This is not my story. I sat on the sidelines and watched. This is the story of two very brave men who risked everything to prove that art could affect conservation. I am proud to count Jeffrey Whiting and Stephen Quinn of Artists for Conservation as my friends and colleagues.
Three and a half days ago they went on an epic journey, one that brought them to great heights and tested their endurance beyond anything they had ever experienced. They traveled in to deepest Africa, to the Democratic Republic of Congo to climb a mountain. In the name of Artists for conservation they climbed.
The mountain they climbed was Mikeno. It took a year of planning and a complete lack of fear. These two brave men, with the help of DRC trackers set out to find an exact geological location without the help of computers, GPS units or satellite images.
They used a painting as a map.
In 1926 Carl Akeley created a Diorama for the American Museum of Natural History. To do that he traveled to Africa, along with top artists, chose the most beautiful spot in all of Africa, and recreated it. Literally transported it home where it still stands today. The painting that stands behind the impressive Gorillas at AMNH is precise. It represents a single spot, at a specific point in time in ecological history.
To Stephen Quinn, this caused a problem. Thousands of people see the diorama every day, never questioning that this is what Africa looks like. He wanted to show the changes in the environment, and at the same time pay tribute to his idol.
So Stephen and Jeff used the painting to go back. The tale they brought back will blow your mind.
It started with a grueling seven hour climb to Kabara, the site of Akeley’s Gorrilla camp, and incedently his burial site. (there is an incredible story here, but I will let Stephen tell it) Stephen suffering from altitude sickness. They reached the site and knew instantly that the plan to only take 2 days to complete their task was impossible. The trip would need to be extended.
Extend it they did. The first day due to communication error they climbed to the top of mikeno to realize that they had traveled up the wrong mountain. Without an ounce of dismay they turned around and hiked again. This time with success.
Jeff describes Stephen at this moment. He was adrenalyzed. The spot matched the painting perfectly. Without a doubt, they had done it. Their guides explained that they were the first white men to hike to this space in years, if not decades.
They hiked back to camp and passed out. No one had planned to stay this long… There was no food.. there was little water. They weren’t hungry.
The next day was filled with painting. They hiked back to the spot and Stephen set up his ancient wooden easel and he went to work. No photos required, no technical gizmos. Just a man and a brush. It was freezing cold at the top of the mountain, but Stephen explained to me that he didn’t feel cold, he was working on adrenalin.
Hours passed. It was obvious to both men that much had changed. Man had moved in to the most beautiful spot in all of Africa, and it would never be the same. Below you could see refugee camps, clear cutting, and a radio tower at the top of Karisimbi. I think Mr. Akeley would have been sincerely saddened if he had seen what man had done to his funeral pyre.
The painting is complete now, wrapped in saran wrap and padded to protect it. It is on a plane that will eventually take it home. Stephen is about to show the world that the Mountain Gorilla habitat is being destroyed, in the most touching and personal way he can, with his art.
I believe in what Stephen has done. There is no way to describe the changes. We are too caught up in our precious civilization to care about what is happening. We sit upon a precipice. One step in either direction and we will either fail or succeed. Jeff and Stephen have taken a step today. A painting in the middle of nowhere may seem a small thing, but not to me. This painting represents a step in the right direction. A step towards knowledge and understanding.
My time in Africa isn’t over, but it only really began the day that my friends came back from the DRC. I can’t wait to see what happens next. There are people like my friends at MGVP who are continuing along in Carl’s legacy. Hopefully they can quell the avalanche.
Photos Courtesy of Molly Feltner, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project