Allison Nicholls helps preserve African wildlife

By the time artist Alison Nicholls got through her first night of camping in the African bush, she was hooked on the natural wonders the expansive continent had to offer.

“Once I got out into the bush I just fell in love,” the Port Chester, N.Y., resident said before a recent presentation at the Wilton Library sponsored by Wilton Go Green. “I didn’t want to go to sleep. I was keen on hearing and seeing everything going on, day and night.”

She is an information technology specialist by trade, but that first trip to Africa led her to pursue another craft. She began to use her skill as a sketch artist and painter to create works that would help support wildlife conservation projects.

“I would say that the reason I concentrate purely on Africa is because I know the wildlife and several of the countries very well,” she said. “That’s very important for my work because I don’t use a photographer. I have to really know the place to feel I can talk about it knowledgeably and paint it correctly.”

The artist visits the continent at least once a year and has completed conservation projects in Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Her first project was jump-started in Zimbabwe when she had a flag expedition proposal accepted by a group called Artists for Conservation.

“I applied to carry the flag and had to put together a proposal to paint an endangered species, or habitat. I knew straight away my proposal was going to involve African wild dogs, which are very difficult to find.”

The African wild dog, Ms. Nicholls noted in her lecture at the library in January, is a highly endangered animal that bears little resemblance to the domesticated dog. Though she had the help of a wild dog conservation team that had attached radio transmitters to many wild dogs in the area, she had to create paintings after seeing wild dogs only six times in six weeks during the trip.

“I knew before the trip they are very difficult to find. They are very nomadic except when they have pups. I knew if I was going to make the flag expedition a success, I had to partner with a conservation project. Even then, we were still tracking the dogs for hours and hours. I realized then how much different a conservation project was than a safari.”

In recent years, Ms. Nicholls and African wildlife researchers had been interested in understanding why so many wild dogs were leaving the relative safety of the protected Serengeti National Park for unprotected areas. One of her works, On the Edge, was based on a thesis by Dr. Esther van der Meer that examines that problem.

Her painting, which shows four wild dogs, is a visual metaphor for the many reasons these dogs choose to enter the buffer zone, where many are killed in human encounters.

“Both the national park and the buffer zone contain similar densities of the dogs’ main prey species — impala and kudu — but the buffer zone contains more dense vegetation,” Ms. Nicholls notes on her website. “This results in higher hunting success and shorter chases, leading to better-fed dogs and larger litters of pups. Lions and hyenas, which may steal kills, or even kill dogs and their pups, are also less likely to be encountered in the buffer zone.”

Artist’s process

In order to properly portray animals she was able see so infrequently, she began using a style of visual notetaking. Rather than taking pictures of the animals with a camera and basing her paintings on the negatives, she quickly sketches while she’s in the field, making both written and symbolic notes along the way.

“All of my paintings come from sketching in the field. That’s my life drawing class,” she said. “Even though my paintings contain very vibrant color and not realistic color — because I use color to create a mood — I still want the people and the animals to be anatomically correct.”

Ms. Nicholls said during the lecture she hopes each of her paintings carries a strong message about conserving fragile wildlife in Africa. She organizes traveling exhibitions around her work to promote those ideas, and donates a portion of any proceeds directly to the conservation funds she has worked with in the past.

She said while monetary donations to African wildlife conservancies are always helpful, the continent has to solve a fundamental problem before its wildlife will ever be truly safe.

“Unless the standard of living improves in Africa, the chance for preserving land is decreasing,” she said. “Often you can’t blame people for what we call poaching because they’re trying to make a living. They’re trying to feed their families.”

To further explore that, she partnered with another conservation project in Tanzania that included many more images of people than she had produced before.