Monday 31 December 2012

Ending the year in fine fashion

For the past two weeks, and with one more to go, I've been living an idyllic sort of life. I already think of my life as pretty great given I'm able to make my living making art, but right now it's almost too good to be true. I wake up every morning to things like this:

Anthurium lilies growing in a sheltered garden on the grounds of my apartment.
... and this... 
Royal Terns roosting on a fishing boat just a few yards from my doorstep.

I eat fresh, sun-ripened fruit (I'm absolutely addicted to papayas)

I walk on the beach, most days I swim, some days I snorkel, every day I do a bit of work. And the end of each day looks something like this:

Kids playing on the beach at sunset.

This 2' x 3' table is my studio:


It's not much in terms of square footage but the view is pretty spectacular!

I'm enjoying life in Grenada - a small, green Caribbean island with archetypal sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. I have the good fortune to be ensconced in an apartment at the end of Grand Anse beach - a 3 km stretch of sand that's hailed as one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. Sometimes I almost need to pinch myself to be sure I'm not dreaming.

Grenada is home to about 95,000 people, and the ones I have met have been friendly, congenial folks. The island was basically flattened by Hurricane Ivan a few years ago, which destroyed, among other things, the nutmeg trees this place is famous for (they're now re-growing), and a couple of decades prior to that the island experienced internal conflict that saw many lives lost and brought about an unprecedented invasion of U.S. troops. A casual visitor would never know this place has such a troubled past, but the way of time is to keep moving forward, healing old wounds as it goes.

Being here has caused me to reflect on my life as an artist and just how fortunate I am. I work hard but I never fear that I won't have food or shelter, or that I will go without the other basic necessities of life. I have met people who call this place home, who lived through political upheaval that included the violent execution of their prime minister, and whose homes were destroyed by the forces of nature. I have spoken with people whose livelihood depends on tourist dollars, and some of their stories make me sad and ashamed. Through anecdotes and first-hand observation, I have learned and seen just how rude many visitors are, and how poorly some of them treat local folks who are trying to keep body and soul together by selling cold drinks on the beach, or fresh-cooked lunches, or tours of the island, or baskets of spices, or hand-made necklaces. Many of the perpetrators appear to be cruise passengers whose ships make one-day calls in Grenada's beautiful harbour of St. George. I can only suppose they have no empathy for what it's like to really struggle for the next meal, the next rent payment, the next pair of shoes for a child in a place where job options are few. If they did, they would at least be polite about saying "no thank you" and maybe share a few words of conversation instead of pretending they can't hear or see the person in front of them who is offering their services. I have also heard sad stories of cruise ship workers who spend long months at sea, far from their families, working endless, difficult shifts because that's one of the few job options available. Some of them are even indentured to "brokers" who find the cruise ship jobs for them, and they must work off those fees before they can begin to keep any hard-earned money for themselves. I realize I am very lucky to have the choices I do. I know all about working long shifts, but in my case it's a labour of love and the benefits of being self-employed include the opportunity to take time in the dead of the Canadian winter to head south to places like this. I am indeed fortunate and I am continually grateful for my good fortune. I do not, for one moment, take it for granted.

But Grenadians appear to be a cheerful, hardworking, resilient bunch who don't need me to stick up for them. And anyway, I'm sure that some day Kharma will do its thing and the tables will turn. I am of the belief that this is one of the most beautiful places on earth and hopefully one day, in combination with good jobs and a strong economy that isn't dependent on tourism, it could fulfil its potential as paradise! In the mean time, I do my best to be an aware visitor to this place, buying local products from local people (the fresh fruits and vegetables in the St. George market are second to none) including the rent for my apartment which is owned by a Grenadian couple. It's the least I can do in payment for being able to spend time in their beautiful country.

While here, I started and completed my final artwork of 2012: a complicated drawing of a tropical songbird - a Palm Tanager - in a setting of (appropriately enough) palm fronds.

As I struggled through it, I asked myself "what was I thinking?" to I undertake such a daunting project. Maybe I needed to challenge myself, to work hard while enjoying this idyllic place where visitors can bask, oblivious to their good fortune, while locals hustle for their daily wage. At any rate, this drawng represents the culmination of my work to date as of December 31st, 2012.

