Earlier in June I was lucky enough to be one of four SWLA (Society of Wildlife Artists) artists invited to take part in an EU funded partnership with Doğa Koruma Merkezi (DKM), a Turkish environmental NGO. Working under the expert stewardship of an administrative team, the four tutors (myself, Nik Pollard, Greg Poole and Esther Tyson) spent five days mentoring and tutoring a group of approximately 20 art school students, artists and scientists from all over Turkey, and five days by ourselves, out in the field, painting and drawing.
The project aimed to establish a cultural bridge through art and nature – to promote observation and field-based wildlife art as a tool for raising awareness of the Turkish Sweet Gum Forests. The tangible project outcomes, aside from the mountain of artwork produced by tutors and students alike, are a project book and an exhibition, both of which are at the time of writing, being developed. The exhibition will travel to three different sites in Turkey as well as the ‘Natural Eye’ exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London.
So, that is the blurb. On my way over, truth be told, I had little idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised when we rolled up at the Flora Hotel – a fantastic home away from home on the shores of Lake Köyceğiz in South Western Turkey. DKM had booked the entire hotel for the project team, and the following day the students and invited Turkish artists started to arrive. After an informal ‘ice breaking’ session I had a much better idea about the professionalism of the project, the passion of the SWLA artists and the enthusiasm of the Turkish students.
The participants themselves were from all over Turkey – a really diverse mix of BA, MA and Phd art college students, professional artists and one or two with a more scientific or birdy background. There were illustrators, land artists, animators, fashion students – a really heady mix. Despite this, and the fact that they didn’t know each other, the group was really coherent and harmonious and all of the students were eager to get out in the field and paint.
Nik (SWLA) and Aydan (DKM) had produced a very detailed itinerary, that mostly revolved around visiting the Sweetgum forests – with our ‘base camp’ in the Kavakarasi forest. So, off we would trot in the mornings, into the forest to draw and paint. At first I was a little disappointed with the lack of bird and animal life, but with repeated visits the forest grew on me, and the human stories (foraging and ‘gum’ collection) were really interesting. Later in the evening, we would have ‘share and tell’ sessions in the hotel, where we all got our day’s work out and tried to make constructive comments. The students were amazingly receptive and their work improved no end during the week. What a joy. Aside from ‘working’ in the forests, we made a short trip to a nearby waterfall and an unforgetable boar trip through the delta to Daylan and the mediterranean, and onward to the Iztuzu turtle rehabilitation centre.
One of the key project aims was ‘cultural cross communication’, and it was a privilege to spend so much time with the students and project teams, and hear about the reality of living in such a huge and complex country. For most (western) Europeans, Turkey means little more than a hot sandy beach, so it was fascinating and a little shocking to hear about life in Ankara and other cities. One of my favourite memories was staying up late (very late) one night with a bunch of students and listening to them singing together. Or another time in the Sweetgum forest, when two old ladies, foraging for leaves and bark, literally ‘stepped into’ one of my paintings. An incredible and awe-inspiring experience.
The whole trip was unforgettable in so many ways. Once the students left, we remained and carried on drawing and painting. One site (Kersele?) was literally full of snakes and scorpions, another (Toparlar) humming with insects and butterflies. Everywhere frogs. I learned so much from my fellow tutors, the students and the forest, and look forward to seeing the publication and the exhibition in London. Hi-res paintings and drawings will be uploaded soon!