Gallery: Mary-Ann takes art on safari

Wildlife artist Mary-Anne Bartlett tells Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about her new adventure - swapping the African savannah for the ice flows of the Antarctic

Andrew Clarke

Wildlife artist Mary-Anne Bartlett tells Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about her new adventure - swapping the African savannah for the ice flows of the Antarctic

Woodbridge-based wildlife artist Mary-Anne Bartlett is a woman with an adventurous spirit. Having conducted art safaris to Africa for the past seven years, she is now spreading her wings even further. Last year she conducted her first tour to remote areas of India to draw tigers in their natural habitat, now she is planning a trip to both the Arctic and Antarctic.

“I'm planning to see both polar bears and penguins in the same year and that involves journeying from one end of the earth to the other.”

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If that wasn't enough Mary-Anne is also planning a return trip to Namibia in April. “It's a lot of work but its a fantastic life, travelling all over the world, experiencing different cultures, seeing some of the world's most exotic and fascinating animals and landscapes. I feel very privileged to be able to do this and I love being able to share it with other people.”

Mary-Anne Bartlett said that her love of travel and adventure was definitely in her blood. Her great, great grandfather Sir John Kirk was one of the original members of Dr David Livingstone's expedition to explore the African interior in the 1850s. “He was a doctor and a botanist and he was asked to join Dr David Livingstone on his Zambia expedition. He spent the next five or six years out in Africa with Livingstone and it made his reputation within the British scientific community identifying all these new

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After he parted company with the good doctor, he was appointed Consul General of East Africa and made his residence in Zanzibar. But she believes the family's artistic genes stem from Sir John, who never travelled anywhere without his sketchbook.

Speaking at her home in Woodbridge, she said: “It's a lovely family story and something I really think is buried deep in my biological make-up. I love travelling and I love art and the two facets of my life can be traced back to Sir John.”

While Mary-Anne was a student she decided to retrace the footsteps of her great, great grandfather, and made her own journey to Africa and immediately fell in love with this hot and vibrant continent. She says that although Africa remains her first love, she has long had a desire to go to other extreme and explore the uncharted polar regions. “I love penguins and polar bears, and the opportunity to draw them in their natural surroundings is just wonderful. Also it allows me to work in a whole new environment. The palette in the Antarctic is completely different to Africa. Africa is full of warm, rich oranges, reds and russet browns while the polar regions are full of the most amazing blues and greens.

“The idea that there is nothing but white is completely wrong. The skies are amazing and there are the most amazing colours in the ice.”

Mary-Anne made an experimental trip to the Antarctic in 2008 to explore the possibilities of taking an art trip down to the south pole. “There was a glacier that was so old and the ice was so compacted that it had trapped within it, the greenest algae that I have ever seen.”

She said that the experience made her view the world through new eyes. “I originally based my art safaris in Malawi.” Malawi is situated in the middle of the area that Sir John explored with Livingstone, Mary-Anne said that one of the reasons she continues to return to the country is because of its stable political situation. The government of Malawi is very pro-British and is very well aware of the value of tourism to its economy. “As a result they not only look after tourists but they look after the game reserves that attract the visitors. Malawi really is a haven for wildlife and the people are very friendly.”

But, as her trips became increasingly popular and artists returned for several trips, she felt the need to expand her horizons and started taking parties to Kenya and Zambia and most recently to Namibia - land of the desert-adapted elephant.

The trips cater for both professional and amateur artists and Mary-Anne says that many of the parties come back on several successive years. “I have one man who has been on ten different trips, so the pressure is on to provide something new.”

She said that because they are dealing with wild animals, who can come and go at will, she can never offer any cast iron guarantees that they will see any particular species of animal, but thanks to local guides, they can usually shape the trip to suit the interest of the participants. “If a group is particularly interested in zebra or lions or if a party particularly wants to paint mountain gorillas then we can usually sort something out.”

The key is understanding the animals and treating them with respect. She says that if you know what you are doing you can get frighteningly close to a pride of lions but it pays to remember that these are wild creatures and anything can happen. “Once I spent the best part of a day up a tree avoiding a particularly bad tempered rhino that refused to go away. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life - one of the most tiring also.”

She said that the only other episode which came close to generating the same sense of alarm was when she realised that she had inadvertently set up her easel in a leopard's den.

“We have a golden rule that no-one ever goes off on their own - ever. If you have to go to the loo, you must always stay in sight of the group otherwise you could easily become the next meal for something large and hungry. All the time we are out, we are accompanied by experienced game wardens. The only time I went off by myself on that first trip, I found myself sitting in a leopard's den,” laughs Mary-Anne. “I can joke about it now but as soon as I realised it was I was absolutely terrified. I had been sketching a valley and it was getting very close to midday and unbearably hot when I spotted an outcrop which provided some cover but would still allow me a view of the valley so I could do some more sketching. I perched myself on the ledge and I immediately spotted some buck on the far side of the hill and started sketching a fantastic view but after a while I noticed that there were a lot of animal bones dotted around the area. Then it dawned on me that I was in the midst of a leopard's lair.

