Monday, 2 June 2014

Colony Art

Hello, my name is Chris Wallbank and I spent two weeks in May on Skomer Island to start work on a new drawing project called Loomery Scrolls which will be exhibited at the Festival of the Mind 2014 from 18 - 28 September. The festival is organised by the University of Sheffield each year to showcase the research it carries out by supporting collaborative projects between artists and members of the University. For my project, I have teamed up with Professor Tim Birkhead, Professor of behavioural Ecology at the University and a leading figure in avian biology. Tim has studied Skomer's guillemots at their breeding colonies or loomeries every year since 1972 and I have been set the task of drawing them in a way that reflects the ongoing research established by Tim here on Skomer. The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and Skomer wardens Ed and Bee have made this possible by giving me special access to some of the islands sensitive research areas, where Tim and his team work. 

One theme of Festival of the Mind this year is chaos, which appropriately describes first impressions of the densely packed loomeries on Skomer; a single square metre of precipitous cliff ledge can be occupied by up to seventy noisy, busy birds. Closer observation however reveals signs of the strong social order within. Behaviour to do with courtship, pairing, defence and rivalry are central to the communication that binds guillemots together in the formation of a loomery. Over the last week, I have been observing these different social behaviours and interactions in detail to make drawings that reveal this sense of order within the apparent chaos on the cliffs. Thankfully, Tim has been at hand to help me make sense of it all, along with PHD student Elspeth Kenny and research assistant Julie Riordan. Happily for me; Elspeth is studying the colonies from a detailed perspective, focusing on the allopreening behaviour that strengthens the bond between breeding pairs and their immediate neighbours, whilst Julie presents a wider picture of the colony by carrying out the work of monitoring populations and ringed birds that has continued uninterrupted on Skomer for forty years.

I work by taking a long roll of long paper, usually between 1.5 and 3 metres and starting from one side draw the colony a bird at a time through a scope or binoculars. Working on a large scale is the key, because it allows me to show the loomeries as a whole with enough detail that individual birds, their postures and behaviours can be recognised. For me, it is all about capturing the experience of observing wildlife in the field and the insight gained from looking deeper into the detail of things.

Putting this approach into practice on Skomer has at times been challenging, especially when wrestling with boards and paper against the 40 knot winds we experienced this weekend. The guillemots too have at times been less than co-operative. Having not yet laid on mass, many are still jostling for position on the ledges and groups can shuffle, re-shuffle, disperse or grow in numbers during the split second I look down at my drawing and back up. Once such practical problems are overcome or adapted to, I find it easy to draw guillemots day in day out because the insight I get into life within a loomery captivates me completely. Next week I am looking forward to the time when Skomer’s guillemots are expected to lay on mass, this will bring a completely new dynamic to the colony as pairs become more settled and the bond between neighbours will be tested to the limit as the threat from avian predators becomes ever more frequent.

A day by day account of my time on Skomer including more drawings can be followed on my blog

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