Hardcore Faunography

Hardcore Faunography

By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities; a countryside riverbank scene with a kingfisher darting past will be alien to many. In today’s blog, we speak to an artist who uses her outstanding talent to bring nature into the city in the hope we’ll be reminded of, and seek out, the beauty we need to keep alive.

Plentiful studies exist that tell us what many already know: nature heals. Many of us try to find ways to bring nature into the urban environment where we can, and even setting up just one bird feeder at home can increase your access to biodiversity by 100%.

Other studies have shown simply observing nature in art not only makes you feel good, but seeing nature imagery can inspire you to seek out the real thing, learn more about it, and in turn potentially raise your own awareness of the challenges the natural world faces. An increased move to urbanisation risks forgetting about nature entirely, with dire consequences for all.

The artist who brings nature into the city

One artist who works to remind us of nature’s beauty is Sarah Yates, a UK-born and bred professional graffiti artist and graphic designer from Yorkshire, England, who now lives – for the time being at least – in Bulgaria.

Graffiti artist and graphic designer Faunagraphic. Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

Going under the excellent cheeky moniker Faunagraphic, Sarah advocates for the discovery and love of nature by bringing her environmentally conscious and gloriously vibrant style of spray-painting flora and fauna onto the blank canvases of the concrete metropolises of the world. In many cases, Sarah paints birds.

In Sarah’s and therefore our world, birds become gargantuan: vast wrens give side-glances from several feet up, colossal kestrels peer down over the shining beam of a lamppost. Her use of colour is fantastic and the birds are bursting with presence.

The grey end wall of an office block becomes a verdant landscape through which treecreepers scurry; a heron sits motionless on a pillar outside a metro station; the exhaust-fume-blackened bricks of an underpass are transformed into stormy evening skies where a barn owl hunts above a beautiful quote telling of steel and stone.

Grey wall becomes a verdant landscape. Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

Graffiti: an art form or vandalism?

I spoke to Sarah at the end of summer 2021. We first discussed that word, “graffiti”. Debates rage constantly about whether graffiti is an art form, or is it vandalism; to which Sarah frankly asserts that yes, of course it is art.

She explains that the only difference between framed work displayed in echoing galleries and work on the side of an apartment block is the type of canvas. That’s not to say that merely scrawling your street name or tag on a wall is art; clearly that is not the case.

Observing nature in art not only makes you feel good, but seeing nature imagery can inspire you to seek out the real thing.

There is a system of labelling: street artist, mural artist, graffiti artist… Sarah’s take is that labels are notoriously challenging, and we ultimately decide they are unnecessary. Whatever your take on art, it would be offensive and frankly wrong to label Sarah’s work and that of her peers as vandalism.

Learning curves

Describing herself on her LinkedIn page as a creative director, Sarah has been self-employed as a professional graffiti artist and graphic designer since 2007, and has been commissioned to paint large scale murals all over the world.

The difference between framed work displayed in galleries and work on the side of an apartment block is the type of canvas. Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

She regularly contributes to urban regeneration and nature projects, holds workshops in schools, and promotes graffiti artwork at both corporate and public events. Some of her bigger-name clients have included the RSPB, the Royal Horticultural Society, BBC Earth, Converse, and Adidas, with too many international exhibitions and festivals to mention.

She also creates prints and items of clothing and accessories that you can see and buy on her web shop. This side of her career was ticking away in the background, but when the pandemic was declared in 2020, as with all of us, things were suddenly put on hold, and she was forced to turn her attention back towards online sales.

Sarah explains:“I had about three mural projects that just dropped, and then I had maybe two or three that also got postponed and are still postponed now. I had to quickly flip around my way of income and focus more on selling my prints online. I already had the online shop running, but I wasn't really focusing on it, spending so much time on walls. But I did want to make that switch, so the pandemic was kind of a kick in the butt. Because I can sell canvasses and I can sell prints, I managed to do okay with that just when I needed it, really. I learned a lot about selling, what people would like to buy from me and so on, so it's been a nice learning curve as well.”

She summarises with a giggle and a shrug, “I mean, if everything was really easy, it would be boring, right? It's nice to have a bit of a challenge, you know, to figure things out”.

”I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to draw.” Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

Early beginnings

This earthy and pragmatic take on something like a global upheaval is fundamental to Sarah’s love of nature; it underpins her respect and admiration for the beauty and complexities of the natural world and all that can be found there.

I ask her where her love of birds comes from, and is there an earliest memory that she can pin down.

“When I was quite a lot younger and living in the countryside, my mum would walk us down the canal and near the rivers, and we were always out hiking. There was a particular time when she was pointing out herons and kingfishers to me, and I found them very mystical at the time because she was explaining how you don't see them much, and I remembered those initial first feelings of interest.

