Clare Shenstone is an English painter who holds a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art. Shenstone’s portraits exist in some of today’s most prominent public and private collections including The National Portrait Gallery and The Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury collection. Shenstone has been awarded the Brian Sinfield Fine Arts Award (2000) and the Public Choice Award, Hunting Art Prize (2001). Shenstone began her career as an artist, following her graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1979. Her portraits have since become internationally renowned, particularly those of Francis Bacon, her mentor and subject for many years.
Clare has worked tirelessly over the past few months to paint a series of pictures featuring species which appear on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This beautiful collection of pictures is being used by Synchronicity Earth to create a unique deck of playing cards designed to help highlight the extinction crisis that is threatening the survival of many of the world’s species.
I sat down with Clare to ask her about her work and about what motivated her to get involved in this unique project.
Q: When did you first start drawing and painting animals?
Clare Shenstone: I started drawing and painting before I went to school, it was an obsessive activity for me. I had an uncle who was a vet… Now I had always adored animals, but this uncle could not cope with putting animals down – the kittens people were not able to keep, or the old dogs on their last legs – so, when my mum was out collecting us from school, he used to come and leave a basket on the doormat and of course we would take in all these animals. We knew it was blackmail, obviously, because as soon as you had this little orphan animal, no matter what age, if you said “no we can’t look after it”, you knew that it was going to die.
I have never, in a very fundamental way, thought of humans and animals as being separate. I feel very much the same about an animal as I do about a person, and I have always felt this. I did not know anybody else felt differently…
Q: When you were older, you studied Fine Art at the Royal College of Art. During this period, how did you find animal subjects to paint?
CS: When I was at the Royal College, I was trying to get life classes going because nobody seemed to be able to draw, particularly the tutors, who could not draw to save their lives! But I could not get a model, so I started going off to the Natural History Museum. I used to just spend all day every day in the museum drawing skeletons. I went for the skeletons, because I like to draw movement. I want what I draw to be alive. Just because the animal is dead and it is only a skeleton, there is still this sense that it had its life and it has got its spirit and this is still there in the skeleton. Whenever I was looking at skeletons, I was seeing things in them. In all of them there is the reference to the human skeleton as well, and the connections between all of us – animals and people – are so absolutely clear when you see them this way. That was something I found fascinating and that is what I was looking at, even in skeletons of dinosaurs.
I also used to go to London Zoo, quite early in the morning, before it opened to the public. Some of the Royal College students could go there for free on Tuesdays. Strictly speaking, it was only the Graphics students who were allowed to go there – I was Fine Art – but I was never the kind of person to worry about that sort of thing…
When I went to the zoo, I could not bear seeing apes in cages, behind glass, and when you looked at the gorillas, there would be this gorilla sitting there and the way he looked at you, the torture of him being there, with these people coming past him all the time and taking flash photographs of him. Horrible!
But it was there that I met an orangutan for the first time. This orangutan was at the back of her enclosure and I immediately wanted to draw her.
So, I would sit and draw her and they used to bring her some fruit so she would come to the middle and have some food. Making contact with her took some time, but I would come and she knew that I was drawing. She knew that the way I was looking and the contact I was making was totally different to the normal human being, I was very aware of that, because she became interested.
I do not know how long I had been coming to draw her when one day she suddenly came down her enclosure, right up to the glass and she wanted to see what I was doing. I picked up the sketch book and showed her and she really looked at it. When I put it down, she put her hand against the glass, where the book had been, and I put my hand right on top of hers and – you know when you feel as if your heart is going to stop? It was utterly extraordinary because the contact was so total, there was nothing between us except this piece of glass….
Q: When you paint people, your approach seems to be to keep painting somebody until you feel you have truly captured the essence of that person, and this may mean painting many different versions of a picture. Does your approach to drawing and painting animals differ in any way?
CS: I have exactly the same attitude to drawing a person as drawing any animal or even plant. First of all, my approach, what I am going for, is what I call underneath the mask. I am trying to capture the life behind the mask. Somebody once came to see my pictures and told me that I do not paint people, I paint feelings. I had never thought about it like that, but that is what I am trying to get at.
Q: For this series of endangered species, you have had to paint from photo-graphs, for logistical reasons, and of course because many of the subjects are so endangered. What does that change about your approach?
CS: When I realized that I would need to use photographs as the basis, I did not even think of them as photographs. I think of them as images that I am taking and giving life to. Now, I said that I wanted to draw movement, because when you draw you need to be so accomplished and to have done so much with eye and hand that it becomes automatic. You can forget about all the technicalities and use your marks to make your subject alive. Each mark must be alive, must be part of this living thing. Each little mark is to indicate energy, feeling coming off the creature or the face or the human being or the beetle – it does not matter what it is – and identify with what it is feeling.
The potential for movement must always be there, for me, otherwise the image is dead.
When I am painting, I am not trying to copy the outline of an animal for someone to be able to recognise it, I am not trying to produce an illustration. I cannot see the point of just copying things. I am trying to produce something that will make a connection. And I hope by doing that I am making the viewer look at the image and identify with it, because that is what communication is about.
Q: For many years, you have suffered from a serious illness. What is your illness and how does it affect your work?
CS: I was told at the beginning of the year 2000 that I had a disease of the lungs which was incurable and that there was not very much they could do. In fact, I was told by Charing Cross hospital that I would be a paraplegic within 2 years. The disease is called Mycobacterium Avium-Intracellulare (MAI) and it is a form of Tuberculosis, but it is not straightforward Tuberculosis, and it is not contagious. I have it due to a congenital fault in my immune system – most people’s immune system would kick it out, but I have a problem with bacterial infection, because I do not have the right set up in my immune system.
