Conservation news

Bringing color to conservation: a conversation with wildlife artist Morgan Richardson

  • Many of the visuals we’re used to seeing in conservation are ones of despair: forests being torn down for palm oil production, pangolins and rhinos being slaughtered for the scales and horns, blue glaciers calving into the ocean, fires destroying majestic trees, and vigils to environmental defenders slain for their efforts to protect the planet.
  • Morgan Lee Richardson, a Los Angeles-based artist, takes a different approach. He creates images of wildlife with shockingly bold colors. Richardson — whose artwork has appeared widely from Disney to Nickelodeon to Thundershirts — uses his “kick in the face” style to “introduce people to the amazing biodiversity of our planet.”
  • Richardson says new approaches are needed to reach and engage the next generation since it is they who will determine the fate of the species with which we share the planet. He also believes that wildlife conservation needs to become more inclusive if it hopes to thrive into the future.
  • Richardson shared his thoughts during a January 2021 interview with Mongabay’s Dave Martin.

Many of the visuals we’re used to seeing in conservation are ones of despair: forests being torn down for palm oil production, pangolins and rhinos being slaughtered for the scales and horns, blue glaciers calving into the ocean, fires destroying majestic trees, and vigils to environmental defenders slain for their efforts to protect the planet.

Morgan Lee Richardson, a Los Angeles-based artist, takes a different approach. He creates images of wildlife with shockingly bold colors: A mother white rhino with her calf in a full spectrum of psychedelic colors, a collage of multi-hued pangolins, and a gray wolf painted in cool blue and purple tones.

“In my work, the first thing that jumps out at viewers is my use of color,” Richardson told Mongabay during a January 2021 interview. “My personality, my sense of style, and my artwork are all very colorful – I’ve heard it described as a ‘kick in the face.’

Richardson — whose artwork has appeared widely from Disney to Nickelodeon to Thundershirts — uses his “kick in the face” style to “introduce people to the amazing biodiversity of our planet.”

“By relating to my artwork, people can become aware of endangered creatures and man-made issues which negatively impact the environment,” he explained. “If I do my job correctly, my artwork can inspire people to make changes in their lifestyle that hopefully benefit wildlife and wild places.”

“Mother & Child” by Morgan Richardson

“Just as astounding orators motivate an audience with words, I speak in a language of color, constructed to galvanize a generation of young people in support of our fellow (non-human) Earthlings. Data and impassioned speeches can only go as far as the people who are willing to pay attention to it. The more Creatives we can get to share the message through their work, the more people will pay attention. Get the attention of enough people and we will have a legitimate movement behind us.”

Beyond raising awareness and inspiring people, Richardson uses his art to catalyze support for conservation causes and organizations, which have included the International Rhino Foundation, Save Pangolins, and the Wild Tomorrow Fund, among others.

He says new approaches are needed to reach and engage the next generation since it is they who will determine the fate of the species with which we share the planet.

“If we want the future change-makers to care about conservation, then we need to start creating a framework for making change,” he said. “We are not the future. Most people reading this are not the future of conservation, but what we can do is better prepare Gen Z and Gen Alpha to be less reliant on palm oil, disposable plastics, fossil fuels, etc. They can only carry the flag into battle if they are passionately informed.”

“Cheetah” by Morgan Richardson

“The key to connecting with a new audience is to meet them in a place that is friendly and familiar,” he said. “I personally believe in showcasing how breathtaking nature can be, not bludgeoning viewers with traumatic images of dead animals.”

Richardson also believes that wildlife conservation needs to become more inclusive if it hopes to thrive into the future.

“Conservation is for everyone everywhere,” he said. “Blind spots in the conservation community echo those of society as a whole … much like everything else in this world, there are racial, gender, and class divides in conservation. Antiquated notions of colonialism are still present. The most successful conservation groups work alongside and empower indigenous communities in order to protect wildlife and ecosystems. Fortunately, we are starting to see a shift but I’d personally love to see greater diversity in the operational leadership of many non-profits, including on boards of directors.”

Richardson spoke about his views and use of art during an interview with Mongabay’s Dave Martin.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MORGAN RICHARDSON

 

Mongabay: How would you describe your artistic style and themes? And what are some ways you’ve applied your art to conservation?

