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Guardian of the Amazon

November 1st 2019, the life of a beloved Amazon ‘Guardian’, Paulo Paulino, a Guajajara leader, was cut abruptly short by a suspected attack from illegal loggers. Paulino, also called ‘Lobo’ by friends and family, was murdered for his efforts to protect the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve. Located in Brazil’s Maranhao state, it is one of the country’s most threatened Indigenous territories and the place Paulino called home. He and another ‘Guardian’ and Indigenous leader, Laércio Souza Silva Guajajara, were ambushed the night of November 1st by five heavily armed illegal loggers who shot and injured Silva in both the arm and back while fatally shooting Paulino in the head. Paulino’s death is the fourth out of the ‘Guardians’ along with Cantidi, Assis and Afonso Guajajara. Paulino was just 26 years old, leaving behind a wife and two children. His death has sparked outrage and is being investigated by both the federal police and the Maranhao state police. Paulino and his fellow ‘Guardians’ were active members in a group called the “Guardians of the Forest”, created to defend against a rising invasion of illegal loggers, miners, land grabbers and even drug traffickers on tribal lands in the North and Northeastern regions of Brazil. “Guardians of the Forest”, established in late 2012, is comprised of 120 members who consistently risk their lives in their efforts to protect the land as well as the uncontacted Awá Guajá hunter-gatherer tribe, one of the most at risk indigenous groups on the planet. Violence against Indigenous peoples in Brazil has been at a steady incline over the past few years, significantly increasing since Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2018. In fact, since Bolsonaro took office, a total of 135 indigenous people were murder in 2018 alone, creating a near 23% increase from 2017. The first nine months of the Bolsonaro administration showed 160 cases of land invasion and illegal exploitation of natural resources most notably in Indigenous territories. Since their formation, the Guardians have successfully dismantled some 200 illegal logging camps found within indigenous reserves. However, according to the group, the situation within Arariboia has only worsened under the new government. Bolsonaro’s consistent comments and announcements on controversial policies, specifically on opening up indigenous reserves for large-scale mining and agribusiness along with measures to weaken environmental regulations and agencies, have emboldened and encouraged illegal loggers and land grabbers. Though no policies have been implemented at this time, the evidence of the harmful impact on indigenous lands as a result of his incendiary statements is clear. The combination of Bolsonaro’s agenda with a broader system that relies on endless cheap commodities is a recipe for unethical resource extraction and environmental disaster. Threats against the lives of the ‘Guardians’ were not unknown to Paulino in the months leading up to his death. In a documentary filmed in January, Paulino was interviewed saying, “Our work is very dangerous. One of the Guardians has already died. His name was Afonso. The logger killed him and nothing happened. The justice didn’t do anything….” “…Close to our village there is a white man who promised to kill me. It has been a month since he threatened to kill me because I’m defending the forest.” Blatant threats and the very real dangers that these Guardians face in their efforts to protect their lands and, by extension, their ways of life, is utterly unacceptable, especially during a time when Brazil (let alone the world) is in desperate need of conservational action. The kind of work that the Guardians carry out is indispensable in the fight against the seemingly imminent demise of the Amazon rainforest. Already deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is around 17 percent. A study done by Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre states that “negative synergies between deforestation, climate change and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25 percent deforestation”. In other words, the unsustainable rate at which deforestation is occurring in the Brazilian Amazon, and if it continues, indicates that the rainforest could very likely become a savanna. An outcome that would not affect Brazil alone, but the rest of the world as well, as the rainforest plays a crucial role in the filtering and reprocessing of the worlds carbon dioxide output.

"A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajajara", 4'x5', acrylic on canvas.

The style of “A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajajara” is intentionally reminiscent of my “Blue Poaching” series, a series dedicated to threatened, endangered and extinct species as a direct result of illegal hunting and poaching. The similarity in the circumstances of Paulino’s death and that of the animals in the “Blue Poaching” series is profound. “Blue Poaching” focuses on the violent impact of humanities negative actions on wildlife, whereas “A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajarara” highlights the violent impact of humanity now aimed at itself. The dark implications of that are why I chose to use darker, richer tones as opposed to the more vibrant and bright colors of “Blue Poaching”. Another distinct difference is that Paulino, as opposed to the animals in “Blue Poaching”, does not show any tears. Instead, his gaze is steady and unwavering, daring the viewer to look away, an effect that is further enhanced by the large 4 feet by 5 feet size of the work.

“Blue Poaching” is meant to evoke feelings of sadness and empathy towards the wildlife that cannot speak for itself. “A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajarara”, however, is intended to evoke feelings of anger, righteousness and indignation as Paulino, who could speak for himself and indeed used his voice to speak against injustice, was violently silenced. The light, intentionally placed behind Paulino’s head, along with the bloody handprint, alludes to the way in which his life was abruptly taken. The light duals in its symbology as it also creates a halo-effect, signifying his important role as a guardian. Overall, the work is meant to portray Paulino not necessarily as a victim to be pitied, but rather a strong figure whose life and mission deserves to be known and whose tragic death can, at the very least, move us into action and awareness.