Then she actually painted a kingfisher, using watercolours; I never really saw my mum doing many paintings, but there are two particular drawings that she did that always stick in my head. I just knew that that's what I wanted to do, I wanted to draw. I wanted to use her watercolours but I was only six or something. It was imprinting, in a way, and I think since then, there's been this interest in birds. But I didn't really do anything with that interest apart from reading bird books, but as I got older, I started to use them in drawings.”

Sarah and her art. Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

Getting into the street art scene in Sheffield, Sarah discovered the joy of spray cans relatively later on when she was 19, after having used acrylics and digital art for much of her teens; despite her hankering after her mother’s things as a child, water colours became a definite no-no: far too “wishy-washy”.

She was pointing out herons and kingfishers to me, and I found them very mystical.

Starting out with a very basic flower stencil, Sarah would go about town “flower-bombing” as she went. One day, a friend recommended an online shop that sold a certain brand of spray paint, and with a particular design in mind (a take on the video game protagonist, Tomb Raider), she found the perfect wall, ordered the cans, and that was that. The flower stencils fell to the dust and freehand spray painting gleefully took over.

Why murals?

Doesn’t she find the idea of such a huge canvas intimidating? Quite the contrary, of course. Sarah is drawn to the sheer scale: the bigger the better.“It is more challenging, the feeling of finishing something much larger is better than being confined to a small canvas. With small canvases, it feels like I’m more restricted, but on a wall, I can make bigger movements.”

”On the bigger walls the details are often easier to do.” Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

I wonder aloud at the way she manages to bring the birds to life, often such diminutive creatures, how she manages to capture the reality of the delicacy of birds, the startling array of features and the minutiae of their plumage. Such a prospect would be daunting for me, and I ask, surely the pressure to get the tiniest details right is greater on a larger scale?

With typical Northern humour, she both dismisses and acknowledges my quandary with a shy admission: “On the bigger walls the details are often easier to do, but there are times, and I’m sure people have noticed, when I couldn’t be bothered to do something or get that bit right, or it’s gone wrong, that I’ve just put a flower in front of it. Or a leaf! Leaves are great for that. I’m sure other graffiti artists can tell when I’ve just dumped a leaf somewhere because I’m too lazy to finish it!”

Main motive

We bring our chat round to her main motive for giving these beautiful works of art to the world: conservation. Sarah ardently hopes that her paintings reach out to people and remind them of the beauty that they can go find for themselves, but also that we need to look after it, and soon.

“A lot of people that I've met, I've felt that they can see that I have a movement in myself that I want to try and work with the conservation side of things more. I do feel useless sometimes because I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I wanted to try and do something that would uplift people and make people think about nature, but sometimes you still feel pretty useless.

I always find the story of the RSPB amazing. I have a few friends and they're like, ‘Oh, protesting for nature, it doesn't get anywhere’. And I'm like, that's wrong, actually, because the RSPB was just two women that started it off, fighting for the rights of these birds, because they kept getting slaughtered for hats, and the birds were going extinct. And that's how it all began, just two women. Small steps lead to big changes, you know.”

Spray-painting flora and fauna onto the blank canvases of the concrete metropolises. Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

Indeed, I concur; and I am reminded of an interview I watched with her on BBC Earth a few years ago. At one of the school workshops Sarah held, she says on camera that individual conservation acts are “just a small walk away if everyone would walk together”.

I was beginning to see how effective the schools were.

Off camera, you can’t see how the kids reacted to those words, and I enquire if the engagement is there at her workshops, how much of an interest do the children show in the reason for the art itself?

“Well, actually, a lot of the schools I go to, it's surprising how orientated they are. They're so interested in looking after nature, they're very tuned in I think, and I like to think as they get older, they'll be very proactive, for sure. It's quite impressive, actually, as time went on and I kept going into different schools, I was beginning to see how effective the schools were at teaching this type of stuff and making them aware about looking after nature and recycling and so on”.

Different country, different birds

Sarah is currently based in Bulgaria, a move made logical by a pre-existing love for the country from family visits and owning a holiday property there. The street art scene there is exceptional and thriving, with many well-funded initiatives taking place regularly.

Main motive for giving these beautiful works of art to the world: conservation. Courtesy of Sarah Yates.

Being in a different part of the world led to discovering different birds first-hand, and a golden oriole has been living in her garden over the summer. One of Sarah’s recent works was a bee-eater mural; you can watch video footage of the work in progress here or on her Faunagraphic Facebook page.

“There’s a very big colony that lives not too far away from us here, and I find bee-eaters really interesting. I love to paint them because the colours are amazing! But sometimes I have to be careful which birds I choose because I don't want them to be ones that people never see, because then they don't have that same attachment.

Like a lot of artists, I just enjoy painting nature and I'll always help conservation organisations or anything like that. If there's a lot of us doing this now, then maybe in 20 years or so, it will be a nice community of people who are thinking like this for nature. You've just got to be one of many, haven't you?”

If you would like to learn more about Sarah, see more of her simply stunning artwork and maybe even support her on Patreon or purchase some prints, take a look at her Facebook and Instagram pages, and her website, here.

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