As the sun goes down on this final day of the year, I bid farewell 2012 while soaking up the beauty of a Grenadian sunset. I welcome 2013 with the challenges I know it will bring and the rewards for which I am hopeful. And I'm truly thankful for the life I have.

Thursday 20 December 2012

The best photos ... almost!

My camera is an invaluable tool in my art practice. Given the focus of my work is animals and birds, a photographic record of my sightings and experiences not only offers solid reference material, it triggers my memories of where I was and what the moment felt like. My firm belief is that the art I produce must be based on my own experiences, and my camera helps me fulfill that personal and professional mandate.

Photographing critters is not without its challenges. As often as not, they're far from cooperative and it's important to have speedy reflexes in order to get a photograph before they fly away or dart into the undergrowth. During my recent travels in Guyana, I experienced a few disappointing instances where, had I been just fractionally faster with my camera, I'd have recorded some pretty special moments.

For instance, a split second before this shot was taken, two red and green macaws were perched perfectly, well lit and at close range, on the trunk of a tree where they were scoping out a nesting site. I came around a bend in a trail while hiking and suddenly there they were! Had I been just a fraction of a second quicker, you would see them in their full glory rather than just the the flash of their feathers as they exited the scene to the left.

There was also this brocket deer who started to cross the road in front of my vehicle, but then thought better of it and disappeared into the underbrush.

Several times I saw agouti (oversized, long-legged relatives of guniea pigs) scamper across my path while I was on foot or in a vehicle. Not once was there time for photograph.

And the crowning "almost" moment was the sighting of a jaguar, yes a jaguar, at the side of the road. It was just a glimpse as the vehicle I was travelling in approached the huge spotted cat from behind. It glanced back over its shoulder and then slipped away into the forest. As we pulled along side, I caught a second glimpse of it disappearing behind a fallen tree into the undergrowth. This sketch is an embellished version of that moment and is what I will always see in my mind's eye:

It's times like this when it comes in handy to be able to put pen and paint to paper and capture, from memory, a moment that either happened too quickly for the camera or was simply too special to even think about doing anything but watch it unfold. My jaguar sighting was both.

Happily, in addition to the "almosts" there were some truly golden photographic moments that I won't reveal here. All I can say is you can expect to see some new art pieces from me soon based on my truly amazing time in Guyana.

For those interested, my camera is a Panasonic Lumix FZ 200 and I love it! It's an adaptable, versatile camera that works perfectly for my purposes.

Friday 14 December 2012

Meet Teddy

It's my pleasure to introduce you to Teddy:

Have you ever seen a cuter face? Teddy is an adorable baby sloth (a Southern Two-toed Sloth, to be exact). I made his acquaintance on my recent trip to the Iwokrama rainforest in Guyana. He would normally be hanging on tightly to his momma high in the tree canopy but was found about six weeks ago stranded on the ground. Sadly, it appears that he was orphaned when his mother was killed by a harpy eagle - the apex predatory bird of the South American rainforest. How he survived is a mystery but he's definitely one lucky little sloth not only to have survived the attack but to have been found by kindly and knowledgeable humans.

This is Teddy with his human foster parent, Leon Moore:

Leon is a guide based at the Atta Lodge, near where Teddy was found (I'm told another local guide, Ron Allicock, first spotted Teddy). Leon takes visitors on tours of the rainforest that include a precarious man-made walkway suspended from trees a hundred feet above the forest floor, offering a bird's-eye-view of the forest.

The rainforest canopy walkway.
A Yellow-green Grosbeak doing some human watching.

In addition to being a knowledgeable guide, Leon is an avid birdwatcher and nature photographer, and is obviously very devoted to his work. His face lights up when he talks about it, and he can name even the most obscure bird species just from the sounds they make or a fleeting glimpse. He's also very devoted to Teddy. In fact, the other guides jokingly refer to Teddy as "Teddy Moore".

For lack of a sloth momma to hang on to, Teddy makes do with a wooden board covered in thick layers of fabric. His long, sharp, hook-like claws are built for climbing trees and hanging from branches, and would be uncomfortable, to say the least, for a human to tolerate. Plus the goal is to keep him from becoming completely habituated to human contact.

It's not perfect, but under the circumstances Teddy is making it work. He can clamber on top to gaze at the world:

Or when he gets tired...

