Painter-Explorers Turn Animals Into Artists

August 6, 2003

Like all great painters of nature, Olly Williams and Suzi Winstanley work best from life.

Olly & Suzi, as they are known professionally, are London-based artist-explorers who have portrayed wild dogs and lions in Tanzania, killer whales in Norway, polar bears and Arctic foxes in Siberia, tarantulas in Venezuela, orangutans in Borneo, and many others.

Since 1995 Williams and Winstanley have gone on more than 25 expeditions together. Usually they link up with wildlife experts in the field to get as close as possible to the action.

The artists collaborate with one another and, ideally, with their subjects. They induce wild creatures to interact with their canvases.

Bites, footprints, rips, and slithers are "proof of where we are, and proof of animals, landscapes, and indigenous tribes that are here now, but might not be around for much longer," Williams says.

Williams and Winstanley use related natural materials—ochre, mud, berries and dung—to heighten the sense of immediacy and primal contact in their encounters.

On a 1997 expedition among the white sharks off Cape Town, South Africa, the artists encouraged a shark to "autograph" a portrait by coating a painting with chum—fish parts and blood. The shark bit—again and again.

Williams' brother Greg documents the expeditions. His huge blowup photograph of the shark encounter hung over the entrance of the Natural History Museum in London during their exhibit last year, "Olly & Suzi—Untamed."

The new book "Olly & Suzi: Arctic, Desert, Ocean, Jungle" collects their work and writings.

Between Two Art Camps

"Their work is pretty unusual," says Steve Baker, a professor of contemporary visual culture at University of Central Lancashire in Preston, United Kingdom. "They fall between two art camps: one that produces realistic depictions of the natural world and the other that is more avant-garde."

"Olly and Suzi are closer to the avant-garde, but their work wants to make clear statements about the natural world, and the importance of endangered species and predators."

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