Gary Cook on Antarctica and Trees
Gary Cook lives and works in Dorset, and is the Ecologist's Arts Editor. One of Gary's pieces highlighting the impending threat to the UK's ash trees was awarded the Strathmore Artist Papers "Best in Show" at the Society of Graphic Fine Arts Draw 2018. He has been working en plein air recording Dorset's classic woodlands in ethereal watercolour compositions. We ask him about his winning image and how his infocanvases are making an impact on raising awareness of environmental issues.
Tell us about the winning image.
Melbury Beacon is a wonderful local landmark in Dorset. It’s within an Area of outstanding Natural Beauty and, luckily for me, it’s also right on my doorstep. It’s a favourite spot for me to work year-round but when the low watery winter sun is peeking over the hillside, it is particularly magical. I find myself drawn back time and again to the ash woodland on its steeply sloping northern side. The ever-changing light means it’s always different and often completely mesmeric.
I paint in situ, completing around 90% of the piece in that one sitting. It is so peaceful up there on the Beacon and, usually, deserted too, which is helpful because it means I don’t get interrupted. Often, after a couple of hours, I suddenly realise that I am frozen because I haven’t moved at all but I hadn’t noticed because I am so absorbed in the process of capturing the subtlety shifting light and shadows. That’s when the flask of tea and cake come into their own.
The long title of the painting, 'Ten fifty eight: Melbury Beacon. Winter No5' is an attempt to highlight the threat of dieback disease to ash trees and the 1,058 species, from bats to beetles and lichens to mammals, that are dependent in some way on them. Sadly, experts predict we will lose 90% of the UK’s 70m ash to an airborne fungus within the next few years. It will change some of our most iconic landscapes completely - including areas in the Cotswolds, the Lake District and the Kent Downs. During my research, I was horrified to learn that all these interconnecting species will also be affected by the gradual death of the trees.
The painting is one of a series of 60, each with the names of some of the 1,058 species discreetly written into the background. I paint en plein air with a restricted watercolour palette in the summer, aiming to catch the season’s vibrant green and dappled light. I represent winter, when the trees are stripped of their leaves, by using ink to convey the monochrome starkness of the woods at this time of year. With both mediums, I start with the lightest, most distant areas and build up layers as I work forward to the darker details.
I was delighted when the piece was selected for the annual Society of Graphic Fine Art Draw competition. I have been a member for a while now and the standard of entry gets higher each year. I was both surprised and thrilled that ‘Melbury Beacon’ was awarded Best in Show at this year’s exhibition as there were so many inspirational pieces hung there.
I see you’re arts editor for the Ecologist, how did that come about? Has it impacted how you work? Your creative voice (you write well by the way!)? It must allow you to voice opinion to a wider audience and know that what you are doing is directed at an audience who can make a difference. Must be a good feeling?
I’ve had an interest in the environment since I was a teenager. I was a cross-country runner and used to train by running for miles through woodlands. I always felt a deep connection and a sense of wellbeing from being under the tree canopy. Nowadays, it’s called forest bathing, is very trendy and people spend a fortune to do it. What can I say? I was ahead of the times.
Before I earned my living standing in the woods painting/eating cake, I was an associate editor and the senior artist for The Sunday Times. I worked there for 26 years, often producing diagrams highlighting environmental problems. Covering news reports on climate change only intensified my concern for what’s happening to our planet. When a colleague at the newspaper became editor of The Ecologist she asked me to become the Arts Editor and I’ve really enjoyed it.
I find writing even more challenging than painting, but it gives me another opportunity to highlight the damage we are inflicting on our world and ourselves. It is also a real pleasure to interact with other ecologically-minded artists. It has been heartwarming to see just how many creative people are concerned about the environment, because, I believe, they are naturally more visual and able to observe on a forensic level and, therefore, be more sensitive to their surroundings. The chance to write about the work of other like-minded artists and share it with the hundreds of thousands of Ecologist readers has been really satisfying and so worthwhile.
I know from my years in the newspaper industry that people are more adept at absorbing detailed information if it’s presented in a visual way. As a result, it was a fairly natural progression to translate this approach from commercial to fine art. So that’s the how and why, when I left the paper four years ago, I settled on the idea of creating ‘infocanvas’ montages: a fusion of traditional painting and hard-hitting graphics.
