[Art/Wildlife] Olly & Suzi - Arctic Desert Ocean Jungle
For the past 30 years, collaborative British artists Olly Williams and Suzi Winstanley have been engaged in a unique creative conversation with the endangered creatures, habitats and indigenous tribes of the natural world. Psychic Garden are honoured to introduce them as resident creatives.
"Our art making process is concerned with a collaborative, mutual response to nature at its most primitive and wild. Through live and direct interaction we aim to document the passing of animals, habitats and tribes that are here now but may not be for much longer. We make our work in response to the natural world from first hand experience. In this way the bush has become our studio." - Olly & Suzi
Since 1993, Olly & Suzi have taken part in more than 50 expeditions to some of the remotest regions of the Earth, from Africa to Venezuela to the Antarctic. The duo specialise in the painting of endangered wild animals in close proximity whilst in their natural and often hostile environments.
Unlike most artists, Olly & Suzi paint together on the same piece at the same time, each of them making their own marks on the paper, as they attempt to capture a likeness or spirit of the wild animal appearing before them. They create their work in response to the natural world from first-hand experience, from “ground-truth”. Tracking, remote region medicine, scuba-diving, and wilderness survival became as essential to their practice as the selection of environmentally friendly art materials and paper they used.
Their exceptional draftsmanship is full of love and adoration for the animals that they capture; their drawing and painting skills are unique, spared, schooled, vibrant and lyrical. Olly & Suzi have always tried to solicit assistance from their wildlife subjects during the creative process in the form of lion paw prints, gorilla finger holes, shark bite marks or Wild Dog urine.
Their interest in nature comes across as authentic; innocent and poetic, instead of being melodramatic and pumped up. All of their beautiful and engaging artwork seeks to capture the raw power and essence of these endangered animals & preserve a sense of nature's precious delicacy.
Nobody on earth does what Olly & Suzi do. Over the years they have created and gradually evolved their own unique artistic language by always working on the same painting at the same time, hand over hand, two minds to create one unifying expression in the heat of the moment, often while face to face with a mighty apex predators; Lions, Grizzly Bears, White Wolves, Elephants, Manta Rays, Sting Rays, Rhino, Cheetah, Buffalo, Polar Bears, Great White Sharks, Leopard Seals and Wild Dogs. Their work has always been focused on learning as much information as possible from wildlife.
Olly & Suzi are a unique artist. They combine into a single artistic personality - A hive mind: they draw and paint together on the same canvas, each with a hand on the same pencil, brush, burnt stick or Monkey tail. These are two people who are truly at one with nature, the whole world is their studio. (It's important to note that if they ever used a monkey's tail to paint with, that the monkey would have been alive and well, and probably sitting curiously on Suzi's shoulder as she worked) ~ Clive James
"They swim under Arctic Ice, dive deep into the gulf stream, plunge on undaunted through the tall African grasslands and jungles that growl and hiss. All of these places are inhabited by the types of creatures that most people would rather avoid. Olly & Suzi spend their lives finding them..." ~ Clive James
"When they do, they get as close as possible and make a portrait. They prefer it if the subject participates, in their own words, they 'encourage the animals to interact' with the art. If Olly & Suzi make a portrait of a Lion, you are likely to find the lion's signature on the paper along with theirs, a paw print of authentication." ~ Clive James - An excerpt taken from "Arctic Desert Ocean Jungle" (2003).
Today Olly & Suzi combine both a studio and wilderness practice. Their work has been held in private and public collections worldwide including; the Damien Hirst “murder me” collection, the UBS collection, the Astra Zeneca collection, the New Art Gallery, Walsall and the Natural History Museum in London where they held their own show between 2001-2002. They have always had high level supporters, but not the mainstream art world success that goes with it. Halfway between contemporary art and wildlife art, they have remained enigmatic outsiders to both worlds.
BEGINNINGS - (St Martin's, Syracuse, Germany, France)
Olly & Suzi first met as nineteen year old fine art students at Central St Martins School of Art in London in 1987, where they soon became an inseparable artistic duo, they spent three years in a state of constant experimentation and were always creating art together exclusively.
They were losing themselves in their work with plenty of time to think and with freedom to dream big. After weeks of experimenting with colour and form they were producing mono-prints, etchings and engraving, before their initial playful experiments with drawing and painting on the same piece of paper became their bespoke creative language. They soon decided to always work in this unique style; hand over hand on the same painting at the same time. They built up a strong trust in one another and were incredibly self motivated, making it their mission to create art together exclusively every day whilst distancing themselves from university life.
In 1988, six months into Olly & Suzi's creative alliance, they took up an exchange scholarship at Syracuse University in New York. It was to be the first of many journeys to unknown places for the duo and may have been the most important trip they ever made together. Syracuse was five hours away from New York City, deep in the heart of Mohawk and Onondaga Indian Territory, between the Adirondack Mountains to the north east and Lake Ontario to the north west. It was here at Syracuse that they discovered Native American art and learned of the Mohawk/Iroquois belief in ‘animals as brothers’. This ethos would have a profound impact on them both and remains their key subject to this day, the idea of 'animal as icon'.