Morgan Richardson: In my work, the first thing that jumps out at viewers is my use of color. My personality, my sense of style, and my artwork are all very colorful – I’ve heard it described as a “kick in the face.” Compositionally, my work is a blend of Abstract, Lowbrow, Psychedelia, Surrealism, and many things in between. I don’t feel my art is reflective of any one particular movement. Although my overall body of work somewhat eclectic, most folks are familiar with the conservation-focused pieces – artwork that I’ve created specifically to draw attention to causes pertaining to wildlife. Themes can vary as well – some are simply straightforward depictions of animals done in my style. Other pieces delve into ideas like complex thought in primates or the role of wolves in Native American folklore.

“Gray Wolf” by Morgan Richardson

I use my art as a tool to introduce people to the amazing biodiversity of our planet. By relating to my artwork, people can become aware of endangered creatures and man-made issues which negatively impact the environment. If I do my job correctly, my artwork can inspire people to make changes in their lifestyle that hopefully benefit wildlife and wild places.

Mongabay: What motivates you to produce art that relates to protecting nature?  And can you describe your work for the Mongabay audience?

Morgan Richardson: Creating deeply personal work wasn’t always something I felt inclined to do – aesthetic value was sometimes enough for me. I’d been illustrating animals since I was a kid, but in my teens, I became more informed about conservation efforts. On the surface, these wildlife pieces may not seem particularly personal, but I create them to raise awareness and gather support for causes and organizations that I sincerely care about and admire.

My conservation artwork is colorful, messy, whimsical, textured, and visionary. I create work in all mediums but in recent years I’ve been doing these pieces digitally. Many times, they begin life as a quick pencil sketch and soon transition to the computer where I can play around with the piece in a variety of ways. This also allows me to get the work into the hands of as many people as possible. If I want to use my artwork as a platform for change, it needs to be accessible. I often give away full-resolution digital artwork to anyone who can show me proof of a donation to a specific non-profit, focusing on the species depicted in the artwork. This gives the owner the flexibility to use the art in a way that best suits their needs.

“Pangolin” by Morgan Richardson

Unfortunately, there is still a heavy stigma in the fine art world with regard to digital artwork. Much like the backlash in the 1940s when acrylic and other industrial paints began to supplant oil and watercolors, certain corners of the art world have been slow to accept digital painting and photography as “high art.” The number of Creatives working exclusively in the digital space is only growing, so eventually the antediluvian gatekeepers of the art world are going to have to adapt or die.

Mongabay: Right now many people are very concerned about our planet’s ecological wellbeing.  What role can creative people, and specifically art, play in improving our planet’s outlook?

Morgan Richardson: Artists have a unique ability to touch the heart and spark interest. As an artist, the most powerful thing I can do is inspire others. By motivating others to take action in their own ways, artists can ignite an explosive chain reaction of meaningful change.

Just as astounding orators motivate an audience with words, I speak in a language of color, constructed to galvanize a generation of young people in support of our fellow (non-human) Earthlings. Data and impassioned speeches can only go as far as the people who are willing to pay attention to it. The more Creatives we can get to share the message through their work, the more people will pay attention. Get the attention of enough people and we will have a legitimate movement behind us.

Mongabay: While most decent people “care” about the environment, not everybody is actively involved in conservation, or prioritizes living a sustainable lifestyle.  Can art bring more people off the sidelines?

Morgan Richardson: I like to believe that every artist, through their work, has the ability to speak to someone in a language that only they can understand. It’s a weird idea, but think of it like this – for every human on this planet, there is at least one artist out there who shares a hidden language with that person. The artist and the viewer totally exist on the same emotional wavelength. Everyone responds to art in different ways … but I bet many people reading this can recall a creation – a song, dance, painting, piece of architecture, etc., that they identify with. Something that moves them, that invades their soul in a way no other work of art can. Now, imagine if that work of art carried a positive message along with it. That is how art inspires change and that is how artists can get more people to care about what’s important for our planet.

“Chimp” by Morgan Richardson

If we want the future change-makers to care about conservation, then we need to start creating a framework for making change. We are not the future. Most people reading this are not the future of conservation, but what we can do is better prepare Gen Z and Gen Alpha to be less reliant on palm oil, disposable plastics, fossil fuels, etc. They can only carry the flag into battle if they are passionately informed.