A recurring theme of these pieces is the plight of the polar bear and how they are being affected by the rapidly melting sea-ice they need to survive. I have produced many paintings of a bear swimming, with facts and figures embedded around the image about man-made arctic warming. I try not to be too militant and keep the often-depressing information in the background so that the viewer has an emotional response to the artwork initially and can discover the messages only if they want to look deeper into the artwork. The paintings have sold to all different types of people, from one young guy at a Green Party exhibition to a grandmother who just thinks the bears look cute.
You went to Antarctica, that must have been an amazing experience? Can you tell us one highlight for you?
My trip to Antarctica was an incredible - and incredibly long - journey with many guilt-inducing flights and sea voyages to get there. One leg of the journey is a two-day crossing of the Southern Ocean from the tip of Argentina. It really made me realise how vast the world is. Fro two whole days, I saw only massive waves in the open sea - no land at all and the ship was cracking on at a pace. Nothing except sea and one lone albatross tracking our ship’s progress. The Antarctic is so remote, it feels like you have slipped off the planet by the time you get there and makes you feel quite insignificant. And when the icy mountainous continent gradually appeared on the horizon, it felt even more otherworldly than I had imagined. It was an awesome moment.
The other remarkable thing was to appreciate that not only does so much wildlife thrive here, despite the ultra harsh conditions, but also that the animals don’t know to be afraid of humans. As a species, we’ve only been visiting for just over 100 years - it’s the only place in the world where a human has never been born and it is amazing that other animals can survive here and even with all our technology, we still can’t really cope with this environment. We’d take little zodiac boats on to land every day (obviously you can’t leave any litter on the Antarctic but in this context litter includes pee so you have to time drinks to make sure you don’t need to go during an excursion, which can be, erm, interesting). We were also told not to disturb or go near the penguins - trouble is nobody told the penguins. As I stood sketching, they would waddle over to me and peck my boots.
Drawing in sub-zero temperatures was difficult. I would take off the outer mitten from one hand and draw wearing just a fingerless glove. But I could only do that for a few minutes at a time as the cold quickly became too much. The whales, seals, penguins and orca I was able to draw will, hopefully, be the basis of artworks in the future. I felt really privileged to have gone to such a pristine and remarkable place and the only way I can justify having visited is to use my work from there to highlight climate change and help alter attitudes.
I’m really enjoying working on a new series of tree paintings focussing on ancient oaks. My ash watercolours tended to be small, no larger than 12in by 8in: but I’ve gone big for oaks and some canvases are more than 5ft high. This has created its own challenge. I had commandeered our dining room as a ‘studio’ - but that’s now too small to accommodate these larger-scale pieces, so I’ve had to build a drawing board in our greenhouse: I guess it’s basically plein air painting lite.
I’m layering ink, charcoal and watercolour onto paper and it seems it is taking its toll of my health. In my efforts to get the darkest black I can out of the charcoal, I’m applying a lot of pressure to the paper and have picked up a repetitive strain shoulder injury. I’m not sure if that counts as suffering for my art? I can’t afford to stop though as I am building up a body of 40 pieces for my next solo exhibition called ’Tree.Life’ at Shaftesbury Art Centre Gallery in April 2019.
The exhibition theme centres on the fact that ancient woodland now covers just 2% of the UK and even this tiny acreage is under threat from industrial farming practices, development and HS2. It’s part of sad statistic that only 10% of England is covered by woodland of any kind, compared with a European average of 37%.
I’m finding the oak resonates with people even more than the ash. A huge part of our connection with the oak tree is that it symbolises enduring wisdom. I capitalise on this by measuring the trunk of each one I paint to calculate its age - some are up to 900 years old. It's an incredible thought and to contextualise this, I include within the painting a timeline of the historical events recorded since that particular acorn germinated and make people really think about what we’re losing. It’s an important message and I must stress, it is not as my wife sometimes suggests, just an excuse to stand among the trees, pretend that I’m working and eat lots of cake.
To follow Gary Cook's work and find out more where he is exhibiting check out:
The Ecologist: Latest articles published in The Ecologist
Here is a link specifically to my Antarctic trip