The Art of Nature Connection
Last year was the summer of giant, colourful gorillas across our island. Fabulous life-size works of sculpture, subject to the imagination of artists from far and wide. Our Go Wild Gorillas sculpture trail aimed to be fun, exciting, thoughtful and, due to its very nature, it would get people out and about exploring Jersey to track these magnificent silverbacks. But what can we really say about the use of the arts in nature connection and species conservation? Is it just fun, or something deeper? For me, it goes beyond the obvious, into how we interact and make sense of the world and our place in nature.
First, let's remind ourselves about nature connection. In our Rewild our World strategy, which governs all our work, we have committed to helping one million people feel better connected to nature. 'Nature Connection' refers to a person's beliefs about the extent to which they are part of the natural environment. It has been demonstrated to be a powerful underlying structure, impacting our values, our self-identity, attitudes and ultimately pro-environmental behaviour. We have all experienced the pleasure of a woodland, a sandy beach, a view for miles across countryside. We like how it feels, and intuitively we know it's 'good for us', but we seldom stop to consider it in a mindful way. We also know from multiple studies that children who have extensive nature connections will grow into adults who are more protective of nature. We also know that children draw freely, only tending to stop when others suggest, either directly or indirectly, that some people are 'good' at drawing and some people' bad'. What a tragedy – everyone can draw and we know that art practice actually helps people in multiple ways, from being in art classes and socialising, to slowing the progress of some forms of degenerative brain disease as we age. Art therapy has been used extensively with patients suffering both physical and mental ill-health, and has been shown to improve mood, and reduce perception of pain and anxiety. Put art and nature together and I think we have a free-for-all wonder drug!
The importance of art in human culture is notable, having been observed in cave and rock art in very early human civilisation. Intriguingly, animals are by far the most depicted aspects found in early cave art, indeed the most depicted images in all early figurative art. It has been suggested that this 'storage of external information' is due to the reliance early humans had on animals for their survival, either as sources of food or to be avoided as large predators. Simply put, can I eat it or will it eat me?
There is evidence that even amongst the earliest peoples moving to new areas. Not only did they bring artistic methodology and traditions, but they responded to the environment around them by developing new imagery. This is seen in the Sahul region (New Guinea, Australia, and Tasmania), populated 45,000 years ago, where paintings and carvings showed distinctive styles and views.
Rock art can also tell us about humans changing relationship with nature, away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agricultural settled peoples, as the form of art undertaken moves from the naturalistic animal designs to more stylised forms of animals, more human forms and geometric designs.
In medieval art there is a plethora of images depicting human-animal hybrids, suggestive that the separation of humans from other animals, as apart from nature, is a more recent construct, and that previously animals and humans were viewed as interchangeable in nature. Young children happily make hybrid animals when drawing, with their closer association with nature, perhaps freeing them to experiment and translate that they are connected to animals around them. Animals continued to be a popular aspect of visual arts throughout history and remain so to this day.
Many contemporary artists use nature in their art and very specifically highlight environmental issues. The Danish artist Thomas Dambo makes wonderful giant trolls out of recycled materials and 'hides' them in woodlands to be discovered. Whilst focusing on a message of recycling, the fact that people have to be out in nature to find them will help stimulate opportunities for connection to nature.
Last year on Jersey we saw the fabulous, Millions of Penguins exhibition by local artist Nick Romeril. It was incredibly popular, not only due to the wonderful images that Nick created and his impressive skill, but also because people really like penguins. Having been a penguin keeper when I was younger, I can say he really captured their spirit and attitude, not just their outward visual appearance. This was a truly joyful set of images.
So, the next time you are out for that walk in nature, take a little sketch book. Have a go. It doesn't need to perfect, it doesn't have to be seen by anyone else, but it will make you look that bit more closely at the view, a leaf, a flower, or a bird. See it as an artist, and feel that little bit more connected.
This article is adapted from the original published in Wild Life magazine 2019 Issue 1.
Image credit: Dürer’s Rhinoceros a woodcut from 1515 by Albrecht Dürer, Little Tilde by Thomas Dambo.
Posted 13 July 2020