On the longest day of the year, when the sun kept its northerly sweep across the horizon unchanged, the window seat at forty thousand feet fronted a blazing sky scape. Greenland ice bergs dotted the sea far below as that fireball stayed apace with the big jet on its course to the northeast. Although it was well past its time, that stubborn ole’ sun refused to set, and I refused to take my eyes away as it bobbed along at the very edge of the earth.
This went on for some time, when finally it began to sink below the horizon. It’s actually going down, I thought, and as its final glimmer disappeared, something amazing suddenly appeared! The green flash! For only an instant, an envelope of gaseous green surrounded the spot vacated by the last sliver of the red disc. Shortly after the occurrence of this rare phenomenon, the sun began to rise, and in those few short minutes of sunset to dawn the entire night had passed and the next day had begun.
Riding out the rest of the flight, I contemplated the prospects that awaited. I didn’t know that I was on my way to a magical place called Crystal Palace. I did not know that I would be walking up a road called Hamlet Street, to the top of a hill called Fox Hill. It was on that very British flavored Fox Hill that Pablo and Maribel welcomed me into their home. I did know that a sculpture I created would be exhibited in a major art exhibition at my destination.
That was yet to come; meanwhile, many mixed apprehensions beset me, although I knew my bronze herons were set to be in the “Wildlife Artist of the Year” exhibition in the heart of London. Literally in the heart; the Mall Galleries are next to Trafalgar Square on a road called “The Mall” that begins at the square and ends at Buckingham Palace. Perhaps the gallery and its surroundings of stoic buildings sprinkled with towering monuments were not so impressive to the everyday Londoner going about their daily tasks, but for an artist from the foothills of North America’s Pacific coast, this location had overtones of a fairy tale. Part of the fairy tale was just being juried into such an exclusive art show in a fabled part of the city.Leading up to my journey to the opening night of this art show, the city was beleaguered with misfortunes, including a spate of extremist attacks and the inferno of a high rise fire with many fatalities. Among my apprehensions, threats to my personal safety were not a concern, but on this mission to sell and show my art, I wondered if less people would be in circulation and venturing out to partake of summer events. That thought was quickly put to rest when I arrived on the streets of London and mixed with the thousands upon thousands filling the cities’ main thoroughfares with no regard to undesirable events. Transportation systems were like toothpaste tubes full of humanity steadily being squeezed onto the streets well into the long summer nights.
My hosts Pablo and Maribel were particularly proud of one of their Spanish brethren turned hero in the recent London Bridge terrorist attacks. A young skateboarder lad from Spain came upon a policeman being stabbed, and immediately began pounding on the assailant with his skateboard. As he gained the upper hand protecting the officer, he was knifed from behind by another jihadist accomplice. As I strolled by a makeshift memorial on that bridge, the skated board stood high above the flowers, honoring the heroic act and eulogizing both its former owner and the policeman.
Pablo, an architect in a London firm, was very much intrigued by the many outstanding architectural feats of his adopted city. He was proud to show me the sweeping lines of the Tate Modern and explained the construction and its visual attributes. After admiring the museum exterior we climbed to the top floor lounge and found a seat at the long countertop running down a wall of windows looming over the city skyline. St. Paul’s Cathedral with its huge dome towered over the Thames River directly below and front, while modern skyscrapers filled the view to the right.
As I marveled at the view, Pablo explained the many buildings and we debated their architectural merits, the contrast of modern and old gothic, and their composition along the fabled river bank below us. Rising above all else was the Shard building, tallest in the European Union. I thought that some of the odd shaped modern high rises skirting around the Shard seemed out of place in the city skyline, and Pablo agreed. One was egg shaped and one leaned at a precarious angle. “The building designs could stand alone as exceptional architecture, but don’t seem to compliment the overall city skyline,” he stated, and went on to describe a funny misstep in the leaning building’s design. “The unintentional flaw showed up after it was unveiled and functioning. The super modern design with its angular and concave wall of glass had the detrimental effect of focusing the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass. The extra heat channeled to the streets below was genuinely uncomfortable, to the extent that things were being melted, and alterations to the building were quickly put in place.”
