with ragged edges of spiral bindings etc. I started by going to specific spots to document events: Hedges and trees around building developments netted off to exclude birds in Lincoln, wildflower meadows sprayed in Oxford, bees killed by pesticides in Fife, birds of prey shot in Aberdeenshire. I then realised I have 30 years of material in my sketchbooks of incidents I have recorded in the field. I am going to do new field studies that also use and develop this original archive of research.

 

I am exploring how this project could be developed as a sound/moving image installation and to this end I am working with the following people to explore how that might work. A detailed project in collaboration with Kathleen Jamie can be viewed here.

 

Kathleen Jamie. Poet and Nature Writer

Ken Fee. Games designer/animation

Jenny Sturgeon. Singer-songwriter

Rob Page – Artist/film-maker

Chris Fremantle – Writer/curator

 

I am very grateful to have received a Creative Scotland, Visual Arts and Craft Makers Award through Fife Contemporary to set up a series of creative laboratories with the participants and with scientists to develop creative ways to develop and test these ideas. 

 

Where The Birds Are No More

"Where The Birds Sang", Watercolour on Arches paper. 

55 x 45 cm framed     -                                  for sale £890

"The Last Places" Watercolour on Frogmore paper

29 x 29cm framed                              for sale £380

"Marginalised" Watercolour on Frogmore paper

29 x 29cm framed                          for sale £380

"Grasshopper Warblers" Watercolour on Arches paper.   SOLD.

Field studies from building sites in England near Lincoln and Oxford where housing developers had netted off trees and hedges to exclude nesting birds. 

The Day The Bees Died

"The Day The Bees Died". Watercolour on Arches paper. 55 x 45cm framed.                For sale £890

I spent a day sketching wildflowers in a friend's garden. As I worked, a tractor worked along the field next to the garden spraying the crops and forcing me to retreat inside. My friend called me the next day and told me that all the bees in her garden had died. Sure enough, I went back and  the paths were littered with dead bumble bees and other insects.

The Wells Are Dry

"What Colour Are The Wheatears" Watercolour on Arches paper. 55 x 45cm framed.          For sale £890

"Entrapment". Watercolour on Arches paper.  29 x29cm framed.                            For sale £380

"The Brigand On The Road". Watercolour on Frogmore. 29 x 29cm framed.   For sale £380

Studies done in the Jordanian desert of migratory birds around the desiccated oases. Unsustainable, over-extraction of water has led to increased desertification and the death of the oases causing great suffering to people and wildlife alike.

Dark Harvests

"Dark Harvest" Watercolour on Arches paper.

55 x 45cm framed                         For sale  £890

"Black Olives Red" Watercolour on Girtin paper

29 x 29cm framed.                          For sale £380

In the early spring, the olive groves are harvested along the shores of the Mediterranean. Intensively-managed plantations are harvested mechanically by huge machines that envelop each tree in turn and thresh the olives through conveyor belts and grading mesh trays. Very often, this is done at night so that the air is cool and moist and the olives retain their moisture and flavour. The whole operation is pretty spectacular with huge, loud machinery and bright spotlights. I have seen and sketched this in Spain, Portugal and Italy without knowing anything of its implications...

Only recently did conservationists discover that the harvesting process dazzled and caught huge numbers of migratory birds, just at the time they are making their northern return into Europe. These studies are worked up from my own field sketches of harvesting machinery and migratory birds made in Italy, combined with documentary footage and imagery published online and in the international press.

Studies Of The Lost And Gone

"Field Studies Of The Lost And Gone -Great Auk"

Great Auk. Watercolour on Two Rivers Paper 

55 x 45cm framed.           Sold

"Museum Studies Of The Lost And Gone -Great Auk"

Great Auk. Watercolour on Two Rivers Paper 

55 x 45cm framed.           Sold

Gowk Craig

I live just a few miles away from the house I grew up in. It is situated on a hill, one side of which is called Gowk Craig after the cuckoos that used to call there in the summer. My mother and grandmother both grew up in another house right below the craig and they remembered the cuckoos calling there every year but they don't call there any more. Cuckoo numbers have fallen drastically and they have disappeared from most of my home county. The cause is uncertain but scientists point to agricultural change here and the consequences of climate change in their wintering grounds.

"Gowk Craig - Gowk Floo'er"  Watercolour on Arches paper.

55 x 45cm framed                                                            SOLD

"Gowk Craig - Grey Feather"  Watercolour on Arches paper.

55 x 45cm framed                                            For sale    £890

Yellow Ware

"Yellow Ware - Yellowhammers"  Watercolour on Arches paper.

55 x 45cm framed                                                        For sale £890

I have seen how common birds of the countryside have disappeared from the farming landscape where I have lived over the past 50 years. I have conducted research surveys in association with the British Trust For Ornithology, and advised on and co-written papers written in international, scientific journals that try and understand the way that birds interact with the farmed landscape. I have seen how once common species have all but disappeared and noted how, in very recent years, birds like the yellowhammer have suddenly become very scarce in localities they were thought of as common. A poem written by Kathleen Jamie brought this all into focus and attached with both one of her essays in her book "Surfacing" and a recollection I had of once discovering shards of yellow pottery scattered across a ploughed field. I completed these studies of yellowhammers in response to these ideas. There used to be a flock of them in our village but they disappeared from all the fields round here just a year ago so I had to drive several miles to find a flock to watch and sketch. 