“I have never moved so fast in my life. Had I stopped and thought about it, all the bones were white with age and obviously the ledge hadn't been used for a while but it taught me a valuable lesson.”

She said that because the requirements of Art Safari are very different from the average package holiday, it can take a long time for Mary-Anne to find the right people to run the trip in the various locations. “It's important that the people on the ground know what we need,” she says. “Even though I knew Namibia, even though I had been there before and sort of knew my way around, it still took me three years to get the guides and the organisation in place.

“What some people find hard to understand is that we are not interested in running after every last animal. We're not spending one day in a national park, we are spending five, so we can spend an entire afternoon looking at one elephant if necessary. We are not charging about because if you are charging about, you can't produce a good painting.”

Good painting, perfecting your drawing technique and getting close to wildlife in their natural surroundings is what Mary-Anne's company Art Safari is all about. Painting and drawing, like the majority of the arts can be a lonely, solitary existence. Just one person, in their studio, trying to transfer an image from their mind's eye onto paper.

For Mary-Anne half the joy of the Art Safari trips is to get like-minded people together, so they can talk, swap experiences and learn together. “We are all influenced by other people and new experiences do inspire us all. When we are out in the various parks, I always take the opportunity to do some

work of my own, even though I am also on hand with advice and suggestions for my students.”

At the end of each day there is a show and tell session in their luxury base camp, where they can talk about their work and can share their successes and frustrations. “It's wonderful to see how forthcoming people are with ideas and solution to problems. People who have encountered similar problems and found ways round them.”

Last year she expanded her destinations with trips to Morocco and to rural India to offer artists something a little bit different. “I did my first trip to India in February 2009. Not only did we see tigers, we drew tigers from the backs of elephants which was so exhilarating. It's a very exciting place to do an Art Safari in. It has a whole different feel to Africa. It's much more about atmosphere, buildings, people and culture...Africa is more about wildlife. India is more about the landscape and wildlife being a part of it.

“On the face of it, the parks are not as exciting as the African parks until you get to that moment when you see that tiger from the top of an elephant.

Then it's magical. Tigers are not easy to see. Tigers are very shy. They don't like being with other beings - unless they are eating them. In Africa, lions are easy to see because they don't mind company. Lions aren't really aware that you are human. When you are sitting in a jeep they merely regard you as an animal that is bigger than they are. Providing you are not antagonising them, you are no threat to their existence so they can laze around being lions or on a couple of occasions we have watched them hunting.

“But, tigers are very aware of you. Fortunately, being on the back of an elephant, they are very unlikely to attack you.”

Having established India, it's the Arctic and the Antarctic which is currently occupying Mary-Anne's thoughts. “They are at the opposite extremes of the Africa experience, which is dealing with heat and dust. The Arctic and Antarctic is about dealing with the cold. Art Safari is an adventure travel company - even though our style of camping includes an ensuite bathroom, you still

need an adventurous spirit to undertake one of our trips. And what could be more adventurous than a trip to the top or bottom of the world?”

She said that she needed to expand the number of destinations she provided but was determined not to follow the well trodden route into the mountains of Europe.

“I have always loved Africa. Nothing can take away the thrill of sitting in the camp in the evening, watching a stunning sunset, drinking a gin and tonic and suddenly being aware of three wild dogs chasing one

another through the compound or waking

up to the fact that elephants are grazing less than 100 yards away. But, I would say the

only thing that can tempt me away from all that, are penguins. I have always loved penguins.”

She said that the first trip came about because she was asked to put a drawing trip together to the Antarctic in January 2008. “The first trip was so successful that I have decided to go back.” The trip is based on a boat which provides similar levels of comfort and good food that have become part of Mary-Anne's Africa trips. “We meet up in Buenos Aires before heading off to Ushuaia before heading onto South Georgia, the Falkland Islands and then Antarctica.

“My reason for going is that you get to see some of the most extraordinary wildlife on Earth. It's a wild, very inaccessible place. It also allows us to use a very small, reduced palette which provides an artistic challenge. On my first trip I found myself just painting in blues. I filled my paint box with all the different shades of blue I could find and by the end of the trip I had used them all.”

She said, as with Africa, where the wildlife could get very friendly, they found that penguins were incredibly inquisitive creatures and were tripping over your feet as you were trying to paint. “It wasn't a case of trying to avoid interacting with the penguins, they were chasing you to see what you were up to.”

For further information on Art Safari, Mary-Anne Bartlett's wildlife art trips, go to or ring 01394 382235.

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