Olly & Suzi learned about the local history and traditional Indian beliefs. They read the story about the 'hare and the blood clot', the beginning of human life (Mohawk myth describes a hare kicking a blood clot in the dust to shape and form mankind). They also learned of the universal Indian respect of all animals (they are seen as relatives), and soon came to know all the different types of local wildlife, including black bears, eagles, moose and foxes that lived in the nearby woods and mountains and soon became the ideal subjects for their first paintings in the wild.
"I have noticed in my life that all men have a certain liking for a special animal, tree, plant, or spot of earth... Let a man decide upon his favourite animal and make a study of it, learning its innocent ways. Let him learn to understand its sound and motions. The animals want to communicate with man" - Brave Buffalo, Sioux Nation ~ (Olly & Suzi's key inspiration)
For economic reasons they made all their new paintings on brown wrapping paper, which they sized with acrylic copolymer. Mixing cheap poster colours with the plastic emulsion and drew in graphite, oil stick and Chinese ink. Indian legends, bears, horsemen, peanuts bags, Cadillacs, famous boxers, whales, guns, and fighting fish became their subjects. They wrote their thoughts and anecdotes on the paintings and juxtaposed their frenzied mark-making with iconic images of animals, skulls and floating shamen.
Over the next three months, Olly & Suzi wasted no time and made over twenty-five large scale works and hundreds of drawings. Paintings entitled 'Red Moose', 'Pink Teacup', 'Yellow Whale', 'White Bull', 'Bear', 'Greg is Wocked', 'Chocolate Covered Peanut' and 'Arsenio', hung five deep and covered their downstairs studio like worn tapestries. They painted twelve hours a day, every day, until they had said what they wanted to say.
Layers upon layers of thick paint and ink covered the works, the heady smell of oil sticks filling every corner of their home studio. They managed to sell their first works to dealers and collectors, they were wined and dined, misled and lied to. They met with every gallery in town, and with each rejection their resolve to collaborate was strengthened. Olly & Suzi shared both the success and the failure, but more importantly, these 20 year olds knew they could make it as artists. Being based in New York in the 1980's gave them the feeling like everything was possible, they could do anything.
Inspired by their first journeys into the North American wilderness and Mohawk Indian conservation wisdom, they were struck by a simple realisation; if they wanted to truly understand and document the nature of wild animals they needed to get out of their urban comfort zone and make the work where the animals actually lived, in the wild. After working for six months in Kenya and South Africa, Olly & Suzi were inspired and invigorated and began planning their first collaborative art trips to Africa. They saved up enough in 1994 to put their new plan into action. This was when Olly's brother, Greg Williams, first joined them and added a new and entirely dynamic photographic dimension to their artwork in the bush.
Chapter One - DESERT (Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana)
KENYA - Camels and Hippos (1995)
Olly & Suzi's first safari to East Africa together, specifically Kenya and Tanzania, was in 1995. They spent three months travelling along the Ewaso Njiro by camel and then explored the Ololo Escarpment and then traversed up across the Chalbi desert to reach Lake Rudolf (Lake Turkana).
Olly & Suzi worked in Naivasha with friends who lived on the lake, where they got the chance to paint wild hippos, before they travelled through Tsavo to Shimoni where Olly had worked running a diving operation in the Kisti marine reserve in 1994 where he first trained Suzi to dive.
They then drove south to the border at Tanga and carried on until they reached Mkomazi National park, where they first met the legendary Tony Fitzjohn and got their first chance to paint African Wild dogs.
"My shot (above) of Suzi and our camel and Samburu guide Idi on our first African expedition to walk the Ewaso Njiro river in Kenya’s NFD. It was on this epic walk we tracked and painted our first large bull elephant in the wild." ~ Olly Williams
"Suzi’s favourite elephant painting (above). Based on the first bull elephant we saw together in Ewaso Njiro, painted 25 years later. That moment stayed with us forever" ~ Olly Williams
TANZANIA - African Wild Dog (1995)
Olly & Suzi have spent a great deal of time over their artistic career working with the legendary wildlife conservationist pioneer Tony Fitzjohn and his wife Lucy Fitzjohn, who they first met in 1995 in Tanzania, months after Olly & Suzi had left art school and first travelled to East Africa. It was here at Mkomazi that Olly & Suzi found their favourite subject; the African wild dogs. One of Africa's most enigmatic and persecuted apex predators.
After many years of working with lions at Kora with George Adamson, Tony Fitzjohn is helping to preserve the wild dog, Africa's most successful hunter. Working with Tony in Mkomazi, Tanzania, we were able to make a series of drawings and paintings of these beautiful dogs inside their breeding enclosure. Wild dogs, like wolves, are gregarious, social and intelligent predators who are surprisingly tolerant of man ~ Olly & Suzi