Richard Symonds is an artist, tree climber and friend of Tentsile who spends his days variously painting up trees, working on commissions to support charities, and getting outdoors as much as possible. We spoke to him recently to ask for inspiration and information for artists, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, and his answers didn’t disappoint.
Can you tell us what you do and how long you've been doing it?
I have been working as a professional wildlife artist for over 25 years. I started out my professional career working for the military and flying Target drones around the USA and Middle East. Following this three year contract I was desperate to pursue my dream to become an airline pilot. Sadly, my attempt to gain my commercial flying license in the USA failed and I soon found myself back in the UK jobless and with no direction. I picked up my pencil, started drawing cats and dogs and soon landed myself a first commission to draw someone's cat! As much of a cliché as it sounds, I haven't looked back since.
What made you choose to focus a lot of your art on wildlife and conservation? Was there a specific incident that triggered it?
My passion for art has been with me since childhood. I was the kid who was always doodling on his maths books and drawing pictures of E.T and Storm Troopers! My father was involved with wildlife artist David Shepherd as his photographer and close family friend, so I grew up watching David's amazing art and love for wildlife, and saw all he was achieving. It wasn't long before I was becoming more and more interested in wildlife, particularly African wildlife, and I vowed to myself that I would make my living from painting and drawing wildlife too. I have always been passionate about animals and always felt a connection with them, especially growing up with cats, guinea pigs and dogs in our family home.
What's been your biggest challenge, artistically, emotionally, or both, since getting involved with wildlife and conservation projects?
My biggest challenge to date has to be painting my life-size elephants. This idea came to me over 10 years ago in a moment of madness! I wanted to really make my mark in the art world and simultaneously make a commitment to wildlife that if I could convince just one hunter of elephants to buy a life-size painting instead of taking an elephant’s life, then I would have achieved a special goal. It is estimated that one elephant every 15 minutes is killed for their ivory, and I find that fact both sickening and unfathomable.
What's been the highlight since getting involved with wildlife and conservation projects?
One of the wonderful perks of my artistic career is being able to travel the world in search of the wildlife I seek to paint and draw, but in can also be incredibly harrowing and emotional. In 2010, I went to China to visit the Animals Asia sanctuary in Chengdu. This amazing charity, started by Dr Jill Robinson MBE, rescues moon bears from the bile farming industry in the Far East. One bear that touched me beyond words was 'Oliver'. Having been rescued from the bile industry, where he’d spent 30 years in a small dark cage, he was finally rescued and given 4 special years at the sanctuary before his passing in 2014. This trip left me drained of emotion but fuelled with passion to help raise as much money as I possibly could to help end this destructive industry. To date I have been able to raise over £120,000 through the sale and auction of my drawings to help charities continue to do the amazing work they do. This fills me with a huge sense of achievement, well being and purpose, knowing that my artwork really can make a difference to wildlife.
How are you connected with Tentsile, and why do their products inspire you?
My connection to Tentsile really came about from my other passion in life, climbing trees! I don't believe that anyone at some stage of their early life didn't enjoy climbing trees! I remember climbing a beautiful chestnut tree in my parents’ garden, where I would often make camps to run away from my folks when I was naughty. At the age of 45, I still feel the need to run away from it all at times, and there can be no greater way than to climb up into a 36 metre redwood not far from our house and sit for an hour or two to watch the world below pass by. By chance I met with a wonderful group of likeminded people who also indulge in some high level climbing, and one of these guys introduced me to a Tentsile whilst we were camping out in the woods one night. I was instantly hooked! It was like all my childhood dreams coming rushing back - a camp in the trees, but this one had real style. I now own three Tentsiles and love every minute camping out with my wife and young daughter as often as we can.
I have huge respect for Tentsile as a company, not only because they are a small British company, but because they have a fine ethical outlook towards conservation too. With each tent sold, they plant three trees, and for me this is one of the main reasons I see them as a company with their finger on the pulse.
Can you describe how it felt to work on your painting up in the trees in a Tentsile?
One aspect of my day is the long hours spent alone painting in my studio, and it is often these times that result in my crazy ideas. In June I was working on a life-size tiger painting for a charity event this coming October for Tiger Time in London, and it just struck me how awesome it would be to finish the painting in the woods and up a tree. I called the wonderful team at Tentsile and explained my mad idea to them, and they soon lent me a Trillium for the job. With my Trillium set up a few metres into the trees, I hoisted the 8 foot by 5 foot painting up by some ropes and spent a beautiful afternoon finishing the life-size tiger out in the wild amongst the beautiful scenery behind our house.
What do you think is the most important thing individuals can do to help species survive the threats currently facing them?
I'm often asked, “Does conservation really make a difference to the world we are living in today?”, and my honest opinion is absolutely yes. We do live in extremely difficult times, and the world is getting smaller as more and more people rely on our fragile planet. One thing that is vital for our very existence is living in harmony with every creature on this planet. We genuinely need each other to survive and conservation is the only factor that will continue to make sure that we do. As humans, we need to question our destructive habits and each do our little bit to support conservation in any way we can, whether that’s through art, photography, music, business – you name it, it’s worth doing.
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