From Michiel Schepers

4.12.2014 - 4.01.2015

The rainforest was my home for a lavish period of more than five weeks: a most generous opportunity offered by Trelex in the Amazon Residencies and Rainforest Expeditions.

The rainforest is a unique environment because it is situated outside human civilization. Pristine forest by definition eludes human order - we can clear it away but we cannot govern its growth. The forest interior lacks the straight lines and angles of human constructions. To work as a painter in the forest is to do an internship outside civilization.

My final objective was to be in the forest, walking and working on sketches and drawings, and not to go somewhere else, or aspire to something not yet present. Wildlifeviewing and birdwatching, like research, hunting and colllecting, are dynamic pastimes. They concern things and answers that are not yet there, still to be found. They keep us busy, and lead us on, at the expense of our awareness of the here and now. As artist-in-residence, I felt I should take responsibility for the here and now, and not let leave it aside, while looking for more spectacular birds and animals.

The sea of leave from the canopy tower, Refugio 50 x30, watercolour

My main discovery, while sketching on the trails of the vast Tambopata Reserve, was that the primeval forest is static, not dynamic. The forest space may be governed by growth and decay, but I saw neither. Standing under the trees on the forest floor, gazing up and down and around, nothing moves, grows or falls apart. The leaves are fresh, or worm-eaten, or dry on the ground, but none change shape. Even though I learnt that fallen leaves and organic matter swiftly metabolize back into the trees, I never saw this. This I consider an important discovery. During this long residence I have tried to give it shape in sketches meant to depict not process but final product. These forests have looked exactly as they do now since time immemorial. Yet strangely, their appearance has rarely informed serious painting. They even resist photography, unlike the creatures that inhabit them.

Leaflitter, 30 x 20, watercolour

Still life, 30 x 23, watercolour

The forest is a space composed of living organisms which, paradoxically, do not continuously change it but keep it as it is. It is inhabited by animals that fly, walk, climb or swim, but they follow fixed routines. At eight in the morning, the smaller parrots are at the claylick; at eleven the great macaws can be counted on to be there instead. The wondrous antbirds are restless but fixed residents of the undergrowth. They call from the same spots every day as I pass.

Ceiba, 30 x 40, preparatory sketch, pencil and chalk

Ceiba, Posada Amazonas, 50 x 65, watercolour

What the trees and vines, the tangled undergrowth and the high canopy compose is a unique interior, in which none of our rectangular and geometric rules of interior design play any part. Treetrunks and branches are crooked and divided; foliage is formless and diffuse. And yet the tangled space in between is perfectly accessible – as long as you don’t catch the sharp hooks of the bamboo in your clothes but step gingerly around the obstacles. When you learn to look at it it is even elegant in all its details. The effect of being in the forest is to be comfortably embedded in a most subtly shaped and finely differentiated home. The mood of those shady chambers and corridors is serene. 

The painter’s problem to overcome is the initial shapeless impression, yes, the near impossibility of looking at the tropical forest. It baffles me. Too much, wherever I looked confused the eye. I was tempted to keep my eyes on the muddy trail before me. But with time, with patient standing there, a few steps off the trail, and sketching the little leaves, the thin stalks, and the darker shades of treetrunks further off, the forest let me in on its masses and tangled lines. To feel at home there, in the one space not affected, where it survives, by mankind, is a truly ecstatic sensation.

More practically

As Nina Rodin rightly observes on the website, an artist in a tourist lodge must improvize: paint in the bedroom or carry stuff back and forth to the tables in the dining areas between meals. He or she must bring all materials, paper and canvases along, or paint on disused mosquitonets or rough hardwood boards… I did mostly preparatory drawings and watercolours, so I must extend my residency at home in Holland, to paint my grand conclusions…

As this residency is new, the staff, guides and guests were not yet used to it. So far from civilization it takes some explaining to introduce oneself as ‘artist’. The scientific approach to nature is much more congenial to the guides, researchers and visitor… To explain what you are doing there may leave some healthy doubts in the artist’s own ‘artistic’ sense of identity. It goes without saying that an effort is needed to feel part of the constantly changing lodge community. The importance of three communal meals a day must not be underestimated – not just for their excellent quality. In the two lodges where I felt most interest and support from the permanent staff it was most comfortable to be. With the excellent guides, who come and go with the guests, I shared most of my love for the wilderness, the trees and the birds. They are the key to quickly feeling at home on the trails.

Guide with guest, 20 x 30 pencil

Plié in fourth position, Refugion, 30 x 40, pen

Since the regular guests never leave the lodge without their guide, I had to gain that privilege, indispensable for my solitary purposes (‘with a companion the eye remains closed, and inscape will not come’, Gerald Manley Hopkins). In the Refugio and the TRC I accompanied the guides and their guests for a few days until I knew the trails well enough to go alone. In the Posada I decided (and nobody objected) to explore the trails by myself, which is quite confusing and exciting. That confusion and excitement too is essential for a sense of the undeveloped wilderness.

In general, I would say that this Amazon residency is ideal for any landscape artist habitually exposed to the elements. For a more conceptual artist, the confrontation with the raw wilderness must be full of discoveries. I am dying to to hear from those who will take up the challenge in the months and years to come, and to see their work.

In practise, there are no great dangers for a cautious person. I did come home, however, with an insect bite that has every appearance of a potentially serious illness: Leishmaniasus, which I must have caught at the TRC; it does not occur at the other two lodges. I will have to watch it and perhaps seek treatment if the wound doesn’t heal or multiplies. By the way, there has been no case of malaria in this area in recent years…

Any further questions of a practical or impractical nature are welcome, as they will remind me of those wonderful days among howler monkeys and motmots, jacamars and antbirds, but above all, amid the leaves.

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