Drawing lessons from nature

In China, 200 kilometres from the Western border of Tibet, Steve Morvell has been given the chance to play with one of the rarest animals on the planet.

Steve and Wei Wei the panda sit on the forest floor. The panda snuggles up to Steve, leaning against his leg. Together they climb trees and roll around in the bamboo. 

An Australian wildlife artist and conservation advocate, representatives of the Chinese government understand Steve's passion and are helping Steve achieve his conservation goals. 

Born and raised by a working-class family in Ballarat, Steve's interest in wildlife grew from a young age. 

At his uncle Arthur's house in Melbourne, Steve's interest in wildlife art grew when he was introduced to the work of Robin Hill, a great Australian bird painter. 

"Robin Hill's book sat in a box and I had to put on little white cotton gloves to look through it," Steve said. 

"That's when I began to look at birds differently. Not just as part of nature but as works of art. It was a big influence."

Growing up, many teachers in Steve's life saw beyond the child to the adult with artistic potential.

But at 14 years old, Steve stared death in the face when he was hit by a car. 

"One second made the difference between being crippled or killed.

"I was on crutches for two years, I even had a wheelchair and walking stick."

But it was Steve's technical drawing teacher Russell, who gave him positive support. 

"He trusted me. Gave me a key to his office, said I could do as many drawing exercises as I wanted."

Russell still follows Steve's work, attending his last exhibition in Ballarat.

"I said to Russell, 'You taught me how to love drawing', and he burst into tears.

"He said to me, 'Steve, You've just made my whole life worthwhile', and then I started crying too."

Excelling academically at school, Steve was forced to give up art because he was 'too intelligent'.

Feeling miserable, his grades began dropping overnight. 

"Australia is still the only country where artists are seen as dumb and irresponsible, but nothing is further from the truth. In other countries artists are celebrated."

At the age of 23, Steve was working in a factory, had his house paid off and was happily married. But he still didn't feel fulfilled. 

"I wasn't doing what I'm meant to. You're an artist whether you like it or not."

Enrolling in a Fine Arts degree at the University of Ballarat, Steve was first in his family to break the mould. 

"At the course interview I showed them bird drawings and they were bloody awful. 

"But what the teaching panel saw was that I was passionate about finding the real meaning of my life."

Now, almost 40 years on, Steve lives among the trees in Halls Gap. 

Honing his skills as a wildlife artist and gallery owner he says it's his purpose to create awareness about conservation. 

"For me, being in nature and being strongly connected to nature, is just quite simply my life.

"I live in a town with 350 people and 3500 kangaroos and I think that's the right kind of balance."

But wildlife in the Grampians is facing some tough conservation issues. 

For the second time in recorded history, koalas are becoming extinct in the national park.

"It's infuriating. I ask Parks Victoria what they are doing and they just laugh at me."

Without koalas, a folivore, the eco-system in the park is entering a different state of growth. 

The possums are overreating and the trees are unhealthy and dying. 

"We are seeing the end of nature and that is terrifying. The whole ethos behind conservation is not really a matter for debate anymore, it's something that's essential."

This year in South Africa, 86 rhinos were killed in January alone. Steve has been told 60 of those were poached from a national park, in canned-hunting operations ran by corrupt senior management, rangers, vets and politicians. 

Lions aren't too far behind extinction either, with only 17,000 left on the African continent.

"The fact is that conservation has entered the end-game scenario," Steve said.

In 2006 Steve's game of life nearly ended again, in a bicycle accident in Wendouree. He cracked his skull and suffered a frontal lobe injury, losing cognitive skills.

"I just thought, life is a bit of a gamble. I could have been dead and never had the chance to go to Africa." 

So he did. After a long recovery process Steve travelled by himself to Africa, to take the next step in wildlife art conservation. 

Taking field sketches and journal notes, Steve still revisits his experiences while he's painting.

"When a lion comes up and rubs against me, puts his paw up through the wire to high five me, that's such a beautiful moment of trust.

"Nobody forced him to do that. He made little noises which were private little noises that no one else could hear. It's a gesture of genuine friendship."

Usually creating artwork with soft pastels, Steve is the only artist in the world that has developed another medium called charcoal engraving. 

A self-described evolution, Steve has been using the complicated technique for fifteen years.

"I can get ultra detail, or real dark shapes and shadows, I love it." 

The painting of Duma the lion, which used charcoal engraving, has evoked many emotions from viewers. 

"It was just so beautiful and magnificent, gentle and complex," one of Steve's clients said.

"From the rich textures to the soft colours, there is so much love in this lion."

As a conservation advocate, Steve takes it upon himself, through his artwork, to show people that these things are worth treasuring.

Along with friend Kevin Richardson - canned-hunting activist and 'Lion Whisperer' - they have raised thousands of dollars for the Painted Dog Conservation group.

"Kevin is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn't care about what anyone else thinks," Steve said.

"When I presented him with a painting of hyenas at the fundraiser, he cuddled me and just kept crying, he said it was beautiful."

Steve's artwork for conservation has caught the attention of many international conservationists around the world. 

Exhibiting in Shanghai every year, Steve overcomes chronic anxiety, standing up in front of some of the best artworks in Asia to talk about his own work. 

"I talk a lot but I honestly have chronic anxiety, but these issues are bigger then that.

"The world of your dreams lives just outside of your comfort zone. You've just got to get outside there."

Back on the forest floor in China, Steve feels Wei Wei's fur under his fingertips. His fur is course like a doormat. Dense but deep. Steve can hear his little vocalisations and gets a sense for his gentle nature. 

  "It is such a privilege. I think it's amazing that they let me into art school in the first place. If you do what's in your heart and what you really believe in, then you won't fail."

Wildlife artist Steve Morvell is passionate about conservation issues. Picture: Jeremy Bannister

Wildlife artist Steve Morvell is passionate about conservation issues. Picture: Jeremy Bannister


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