It’s all about the eyes. Several artists have adopted a similar technique for their contributions to this year’s David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition: a direct eye-to-eye plea. The faces of various different endangered species gaze off the wall, their eyes front-and-centre, piercing right through you. All around the room, pairs of vibrant eyeballs demand your attention. Together, they create a powerful and sobering effect.
It’s entirely in tune with the conservation campaign which marches step-by-step alongside this exhibition; significant proceeds from the sale of the 160 artworks will go to the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, which has raised over £350,000 for conservation projects to help protect the world’s most endangered wildlife since its launch in 2007.
There are a great many reasons to worry about endangered wildlife heading towards extinction. This particular exhibition focuses on wonder, on the incredibly romantic and moving spectacle which such creatures can create. It’s an emotional appeal which shoots like an arrow straight for the heart.
Some artworks are so vivid, so life-like, it feels as though they are in the room with you. You can almost hear the cats panting and the monkeys screaming, smell the intoxicating dust and sweat, feel the texture of soft fur and feathers.
The use of ‘incomplete’ paintings to depict animals which feel as though on the verge of vanishing completely is poignant. Similarly, minimalist sculptures have a similar impact, displaying animals which feel as though on the cusp of vanishing with only a light breeze. They are clearly identifiable, the brain is tricked into seeing them there in front of you, and yet they appear fragile, capable of suddenly disappearing. The symbolism does not require explanation.
Art created from plastic has clearly been an inspiration to many of these creatives recently, with a number standing out for their deliberately inorganic choice of material, a multi-layered piece of commentary about the state of the natural world following its most recent collision with the hand of man. The exhibition also contains the spin-off exhibit, The Bigger Picture, displaying the work of artist Freddy Paske, photographer Dave MacKay, and documentary filmmaker Dieter Deswarteto as they spent a month alongside anti-poachers on the ‘frontline’ of protecting wildlife in Zambia.
All different shapes and sizes, large and small, from postcards to enormous portraits. Canvas, wood, oil, metal, acrylic, paper, ceramic, clay, bronze... the variety of materials utilised in the artworks is as diverse as the fauna it has been used to create. Yet the one constant throughout is the fingerprint of David Shepherd; that careful focus and patient attention which lives within each of the artworks. That ability to pick out the finest of details, and capture them elegantly for posterity.
Indeed, the final room contains works by the Shepherd family: works by David, daughter Mandy, and granddaughter Emily. From elephants to tigers to pandas to vibrant kaleidoscopic visions of Africa – wildlife and local communities together – it’s a touching way to finish. A spectacular collection all round.