Artists For Nature Foundation at Twenty

‘The best things in life are not free anymore’, Ysbrand delivers with the immaculate control of English that seems so natural to every inhabitant of the Netherlands. It’s a simple, if dated, statement but as pertinent today as it ever was. It was also the title of an essay in the eighties from Canadian artist Robert Bateman and it pricked the conscience of Ysbrand Brouwers, a Dutch art collector, promoter and all round wildlife enthusiast (just some of which he likes to catch and eat).

Brouwers could safely be described as a towering figure in the world of wildlife art, but then at nearly 2m (that’s six feet six inches to you and me) he’d be a towering figure anywhere (except when he attends a Lars Jonsson private view he points out). It must be something to do with his Friesland ancestry, and lots of dairy products and fresh air. Or maybe its natural selection at work, favouring tall people who can see further across those flat Dutch polders.

In 1989, Brouwers joined with artist friends Erik Van Ommen and Robin D’Arcy Shillcock on a visit to the barrier island of Schiermonnikoog off the north coast of the Netherlands. A few other artists were invited for an extended weekend to draw and paint in this precious yet unprotected maritime environment. The energy and mood was both productive and infectious, and Brouwers saw the potential for a much bigger event with wider-reaching ambitions. If he could harness the talents of artists collectively then might something be achieved that was far greater than its constituent parts?

The following year an official Artists Meeting was organized by Brouwers, Shillcock and Van Ommen and a larger group of like minded wildlife artists were invited back to Schiermonikoog. The assembled team was a truly international grouping with twenty five artists from near and far. An array of published artists and illustrators from Russia, America and several European nations were represented, and (I’d better declare some personal interest here) I got an invite too.
For one week we set about the dunes, marshes, meadows and mud flats painting shrikes, godwits, eiders, spoonbills and the like. After a day in the great outdoors we’d return with sketchbooks and watercolour pads filled with images, lay them on tables or pin them to the wall, and discuss and enthuse about each others work until dark. There was a synergy within the group with each artist bristling with energy and feeding off the ideas and collective well being of others. It was a very special and stimulating time.

Brouwers persuasive skill as a fund raiser had secured backing for the project from WWF Netherlands. Further, the works of art that resulted were published in the book ‘Wind, Wad en Waterverf’ and HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands consented to write the introduction. The associated exhibition and media attention helped publicize the vulnerability of the island and major conservation organizations joined the initiative to achieve some lasting protection. Schiermonnikoog duly received National Park status.

Clearly, art had some role to play within nature conservation and Brouwers could identify a niche for a new group. The 1990 Schiermonikoog meeting was to be the blueprint and Ysbrand officially founded the Artists for Nature Foundation in December of the same year.
The concept of the ANF is disarmingly simple; to use the creativity of artists producing paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, inspired and mostly created on location by artists from around the world as a medium to draw attention to the need for sustainable nature conservation.

Building on the experience of the Schiermonikoog meeting, the fledgling foundation held its inaugural project in 1992, based in the Biebrza marshes of north-east Poland, with thirty two invited artists. The spectrum of talent included high profile realist Canadian painter Robert Bateman and young avant-garde Welsh artist Kim Atkinson from the Royal College of Art. Over a two week period a treasure trove of work was produced with a diversity of media and techniques. Sketches, watercolours, acrylics, oils, lino-cuts, and wood-carvings; the out-pouring of art may have caused a headache for Brouwers and author Shillcock, but the resulting book ‘Portrait of a Living Marsh’ received much critical acclaim. The ANF was well and truly up and running.

Other projects were to follow after the success of Poland, all accompanied by lavishly illustrated books with the now trademark eclectic mix of artwork; Extremadura in Spain, Loire Valley in France, Wexford in Ireland, Copper River Delta in Alaska, Tigers in India, Catalan Pyrenees of Spain, Algarve in Portugal, Tumbes region of Peru and Ecuador, the Great Fen project in England, and Utrecht in Holland. ANF has now conducted 13 successful projects on 4 continents.
Across all of these projects Brouwers has been keen to select a group of artists that covers an array of styles and approaches, from the meticulous such as Chris Rose, to the minimalists such as John Busby. He has also encouraged young artists to be involved nurturing the talents of David Bennett, Darren Woodhead and Pascale Rentsch. Further, through the annual ANF Art Award, given at the London Society of Wildlife Artists annual exhibition, he has given first time opportunities to others including Nik Pollard, Esther Tyson and Paul Henery.

