An artist with a dedicated mission to focus attention on the extinction crisis, Tom Van Herrewege has developed a distinctive visual language that often combines beautifully drawn images of animals with acts of purposeful destruction. Defacing his work in allusion to the population decline of the depicted species, Van Herrewege challenges us to acknowledge humanity’s impact on the natural world and the resulting plight of the animal kingdom.

The Net Gallery originally arranged to speak to Van Herrewege ahead of his appearance at The Other Art Fair’s March, 2020 edition at London’s Truman Brewery. With the event postponed due to COVID-19, we took the opportunity to explore his art in general, and to ask how the lockdown has affected his practice and plans for the future.

Richard Unwin: Was drawing and painting – particularly the ability to represent animals – something you were good at when your were younger, and did you refine or develop the technical side of your work when you went on to study art at university?

Tom Van Herrewege: I have always drawn animals of interest ever since I was a kid, particularly sharks. Initially at Loughborough, I was exploring loads of different ideas and themes, but soon started bringing animal imagery into my work and my tutors picked up on this and encouraged me to do it more. Whilst doing my masters at Wimbledon, I was encouraged more to focus on my drawings and so this became my thing. I have developed the technical side and ways of working through practise and listening to feedback, both at art school and in the studio after finishing education.

I decided early on that making work about how we understand animals was my subject area to investigate. I couldn’t really see myself making work about other things now as there is so much to explore and the subject continues to fascinate me! In the last few years, my practice has become more and more driven by a focus on promoting conservation of the natural world. This feels right and opens many doors to work with people and organisations too.

RU: When did you first start to make work where you were deliberately defacing or obscuring the image, and did it initially feel strange or difficult to do that to your own work?

TVH: In early 2017 I bought a set of antique cigarette cards depicting animals from an antiques market. My godfather used to collect them for me as a kid and I wanted to do something with them. As I was flicking through them, I realised that many of the individual species were nearly gone and so I thought that somehow they needed updating. So, I began burning away portions of the images. I then began sourcing more and more cigarette cards, pages from old encyclopaedias, bank notes and anything deemed of value depicting animals. I did this in accordance with their ecological status to represent how close to extinction each species is. This became a huge body of work and a process of collecting, researching and then editing that carried on for two years. The finished body of work is titled, Hit List, a comment on humanity’s impact on the natural world, and I have been exhibiting this series in museums and galleries around the UK.

This then led me into making drawings and then erasing them with the same concept. I had been burning other artists’ beautiful images and I wanted to get drawing again so I could do the same with my own work to make a stronger statement. This has also enabled me to focus on some lesser known species that the other materials were not depicting.

So I experimented with different materials, but sanding away and rubbing away drawings on plywood has become my favoured media. 

And yeah, at first it felt really wrong to spend ages on a drawing and then deface it straight away afterwards! Now it feels a bit weird when I don’t!

Hit List Turf cigarettes 36 Zoo animals 1954 2017.

‘Hit List (Turf cigarettes, 36 Zoo animals, 1954)’ 2017, by Tom Van Herrewege.

RU: The history of animal depiction in human art is vast, extending from early cave paintings through to major oil paintings, scientific illustrations and contemporary work. Is there a particular artist or group of artists that have had the biggest influence on you, or a particular resource related to zoological art that has been helpful in your research, and the development of your own style and practice?

TVH: Both cave paintings and zoological artworks of the past have had a big influence on my practice. I actually had a solo show at Creswell Crags Museum (Britain’s only cave art site) just last summer, where I showed the Hit List project. Cave art was about summoning/wishing animals into the world out of hunger and worship. The Hit List series sadly shows the reality of where some of these species stand now, so showing the series at the museum was my way of commenting on that.

I am influenced by many contemporary artists, but at the moment I am looking more and more at old zoological works depicting animals to analyse and learn from these and to bring this into my own work. My studio has a section where the wall is covered with little printed images of different artists’ work depicting animals that I relate back to all the time!

RU: Given the way your work focuses on loss and the impact of human behaviour on the natural world, are you left with a pessimistic outlook, or do you still find space for hope and optimism?

TVH: With the nature of my work being about the extinction crisis, it’s hard to present a more positive picture of the current situation, because in reality humanity is wiping out species at such incredible rates today. There are a few success stories, such as tiger numbers are currently increasing, but sadly the declining numbers of so many other species are much greater!

I am always a bit self-conscious at art fairs that my work is a bit of a mood killer, when I am surrounded by artists addressing more positive subjects. But I feel that the extinction crisis needs to be addressed immediately, so ultimately that doesn’t matter, as long as I can get the message out there to as many people as possible.

The optimism I do have is that the more people that see the situation and understand the staggering numbers of declining species, then hopefully people will pass that on and with a better informed population hopefully more efforts to address the extinction crisis will be made.

The Long tailed Pangolin 2019.

‘The Long tailed Pangolin’ (2019) by Tom Van Herrewege.

RU: How has the cancellation of planned events and exhibitions – like the Truman Brewery fair – affected you, and to what extent have you been able to carry on with your work and practice during the lockdown?

TVH: It’s very disappointing, of course, but obviously in perspective with the world pandemic crisis – it can wait.

I am keeping momentum going with the erasing nature project online, which is very different but I am looking forward to how this develops! During lockdown and these strange, uncertain times, people are open to being creative more and so I enjoy encouraging this with the collaborative works. What I can do digitally and online I will, but I am looking forward/hoping to get actual, physical people in a space in front of artworks and interacting with these in the future!

RU: Once the current restrictions are relaxed, do you have any projects or ideas you’d like to work on in the near future, or dream projects you’d like to realise one day?

TVH: I would like to get the plan for 2020 back on track, or as close to this as possible in the near future, but we are in very uncertain times now so that is a hard question to answer. I think that I’m most excited about getting the collaborative element of the erasing nature artworks moving around different parts of the world. I would like to eventually bring this together as a big exhibition of large artworks that surveys a very international response to the extinction crisis. Let’s see how this works out over the next few months as nothing is as simple as it was a couple of months ago.

Artwork in focus
The Gorilla (2020)

The Gorilla 2020. Graphite and acrylic on plywood. 65 x 65 cm.

‘The Gorilla’ (2020) by Tom Van Herrewege. Graphite and acrylic on plywood. 65 x 65 cm.

To explore his work in more detail, we asked Van Herrewege to tell us about this enigmatic picture of a gorilla:

“This Gorilla piece is erased with symbols of different international currencies and religions, with a large diamond centred in the middle of the composition. It’s a simple and bold statement that money and religious beliefs are usually the key factors that lead to the decline of animal species. I wanted the Gorilla to look almost tattooed with these symbols of humanity as I erased it away.

“The split composition with two colours provides a very minimalist horizon line with the wood grain from the plywood giving a sense of a landscape. I am starting to develop these minimalist landscapes in the background more and more in new artworks, as I find them relaxing. I am quite agoraphobic and I find crowds a bit stressful. so these are the opposite of that. Just the viewer having an encounter with another animal in a large open space. Yet these animals are vanishing and this is a wake up call for mankind!” Tom Van Herrewege

Interview by Richard Unwin.

All images courtesy of the artist, Tom Van Herrewege.