Mary-Ann Bartlett tells us about her unique adventure travel company, Art Safari, where art, exploration and huge amounts of inspiration are combined to create a very special experience for beginners and experienced artists alike
You set up Art Safari in 1999. How did this come about?
I first came to Malawi in 1991 as expedition artist on the Livingstone’s Footsteps expedition (who travelled alongside my great-great-grandfather Sir John Kirk). At the time, I was a fine art student in Strasbourg, France. I’d always painted (my paint box was my passport) and I’d always been an outdoors and wildlife person – so, experiencing Africa as an artist was my idea of heaven. Then in 1999, I was taking my rucksack and portfolio off the roof of a bus in Lilongwe. As Mark Sprong (Land and Lake Safaris) passed it down to me, we hatched a plan to run some art weekends in Malawi’s national parks – calling them ‘Art Safari’!
What is Art Safari?
Art Safari is a UK based tour operator (ATOL 9916) but it’s so much more than a travel company – we design trips of a lifetime for artists. We run painting holidays and art workshops around the world – we’ve run tours in more than 35 countries and have 12 tutors with different specialisms.
Which is your favourite African country, and why?
It’s always the one I’ve just come back from! So today it’s Zimbabwe. I just got back from Victoria Falls a few days ago! Malawi, Zambia and Namibia are my second homes.
Describe your style and technique. What is your favourite medium to work in?
I trained as a printmaker but soon fell in love with the immediacy of field sketching in pencil and watercolour, often using large Chinese brushes and never being afraid of tackling fast movement and changing light. There’s a real adrenaline buzz to painting animals from life, and African wildlife is unparalleled. I feel relaxed and calm when painting the continent’s landscapes.
Describe a typical day on an Art Safari
For the residential course at Thornicroft Lodge in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, there is a pattern you’ll be familiar with: up at dawn and out on the open vehicles before 6am to sketch from life (we never know what we’ll find) until a tea break at about 8.30am, then landscape painting (including animals if they’re about) until we return back to the lodge for lunch at about 11am. In the afternoon, we have time to review work, tinker on paintings and rest before going out again at about 4pm to repeat the process (with sundowners instead of tea!), often finishing with a night drive. Although really, there is no typical day on the mobile safaris as the environment and our activities change from day to day.
Isn’t it dangerous to sit outside painting in Africa?
I once heard a rhino scout say that being charged by rhinos was ‘part of his job’. With us, there’s the occasional mock charge by elephant, so perhaps I could say this too, though it’s never been scary! A safari is always full of laughter and funny incidents – human, animal and artistic – like watching the warthogs parade up the steps of the Victoria Falls Hotel as if they own the place, or looking at your own sketchbook page when an elephant has just nonchalantly posed for you (bum view again), or when you wonder where your guests have gone and find them in the bar with another round of Amarula… When I look back over the years, I still have visions of carting a thunderbox around the Masai Mara for wheelchair user Pauline for a more comfortable bush loo experience and of the vervet stealing our fresh breakfast muffins in Liwonde. Then there’s the tales of the tame ‘ostrich that ate my pencil’ and many other colourful excuses for not coming to evening drinks with the day’s sketches ready to show the group.
Any top tips you have for budding artists thinking of doing an Art Safari?
Bring really good materials – be a paper, paint and brush snob and bring the best. But don’t bring too many of them. Start with shapes, start with shadow, start with the backbone, start anywhere just start. Creating a travel sketchbook is so satisfying, it’s a record of a trip and contains hours of memories and direct observation.
You also run Art Safari charities that have various projects in Malawi and Namibia. Tell us about those and how our readers can get involved
Over the years, we have supported and helped establish projects initiated by our guides – notably a little school and a sports academy – as well as other smaller schemes to help education and the wellbeing of people and wildlife. I have a team of people here in Suffolk who knitted more than 1000 items of clothing that we took out and donated. We’ve also taken out complete football strips for township teams.
What are the dates and destinations of your 2018 African art safaris?
There are some wonderful trips coming up this year. For the first time in a few years, we have a Malawi & Zambia combo trip as well as the Zambia residential trip in South Luangwa.
What are your hopes for the future?
When you start sketching, your eyes, heart and mind open too. My hope is that artwork can link people more closely with Africa’s wildlife and people, with conservation, joy of life, immediacy, laughter, friendship and hope, and with wider horizons than our own. For Art Safari, it’s time to add Ethiopia and Uganda to our list of destinations – watch this space – and for us to continue to be part of the places I’m lucky enough to call home.