... he can curl up below for a nap:

Or use it as a "high chair" during meal times:

Teddy is being fed formula by Leon every two hours, supplemented with morsels of fruit and bits of greenery such as lettuce. The hope is that six months from now he can be released into the wild. Of course it's entirely possible that the bond between Teddy and Leon will be strong enough to keep Teddy hanging around (pardon the pun) in the trees that surround the lodge, just like these semi-tame, turkey-sized Black Curacaos who wander the grounds.

The story of Teddy and Leon is just another example of the commitment Iwokrama staff demonstrate for their work. They're passionate about the well being of the rainforest and its inhabitants, dedicated to the management and preservation of this invaluable resource, and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with visitors. Plus they're willing and able to give a helpless little forest orphan a second chance at life.

I think Teddy is in very good hands.

For more information about the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, visit

Please note that all photos are protected by copyright.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Best Birthday Ever!

It was my birthday a few days ago. Not particularly remarkable as, apart from a few notable exceptions, I try to take as little notice of the passing of years as possible. This year, however, I happened to be spending my birthday tucked away in the heart of the equatorial rainforests of tropical Guyana. This South American country has had the foresight to preserve vast wildernesses areas that are home to an astonishing assortment of creatures. I can't imagine a much better place to be on a birthday, or on any other day for that matter.

I was staying at the Iwokrama River Lodge - a place that serves as both scientific field station and home base for visitors wishing to explore the surrounding wilderness. Located on the shore of Guyana's largest river, the mighty Essequibo (third largest in South America after the Amazon and Oronoco), the lodge is also the centre of operations for the management of a park comprised of 1,430 square miles of protected wilderness that's one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. There are absolutely massive old-growth trees and the creatures who call this gem of a place home include everything from humble insects (not to mention some not-so-humble ones!) to the region's apex predator, the magnificent jaguar. To me it's like heaven, or maybe the Garden of Eden, and you can expect to read about it in more than one blog entry as my enthusiasm for this place and my delight in having spent several days there is boundless!

Birds abound in every size, shape and colour imaginable. Some boldly mooch tidbits from lodge guests and staff in the dining hall while others stick to the surrounding forest. They enrich the place with songs, chirps, squawks, and other noises that defy description. Parrots of various species roost in trees, macaws soar overhead, songbirds flit among the shrubs, wading birds hunt along the river shore, swallows and swifts glide above the surface of the river, larger birds tramp the forest floor, and raptors keep watch over it all. It's magical.

A Red Capped Cardinal on a chair in the dining hall.
Dusky Parrotlets perch on a nearby tree.

A Blue Headed Parrot. 
It's always been a personal dream of mine to see a toucan in the wild. There's something about these striking birds that has appealed to me throughout my life and I have painted them on silk several times based on observations of captive birds in zoo settings.

But seeing these active, acrobatic birds in a captive setting does not compare to glimpsing them in the wild. I couldn't have had a better birthday present than to sight this fellow perched high atop a giant tree as I wandered about the grounds with my camera in the early morning light:

Later that day I travelled by boat to a forest camp down river which would be the base for a forest hike and then a night spent sleeping (or trying to) in hammocks suspended in an open-sided shelter. Small grey birds, aptly called Screaming Pihas, abounded in the trees surrounding the camp, shrieking their insanely loud and very distinctive territorial song every few seconds (to see/hear one, check out this YouTube video). As I tested out my hammock I observed a loose flock of Aracari, smaller cousins of the toucan, alight in some nearby trees.

A Black Necked Aracari pauses in a tree at the edge of camp.
A winding 90-minute uphill hike through the forest culminated in a stunning viewpoint at an elevation of about 300 metres. Tropical forest stretched as far as the eye could see. The tops of the tree canopy lay below and the the rough voices of howler monkeys drifted up, as did the sudden screech of a spider monkey. And then... a flash of colour: two red and green macaws streaked gracefully above the treetops. After seeing these magnificent, free-flying birds soaring above the canopy, I will never view a captive macaw the same way. This is how they were meant to live. They are the very embodiment of the importance of forest conservation.

A pair of red and green macaws soar above the treetops.

Back at camp darkness fell suddenly so after a quick dinner the hammocks beckoned. A commotion among the camp workers (there was a group of them living there while working on trail enhancements plus our guide Alex and others) broke out as a coral snake was discovered on the very door-step of one of the shelters.