Exhibitions and sales of the artworks, book and DVD's sales, all contribute to raise much needed monies for projects, but perhaps a greater effect can be the significant contribution to raising awareness. The ANF is a small organization and it could only succeed with close cooperation with long established charities and NGO's like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Wildlife Trusts in the UK, Birdlife International and others. In tandem with the efforts of biologists, ecologists, and other lobbyists, the planners and politicians charged with protecting the natural world just might take notice.
The ANF has always worked with local communities in all project regions, and has prioritized the role of environmental education. ‘We have to offer alternatives’ says Ysbrand.

To that end, the foundation has recently announced that the funds raised after the Indian Tiger project has enabled the construction of an Environmental Education Centre facility at Bandhavgarh. The centre will become a meeting place for local people and children from the community, as well as for eco-tourists and artist groups. All kinds of activities will take place with nature and art workshops, and key demonstrations in sustainable living (cooking and water usage using solar energy, water treatment, and organic gardening techniques).

Clearly, it’s only when people living in project areas learn about the beauty of nature and the importance of conserving the natural world, and see benefits such as jobs, better land use and natural resource management, can a lasting progress be achieved.

And the projects keep coming; after all there is no shortage of worthy causes in a world where natural environments are relentlessly under threat. Last year a team of artists were invited by Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) to portray the wildlife of the Hula Valley in the north-east of the country. Historically, precious marshland had been drained for agricultural use but is now being reinstated as a naturally functioning marsh system. It is an important staging post for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds and when the artists visited, the place was heaving with storks, cranes and pelicans. An impressive experience from Greg Poole’s account:

‘I’ve never seen migration on this scale before. To be in the rift valley... the meeting of tectonic plates. We were told that 500 million birds follow the valley each spring to reach their summer breeding grounds. Like a tidal movement or an inhalation. To see clouds of circling storks gradually spiralling northwards, a tower of birds forming a slowly spinning column over the flat valley floor.’

‘On the third day of our stay we could see rain clouds building to the north. With rain looking likely I headed for one of the hides to be near shelter. Looking up I saw a huge tower of storks and cranes seeming to be horizontally static but just rising up and up. One by one the birds began to lower their undercarriages, arch their wings to release the air, appearing to sit on cushions of air with their ‘arms’ held crooked, necks erect... parachuting down in steady spirals like dandelion seedlings. At the last they would push down wings, flapping and stretching necks to aim for a landing place.
The far shore of the lake gradually blurring grey and white as the thousands of birds came to earth. Big birds allowing the imagination to trace out land and air masses.’

The complex geopolitical situation in Israel led to thought provoking juxtapositions of wildlife, landscape and the military. For American Barry Van Dusen this was an eye-opener: ‘The images of Israel that appear in the US are usually of a political or military sort – politicians making speeches, protestors waving signs, soldiers, tanks and fighter jets. I suppose it’s difficult to come to a place like Israel for the first time without a head full of misconceptions. Certainly, before receiving an invitation to join the ANF project, I had not given the natural history of Israel much thought.

Yet, working at a secluded spot deep in the Hula Agamon reserve, with the trumpeting calls of the cranes the only sound, the marsh felt like an ancient, timeless place. It was easy to forget that the area had been reclaimed from farmland only a decade ago. A better example of nature’s capacity to heal would be difficult to find. ‘

2010 marked a milestone year for the ANF with exhibitions in several countries to celebrate its twentieth year. So does Brouwers look back with pride over the ANF achievements and successes? It’s clearly something he has never considered; ‘Proud? Not really’, Brouwers says. ‘Maybe in ten years time or so, but I prefer to look ahead and not look back.’ His positivity and enthusiasm knows no limits and he regards the potential of art working for conservation likewise.

In those twenty years over 130 artists have been given an opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most special places and have forged friendships and relationships spanning nations. Brouwers has introduced many new talents to the wildlife art world and has given artists an international showcase for their work. He has created a stable of artists that can not only study and work in the field, but can produce art of the highest order.

Art can often be regarded as a singular pursuit but the ANF ideal has brought artists together for a greater good. Ordinarily, egos may be a problem when working cooperatively in any walk of life, but Brouwers has selected artists that build their art on a common philosophical foundation. If I think of wildlife art before 1990 and after, then undoubtedly the movement has grown and matured along with the ANF experience. Wildlife art owes Ysbrand Brouwers and Artist for Nature Foundation a big debt of gratitude.
Happy twentieth birthday ANF. Many thanks and here’s to the next twenty years.