If there is one thing about conservation efforts Stephen Nash would express to colleagues and budding environmentalists, it is that you don’t have to be a scientist to make a difference.
As CI's Scientific and Technical Illustrator, Nash's 20-plus year career producing educational and scientific documentation materials has led him on a life-long journey to use his artistic talent for conservation.
A Lifetime with Nature
Growing up in rural Essex, England, Nash was originally intent upon pursuing a career in medical illustration, but soon realized that he was more interested in drawing animals.
In college, Nash was influenced by professors Edward O.Z. Wade and John Norris Wood. He honed his species illustration skills during frequent field trips to the London Zoo. Nash found his time at the zoo fascinating – especially while sketching at the primate and reptile exhibits.
In particular, he enjoyed watching the range of fellow-zoo-goers' reactions, and observing the interactions between primates and humans, which "remind us by their behavior and appearance that we share almost all of our genetic code with them…" This interest in human-primate connections persists to this day.
Some of Nash's first primate illustrations were of South American marmoset (genus Callithrix) and tamarin (genus Saguinus) monkeys. "[These monkeys] remain my favorite primates, and those drawings of them were the ones which prompted Russ to bring me over here [to the US] in the first place."
"Russ" is Dr. Russell Mittermeier, President of CI and one of the world’s leading primate experts, who gave Nash his first opportunity to experience the reality of working in the conservation field. Nash was introduced to Mittermeier in 1982 through a mutual friend, Anthony Rylands. Upon seeing Nash's illustrations, Mittermeier asked Nash to accompany him to Brazil for a one month trial. There, Nash had a chance to see pioneering primate conservation efforts as well as "how much impact local conservation education campaigns had."
Nash’s early work with Mittermeier in Brazil was one of "the first 'image experiments' in primate-focused conservation education" spotlighting the Brazilian muriqui (genus Brachyteles), "the largest and most ape-like primate in the New World."
GAMES: Play the "Lemur Match" memory game, featuring illustrations by Stephen Nash.
This landmark effort not only focused attention on the muriqui by using imagery on posters, stickers, and T-shirts, but it inspired the Brazilian public to become involved in the spread of the conservation message. Soon, items such as phone book covers, postage stamps, newspaper cartoons, and even snack food packaging were using the muriqui icon to promote conservation efforts.
"One of the things that I admire most about (Dr. Mittermeier) was his vision in employing me as an illustrator, and his awareness of the potential of using imagery. I strongly believe that non-scientists can have an impact in the world of conservation. I think that’s a very, very important thing. People who are non-scientists have a role to play, a very important role, and they shouldn’t be discouraged, feeling that they are not at the forefront of conservation efforts – in fact, they can be."
Conservation in Daily Life
Nash is constantly awed by the wonder of nature, which motivates him to use his art to communicate this fascination to the rest of the world.
Nash's inspiration often comes from his own backyard, where he and his wife have created a garden that he calls their "miniature wildlife habitat and conservation laboratory." For example, he's always amazed when he encounters an insect that he has never seen before, like the walnut sphinx moth (Amorpha juglandis) that he encountered recently. Instead of grabbing a pen and paper to quickly sketch this new insect, Nash reached for his camera.
Today, photos are often the reference sources from which Nash creates his illustrations. In the past, illustrations were often created in the field, coping with challenges like unpredictable weather, or they were based on pickled specimens and were inaccurate because of the preservative’s effects.
These days, Nash most often works from his windowless studio in the Health Sciences Center’s Anatomical Sciences department at Stony Brook University on Long island, New York, drawing from photos and other media. He completes one species' illustration nearly every day, including work on his 25-plus year project “illustrating every taxon of the primate order.” Nash adds, "some would say (the project is) foolhardy. However, primates are our closest relatives zoologically. It is a family thing."
For Nash, it is all worth it. He believes that documenting species is ever more vital and urgent, as it promotes awareness – a vital component of conservation efforts.
PUBLICATIONS: Stephen Nash has illustrated many of the books and field guides available for purchase from Conservation International.