1. Tell us about your latest commission for Virginia McKenna and the Born Free Foundation?
The painting is entitled ‘The Unknown’ and focuses on the ‘Little Five’: Leopard Tortoise, Elephant Shrew, Rhino Beetle, Buffalo Weaver and Ant Lion, as opposed to their ‘Big Five’ namesakes of Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and Lion. The work is influenced by the iconic paintings of Henri Rousseau; but there is a significant difference in tone. Where his works are vibrantly colourful, this palette is monochromatic, to represent fading memories of endangered species which are blending into the background. Centre stage are the smaller creatures, the crystal mosaic stars of this work. The painting can also be viewed as an allegorical interpretation of power disparities being reversed in our turbulent political and socio-economic times.
I was first introduced to Virginia McKenna in 2015 at a gala event organised by Save Wild Tigers. My Swarovski crystal tiger painting ‘Burning Bright’, was being auctioned at The Savoy Hotel. The painting was created with 32,000, hand-applied Swarovski crystals, to represent ten times the number of tigers left in the wild. It sold to a collector in Germany in aid of Save Wild Tigers, The Environmental Investigation Agency and the Born Free Foundation. I had been in awe of Virginia for many years, as the Born Free film had such an impact on me as a child and was the main catalyst for my passion for wildlife conservation and my frustration at animals being kept behind bars. It was at this meeting that Virginia told me of her wonderful idea for a painting and I offered to interpret it for her. ‘The Unknown’ or ‘Little Five’ – was created from an original idea by Virginia McKenna. Virginia is very passionate about seeing these less well-known creatures, who share a common name with their important counterparts, receive some of the attention. I am honoured to have had this commission from Virginia and am delighted that she has been able to enjoy the painting in her home, even if we were unanimous that it’s ultimate goal should be to raise funds for the care of some of the animals it portrays via the invaluable work of the Born Free Foundation. The painting is due to be auctioned on November 30th at the Born Free Foundation’s Gala Dinner in London, where I am thrilled to have been invited by Virginia as her guest.
2. Do you see yourself as an artist first, or an activist?
I’m an artist. I just so happen to use my work as a witness and to raise awareness. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and artists throughout history have chronicled the important issues of the day. The subjects I pursue are extremely personal to my identity and value systems as an environmentalist, yet they are also universal and reaching a critical tipping point for every individual regardless of ethnicity, gender, class or religion. Climate change, ocean pollution, environmental degradation, habitat loss and the current rapid rate of extinction are all issues that could have devastating implications and they represent some of the biggest challenges we face. Without urgent action on these momentous issues, we may not have the luxury to concern ourselves with others.
3. Can glamour and allure and activism be bedfellows?
I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive, as long as the message being delivered is not diametrically opposed. In a world where you only have seconds to make an impression, it’s important to gain interest in order for your message to be heard at all. Cross marketing and collaborations can create win/win scenarios. To give an example, there has recently been an upsurge of art and fashion collaborations. I would be open to this with a sustainable, ethical brand with similar principles and philosophies, but obviously not one that promotes fur as fashion. I often use distinctions of luxury and absence in my work to highlight issues such as abundance and extinction. For example, in the collection entitled ‘True Value’ focus is drawn to the expression, created as a Swarovski crystal mosaic, emblematic of the preciousness of the living animal; this medium fades out and morphs into mixed media and paint and depicts the threats these creatures face for survival. The endearing qualities of the animals’ faces are undercut by the ominous nature of the background messages. The collection uses contrasts; between the singular animals representing the last of the species which are made up of thousands of individual elements, between the technical precision of the precious crystal mosaics and the unrefined application of the painted backgrounds, to highlight the message of choices to make things better or worse.
4. What couldn’t you live without?
My husband. He inspires and supports me in everything I do.
5. If you could turn yourself into one of your subjects, which animal would you be and why?
Most of my subjects are endangered, critically endangered or facing a multitude of threats such as poaching, habitat loss and climate change due to mankind. Choosing any one of them would be choosing a huge struggle for survival, and raising awareness of this is the point of my work. It’s a good question to pose though – to imagine what it must be like being one of these creatures.
6. What is the message behind Anthropocene Xtinction – the latest series of works, and why is Henri Rousseau an inspiration?
