Observation 1 / London
Life in the city can take its toll but there are ways to avoid getting your feathers ruffled. We sharpen our pencils and head to a life-drawing class where the models are birds of prey, bats or even wolves.
A rotund life model waddles into a room of 25 onlookers and devours two baby chickens – whole. Such behaviour would appear uncouth at most art classes but here it’s quite the common occurrence.
Founded by London-based illustrator Jennie Webber in 2014, Wild Life Drawing is an art class with a difference: instead of being presented with humdrum human models, attendees are invited to try their hand at sketching anything from donkeys and chameleons to wolves and bats. Tonight, however, participants have gathered in a Victorian townhouse in north London for an altogether cheekier reason: seven-week old owlets.
These two cute-as-a-button babies are just growing into their flight feathers and their fluffy bodies make them almost amorphous – and quite difficult to draw. Thankfully the class is less about artistry than it is about getting to know the models. Webber’s aim is to inspire an appreciation for the natural world in her attendees. “There’s no real connection with nature in London,” she says. “That’s dangerous. It’s too easy to live in a concrete jungle and just go about your business.”
To remedy that, these classes let people get up close and personal with nature’s finest, which helps attendees better understand the animal kingdom. There’s another positive: interacting with animals can decrease stress levels. “It’s incredibly uplifting,” says Amanda Jenkins, who had never seen a tawny owl before attending a Wild Life Drawing class. “I emerge from classes feeling a sense of wonder at having been able to observe animals up close.” It’s the same for Nicola Lawrence. “My day job can be stressful,” she says. “Spending time with animals pushes my reset button.”
The joy of getting close to goats and alpacas can have a positive effect on course-goers but Webber hopes the classes will have a favourable outcome for the animals too, by inspiring attendees to get involved in conservation. “I don’t want to be preachy but it’s important to me to get these themes across,” she says. “When you’re viewing animals as individuals it makes it harder to look away when we treat them badly.”
Fortunately, bird-trainer Ryan Shoebridge is here to make sure the owlets are looked after – and not just looked at. His Kent-based display team Sky Birds of Prey has been working with Webber since Wild Life Drawing’s very first class. With animal handling in the UK largely unregulated, the trust between Webber and her partners is paramount.
At the end of the class, Shoebridge tucks the tuckered-out owlets away, while Webber helps attendees roll up their artwork. They’ll head back to their studio with a newly awakened desire to go wild in the city. “There is so much to appreciate if you are open to it,” says Jenkins, “even in urban environments like London.”