Updated: Feb 18
Originally published in the Western Morning News West Magazine on Saturday 2nd May 2020
Cornish artist John Dyer has a dramatic and colourful style that fans describe as ‘life-enhancing’. Now he is using his skills to help a famous wildlife charity, the Born Free Foundation, says PHILIP BOWERN
THE West Country has a long history of inspiring artists to produce dramatic and beautiful work. Falmouth- based John Dyer has one of the most recognisable styles of any modern painter today and much of his work – painted in the open air – reflects the seascapes and crowded beach scenes that are a hallmark of coastal life in the South West. Some of his most important paintings also focus on the natural world thousands of miles from Cornwall, and the people, plants and animals which are, in many cases, under severe threat in remote and beautiful parts of the world. As painter in residence at Cornwall’s Eden Project, a supporter of wildlife charity the Born Free Foundation and a major force with the Last Chance to Paint Project – which engages children with the natural world through art – John is now planning an expedition to Kenya next year to further inspire youngsters to connect to tribal culture and the environment. He plans to travel with musician Martha-Lilly Dyer to visit the Maasai communities living around Amboseli National Park, before travelling north to Meru National Park, a key landmark in the Born Free story and the resting place of Elsa the Lioness, the star of the film, Born Free. Working with local artists and guided by Born Free’s education team, John and his team hope to work with community members and local school children in both locations to create some truly unique works of art. They also hope to glimpse some of Kenya’s wild animals, including the last two northern white rhino left on earth. During the visit satellite communications will allow schools to ask questions and the team will upload blogs and videos each day to inspire children around the world to connect to tribal culture and the environment. For John, travelling and painting, often working on an easel in the open air, is in his DNA. His very first work as an artist was in the Amazon Rainforest, where he travelled in 1989 after completing his studies at Middlesex University, as a graphic designer, photographer and painter, on a bursary with Thames Television. His idea was to take photographs for a TV documentary highlighting the beauty of the rainforest, but admitted that he quickly found painting, rather than photography, was a better way for him to capture what he felt about the forest. He told the Born Free Foundation: “I suggested to Thames TV that a fine art photographic study of the Amazon Rainforest, highlighting its remaining beauty rather than its destruction, would be an amazing project and they agreed! “Shortly after being awarded the travelling bursary and after much more fund raising and forming a friendship with Robin Hanbury-Tenison – the vice president of the Royal Geographic Society at the time and president of Survival International – I found myself in the Amazon.
“It was a life changing experience and I spent three weeks exploring vast areas of the Amazon by river taking many photographs for an exhibition in London. Many of the areas are now gone – reduced to cattle farm land and I knew this would be the case when I was there. I returned from Brazil not as a photographer but as a painter as I just couldn’t capture what I saw and what I felt with my camera – paint was the only way to do this and I have painted ever since.”The Last Chance to Paint Project started with another trip to the Amazon, where John worked with Amazon Indian Nixiwaka Yawanawá. The project has also taken in a visit to Borneo. John says his vision for Last Chance to Paint was to get children taking real notice of the natural world and all that is at risk in it. He told Born Free: “The vision is simple. To get children to celebrate and take note of what we all stand to lose in the natural word by painting and drawing it for the World Gallery.
“The process of dedicating their time to the painting bonds them to the subject and we make it personal by allowing them to interact with the team during and after our expeditions. I paint, they paint and we all add our work to the gallery to remind us all, and the wider world of what we are doing and what is at risk.
“We must personalise the climate crisis and mass extinction, give it a name, meet real people who are losing their homes, forests and meet the animals that have lost their homes too. It’s only by building personal bonds and connections that children will be able to understand the consequences of their actions as they grow.
“If they know that by buying palm oil in products that Mona, the baby orangutan they painted, will potentially have no future, they might think a little harder. By knowing that Sol Yawanawá has just been born in the Amazon Rainforest they will think carefully before eating more beef potentially imported from Brazil as that is where Sol lives and his future depends on his rainforest being left intact.
“Children have a lot to deal with, but the aim of the project is to aways be optimistic, colourful, fun and personal and to celebrate what we still have before it is too late.”