Signs of life from Michiel Schepers

4.12.2014 - 4.01.2015

Michiel Schepers was the first artist resident at Trelex Amazon with Rainforest expeditions. Within a few days we managed to have quite a long skype conversation with image and all: I sat in Switzerland looking out at a very frosty and dead still landscape and Michiel was of course sweating and competing with the sounds of the forest, a conversation I will not readily forget. But our conversation quickly turned to purely professional matters. We talked about art, skill, individuality, what is and what is not painting, what it means to be contemporary, etc...

Since then, we have met for lunch and an unusual museum visit in Amsterdam (The green room) when I asked Michiel for permission to reproduce some of his Facebook posts from his time at Refugio Amazonas. Here are excerpts:


'I feel like Alexander von Humboldt getting permission from the king of Spain to visit his overseas dominions, which privilege no foreign explorer had enjoyed for ages - so the great German genius took full advantage and spent years exploring the Orinoco and the Andes, as far south as Lima, which he despised. Though much less deserving than that universal man, I too got permission to visit a place normally reserved for the well-heeled eco-tourists (the 'sophisticated traveller'), where by chance I can be artist-in-residence for a while, in the sublimest natural environment I know… though wet in the rainy season.'


'mouthwatering images of the explorer in the jungle, in this case Alexander von Humboldt and his companion Bonpland on the Orinoco river and in his field lab with a few of their discoveries. In those days all birds were shot to be studied; now my binoculars will suffice to catch them in my inner eye! I hope I will have similar pictures to show of my own situation on the Tambopata river, for which I am about to depart...'



'Artist in residence in a place that does not know the fine arts! This rainforest is a place for scientists, hunters, loggers, tourists and the staff of the lodge. The tourists barely manage to stand the heat and the humidity and the bugs, bats and spiders (lovely hairy spiders at night) (and frogs, birds, monkeys, and the prints of the jaguar in the mud). But this is the dream of an artist who has an eye for trees. (...)

Even though sketching is hard, standing up, sweating, slapping at mosquitoes (the swarms of so-called sweat-bees fan my skin with their wings, and sip sweat without biting) I manage to do my 'work', and hope to show the people of the lodge what I am here for - besides birdwatching.

The great art here is not the art of painting but the art of not sweating too much. Needless to say I am a beginner at that art. But learning. I do my sketches, and walk the walks and talk to the guides, who are very good guides, and their clients, who turn out pretty nice too. So I survive, culturally, and socially, in the jungle.

See below, a Ceiba, lupuna or kapok tree, the greatest tree of the Amazon forest I think, together with the Brazilnut trees, and of course the strangling fig. I'll upload, if the wifi and electricity hold out, a picture of me inside that latter tree, where the original tree was around which it wrapped itself. These trees are all around the lodge, and visible from the canopy viewing tower, a 30 meter steel construction, to reveal the sky and the billowing sea of green.'

'Now the figtree with me inside. And a macaw clay lick. Look closely in the centre: they are eating the clay to supplement their diet…’


'Had I been a modern or contemporary artist in residence, here deep in the Tambopata reserve, I would have worked with local materials furnished by the jungle, to effect small interventions in both the forest and the lodge, that would shake the tourists, researchers, monkeys and myself out of our complacencies, and awaken us to other ways of seeing. I would bring in the sheathes of the palmfronds that look like elephant tusks, and erect an African gate in front of the American lodge, and arrange seedpods to create savage idols for the faithless cosmopolitan, who yearns for primitive spectacles. I would bring in the rotting and fermenting fruits of the figtee to make a stink in the clean lodge, and challenge conventions of hygiene, and so replace traditions of visual arts by olfactory alternatives, which might awaken dormant memories and generally raise eyebrows. I would questions what we are, here seven hours upriver from the urban world. I would ask questions about seeing and being, without answering them. I would present my work conceptually at the 8 o’clock evening talks, showing photographs of geometrically patterned leaves on the forest floor with accompanying paradoxes, delivered in an understated, dead-pan voice and grave-yard manner, that would impress my mystical artisthood upon my audience, who would regard me as a somewhat alien species, a welcome change. My work would impart a sense of ‘cool’ stuff and infinite possibilities, without the corresponding realizations.

But since I am not a modern or contemporary artist but an old-fashioned painter, I refrain from all this, and instead stand patiently with my sketchbook on the muddy trail and draw every feature of the forest: the sparse leaves on the ground, the fruits, mushrooms, vines, the flowering plants and the big trees behind and above it. With some effort and ingenuity I fit it all together, to reconstitute the infinite forest in one finite picture. Instead of bringing culture to the forest as the artist does, I bring the wilderness back to civilization.

Old examples of rainforest drawing; I hope to be able to post some current drawings soon!


