Exotic creatures like elephants, giraffes, rhinos and sailfish are drawn out by artist Alex Beard’s hand into colourful, whimsical, fantastic landscapes. Some of them are interacting with the street scenes of New Orleans, Alex’s residing city, taking the form of children’s illustrations – these are among my favourites. Not just as art pieces in their own right, but because their purpose is to encourage children to embrace creativity in their own lives and to educate kids about the importance of preserving the Earth’s wilderness and saving endangered wildlife. It is about making art that is accessible to and that has meaning for the widest possible audience. This is the beauty and power of art.
Alex Beard’s entire body of work concerns raising awareness and preserving the world’s most jeopardized species. His Watering Hole Foundation is dedicated to help save endangered wildlife and to preserve the Earth’s remaining wilderness, and supports antipoaching measures in Northern Kenya and other conservation efforts.
On the Ngare Ndare River
Raised in New York City in a family that fostered philanthropy, creativity and exploration (he is the son of a philanthropist father and a magazine editor mother, and the nephew of renowned wildlife photographer Peter Beard), Alex Beard has travelled extensively around the world from early on, which profoundly influenced his work. He graduated from Tufts University and attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and The New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, where he honed a distinctive painting technique that he has coined “abstract naturalism” – a vivid, elaborate style influenced by both the natural world and abstract expressionism that has become his signature mark, landing his work in public and private collections and in solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Hong Kong.
Artists are conveyors of the times that they live in, people that express the times that they live in. They have something to say that is a statement of the world today, of society today. Alex Beard is one of them. I had the great pleasure to talk with Alex about the importance of exposing children to art, about his social responsibility as both a human being and an artist, and about his fondest memories from Kenya (like drinking Tuskers with his friends as a teenager beneath the tree where Denys Finch Hatton was buried on the Ngong Hills). Honest and inspiring. Thank you, Alex!
“I believe that it is my duty as a human being to be a
responsible tenant of the natural world. As an artist,
I have certain tools to help accomplish that goal.”
Alex, I am particularly fond of your children’s art prints. As a parent to a toddler, I would like to ask you: What is your philosophy on exposing kids to the arts at a young age?
There is no age too young to expose children to art!
Your unique, intricate wildlife paintings seem to reflect both your love of nature and your concern with the preservation of the flora and fauna of our natural surroundings and with the conservation of the world’s most jeopardized wilds. Do you believe it is your duty, as an artist, to effect change?
I believe that it is my duty as a human being to be a responsible tenant of the natural world. As an artist, I have certain tools to help accomplish that goal, therefore not using the talents at my dispoal for greater good is both irresponsible and selfish.
You make art to create awareness. How can every individual impact change?
All activism is local; politics, environmentalism, civic responsiblity, and charity. So everyone can effect change by taking care of their own little piece of the planet.
The Uptown Streetcar
left: Gestural Bird I | right: Stack of Beasts II
How has your up-bringing in New York, moving to New Orleans and extensive travelling around the globe influenced you creatively?
Travel and exposure to other cultures and peoples have influenced me to think beyond my own narrow lens.
Who and what inspires you?
Nature and those that you find in it.
Given your lineage, was it difficult to find your own voice in the artistic world?
What was the galvanizing moment that made you realise you had your own story to tell in your very own way?
There was no single galvanizing moment, but rather a slow erosion of ego. It’s hard work trying to be someone or something other than who you are naturally yourself, so exhaustion had a part to play in it, too. Ultimately, I just stopped worrying about what and who I wasn’t, and all (or at least most) of the narcissistic angst went away. Phew.
Crossing the Mara
What is the most valuable lesson that Africa has taught you?
Africa offers a glimpse at the timelessness of the natural world, its enormity, and my insignificant yet impactful part in it.
A travel writer once told me that the most fulfilling thing about her work is being able to change the false impression that somebody has on a country and its people. Did you leave with any prejudices to Africa? If so, how has your experience there changed that?
I first went to Africa with a clean slate because I was too young to have any prejudice as to who or what I might find. In general, I find prejudice unhelpful, small-minded, and, if possible, to be avoided at all costs. Nonetheless prejudice is an easy track which leads to complacentcy, proventiality, and an acute myopic view of the world, one which is ultimately unsatisfying, uninteresting, and dangerous. As to changing people’s false impressions, I am an advocate for everyone to go as far afield as they can to see for themselves. It is a universal vaccine for narrowmindedness.
Audience Portrait, II
The first project of your Watering Hole Foundation was centered on protecting the Wild African Elephant in Northern Kenya. Are the efforts of the foundation visible? What has been the most challenging part of this project?
Elephant poaching in Northern Kenya has plummeted over the last three years. The Watering Hole Foundation’s efforts are but a small piece in a much bigger puzzle. The most challenging part of any conservation project is the fludity of the situation on the ground and the needs of the community to best protect their local environment. With that in mind, The Watering Hole Foundation is happy with the relationships cultivated over the last five years and looks forward to continuing the fight to preserve Northern Kenya’s wilderness.
What is your most beautiful memory of Kenya?
I have different memories from different ages.
- Drinking Tuskers with my friends beneath the tree where Denys Finch-Hatton was buried on the Ngong Hills as a teenager
- Particularly good elephant charge in my early twenties
- Lions in my camp
- Bringing my son on camel safari
- Carrying my young daughter on my shoulders tracking elephants on foot
Dreaming of Africa
You have also written a trilogy of storybooks, Tales from the Watering Hole. Could you tell me what they are about?
Tales from the Watering Hole are anthropomorphic parables in the vein of Aesop and Kipling. The Jungle Grapevine is about rumors, Monkey See, Monkey Draw is a book about the fun of making art for little kids, and Crocodile’s Tears is a story about endangered species and the environment, and coming in September, the fourth book is called The Lying King and it is about a warthog.
One favourite thing to do in New Orleans and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world:
Eating crawfish with your neighbors – standing in your garden around a table covered in the local newspaper, stacked with mudbugs, and shooting the bull.
One thing you wish people appreciated more:
I wish people appreciated how thin the vinear is between light and dark, order and chaos, civillization and brutality.
Crossing The Elephant Highway
Gestural Elephant 2017