A deadly coral snake practically underfoot!

These small snakes are almost too beautiful to be real and are highly venomous, but this little fellow was simply redirected back into the forest by our guide Alex with the deft use of a stick, away from possible deadly interactions with humans. Such is the commitment of the people who live and work in this forest. They recognise that even a potentially deadly snake has its place.

Curled up in my mosquito-net enshrouded hammock, lulled by the humming of cicadas, the rustling and squeaking of bats, the peeping of frogs, and the various hoots, squawks and chirps emanating from the surrounding forest, I reflected on what an amazing day it had been - one not soon to be forgotten. Definitely the best birthday ever.

My hammock, prepared with a mosquito net
for the onslaught of nocturnal insects.

For more information about the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, visit

Please note that all photos are protected by copyright.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Southerly Migration

This winter I'm fortunate (also grateful, glad, delighted, and a few other adjectives I could use) to have been able to migrate south for a couple of months, just like so many of my favourite feathered art subjects do. I'm now far, far away from the chilly, grey weather of southwestern British Columbia. Instead of being just north of the 49th parallel, I'm about 10 degrees north of the equator, a few miles off the coast of Venezuela, at the very southerly end of the chain of Caribbean islands. I'm in Trinidad!

Trinidad doesn't fit the typical concept most northerners have of what a Caribbean island is like. It's a teeming, bustling, busy place with lots of commerce and industry. Although only 1,864 square miles in size, it has a population of 1.4 million people, most of whom live along a highway corridor that links the capitol city, Port of Spain, with towns and villages situated eastward across the island. Pretty well everyone has a car, so the roads are jammed and the driving culture is, shall I say, "chaotic". Everyone also has at least one cell phone, and there appear to be no laws prohibiting phoning while driving. Yes, there are beaches, but not many and they're a bit isolated and not the safest for swimming due to strong currents. Yes, it's very warm but at this time of year it's still rainy and humid. It has abundant tropical vegetation including a beautiful, foliage-covered mountain range to the north, flat, fertile lands that stretch to the south, and a couple of fascinating swamp areas on both east and west coasts. There's music everywhere: soca, reggae, steel bands practising for the upcoming Carnival season, Christmas "parang" music of Spanish influence, and choirs singing at Sunday church. It's often described as being more like a South American country than a Caribbean one; I think it's a blend of both.

In addition to people, cars, cellphones and music, the other thing Trinidad has lots of is BIRDS! It's positively teeming with them. I understand that it has one of the most dense and varied bird populations in the world, despite human development and habitat loss. In my brief time here so far, living in a fairly urban area, I have seen flocks of orange winged parrots squawking as they flap overhead on their way from the northern mountains to their southern feeding grounds, colourful tanagers flitting among flowering shrubs, raucous kiskadee flycatchers perched on power lines and, at one point, harassing a raptor that paused in a nearby palm tree. Yesterday I glimpsed a furtive wren (not sure what species) on a wall beside my apartment and today I caught sight of a crested oropendola - an acrobatic black bird about the size of a jay that has a couple of flashy yellow tail feathers only visible when in flight. All these and more, without making much of an effort to spot them. It's a bird-watcher's paradise.

I've only been here a couple of days and between jet lag and culture shock, I haven't yet made much use of my camera. However,  given this is not my first visit to this place I have some photos in my file I can share with you to whet your appetite for what's surely to come:

Orange-winged Parrot
Kiskadee Flycatcher

Blue-grey Tanagers
My drawing of a Crested Oropendola from a couple of years ago.

I did, however, take one particular photo today of a dear little ground dove who is nesting on the structure that supports the apartment's air conditioning unit. She's hunkered down, safe from marauding cats and snakes, brooding her eggs while her mate brings morsels of food at regular intervals.

As I write this, darkness has fallen. The birds have gone to roost, replaced by bats and whistling frogs. I can hear dogs barking as they now become active in the cooler evening temperatures, and the sound of speeding vehicles. Hopefully dogs and vehicles will avoid one another (dogs here are, by necessity, pretty street-savvy). I look forward to waking up to the abundant birdsong that gets underway just before dawn and to seeing what the day will bring.