From Nora and Kristen Schaffer

25.03.2014 - 25.03.2015

Up the Rio Tambopata, near the national reserve, we relax in a noisy little oasis.

We are lost to the rest of the world. So much so the slightest reminder throws us back into it.

Taylor Swift is currently poking a hole in our isolated, but vast glistening bubble. On the plus side, when discussing the possible advantages to Alina's sudden and unexplained deafness, she cooly replies 'that is my defense mechanism", protecting herself in this lost world.

We've been taken in by the jungle, adapting as the animals do hiding in the presence of vibrations, or in our case, music. Waking each morning by the extraterrestrial moans of the howler monkeys and falling asleep to the scratches of the mouse opossum above the bed, not to mention the pterodactyl-like shrieks of the macaws unseen from underneath the hatched roof passing by all day long. It all leaves poor Taylor sounding a bit boring.


Today we just made art. Alina drew in the morning. and Kristen and I did a test shoot around the lodge for my project in the afternoon. We've been wandering the forest for days. Since before sunrise to after sunset. Saay led us through the forest with utter poise, saving us from unseen ants under extending branches and waiting patiently as we took it all in. We're allowed to go out on our own now, but today we didn't. We sat and soaked in the glory.


The difficulty, as artists, is trying to focus in the middle of sensory overload. I've done many photo studies on texture, but here you find patterns, repetition, detail, complexities, and dynamics in just about everything. Oh, and not to mention RGB. This is a true wonder bridging the gap of nature and technology. Aside from the occasional tropical bird or fruit, everything is red, blue, and green. Very little blending. Sort of mod, in a hippie way. I'm anticipating the S-curvve.

All the researchers and tourists take great interest in our practice. The researchers question and hope to engage with out practices. We sit at the bar and chat each evening. Tim, the lovely manager here at Tambopata Research Center, is warming up to the idea of us holding work-shops on rainy days. He even suggested doing formal presentations on the work we're doing, which we will gladly do. We take equal interest in the researchers as they "play" (observe) with baby macaws and climb great trees.


The tourists, from Norway, Japan, Toronto, California, New York, Germany, and Australia (thus far), have demonstrated both intrigue and discomfort at our presence, the latter of which I was not anticipating. The three of us have been immersed in artistic communities for so long (those in London, New York, Toronto, and elsewhere), that we have plain forgotten that art isn't always considered 'real' work or a reason to come to the jungle. We've heard "Now, why on earth would you shoot 35mm?" or "Were your parents artists?". Each time is another opportunity to practice on our presentations.


Let's just say we are perpetuating a fascinating dialogue pulling on threads from the lives and minds of those living here and those just passing through. I was worried for so long, well for three whole weeks, that 27 days in the most isolated place I could image would be too much. Now I savor each second, hoping time will slow itself so we can continue to see and enjoy this unimaginable beauty.

From Alina Dolgin

21.02 - 13.03.2015

Walking from the boat I held my breath. My eyes focused solely on the narrow path before me. The Refugio Amazonas Lodge greeted me like a ship rising out of the green. I was at once invited to join a group walking on the trails over the coming days. The unexpected nature of things to come was not to be underestimated.

During my stay, I spent 5 days going on the trails for up to 5 hours at a time. The combination of joy and a new level of physical exertion were overwhelming but still familiar and tangible. Less familiar was the demand to engage with the environment. The physicality of the terrain contrasted to my usual predictable urban experiences, such as walking on concrete. I found myself navigating locations full of unfamiliar shapes formed from intertwined living and dying vegetation.

The guides taught us to move through this landscape whilst astounding us with their knowledge and awareness of our surroundings. The variety of landscapes we reached with their guidance was impossible to replicate without them. Besides giving scientific context, the routine of walking the trails helped me to adjust my daily schedule to the demands of the climate. In my case, it also built up my courage to face the unknown…  

After a few days, emerging from the fog of my first impressions, I was left with some open questions. Firstly, the recognition of the synergy of every object in the forest, not only visually, but also on a functional level: for example, in the co-operation and the co-adaptation between the animals and the plant world.

This functional and aesthetic unity is so obvious, that I wondered how do humans, upon entering this space, fit into this ecology? The second question followed of how to transmit my experience of a place whose essence cannot be reduced to its parts; and moreover, what would a reproduction of the experience achieve? 

