Russian Mural 2016 – written by Rory McCann
My mission as an artist has then been to paint a huge mural, involving the community in the process, with the aim of passively engaging everyone in the work that SCA does and the importance of preserving the local fauna and flora. In April of this year, I boarded a plane for Astrakhan, in South-West Russia. I was met at 4am (local time) by Yuri (a university professor and associate of SCA) and his son, who then drove me through the night to the village of Yashkul, which was to be my home for the next 2 weeks. Before any painting could begin, I had to meet with various people, including my translator (Anatoly), the principal of the local school where I’d be working, and the head of the village, who was a large, cuddly man!
Later that day, I was welcomed into the local school with a mesmerising performance by the older students, which represented the springtime flowering of the tulip. This also gave me an opportunity to explain a bit about why I was there and about the important work of SCA. I was now ready to start painting, and it didn’t take long for the students to show their curiosity and fascination. Even just priming the wall with white paint elicited lots of “oohs” and “aahs”! As each day went by, more and more students would come during their breaks and after school to watch and ask questions. Once I had painted several Saiga onto the mural it provided a great focal point for discussions about the Saiga’s plight and the need for it to be conserved. When I was low on energy one of the teachers would bring me juice and chocolate saying “it is the Buddhist way”. It made me think that perhaps I should look into Buddhism – the religion of chocolate!
Towards the end of my visit I was taken to a nearby nature reserve and had the wonderful pleasure of seeing Saiga in the wild. We also saw Demoiselle crane, little bustard, European souslik
(tiny ground squirrels), and a pair of very friendly camels, one of whom made multiple eager advances on us! I came back to the mural with renewed inspiration to represent the full beauty of the steppe habitat and wildlife. During my last few days we did a lot more outreach including fun art workshops for the younger students and masterclass lessons for the older students, who were given the chance to paint onto the mural itself. My hope is that this engagement will inspire these students to appreciate the environment all the more and perhaps influence what they do in their career and lifestyle later in life.
So, after 2 weeks of painting, chatting, laughing, tripe soup, chocolate, camel encounters, Saiga sightings and so much more, the mural project was complete. The school held a grand opening ceremony with students, staff and members of the community in attendance. Lots of gifts were exchanged and lots of fond farewells were made. I had an especially emotional farewell from the cleaning staff who gently stroked my arms and head while softly speaking kind words. I couldn’t understand a word, of course, but the sentiments were clear!
This project was only possible through the generous support of the Wildlife Conservation Network, the World Wildlife Fund (Russia) and the Saiga Conservation Alliance. My thanks also to E.J Milner-Gulland and Carlyn Samuel for their belief in my work, and to Yashkul School, Anatoly, and everyone in Yashkul who made me feel so welcome.
Watch our video clip of the mural here