LAAH: What exactly is it that you do?
I am an Artist Inspired by Africa. I visit African conservation projects to sketch people & wildlife and learn about conservation issues, then I incorporate these issues into my studio paintings and make a donation from every sale to the relevant conservation project.
LAAH: When did you start?
I lived in Zimbabwe and Botswana from 1994 – 2002 and that is where I began painting and sketching, but my involvement with conservation projects began in 2007 when I was awarded an Artists For Conservation Flag Expedition grant. I spent 6 weeks at the Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) project in Zimbabwe, tracking and sketching highly endangered African wild dogs, and found this completely different to my usual bush trips where I aim to spend as much time as possible away from other people. PDC has close links to local communities and I learned a huge amount about the issues faced by the community, the project and the dogs. It was a turning point for me both personally and artistically, and I was inspired to start creating a body of conservation-themed paintings. I continue to support PDC but wanted to repeat the experience with another project in a different part of Africa, so I proposed a similar project to the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW) in Tanzania. I recently completed a series of visits to APW, resulting in a traveling exhibition and numerous field sketches which are now available for sale as originals and limited edition reproductions, with a percentage of the sale prices going back to the project.
LAAH: Why do you do it and what is the motivation or passion that keeps you going?
My motivation is to learn more about the vast, diverse, complex, fascinating continent of Africa. I began with an interest in wildlife and wild places and a very typical ‘western’ view that conservation involves the protection of species and habitat. My involvement with conservation projects has taught me that conservation is as much about people as it is about wildlife. Conflict between people & wildlife over natural resources is rising all over the world and Africa is no exception. In places where people see few benefits and many disadvantages from living with wildlife, that wildlife stands little hope of surviving. By supporting conservation projects which work to improve living standards for people, there is also hope that species and habitat can thrive. This learning experience also changed my art and now I am pleased to incorporate both people, wildlife and conservation issues into my work.
LAAH: Can you explain how your work so far has made a difference?
I donate a percentage to African conservation projects from the sale of every painting, field sketch and limited edition reproduction. So far my donations have exceeded US$25,000. I also raise awareness of the work of conservation projects by lecturing, blogging & teaching. My art gives me a platform, so I use my exhibitions and lectures to show my sketches & studio paintings combined with information about conservation organizations and their work in the field. I aim to show the complexity of conservation issues and hope that people will leave my exhibitions with a deeper understanding of some of these issues. Initially I thought my audience would be primarily in the USA & Europe but recently I have found ways to bring my work to communities in Africa too, which makes the experience even more valuable.
This year I held an exhibit in the northern Tanzanian community of Loibor Siret, with the help of the African People & Wildlife Fund. I have visited the area 3 times to sketch and teach drawing classes for local schools. During my latest visit I helped students as they stenciled classroom walls with letters, numbers and animals. The end wall of the school was also painted with the name of the school, the outline of Tanzania containing the colors of the flag, and the lion symbol of the wildlife club. After the painting was complete, we hung an exhibition of my art and the drawings of the students. I provided laminated copies of field sketches I had created on previous visits, and we held a contest to give these pieces away to the students. I also displayed poster-sized images of my studio paintings and gave detailed explanations to the students about how and why I paint. One of the pieces is called Elephant! (or Tembo! in KiSwahili) and it shows the contrasting opinions often held about elephants by tourists and rural-dwelling Africans. Tourists usually view relaxed elephants from a vehicle, inside a national park, whereas rural-dwelling Africans are usually on foot when they encounter more aggressive and destructive elephants. This painting gives both African and non-African audiences a glimpse into the viewpoint of other people and it has been great to see the positive reactions of audiences on different continents. As with all my work, a significant percentage of the sale proceeds will be donated, in this case to the African People & Wildlife Fund.
In addition to the donations to conservation, I also hope my art has made a difference to the lives of the people who hang it in their homes and offices!
LAAH: Who are your allies and supporters in this enterprise?
I wonder if I can answer this without sounding like I’m making an acceptance speech!
My allies and supporters are people. People who are interested in art and an artist. This includes the people who visit my exhibits, come to my lectures and purchase my work. It includes the people who allow me to sketch their daily lives and the numerous people who peer over my shoulder while I’m sketching to see what I am doing. It includes the directors and staff of the conservation projects who allow me to visit them in the field and ask endless questions about their work. It includes my family and friends, many of whom now know far more about African conservation than they ever expected, or hoped. And it includes my husband who is my biggest supporter (and titles many of my paintings). Without all these people, my ability to make a difference would be nil, and my life would not be what it is today.
LAAH: Do you have plans to grow your involvement, to expand the scope of your project? If so, can you elaborate on these plans?
I have so many plans to expand the scope of my work that I will never manage to achieve them all. I would like to learn about new conservation challenges in different parts of Africa; revisit the projects I currently work with; expand the reach of my work to new audiences through video, film, print and e-books; collaborate with other artists on larger scale projects; and spend even more time sketching in Africa. As soon as cloning becomes standard practice, I’m going to need at least 6 of myself!
LAAH: Like anything in life worth working for there must be difficulties and struggles too. Can you share with us what have been your greatest challenges?
When I began to sketch in the field, I found this incredibly challenging. It requires an excellent knowledge of your materials, plenty of time and, crucially, confidence. But now, after several years of field sketching around people and animals, I find field sketching easier than studio painting because my subject is right there in front of me. Confidence is no longer a problem – the more people looking over my shoulder, the better I sketch!
Finding an audience for my work has taken years of hard work, constant exhibitions & time spent on publicity. Luckily, I enjoy all this. But sometimes I feel it would be easy to spend the entire week on the computer and no time in the studio. Finding the balance is tough but necessary.
There are numerous difficulties and struggles in just being an artist. When my art is going well, I am cavorting on top of the world. When it is going badly, I am stumbling around under the weight of the world. But even on the worst of days I know how fortunate I am to be working as an artist.
LAAH: How can people help you and help African conservation projects?
You can help by donating to projects who work to conserve wildlife and habitat in conjunction with supporting local communities. Learn about the complex issues involved before you donate, to make sure you are supporting projects that create beneficial, long-term results. Painted Dog Conservation & the African People & Wildlife Fund are 2 great projects to consider.
If you enjoy my art you can also join my mailing list, follow me on social media, visit my exhibitions or lectures, tell friends and family about my work and, of course, purchase artwork. You can be assured that I will make a donation from every sale to a conservation project working to help people & wildlife in Africa.
See more of Alison’s work in this video: Alison Nicholls: Art Inspired by Africa
All Images Are © Alison Nicholls & Deirdre Leowinata
Alison Nicholls Artist Bio
Alison Nicholls is a member of Artists For Conservation, the Society of Animal Artists, the Explorers Club, the Salmagundi Club and a member of the Creative Board of Pencils For Africa. She lived in Botswana & Zimbabwe for a number of years and returns annually to sketch in the field and lead Sketching Safaris for Africa Geographic Magazine. Her Conservation Sketching Expeditions allow her to work closely with African conservation projects, visit them in the field, learn about their work and sketch on site. On return to the studio she creates a traveling exhibition and lecture series to raise awareness and funds for the conservation project. Alison is English by birth but has traveled widely and currently resides in Port Chester, New York, with her husband Nigel.
Website: Nicholls Wildlife Art
Follow Alison Nicholls on: Facebook