The collection entitled ‘Anthropocene Xtinction’ is part of an ongoing series pointing to the unnatural pressures inflicted on the natural world by humanity. It links the collections ‘Holocene Twilight’ where monochromatic paintings serve as a warning of fading memories of creatures under threat, and ‘True Value’ where crystal mosaics focus on the importance of keystone species. ‘Anthropocene Xtinction’ brings together many elements of the previous two collections; the monochromatic panels again highlight potential irreversible loss, a message that is given further emphasis in the crystal mosaic X on the face of the principal animal, which at once highlights its preciousness and draws attention to its fate. This collection also focuses on critical habitats and ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves and primary rainforests, among the most productive and biologically complex on earth. Their loss could prove catastrophic in terms of climate change due to their importance as carbon storage assets. The ghostly female figures are an allegorical reminder that our future is inherently bound up with our treatment of the earth’s natural resources. Some of the works in this collection take the paintings of Henri Rousseau, as their starting point in order to draw the parallel that even though the artist’s best-known paintings depicted jungle scenes, he never saw a jungle or left his home country of France. Similarly many future generations will not have the possibility of seeing these creatures in the wild if urgent action is not taken now.
7. How do you feel when you are creating works of art about great beauty and degradation? Is it exhausting?
The beginning of a new work or collection is exhausting, as that’s when I dive into the research, and some of the topics I cover are pretty unsavory, especially when I see images of beautiful rhinos and elephants with their faces hacked off, sometimes while they are still alive. This really sickens me. After I have done the research I try to impart critical messages about poaching, habitat loss, climate change etc with an aesthetic that has the opposite effect of making people want to look further and deeper instead of needing to look away, once I have figured out how to do this the next stage of the work is actually very therapeutic.
8. What is the message behind the Venetian masked subjects and the lion?
The Venetian paintings are part of an allegorical collection about human and animal displacement entitled ‘Holocene Twilight’. They are monochromatic or ‘grisaille’ oil paintings to represent fading memories of things lost. A reimagined version of Pietro Longhi’s ‘Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice’ is a starting point for this series of endangered species within urban settings. The collection depicts images of animals out of place as a reference to the damaging effects of humans on other species. In the painting entitled ‘Exhibition of a Lion at Venice’ (After Longhi) the displaced lion faces out away from the city and the masked and stupefied onlookers are representative of human self-preoccupation and apathy in the face of critical wider issues. In the background, the symbol of Venice itself, the winged Lion of Piazza San Marco, is pictured here having turned on its axis to face away from the city, in the same direction as the displaced lion.
9. What has been your most important commission so far?
In terms of international recognition, that would be ‘Blue Marilyn’ the crystal mosaic portrait of Marilyn Monroe commissioned for Rihanna. The artwork is over 5ft square, weighs 80kg and is made up of over 65000 hand applied Swarovski crystals of varying sizes. It presents the entwined identities of public and private personas by hiding a secret painted portrait of Norma Jeane on the reverse, whilst the crystal mosaic mirror image of Marilyn Monroe, her famous alter ego stares out at the world.
10. What do you think is the best way to save endangered species and bio diversity? Is pragmatism the only way?
Progress has been made by organisations such as Greenpeace, WWF and Wildaid by raising awareness in the right places and working with or putting pressure on governments and big business to change practices and enforce laws. Oceana is a champion for ocean conservation and has won over 100 victories for the oceans and protected more than 1 million square miles of ocean habitat. Their science-based campaigns have specific goals to create measurable change for the oceans, which are home to most of the life on our planet and play a central role in regulating our climate and absorbing carbon dioxide. When social media works well it can also play a part in informing the consumer to vote with their wallet in order to change business practices. As one step is taken forward we have to be vigilant that two don’t go back as new administrations come to power and criminals continue to see the wildlife trade as a lucrative market. That’s why it’s more important than ever to stand up for these creatures, this planet. At present, Earth Overshoot Day occurs in August, meaning that we currently use 1.7 times the earth’s maximum resources. This is inherently unsustainable and I’m with David Attenborough in saying that the planets population is rising at an unsustainable and alarming pace. Our planet is heating up and we need to act now to combat climate change that will ultimately threaten humans, animals and the environment. Obviously this requires large-scale global commitments and collaborations, but if every person started with doing one thing for a sustainable planet it would help. This could be relatively small such as reducing food waste, refusing single-use plastic, being energy efficient, becoming vegan, vegetarian, recycling, saving water, protecting forests by saving paper, cycling, walking or using public transport. An excellent quote which exemplifies why any action by individuals is critical is by Robert Swan OBE BA FRGS Polar explorer, environmental leader and the first person to walk to the North and South Poles: ‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it’.
Interview with Claire Milner as Told to Alison Jane Reid.
Fore more info on the work of Artist Claire Milner, visit the website – Claire Milner Art
All Images Courtesy of Claire Milner, Copyright 2017, No Reproduction Without Permission.