'Merry Christmas today! and a happy new year in a week or so! I'm spending this day like any day; we had our Christmas dinner last night, with the whole lodge together, researchers, tourists, guides and staff. In these fotos you see me working in the dining room in the rain, on the trail with a pretty turtle, which according to Richard is a tortoise - I almost beat him at chess yesterday, but he got a draw out of it. Since he is especially dangerous when I'm winning, he usually wins. Where was I? Ah yes, on the trail, where there is much to see, and which leads me often to an overlook on a high cliff, where you see the foothills of the Andes, still fully clothed in unbroken forest, and great clouds, that bring the lovely rain, which cools the air, and liberates me from the obligation to go out...'


'The forest is monotonous, until I run into any of its many inhabitants, or sit down to sketch the trees, or a a thunderstorm gathers and breaks, or the late sun penetrates the gloom and lights up the little leaves. The jungle seems a mess, until I leave the trail and stand, astonished, amid a thousand gently curved leaves in a hundred subtle orders. The forest is dull and green, until it turns motley with colourful birds and flowers. The forest tests my patience, and then rewards it. To walk through the rainforest is a muddy and sweaty affair. Rubber boots wear on the feet. Spines poke through soft soles. Ants are everywhere, and not all of them mind their own business. Sweatbees don’t sting but buzz and get between my glasses and my eyes. Tiny flies bite or sting uncovered or untreated skin; who knows what they carry and transmit. The fresh bamboo stalks have thorns that rip whatever hooks behind them. And yet the rainforest is not uncomfortable. It is not dangerous, and far less demanding than steep mountaintrails. Getting lost is probably the most frightening thing here, but since there are no trails to anywhere else than the area itself, you rarely get lost for long. The animals won’t hurt. The rainforest is serene like our own temperate woods.

What attracted me to this forest of the middle and upper Tambopata river is that it does not stop the way other forests do, at the edge of a field or a human settlement. There are no fields or settlements here. There is nothing but forest. You could trek through it for weeks, months, without getting out of it. To see this is a boyhood dream. Only the rivers with their gravelbars and sandy islands provide wide open spaces. From a high bluff I sketch the river and the forest continuing upriver all the way to the foothills of the Andes. Through my binoculars I can see that those distant hills are also forested. The vegetation ends only in a tiny patch of snow on the uppermost mountain summits that emerge above a bank of clouds. That’s where Puno is, and Lake Titicaca.'

And Michiel posted three more updates while still in Peru from the end of his stay:


'Four ways of working in the jungle:

You/I go to find the biggest tree of the forest, and do lots of sketches, while enjoying the surrounding birds, monkeys, peccaries, and other creatures.

In my/your bedroom unpack paints on whatever small table or chair is available; spread out the dead leaves for still life drawings in greater comfort than on the trail.

Ask for a piece of mosquitonetting, and draw on it with paint.

For relaxation, accompany a guide with tourists to the oxbow lake to see the giant otters.

Today is my last day in the Posada Amazonas; tomorrow I go back to civilization in Puerto Maldonado, and head for higher ground….


'Sketching in the top of a forestgiant I thought would be the ultimate self-indulgence for a treefanatic. And hauling myself up on a rope shouldn't be too difficult. But it was. Not so much difficult as hard. Very hard for a heavy middle-aged body. And quite frightening. It took me fifteen minutes before the guide dragged me onto the platform between the greet branches 35 meters up. But the view through the crown of the tall Brazilnuttree was wonderful. And after ten minutes the feeling in my arms and legs started to return, and the shaking stopped. Then a shower of rain came, and rainbows with it....'



My stay in the forest couldn't last forever. The generosity of Rainforest Expeditions and Trelex Residencies came to an end. What followed can be seen in these pictures:

I do my laundry, so that the civilized world won't smell me from a distance.

Back in Puerto Maldonado I visit the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers.

I wait for the bus to Cuzco, enjoying a street that could be almost anywhere on earth - in the tropics.

I make my way back to Lima, and climb a hill to get a good view of the capital.

The dangerous neighborhood is pacified by smiling policemen.

I eat ceviche - raw fish marinaded in lemon juice and spice.

I discover the source of the potato.

I sketch children to our mutual amusement.

I also swim in the Pacific Ocean, and then during a stop in Miami, in the Atlantic. Scratch my burnt and bitten skin. Get home with most of my treasured drawings and collections intact.

My friend Richard Thompson is still at the Tambopata Research Centre; you can follow his further adventures there, and here I hope. I must now go to turn my drawings in something as astonishing as the forest itself.


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  2. Hi there, well, you have a long post here. You do have the macaw photos, so I hope it is appropriate to post my own experience-- Here are my recent adventures to the Amazon (including the clay lick) ... huge trees of the Tombopato Reserve and ... the macaw clay-lick on the Tombopato River of Peru hope it adds to discussion :)