The Daily Heller: Teaching Art That Expands Horizons

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Ross teaches naturalist drawing and watercolor techniques in Kenya.

Deborah Ross is a brilliant naturalist artist who primarily paints in watercolor, mostly throughout Africa. She also teaches art throughout the continent, imbuing young students with a passion for visual storytelling through watercolor drawing. A major drought continues to devastate Kenya, where she has spent most of her time, and a year ago she was contracted by the African Conservation Center to design and implement an education program in Amboseli National Park.

After working as an editorial illustrator, she has devoted most of her life to this mission. For this project she worked mainly at two schools bordering Amboseli, and took a number of field trips into the park for 10 schools in the region. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I even brought my husband, Sidiki, along to do music. He was quite the hit.” The donor who financed the program loved the work and is funding Ross and Sidiki’s return this summer.

I’ve known Ross for three decades. She taught naturalist drawing at SVA and other schools, and has taught animators and illustrators at Disney how to make animals move. In 2018 she led a group of teaching artists through the Art Education Department of SVA to Madagascar, where they ran painting workshops in the villages bordering Ranomafana National Park.

I could go on for paragraphs listing her accomplishments. But it is best to hear everything in her own words. The interview below gives a summary view of how art education has enriched these children.

(To donate to the environmental education project Ross has been involved with, click here.)

How did you get involved (or evolve) from wildlife art to teaching art to children in Africa?
My work has always focused on environmental concerns and a community’s response to their landscapes. I have worked in Africa for over 35 years on extended tenures and there I have collaborated with scientists, at the same time evolving my art. In all my field studies, I have engaged the local children in their ecologies. I found working with children is a way of entering a community. Local guides were often so pleased with their children’s paintings they would in turn share with me their knowledge of the woods. They taught me the songs of birds, how to read the passage of an animal in tracks in the dust. And so much more. 

I first came to Africa in 1987. I had received a commission to illustrate a book on baboon behavior, Almost Human. The author, Dr. Shirley Strum, invited me to visit her Usao Ngiro Baboon Project, her long-term research project in Kenya, and draw from life amongst the troops of baboons. Once there, I was able to go out daily with the Kenyan researchers and immerse myself in baboon life. The local children were fascinated by painting so I gave them brushes and paper and we drew together.

I have since returned to Africa many times.

What has been the most satisfying outcome of the work you’ve been doing as a teacher?
The ability to connect heart to heart with another person. Teaching for me is listening.

Everyone has something special inside. The most satisfying outcome is when I am able to hear a student’s voice and assist in bringing that out. Magic.

Also, through African Conservation Centre, the children’s paintings from the Olcani workshops [more on that below] were auctioned and the money raised went to the individual artists to pay for them to continue their education. We hope to do the same for Amboseli school students. 

Your expertise throughout the years has been used to teach everyone from rudimentary drawing students to animators at Disney Studios to African villages. How has this activity become your life’s vocation?
In 1995, my mother was ill and I had to return to my homeland, California, and help her out.

CalArts called and invited me to teach for them in Character Animation. I was suddenly immersed in the quirky, enchanting world of visual storytelling. It was so much fun immersing myself in such company. I taught animal class, which involved taking students to the zoo to draw from direct observation. Animals are my passion and it was so delightful to have company who appreciated and celebrated each nuance of their behavior, texture and form. Soon the major animation studios called for me to take their animators to the zoo. Today, I take students to the zoo for the School of Visual Arts.

The same energy of exchange takes place when working in Africa. I believe it is this companionship that became my vocation.

Where have you spent the largest portion of your time?
Kenya was my first experience of Africa and I have returned many times. My initial tenures were nine months at a time. I bought an old Land Cruiser and got jobs, including minding an elephant camp and eventually running painting workshops in remote village schools. I would return to New York to work and save my money just to go back again.

How do you receive funding and support for this work?
Various ways. Natural History magazine commissioned painting essays in Africa that funded several of my trips to Kenya and Madagascar. Through this work I connected with the Lemur Conservation Foundation, who funded my early painting workshops for village children in Madagascar. Later years, Centre ValBio research center, in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, covered my in-country expenses for a number of trips. There I was part of a conservation program, My Rainforest My World, where I ran painting workshops for children in villages bordering the park.

Early years, I self-funded to Kenya by illustration work, selling paintings and crowdfunding. Art materials were donated from a variety of sources. SAPPI Ideas That Matter funded Olcani, a book on the medicine plants of Kenya illustrated by Il Polei Primary School, with paintings they produced during three summers of workshops. African Conservation Centre funded a series of workshops in 2014 within two Maasai communities in Kenya. African Conservation Centre again contracted me to lead a conservation education program for three months last fall in Amboseli National Park. The donor, Gigi Seasons (which donates 15% of all online sale to towards education equality and strengthening communities around the world), was so happy with the children’s art they funded me for an additional three months to continue my art for conservation program in Amboseli schools. And Puffin Foundation have consistently funded art materials for my workshops in Africa.

Have you remained in touch with any of your students, and have you been surprised by how they’ve developed?
I remain in contact with many of my students and have been thrilled how they have turned out. Many of my animation students have risen in the studio ranks; several have received Oscars. During the pandemic, a number of them Zoomed in to speak to my class and share their stories and their art. Many have kept up their watercolors and express their love of the medium. My Kenyan students from early days keep up with me on Facebook, and some have gone on to work in conservation. Many are still drawing and send me their paintings. Several have become teachers themselves and keep art in their curriculum. 

Your watercolors (seen here) are so natural they feel as though they just flow from your fingers. What do you feel is the most important aspect of your visual language?
The most important aspect of my visual language is working direct from life. The energy of encounter informs my visual narration. I work from life as much as possible. This practice enables me to call up the energy when the subject is memory. 

How are you going to move forward in your art? Is there more to learn? More to do?
I have so many stories inside. I look forward to returning to Africa where I can have the space and time to articulate them.

Do you have a sense of what you’ve done to help the human condition through art?
I am proud of my work as teacher and an artist. For me the spirits of exchange are the same.

Art empowers.

For example, in 2014 the Ebola epidemic was devastating Guinea, my husband Sidiki’s homeland. He worried for his family and friends and he was determined to return to help them. I could not let him return on his own, so I went too. His community was in denial. They did not trust the government but they trusted Sidiki. Sidiki gathered the elders together and brought musicians and dancers to perform to bring the community together to speak about Ebola—that it was real and there were ways to protect oneself. We constructed hundreds of hand stations filled with chlorine water to disinfect and distributed them to the community music [he] had gathered. He composed a song about Ebola and it was broadcasted throughout the country. Guinea TV broadcasted our events. Elders called from villages where the people had burned down the health centers because of fear. Sidiki went and convinced them to let the doctors [do their work].

For my part, I helped the children produce Ebola posters promoting good health practices.

This experience remains my most moving.