Every day I passed endless rooftops as I sped from central London to the train’s Crystal Palace Station, a half hour commute to the home of my gracious hosts. Crystal Palace once was the site of a huge exhibition hall constructed almost entirely of glass, which gave it the appearance of a giant art deco greenhouse. There were acres and acres of landscaped grounds, complete with replicas of the Egyptian sphinx and other monumental figures. Extensive retaining walls and stairways surrounded the main hall of this early twentieth century extravaganza. After a mid-century fire razed the main building, the statues and stone works remain today in an expansive city park that includes a soccer stadium. Nearby pathways wind through a series of waterways in a lush, wooded area that is a delight for children of all ages because of the life size, cement dinosaurs dwelling there.
Foreign and familiar realities can mix in a surprising brew when you find yourself out in the world. Once upon a time my homeland was known as the timber capital of the world, so much so that the defining tree of that title was known worldwide as the “Oregon Pine.” Endless forests of that tree, the stalwart Douglas fir, cover the western third of Oregon, and it is only native to western North America. Imagine my surprise as I strolled through a main thoroughfare lined with Crystal Palace shops and came across the “Douglas Fir” bar. Ducking into the doorway, I came to a large countertop bar proudly constructed from Doug fir planks, along with other rustic furnishings. After some discussion with the bar keep, I learned that the trees are planted in the UK, one being the tallest tree of the British Isles, and the wood for the bar came from a tree cut in the nearby countryside.
The opening night of the gallery exhibition came soon enough, and it was packed beyond my wildest expectations. Champagne was served at the door to a full house of patrons looking forward to the presentation of the Wildlife Artist of the Year Award and browsing the incredible worldwide art on display.
Although working artists seek collectors, many easy associations and friendships occur with fellow artists as well. Standing in line for admission to the gallery, I met a very friendly and gregarious artist from Germany, Tom Lazic, who traveled to Africa often for studying and painting his favorite wildlife subjects. A close neighbor to my work on the gallery floor was the work of Pascal Chesneau, a former Wildlife Artist of the Year, whose rugged interpretive sculptures seemed like expressions that would come from a French artist. Although he spoke very little English and I knew less French, we got along famously.
Besides honoring the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s “Wildlife Artist of the Year”, approximately nine other cash award were presented at this art opening, including David Shepherds personal choice. That award went to Karen Laurence-Rowe for her serenely beautiful painting of elephants wading in a flooded plain. Incidentally, both Karen and David were recipients of the Artists for Conservation’s annual Simon Combes Award for wildlife conservation, David being the very first at the AFC’s inaugural event, with Karen’s award presented in 2015.
Midway through the lively buzz of the opening, a gentleman seemed overly interested in the label attached to the pedestal of my bronze sculpture, so much so that he kneeled down close and photographed the label with his I-phone. I politely inquired if I could answer any questions he may have, and he explained that he needed the photo to identify the piece when he made the purchase at the sales counter. “I want to buy it before someone else does,” he explained. Experience has taught me to use restraint when faced with wild optimisms that don’t always become a reality, so I retreated as he continued to admire my sculpture.
Sure enough, a short time later an attendant attached a red dot, and the English gentleman had secured his art piece. My work had sold, mission accomplished, I could start for home at the end of the night. But there were still a few things that I must do….
Where on Earth?! London, England June of 2017
Footnote: As it turned out, this was to be the last show for David Shepherd, the mentor of this exhibition and a foremost leader of wildlife protection worldwide. While writing this account of the tenth annual Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition, the news came that he had passed away at the age of 86, a few short months after presiding over his final wildlife art exhibition. Beginning in 1973, as an artist and conservationist, he had led an aggressive campaign to protect wildlife worldwide, which evolved into the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation in 1984. Funds raised by this art show support progressive wildlife conservation programs of the DSWF.