Tobagan residency

An unfinished three-part ‘paint sketch’ of butterfly-attracting plants around the pond

An unfinished three-part ‘paint sketch’ of butterfly-attracting plants around the pond

Last month I spent a wonderful three weeks on the island of Tobago. Partly, the trip was a continuation of explorations of my family heritage but it was also time out to create without deadlines - an open-ended artist retreat without intended outcome, just the opportunity to test en plein air painting in the tropics. Bliss!

Armed with a suitcase full of art materials and a pick up truck with which to pootle around the island, I originally planned to spend a lot of time around the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. This area was protected by law in the 1770’s - one of the earliest acts of environmental action in the world - so I was interested to see how it was being cared for in 2019. Sadly, after talking to several locals, it transpired that legal hunting is one of the key drivers behind a sharp decline in forest wildlife and that this is having a knock-on effect on the wider ecosystem. For example, many people pointed out to me how few butterflies they saw on the island these days, and it’s true that when I visited seven years ago I saw greater variety and numbers…

But, disappointing as that was, by luck these conversations led me to Corbin’s Local Wildlife - a conservation park nestled in the hills and valleys near Hope Bay (how apt!). And, rather wonderfully, I was welcomed in on an ‘unofficial artist residency’ by founders Roy and Ian. I ended up spending about 10 days there painting and sketching and exploring, even becoming part of their guided tour (“the lesser-spotted artist from London!”)

Whilst I was there I learnt about the astonishing amount of work these men have undertaken (literally blood, sweat and tears) to create a safe home for some of the most endangered animals on the island. Their backgrounds are very different. Ian, an Irish artist, landscape architect and environmental activist, spent decades campaigning and writing about forestry issues in Ireland (even taking the government to court at one point!). He persuaded Roy on the value of focusing solely on celebrating Tobagan wildlife and brought with him a strong passion for nurturing biodiversity, creating spaces that are as species-rich as possible. And Roy, a Tobagan reformed hunter now conservationist, not only has a deep understanding of the local animal habitats and behaviours but he also has so many anecdotes and folklore tales relating to the islands flora and fauna, which he joyfully shares with tourists and locals alike. There was an element of reconnecting (particularly young) islanders to their ancestry and landscape that I really enjoyed about Roy’s tours.

My studio nestled in the hillside

My studio nestled in the hillside

Roy giving a tour underneath the ‘wild guava’ tree

Roy giving a tour underneath the ‘wild guava’ tree

Ian (with Michael, Roy’s son) with a boa constrictor that was brought to the park after being run over

Ian (with Michael, Roy’s son) with a boa constrictor that was brought to the park after being run over

In meeting them both, it struck me how one can meet creative partners in the most unlikely of places and times, and how these meetings truly can be catalysts for the most exciting of endeavors. The combination of their complimentary experiences has resulted in a new, safe place on the island where endangered (and even extinct) animals are now being cared for, bred and ultimately re-released into the wild - and they’re not only catering to tourists but also engaging and educating local hunters and school children. It’s incredible what individuals can do when we put our minds to it and whilst it’s relatively early days at Corbin’s, I’m excited to see how the park develops as it becomes more established, and the knock on impact this might have beyond their 20 acres of land... From ocelots, armadillos and sally painters to caiman, manicous and agoutis, the park is absolutely teaming with wildlife - with animals outside of the rescue/breed programme actually coming into the park of their own free will now, as it is a place of sanctuary away from the hunters in the main forest. Butterflies, too, are tentatively returning as they plant up diverse wild grasses and flowers largely cleared for farm land in other parts of the island. This experience has left me with many-an-idea for future paintings. Hope Bay indeed. I highly recommend a visit if you’re in T&T!