Painting the way to plant conservation.
by Alex Norelli
There are many ways to conserve knowledge in the face of environmental destruction and change. As healthcare in developing countries moves away from traditional methods, the plants that make up most treatments are at risk of losing the significance that has protected them and their habitat for ages. For one American watercolorist and a club of school kids in Kenya, a solution lies in painting. “The act of observing and responding brings one into the world,” says Deborah Ross, the founder of Olcani, a water-coloring club at an elementary school in Kenya.
“By focusing the children on painting plants and connecting the images with the plants’ medicinal functions, the project was able to showcase and give value to the community’s traditional knowledge.” The name of this group, Olcani is the Masaai word for both plant and, coincidentally, medicine, a fact that reveals the deep-seated value of medicinal plants to their culture.
The genesis of the project began more than two decades ago when Deborah was illustrating a book on Baboon behavior for the Usao Ngiro Baboon project in Kenya. “The local people were generous with their knowledge of the region’s ecology,” says Ross. “The idea for the project came to me as a way of giving back to the community and in 2008 the painting club came into being.” The club that Ross founded at the II Polei Primary School brought watercolor painting to Masai students’ fingertips. While beadwork and Ochre body painting are common in their culture, painting on paper is an imported art form. “The children who participated in the project had never painted before,” said Ross. “I did however view images of animals and hunters in the cave in the area.”
At first the kids chose plants growing around their school to paint, but they soon started bringing cuttings from their walks to school. And then there were guided trips by the community’s herbalist to identify, paint, and learn the uses of a colorful array of plants in their area. “They were particularly attracted to the bright colors of the tiny flowers that covered the semi arid landscape after the rains,” said Ross.
The over-exploitation of trees, the over-grazing of cattle, and sand harvesting all threatened the ecology of Kenya, but Deborah also asserts there are underlying causes, such as a lack of alternative means of revenue, lack of education and occupational training, as well as poverty. “In addition to land protection, the future of conservation in Kenya depends on improving the standard of living and economic opportunities for people in the region, creating economic incentives for conservation, and raising awareness and pride for the region’s unique natural and cultural heritage,” said Ross. “The need for conservation, conservation education, and local empowerment in Kenya is extreme. Olcani is a vehicle”
Deborah’s own work is an example of art’s place in the conservation of nature. Her great appreciation of plants and animals comes from decades of closely observing wildlife in their natural habitats, even leaning from plants how to paint animals better.
“The animals were always on the move, and out of frustration, I started looking for less mobile subjects to learn the craft,” said Ross. “Numerous little flowering plants appeared after the rains and I soon became engrossed in painting them. I was able to concentrate in a much more leisurely manner on color and form. This process honed my skills and enabled me to turn back to the animals with greater focus and precision.” However her great attention to the flora and fauna did have consequences. “Unfortunately while I lingered with the flowers,” said Ross. “I often lost my study troop and was left to wander alone for the rest of the day.”
Working in a technique derived from Oriental painting, with “broad sweeps of color” laid down to be followed with “a fine and telling detail—the arch of a wrist or the angle of brow line,” Ross prefers working directly from life to “portray the essence of a subject distilled during the moments of observation.”
As for the future, this upcoming summer Deborah will be teaching several water coloring programs in Madagascar funded by the Lemur Conservation Foundation. Her goal will be to teach water coloring to Malagasy artists on the island as a vocational skill for natural history illustration. As for Olcani, Deborah hopes that it will become a permanent part of the curriculum throughout Kenya with Kenyan teachers running the program. She hopes the project will continue to be a vehicle of environmental conservation through art, particularly in our time when computers seem to distance us from nature instead of bringing us closer to it. The unforeseen consequences of this may be that we forgo the experiences that make nature valuable to us, and make us care enough to want to conserve it. “In the long term biodiversity will suffer,” says Ross. “We cannot protect what we do not love.”
In the near future you will be able to see project updates at Olcani.com
All images courtesy of Deborah Ross.
You can see more of her work at www.DeborahRossArt.com and if you would like to purchase one of the Olcani booklets ($15, shipping included) you can contact her at email@example.com