Entrapments

"Red Mosaics"  Watercolour on Saunders paper.

55 x 45cm framed                            For sale £890

"The Opportunist" Watercolour on paper

29 x 29cm framed.                          For sale £380

"Snares In The Oasis" Watercolour on paper

29 x 29cm framed.                          For sale £380

I have studied and sketched birds in many countries around the Mediterranean and seen at first hand the indiscriminate trapping of

migratory songbirds. These studies are worked up from notes made of snares, traps and netting sites in Malta, Cyprus, Sicily and Egypt.

"Entrapments" Watercolour on paper

29 x 29cm framed.                     SOLD

Once Was The Cat

"Once Was The Cat" Watercolour on paper 74 x 61cm          Framed. Exhibited Fabriano Internazionale, Italy                                               For Sale £1400

The Scottish Wildcat is now described as functionally extinct because the population is so small, fragmented and extensively cross-bred with domestic cats. This was a species I saw occasionally in the Angus Glens in the 1990's and would regularly encounter in the Western Highlands and the Cairngorms. At that time it was already obvious that many individuals were cross-bred with domestic bloodlines. I saw many animals that had patches of white, thin tails or thin stripes which were non-characteristic of true wildcat.

The Disappeared

"The Disappeared" Watercolour on Girtin paper

29 x 29cm                                            For sale £380

Persecution of birds of prey continues to be a significant issue in the UK. I have accompanied researchers and protection teams monitoring the nests of eagles, falcons and birds of prey and seen nest where the adult birds have been trapped, poisoned or shot -or where the eggs and chicks have been destroyed. Hen harrier, depicted above, will sometimes swoop in to an intruder in an effort to defend their nest and so are easy targets for a criminal with a shotgun.

Scales Of Time

"Scales Of Time" Watercolour on Paper. 85 x 105 cm Framed.            Not For Sale

The salmon fisheries on the Tay employed hundreds of people catching fish by coble boat and draw nets. A series of bothies were built along the tidal stretches of the river but the fishery was over-exploited and a combination of large-scale salmon fishery at sea and the effects of climate change led to the closure of the industry. This piece is worked up from sketches made inside dozens of these old bothies which I have explored while kayaking the river. I once helped on one of the salmon boats for a day back in the 1980's and we caught a few fish and then -alarmingly- got stuck in a tidal current for 30 minutes while we frantically bailed out the boat as water poured in through the seams.

The Days After The Fire

For nearly 40 years I have been studying the birds in the reedbeds of the Tay Estuary. This is the largest reedbed in the UK and the longest continuous stretch of reed in Europe. I have produced hundreds of paintings and written and contributed to dozens of research projects on the birds and management of the reeds. I can see them from my house on the other side of the river and watched in horror one day in April as a  column of smoke rose from the reeds. The ensuing wildfire destroyed a quarter of the reedbed and about half of the most productive area for birds. The destruction was heartbreaking and happened at the worst possible time when the nesting season was at its peak. Wildfires are becoming an increasing problem globally with drier conditions caused by climate change. The April of the fire was the driest recorded in the UK and I have never seen the reeds so dry. I was able to visit the reedbeds where I made a series of on-site sketches using the burn reeds as charcoal to draw and smudge into the paintings. There were numerous, rather disorientated, birds foraging between the remaining little stands of reeds.

Studies started on-site using charcoal of burnt reeds and watercolour. Bearded tits, water rail and sedge warbler. Each 34 x 34cm framed

Large landscape paintings started on-site in charcoal from the burnt reeds and worked over in watercolour. Each 85 x 105cm framed

When The Ice Melts

When The Frost Thaws - Glaucous Gull, Watercolour on Cox Paper. 55 x 45cm framed £890

       Where The Ice Melts - Glaucous Gull, Watercolour on Cox Paper. 55 x 45cm framed £890

On a visit to study the ornithological collections at the Royal Museums Of Scotland in Edinburgh, we were shown drawers of specimen skins of Glaucous Gulls collected by Richardson from the Franklin expeditions to the Arctic. These gulls are an Arctic specialist that forage among the pack ice and in cold latitudes. The final, ill-fated expedition led by Franklin ended in the loss of all the men in circumstances that were both mysterious and horrific. Some speculate that their water processing system resulted in lead poisoning and the series of unaccountable decisions made in their desperate attempts to reach safety. Expeditions that later searched for their remains found some of their equipment collected by the local natives that had been crafted into knives and other implements by beating, cutting and sharpening them and then adding bone and sinew handles. As the climate changes, the passage through the ice that Franklin searched for has now opened up but the Glaucous gulls are finding their habitat changing and shrinking. The accumulation of toxic pollutants in their bodies is lowering their fertility and, as food becomes scarcer, the incidence of nest failure and cannibalism of chicks is increasing to the point  where colonies are abandoned. These studies were worked up from sketches I made of gulls in Norway and Spitzbergen on a series of visits to the Arctic.

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