This question of visitor versus inhabitant was probably fuelled by the environmental concerns that see foreign influences as primarily intrusive to the habitat.

But equally, this notion lingered due to the feel of the place. The experience of being there wasn’t a mere moving through the landscape; it felt more like acting it out. The skin sensitive to the heat or the occasional fright, the feet sliding or climbing - negotiating changing horizon and points of view.  Through the relational nature of my intrinsic physicality, I felt completely immersed. Hard to think oneself a detached observer when one is molded into space in that way. 

Simultaneously the corridors and the enclaves, the tiers, the shadows and the symmetry of plants made it feel like a series of spaces or rooms. Heterogeneous and delicate, appearing dependent on the direction one was facing and seemingly only existing at this one point of view. The architectural feel was also supported by there being virtually no breeze - a large unmoving stillness.


The experience of inhabiting the rainforest called for seeing the space as ‘lived’ rather than a vessel containing objects defined by proximity to one another or myself, and that fact alone seemed worth probing. The objective environment became a subjective one that was at times hostile and truly disorientating, but mostly humbling in its serenity – infinitely unfolding.

This residency was planned as a time for me to find a way back into independent work. My desire to enter into a dialogue with a place coincided with and contributed to my re-evaluation of my position in the world and the art practice. As my body acted out and recorded the landscape, I felt the need to interrogate my position as a participant rather than an observer. As a stepping-stone to answer that question I ‘practiced’ orientation as an interaction with and an active construction of the space, whilst paying tribute to that powerful place.

The series of work that I then began is based on observations and aimed at tracing the active ‘reading’ of space, as it unfolds before the eye.

By keeping this process transparent and allowing the composition to ‘open’ sequentially, I think the viewer may trace gestures and lines to find that illusory space in the two-dimensional work. I have an interest in requiring effort from the viewer to negotiate the surface of the work, to reflect how making sense of our environment requires lived time. How much effort is one willing to put in, so that the unfamiliar may come to feel nonetheless harmonious? Can the viewer accept not knowing, being disorientated whilst choosing to stay willful and engaged?

I brought some books and articles along that could help focus and shape my practice. While researching interdependence and the idea of a lived body, I stumbled upon symmetry as a good companion for my practice at the residency.

Symmetry may exist on a plane or as completely enclosing 3-dimensional space - a complete unit in itself. This echoed the forest as a complete organism.

Mainly because the household has a routine I found it difficult to work inside the Refugio Lodge, as I was the only one outside of the tourists' schedule. When I did, it sometimes felt awkward and inconvenient to the team and compromised my privacy.

However, staying at Refugio prepared me for independent exploration and gave me space and comfort to acclimatize to the forest.

I then spent two weeks at the Tambopata Research Center, where the proximity of scientific research is more conducive to my way of working. I think Michiel in his post writes brilliantly of the challenges and joys of talking to guests and teams at the lodges.

Rising around 5-6am allowed for more working hours, as a rest of 3 hours around midday was unavoidable. When drawing, the wide brimmed hat was vital, especially as standing still in the forest attracts insects - it doubles as a frame to hang a light cloth over creating a kind of curtain for the face. I quickly found that setting up a whole painting station was overambitious, and settled for faster sketches, but at the lodge, there are folding chairs designed to take along to bird watching – very handy for drawing as well.

Another material that I found essential was a varnish to fix the pencil lines, as pencil will bleed into paper. Paper absorbs the moisture overnight making it very soggy. For the same reason, I put every piece of paper that I wanted to save overnight into plastic wallets (usually used for ring binders or plastic folders). To expand available storage space and to dry paint or varnish, string came in handy, as well as clips. Finally, to express my gratitude to the hosting community I brought a number of boxes with colored pencils for the local school found in a stationary store. Also, some solid rain ponchos for the guides found at a hardware store. Both are near the famous market in Surquillo, Lima. For future visitors, a welcome gift would be a memory stick with films, and chocolate, for the Research Center team.

Some practical notes:
- There are good shops for art materials in Lima. Two are in Miraflores just 5 min walk apart. One is on the corner of Av. Ernesto Diez Canseco and Calle Alcanfores, the other called Van Dyck is in Av. La Paz
- A fantastic place to print good quality images and a lot cheaper than in London, for example, is Centro de la Imagen in Av. 28 de Julio 815, Miraflores

Leaf Portraits by Alina Dolgin