How Alexander McCall Smith follows Joni Mitchell and Dame Judi Dench in using artistic talents to save endangered wildlife from extinction
Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith has turned his hand to art to help save big cats, giraffes, elephants and other endangered wildlife across the globe.
The 44 Scotland Street and No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency writer has created an original picture with an accompanying poem that will hang in an annual showcase of artworks that will be sold off to raise money for conservation projects.
The initiative, Sketch for Survival, is the brainchild of conservation charity Explorers Against Extinction, which works to recover key species and restore eco-systems worldwide.
Exhibitions are being staged in galleries in Edinburgh, Norwich and London. There will be an online auction where anyone can bid for the special one-off pieces.
McCall Smith joins a long list of celebrities who have donated art for the cause over the past seven years since it first began. Contributors include singing and song-writing legend Joni Mitchell, whose picture has raised the highest ever amount (£17,000), Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley.
This year more than 4,000 artists of all ages, from around 100 nations, answered the open call to submit artworks featuring threatened species or at-risk wild spaces, with the youngest artist aged just two years old.
Sketches have also been donated by the charity’s patrons – renowned explorers Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Levison Wood, Benedict Allen and Colonel John Blashford Snell.
All proceeds will go to supporting the charity’s projects, which range from protecting spectacled bears in the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary in Peru to de-snaring activities in Zambia’s South Luangwa national park.
Explorers Against Extinction’s Partnerships to Protect the Wild scheme has already enabled on-the-ground conservation in 28 different countries, from Indonesia to Brazil, with more than £360,000 donated so far. The charity staged a special exhibition in Glasgow in 2021 as part of the UN COP26 climate summit.
Edinburgh-based McCall Smith, who was raised in Zimbabwe, said the inspiration for his sketch came from a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a gorilla in Africa that will remain with him forever.
“I very much support this cause,” he said. “Some years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
“I shall never forget the moment that we came face to face with these gorillas in thick jungle. That moment was in my mind when I drew the picture and wrote the poem Mountain Gorilla.”
The list of established artists who have donated work to be sold is almost too long to mention, but includes Scotland’s Rogue One and Carol Barrett.
Their work will feature in the On the Brink section of the exhibition – a special collection by leading international artists, including Frank Pretorius, Michael Dumas, A E London, Sarah Stribbling, Sophie Green, Maggie Robinson, John Banovich and Nick O'Neill.
Barrett has spent more than 40 years drawing and painting wild animals of every sort and is a long-time supporter of conservation. These days all her work is donated to raise funds for a number of wildlife charities she is involved with, including Explorers Against Extinction.
“If I was to sum up why I’m now donating 100 per cent of my artwork to help conservation, it is simply because I cannot bear to think of a world without elephants, cheetahs, wild dogs, lions or rhinos,” she said.
“Tragically the list of endangered animals is frighteningly long, but I have to believe the fragile situation with wildlife and nature can bounce back if it’s thrown a lifeline. This will allow future generations the continued joy of sharing the planet with these iconic species.”
Explorers Against Extinction was established in 2017 by co-founders and trustees Sara White and Robert Ferguson, who had run a safari company. It was born out of a love for travel and being out in the wild.
White said: “The more we travelled the more we noticed, from the increasing pressure on protected areas and the people living alongside them, to subtle changes in the weather patterns and densities of wildlife in places we had visited for years.
“We were conscious of the carbon footprint of our own travel and of the travel industry.
“Our safari business focused on high-quality, low-density travel, using small camps and local guides. It made perfect sense to us that we invest time and money into safeguarding these special wild places and supporting local communities.
“With safaris considered a 'bucket list' experience, we also wanted to find a way to connect with more people and to raise awareness as well as funds for different projects all around the world – that's what led us to art, and in particular the Sketch for Survival idea.
“At the time, African elephants were being lost at an average rate of one every 26 minutes due to poaching. Sketches provide a brilliant visual cue, taking a similar amount of time to do, and they are affordable to purchase when compared to large, complex studio pieces.
“Wildlife sketching is also very accessible to children. The art provokes interesting, sometimes difficult conversations, and it's also really memorable.”
White is delighted the exhibition is being hosted in Edinburgh again this year.
She said: “The Dundas Street Gallery is going to be brimming with art, from the work of Sketch for Survival finalists and celebrity supporters to our On the Brink collection, featuring some very well-known artists.
“These include Edinburgh’s own Carol Barrett, who has been a tremendous support since we founded Explorers Against Extinction. Carol is joined by a fellow Scot, Glaswegian street artist Rogue One.
“We are delighted to also showcase the beautiful work of international artists. It really is a feast for the eyes.”
The Scottish part of the exhibition is at the Dundas Street Gallery in Edinburgh from October 26 to 29, with an online fundraising auction concluding on November 12. A further selection of artworks are available to buy via the Explorers Against Extinction website.
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