Mongabay: Regarding climate change and biodiversity loss, the everyday person may not be in a position to understand complex scientific data and may even lack the desire to try.  Could well-curated art help bridge the communication divide between scientists and the general public?

Morgan Richardson: Absolutely! I’d love to see more creative professionals involved in relaying hard facts to the general population. There are incredibly talented scientists in the field and in laboratories who are attempting solving the world’s problems. Even though their work is monumentally important, it’s rarely packaged in a way that the public can easily digest. Art can certainly help close the divide.

Graphic designers, in particular, have a knack for making data look appealing. The first thing we need to do, in order to get people interested, is make the packaging look pretty. In a world where information is consumed in a matter of seconds, how can we adapt important scientific information to conform to the attention span of a TikTok and Instagram audience? One key is to integrate Creatives into the scientific sphere. Short form video content, snappy infographics, and social influencers can all have a major impact on how the scientific work is perceived. For instance, I absolutely loved what happened in 2020 with the explosion of Black Birders Week and other social/scientific movements. The leaders of these movements took creative approaches to sharing scientific information and invigorated the often-stodgy world of hard science.

Mongabay: Do you have any advice for non-artists like myself who are working hard to make the planet a better place to live?  Do you see any blind spots in the conservation community?  Are we doing anything that makes you roll your eyes or throw up your arms?

Morgan Richardson: Conservation is for everyone everywhere. There is meaningful conservation work to be done in your own backyard. You don’t need to be well-funded, travel the world, or be a white dude in order to be a wildlife conservationist. I always encourage people to research programs in their area that help local ecosystems. If you can donate to reputable non-profits, that’s great! I also believe everyone has the opportunity to use their unique talents to help wildlife in their own way. Regardless of what you do, you can leverage it to help causes you care about, sometimes it’s as simple as sending an introductory email to get the ball rolling.

“Plains Zebra” by Morgan Richardson

I’d say blind spots in the conservation community echo those of society as a whole … much like everything else in this world, there are racial, gender, and class divides in conservation. Antiquated notions of colonialism are still present. The most successful conservation groups work alongside and empower indigenous communities in order to protect wildlife and ecosystems. Fortunately, we are starting to see a shift but I’d personally love to see greater diversity in the operational leadership of many non-profits, including on boards of directors. I should add – this is true of the fine art world, as well.

There’s certainly lot of room to improve the public’s general perception of what conservation really means. I see many (some highly-regarded) conservation groups who rely very heavily on guilt. They send a steady stream of depressing imagery out onto the world – poached elephants, bleached coral reefs, emaciated tigers … they say “this is what happens when you don’t help!” and then guilt you into giving them money. The general public, for the most part, wants nothing to do with that. They recoil and click away, they dismiss those causes as too depressing and spend their time and money elsewhere.

“Earth Day” by Morgan Richardson

The key to connecting with a new audience is to meet them in a place that is friendly and familiar. Get their interest through rad artwork, entertaining videos, whatever it may be … then, you can let them in on some of the hard truths, along with fulfilling ways they can help. I personally believe in showcasing how breathtaking nature can be, not bludgeoning viewers with traumatic images of dead animals.

Mongabay: We’ve talked a lot about conservation through art, but you are a designer as well. Can you tell us how design can play a role in this movement?

Morgan Richardson: I think art and design can be used as a bridge to connect humans with wildlife. True, I’m an artist, I’ve also spent the majority of my career as a designer of large-scale, immersive, themed experiences. Experiential storytelling through the built environment is a great way of engaging audiences in intimate ways that leave them with a personal call to action. Thoughtfully designed & accredited zoos offer Guests the opportunity to come face-to-face with amazing animals, while informing them about issues facing the wild population. Many conservationists are born by way of these life-altering experiences.

“Elephants & Bees” by Morgan Richardson

I believe there is a future where art, entertainment, design, and wildlife collide. In the coming years, I intend to bring conservation-focused, location-based entertainment to the masses. These living art experiences will speak to the next generation in a language they already understand and inspire them to become warriors for our planet.

Mongabay: Where can Mongabay readers find out more about your work?

Morgan Richardson: They can find me on my website www.morganrichardsonart.com, on Instagram @morganleerichardson, and on Twitter @MRichardsonArt