Q & A: Pollyanna Pickering, artist and wildlife conservationist

Pollyanna Pickering
Pollyanna Pickering on being one of the few westerners to see a giant panda in the wild, saving the Abyssinian Wolf and how art has led her to a greater appreciation of the natural world...

How did you become a wildlife artist?

I always loved drawing and painting as a child, and when I announced that I would like to go to art school, my headmistress summoned me to her office with a portfolio of my best work.

She looked through it in silence, slammed it shut, and said ‘You'll never make a living at that!' Luckily my parents had a little more faith in my abilities, and encouraged me to complete a foundation course at Rotherham Art College, and I then went on to study for a further three years at the London Central School of Art.

Although I didn't paint a single bird or animal the entire time I was art college, I began to go in that direction shortly after I went freelance. I have always loved wildlife, and I believe that that showed through in my paintings.

How important is conservation to your work?

The two are inextricably linked. I have always believed that it in order for me to fully capture the realism and vitality of my subjects it is vital to study and sketch them in their natural habitats, and so I have travelled to some of the most inhospitable places in the world to search for endangered species.

Because of this from my earliest journeys I started to see the huge impact we have had on the natural world, primarily through destruction of habitat - and also through poaching of endangered species.

I am fortunate that through my work I am able to raise awareness of some of the most pressing conservation issues facing us - I give around 100 talks every year to societies in the UK and abroad, and also talk about my work with wildlife in the media.

What campaigns are you focusing on at the moment?

I have just returned from Ethiopia, where I have been sketching the most endangered wolf in the world - the Abyssinian Wolf. Only around 500 of these elegant long-legged red coated wolves survive in isolated populations. I stayed and worked with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project, and am very keen to support their work.

Without their dedication I believe these animals would already have been wiped out by rabies. They are continuing in their vital field work, and in working closely with the local population to protect these beautiful animals and conserve their threatened habitat.

As a patron of Naturewatch I have just given my backing to their ‘Spotlight on China' campaign - an extremely ambitious Project with the ultimate goal of helping the Chinese authorities introduce and enforce animal welfare laws for the purpose of protecting domestic, farmed and captive animals in China. My major exhibition next summer will focus on the wildlife of China, and I hope to use it to raise awareness and funds for the campaign.

My last exhibition was part of the official celebrations of the Born Free Foundation's 25th anniversary, featuring a collection of work inspired by their international conservation projects focussing especially on their proposed new wildlife sanctuary in Ethiopia.

Next month I will be revisiting a cheetah re-location project based at the De Wildt Centre in South Africa - I act as UK Ambassador for this scheme which rescues cheetahs from farmland where they would be shot and rehomes them in safe reserves elsewhere in South Africa. So far over 140 cheetahs have been successfully relocated.

Finally a little closer to home I have just given my backing to the ‘Highland Tiger' project, which is working to conserve out own British Wildcat! They will be publishing a fundraising limited edition print from one of my paintings in the next few weeks.

What is the most moving experience you've had whilst sketching an animal?

When I first visited China in 1992 I worked in a tiny panda hospital on the Tibetan borderlands. One morning one of the Chinese workers beckoned for me to follow him out onto the mountainside.

We didn't have a common language so he couldn't say why - but I followed, and after trekking for about four hours, he led me to a wild giant panda, sitting high in the forked branch of a tree. I was able to get within about 15 feet of the tree to sketch.

At that time fewer that 50 westerners had ever seen a giant panda in the wild - and it was such an incredible privilege to stand on the mountainside watching this animal which has become an international symbol of conservation.

What animal do you personally most relate to?

Some days a swift and powerful cheetah, some days a rabbit in the headlights!!! Actually I think elephants are the most amazing animals - their lives run very parallel to that of humans in their length of childhood and their family structures - they even mourn their dead. The more I study all animals the more I become aware of their intelligence, emotions and remarkable social structures.

What is your art focusing on at the moment?

I have just finished work on 2011's calendars - and am now in the process of finishing the work of my annual winter exhibition in my own gallery in Derbyshire - this year it will be a Celebration of Scotland. I am also starting to work on paintings of the Ethiopian wolves for my forthcoming book about Wolves of the World.

What book or DVD would you recommend that all politicians should read?

My favourite book about conservation is Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams - it is amusing and accessible, but also thought provoking. While my ‘Born Free' exhibition was running I decided to re-read Joy Adamson's trilogy of books about Elsa the lioness.

At the end of the first book George Adamson writes "I really have no patience with people who maintain that an animal's life and actions are governed by pure instinct and conditioned reflexes. Nothing except reasoning powers can explain the careful strategy used by a pride of lions in hunting, and the many examples we have had from Elsa of intelligent and thought out behaviour".

I am convinced that the refusal to believe that animals have intelligence and emotions has conveniently allowed us to exploit them both individually and as species. Perhaps the politicians should read these classic and moving accounts in the hope they would then empathise a little more with those campaigning for improved animal welfare and other conservation issues!

Can you describe a typical day?

I rarely if ever have such a thing.... If I am at home I start work in the studio at around 8.00am, take a break for a light lunch at around midday, and then work through until around 6.00pm. Many evenings I then travel to give a lecture - depending on the venue I may have to stop work earlier in order to leave.

If I don't have an evening engagement I love to walk in the hills of the peak district where I live and work. However many days are taken up with meetings with my publishers, or galleries, or some of the organisations I work with.

I spend several months of each year working in the field, so I am often camping, or living in very basic conditions in some remote corner of the world!

What is your favourite meal, and made by whom?

I think the best meal I ever had was a toasted cheese sandwich, in a hotel in Canada after returning from an expedition to paint polar bears in the High Arctic. I had been travelling by dog sledge with the Inuit, and camping in tents and igloos.

Although I am vegetarian, I had accepted that I would have to eat meat while I was travelling in the far north - but hadn't realised it would be raw and frozen! After a few weeks of surviving on frozen caribou, seal meat and arctic char, the toasted cheese sandwich was the best sight in the world!

Where are you most happy?

Sitting out in the wilderness with my sketchpad. I have been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to some of the most unspoilt places remaining on the planet to paint wildlife. There is an amazing sense of tranquillity when I am out in nature away from all other distractions, and my focus is purely on trying to capture the animal or landscape in front of me in a few strokes of my pencil or brush.



Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Green Living Editor.


Pollyanna Pickering's forthcoming exhibitions for August, September and October

Date: July 23rd - September 13th
Event: Exhibition : Wonderful World
Venue: The Yard Gallery, The Courtyard Wollaton Hall and Park, Wollaton, Nottingham NG8 2AE
A one-man exhibition in the beautiful setting of The Yard Gallery - a vibrant exhibition space set within 500 acres of historic deer park.

Date: 7th September 7.00pm
Talk: An Evening with Pollyanna Pickering - Land of the
Thunder Dragon
Venue: Courtyard Room, University of Derby, Kedleston Road,
Derby DE22 1GB
Tickets are FREE, but must be booked in advance. Contact The Marketing Department, University of Derby, Kedleston Road, Derby, DE22 1GB or phone 01332 59118 or email a.wake@derby.ac.uk

Date: 12th September - 11th October
Exhibition: World of Wildlife
Venue: The Heron Gallery, Drove Rd, Weston-super-Mare Somerset BS23 3NW
Details: A one-man exhibition in the Heron Gallery - headquarters of The Wildlife Art Society International. The exhibition will run throughout annual Weston Arts Festival

Date : 21st November -6th December
Exhibition: A Celebration of Scotland
Venue: The Gallery, Brookvale House, Oaker, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 2JJ.
A new exhibition of original work in Pollyanna's private gallery.

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