I have multiple infection in my lungs – I have up to 15 infections that they have identified which are all drug resistant, which means I am put on drugs, and one antibiotic will put down one strain but then another strain will take advantage. But the trouble is, as you go on, there comes a point at which no known antibiotic will work anymore, and I have been on multiple different antibiotics since 2000. On top of that I have very severe Bronchiectasis, which is a disease, again which you can treat, but you cannot get rid of. It destroys the little alveoli in your lungs, so over a period of time you just lose your lungs. I have reached a point now where there is no drug that will work.
Q: You have said that working is what keeps you going…
CS: I have got so much I want to do, so much I must do, so I have to keep going. But the trouble is I cannot get about! I can only walk a short distance and I cannot breathe very well anymore, and if I caught a cold it could kill me. My immune system is not very good, so to go on the Tube would not be wise, and I cannot get up and down the stairs anyway. So, I am restricted. I am quite happy just to keep working, but nobody sees it because I am not getting it out there, and that is a big problem. I desperately want people, everyone, to see my work, but I am not physically able to do all the networking.
Q: When you say you have got so much you must do still, what is it that you feel you have to do?
CS: I have a particular project I want to work on, but time is really precious. I am going to create some images that are related to what we are doing to the world and to ourselves. It is quite simple really, but I have got to get the images out. I know where I want to start and how I want to do it, I just do not know what the images are yet, the ones that are going to work.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with the work you have done with Synchronicity Earth? What is your motivation for painting these vulnerable and threatened species?
CS: It is exactly the same motivation as I have for painting people and any animal, any life. It is to engage the person looking at the work, to draw them into recognizing something of themselves and therefore feeling a connection between what I am putting on the paper or the canvas and themselves, personally. This is what I have always been drawn to in other people’s work – when something happens between you and the image. When an image communicates, it is an extraordinary thing. It makes me feel that human beings – who can never really know what each other is thinking – and of course this is even more true with animals – can communicate through a true artist, through time and through distance. Somebody in 100, or 200 years’ time can see an image, be drawn straight into it and realise that life does not change, the experience of life is shared by everyone and everything on the planet and that is incredibly precious.
Unless we start respecting each other, and understanding how important and how difficult it is to communicate with each other, then things are just going to go from bad to worse…
Q: How important can artists be in raising awareness of the harm we are doing to the incredible variety of species and ecosystems on our planet?
CS: I think it depends on the artist and their motivation. You see, I believe that somebody like Damien Hirst is extremely important in highlighting the importance of being aware. When I first saw his earlier work, I thought it was brilliant, because it took people out of their comfort zone and shoved what was going on right up in their face. Some of his works were extremely powerful, but a lot of people think that what he is doing is simply exploiting the animals or insects to create something over-dramatic, but it is shock value that makes people think about things. What I felt when I was looking at those works is that he is absolutely spot on with what everyone, all the human beings on this planet are doing to it. And because it is violent and it is distasteful – a cow’s head with flies living in it and so on – it is disgusting, but that is what we are doing: what we are doing to the world is disgusting.
Q: And yet your work shows the beauty of the natural world, and its aim is to inspire empathy in people, so it is almost like that is the opposite end of the spectrum from what artists such as Damien Hirst are doing?
CS: Yes, I would agree with that, but as an artist you must be truthful to yourself and if Damien Hirst’s way of seeing the world is through that form of expression, then he has to follow that, otherwise what he does will not actually work at all. It will not communicate. And I have to do the same, I have to do what is deep inside me. I am not trying to make my work beautiful at all, I am trying to make it full of emotion and what I feel.
Q: Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) says: “Artists in a sense are the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream, they sense trouble early…”. As an artist, is it that ‘you have got something to say’ or is it just that your art says something whether you like it or not?
CS: I want to answer your question in a certain way and I am not sure how to put it into words. I have the attitude that artists or so-called artists can produce their work for whatever their own reasons are. This might be because they want to be known as famous artists, and they want lots of money and prestige. It is quite possible that that is one of Damien Hirst’s motivations. But the work is something else.
How good they are and what their work actually does when it goes out and people look at it may not be anything to do with their motivation or anything that they are even conscious of…. It does not matter, it is the work that matters. The artist does not always know what they have done, until it is objectified and it gets feedback, so perhaps it is the case that your art says something whether you like it or not.
I do not know what artists can do apart from educate themselves as to what is happening in the world, be very aware, and care about what is going on and allow that to come out when they are working, without manipulating it in any way. And it will. You cannot create work wondering how you are going to do something that will make people have a different attitude.
Q: So that is never in your mind – you never start out with that?
CS: It cannot be. It is more about other people recognising something. It is like Jessica (Sweidan, co-founder of Synchronicity Earth) or you seeing my work and saying this is what we are getting from it and we can use that to help benefit this cause. Are you sympathetic to that cause or would you like that to happen, and of course my enthusiasm for that is enormous!
Q: So are we, in a sense, appropriating your work and using it to match our own conservation ends? Are you happy with that?
CS: I am ecstatic with that! Because throughout my life painting, I have always asked myself, what good am I doing? I am very aware of that, and I ask myself what good I am doing spending my life working on my own ‘indulgence’ of painting pictures. It is absolutely wonderful to feel that what I am doing might be used to serve a cause that I care so much about.
Q: From the perspective of Synchronicity Earth, we feel incredibly lucky that we can benefit from your work in this way. If through your art we can provoke reflection about the extinction crisis, about the loss of vast populations of species and degradation of their habitats, and the destruction we are wreaking on the planet and on ourselves, then we really will have achieved something. Of course, we would like people to get involved in some way. If someone wants to donate money to a particular project or issue, that is fantastic, but the first step is to create a connection, to give pause for thought, and your work can help us to do that. Thank you.
Interview by Jim Pettiward
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.