Like many artists across the globe, Alex Beard uses his work to enact change.
His colorful and elaborate wildlife paintings portray not only his appreciation for the natural world, but his passion to preserve it. Nearly 40% of all life on the planet is currently threatened by extinction, and 99% of that threat is due to human activity, so raising awareness – whether through art or other methods – of the issue is crucial. Beard believes all people can use their talents to do so.
Beard’s passion for animals and nature came from the many summers he spent as a teenager with his uncle, noted wildlife photographer Peter Beard, in Nairobi. He became connected to the animals, particularly elephants, that roamed freely around him while living humbly in the African bush. Bearing witness to the ivory trade and subsequent ivory burning, what he called “on par with an environmental holocaust,” would stick with him for the rest of his life.
“It was something that sent me down the path towards conservation,” he told the crowd at A Brush with Nature, The Nature Conservancy‘s San Antonio Conservation Luncheon, on Wednesday. Hundreds came together to hear Beard’s keynote address and learn more about local, national, and global conservation efforts.
“It was so apparent and obvious when I was standing in front of what was about 40,000 pounds of ivory … that if I was aware of it and didn’t do something about it that I was complicit in a way.”
Beard’s extensive travel experiences in places like India, China, the Americas, and Australia, would continue to serve as inspiration for his art that uses “Abstract Naturalism,” a method that combines abstract expressionism and naturalist environmental art. His paintings and illustrations are inspired by the way animals move and portray the interconnectivity between the environment, culture, and everyday life.
Beard believes that that connection, that “understanding of the holistic picture,” is too often overlooked.
“Our own health and the health of our environment is apparent when looking at the animals. There’s something like 25,000 species on the greater endangered species list,” he said. “We are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events in the history of the planet and in this case we are the asteroid. The good side of that is that we are also the solution.”
Beard’s solution is donating proceeds from his work as a visual artist, documentary filmmaker, and author of several books to specific conservation causes around the world. He even started his own organization, The Watering Hole Foundation, that works to save endangered wildlife and preserve their environments.
Conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy are also “of the utmost importance,” Beard said, since their efforts often bridge the gap between natural systems and economic systems, making it possible to more effectively protect wildlife.
Locally, The Nature Conservancy has helped to protect the Edward’s Aquifer, which is the source of drinking water for two million people and the primary water source for agriculture and industry in the region, by enacting mechanisms like tax funding that have raised nearly $1 billion, and their advocacy and aid has helped Texas become a leader in the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill of 2010.
The numerous examples of effective preservation throughout San Antonio and Texas, Beard said, are also made possible by a strong community united in their passion for protecting and promoting the natural world, even in the face of adversity.
“There are things out there that are bigger than us, that seem impossible to tackle, and (that feeling) therefore steps us back from activating which is ultimately the worst thing that we can do,” he said.
“There is humility involved in the work that we do for conservation. Part of that has to do with the idea of working together with others, but it also puts you in a context that there are things that are greater than you that are going on, and even if you make a fool of yourself, the action of putting yourself out there is key.”
Top image: Alex Beard describes his experiences as an artist in Africa. Photo by Scott Ball.