We chose Gary's work to help engage people with the wider work of the Ecologist website and The Resurgence Trust charity which owns the site
Ecologist New Voices - Environmental artist Gary Cook
8th July, 2016
One of our New Voices is the UK-base environmental painter and activist Gary Cook who will be writing for us about the visual arts. As an introduction to his work, the committed conservationist explains how his extraordinarily powerful 'info-canvases' educate people about the threats to wildlife and the need for immediate action to protect our most endangered species for future generations.
With my info-canvases, I shine a spotlight on particular issues and, hopefully, help people to feel a more tangible connection to the environment.
The first thing I probably need to do is explain what an info-canvas is. I have coined the word to describe my fusion of traditional painting and hard-hitting graphics. My style has clearly been directly influenced by my background in the newspaper industry where I was an associate editor and the senior artist for The Sunday Times for 26 years, winning many international awards for my illustrations.
I covered many of the biggest stories of the day such as the Gulf War, the twin tower attacks, the Indian Ocean earthquake and the FIFA World Cup corruption scandal and learned how to convey complicated issues through simple images for maximum visual impact. I loved the cut and thrust of the newsroom but my passion is the environment and, eventually, I decided to leave the paper to concentrate on raising ecological awareness through my art.
With my info-canvases, I shine a spotlight on particular issues and, hopefully, help people to feel a more tangible connection to the environment. I want people to look at my work and be drawn in by a beautiful image, such as the polar bear. Then, on closer inspection, the viewer discover those shocking statistics subtly painted into the background that demonstrate how we are in danger of losing the very creatures we hold so dear because of how our behaviour affects them and their habitats.
To me, polar bears aren't just aesthetically pleasing - they are a potent symbol of what we stand to lose. I see them as a contemporary "canary in the coal mine", with the dangers that they now face in the Arctic acting as an early warning to us all of the potential global catastrophe to come. I want to illustrate how these extraordinary creatures are literally skating on thin ice, while, metaphorically, so is the rest of the world. I want to harness that emotional response to a beautiful animal to encourage the viewer to consider how we produce and use energy and to then feel motivated and inspired and care enough to press for change.
The background to this piece is the fact that, in the past, polar bears only had to swim short stretches between floes to hunt and breed. However, climate change has dramatically altered the polar landscape. Now, the bears are forced to swim long distances to survive. Horrifyingly, one tagged female was recorded paddling an incredible 426 miles in one stint. She lost 22% of her body weight and her cub died during her traumatic journey.
I wanted this info-canvas 'Polar swim' to highlight this appalling situation. Layered into the painting are facts and information about how the sea ice is dramatically shrinking as temperatures rise. In 2012, the North Pole lost 1.3 million square miles of summer ice compared with the 1979-2000 average. That's equivalent to the land area of x13 UKs.
I love to watch people view this work and see their initial delight at the sight of the bear apparently playfully swimming turn swiftly to disbelief and anger as they absorb the statistics. I hope that it will inspire some of them at least to think more deeply about how they live, how they use energy and choose their provider. My aim is always to produce a ‘lightbulb' moment - obviously of the state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly variety.
Society of Graphic Fine Art: sgfa.org.uk/members/gary-cook/
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