In the Field Series: Alison Nicholls Part 1

Alison Nicholls - Alison Nicholls
February 16, 2015 share
Artists for Conservation

In 2007, Alison Nicholls spent 6 weeks with the Painted Dog Conservation project in Zimbabwe, tracking and sketching highly endangered African wild dogs during her Artists For Conservation Flag Expedition. This is the 1st of a 3-part blog series about the expedition and how the experience changed her art and support for African conservation.

When I applied for the AFC Flag Expedition Program, I immediately knew that I wanted to sketch the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) or Painted Dog. I also knew that I wanted to partner with Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) situated on the edge of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Having spent several years living in southern Africa, I knew how elusive these highly endangered predators could be. The success of my expedition would hinge on finding and sketching the dogs, so I wanted to partner with a project where tracking dog packs was a daily activity. I had met Dr Gregory Rasmussen, founder of PDC, and knew of the wide range of PDC projects (anti-poaching patrols, a children's bushcamp, rehabilitation facility for injured dogs, crafts made from wire snares, education and healthcare awareness projects). It seemed like a perfect fit.

During my expedition I became keenly aware of the difficult nature of tracking the dogs. During my 6-week stay we encountered dogs only once per week, even when we were out tracking every day from dusk to dawn. We saw only 4 different individuals during the 6 week period and the largest group size we saw was 3 dogs. This was a particularly bad year for the dogs and although pups were usually found at this time of year, none had survived. New packs have subsequently appeared in the area and numbers have increased as pups survive to adulthood, but dogs still regularly fall victim to snares & road accidents. PDC continues to work with the local community to change attitudes to Painted Dogs and one of my recent paintings, titled On The Edge, involved a donation to their "Zero Tolerance to Wildlife Crime" campaign (read more about this in Part 3 of this series).

My AFC Flag Expedition drastically changed my art career in many ways. I now spend even more time sketching in the field, and I exhibit and sell my field sketches in addition to my larger studio paintings. Although my field sketching materials and methods are completely different to those of my studio paintings, I see field sketching as an equally valid art form in its own right, and a practice unequalled in terms of artistic training.

On return from my expedition I created a traveling exhibition and lecture series. Lectures are now an integral part of what I do, and speaking allowed me to think through and clearly articulate my working methods & aims.

I also found the experience of visiting a conservation project enlightening and completely different to my usual travels in Africa, in which I often try to spend time in the bush away from people. PDC's work to conserve Painted Dogs is inextricably linked to the local community and I found myself so fascinated by the complex issues involved that I created the 1st in a series of conservation-themed paintings. I now make a donation to African conservation from every single painting, sketch or giclée sale, and my desire to learn more about conservation on the ground in Africa resulted in a 2nd sketching expedition with the African People & Wildlife Fund in Tanzania, who I have visited 3 times. My body of conservation-themed artwork now includes pieces related to pastoralism, agriculture and human-wildlife conflict reduction strategies.

Read more about Alison's expedition in part two, coming soon.

Image credits:
"Dogs at Dusk" by Alison Nicholls, watercolor 12x12";
"Moonrise" by Alison Nicholls, acrylic 12x16" 


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