The ending of any innocent life through violent means is always a tragedy, and when that life was dedicated to the good of humanity it makes it even more so. Paulino, along with his comrades, strove to protect something bigger than themselves in a seemingly impossible fight against enormous odds. A fight that continues and is becoming more and more dire, for us all, by the day. Paulino’s actions and life meant something and the tragedy of its abrupt end will only increase if his death does not mean something as well. His story is one that needs to be known and to inspire in us all the same sense of selflessness and action he was so clearly an example of.

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The Kakapo, nicknamed the 'owl Parrot' due to their intelligent parrot-like look and forward facing owlish eyes, can best be described as the least bird-like bird to exist. It is fluffy (fat), flightless, nocturnal, whiskered and overall a hot-mess of what an avian species should be... but it is pretty damn cute.

Though it seems counterintuitive to their plump size (males can be anywhere from 4 to 8 lbs!), Kakapo are entirely vegetarian. Their diet includes, leaves, buds, flowers, fern fronds, bark, roots, rhizomes, bulbs, fruit and seeds. When scavenging, they forage on the ground and are able to climb trees, jumping and flapping their wings (more as a controlled fall than actual flying) from tree to tree. Their large eyes allow them to see at night while the feather 'disks' around their eyes help them to hear better.

The species, once populating all of New Zealand, now resides only on predator free islands. After the introduction of predation (rats, feral cats, etc.) by European travelers, the species once abundant population plummeted to as low as 50 in the 1990s. Nowadays, conservation efforts have managed to raise the numbers up to 213 as of 2019. The difficulty lies in the fact that the birds mate and breed only once every 2 to 4 years in correlation with the blooming of rimu fruit trees.

The birds also essentially have no survival skills against predators, in fact, explorer Charlie Douglas once wrote that "they could be caught in the moonlight by simply shaking the tree or bush until they tumbled to the ground, like shaking down apples". A lack of protection against predators combined with their low breeding rates doesn't bode well for the Kakapo. However, what they do have going for them is an impressive longevity in lifespan. Most live to be at least sixty years old and it is believed that they could live to be over a hundred years old, making them the longest living birds on the planet.

"Owl Parrot", 18"x24" oil on canvas.

Painting the "Owl Parrot" was one of the most enjoyable works I've done. Their bright, vibrant colors and overall weirdness is just plan fascinating to me. They are chubby, fluffy and bright and somehow still manage to convey a keen sense of intelligence. The eyes are the most important part of this work, shifting our perception of the bird from just a technicolor oddity to a more dignified, interesting creature. The eyes draw you in and convey an unexpected depth to the funny little birds than would be expected.

The persistence in the survival of these birds as well as the conservation efforts put into them is admirable to say the least. There is, quite honestly, no good rational reason as to how these strange, little guys have survived this long, but there is something about them (perhaps because they shouldn't still be around) that captures our hearts and encourages us to continue to fight for their survival.

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Updated: Dec 27, 2019

The second piece in my 'Endangered Underdog' series, “Bone Breaker”, an oil on 2’x3’ canvas, takes a closer look at the notoriously badass lammergeier, otherwise known as the ‘Bearded Vulture’. These ferocious looking birds reside primarily in mountainous regions throughout Europe. By the 1990s in parts of Eastern Europe, due to old superstitions and fears, the species was hunted to near extinction. Luckily, nowadays the birds have been moved up from 'Endangered' to ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN (International Union of Conservation for Nature) thanks to the efforts of environmental groups. Some of these groups include the Vulture Conservation Foundation, Asters, and Nikela.

Contrary to old superstitions and first impressions, the bearded vulture does not, in fact, spend its time snacking on innocent sheep and little babies. Actually, these birds don’t even hunt prey, avoiding most meat altogether and preferring, instead, the sun-bleached bones left behind by other predators. In order to easily consume the bones, they are known to fly them high into the air and let them drop and shatter on rocks below, earning them the nickname ‘Bone Breaker’. This unusual bone-shattering practice combined with their intimidating size (some can grow up to four feet tall!) and an unexplained penchant for dying their feathers fiery red certainly explains the inclination to see the species as closer related to terrifying, child-snatching dragons rather than harmless birds.

However, despite their unsettling image, the Bearded Vulture, like all other vultures, plays an essential role in ecosystems, keeping them clean and preventing the spread of diseases. The extremely corrosive stomach acid that these birds have not only dissolves bones, but also breaks down deadly diseases often contained in animal corpses such as anthrax, botulinum toxins, rabies, and hog cholera that would otherwise be fatal to other scavengers. Ultimately, these ominous vegetarians, though gothically flamboyant in appearance and eating habits, are more akin to natures fashion-forward garbage collectors than child-eating monsters.

"Bone Breaker", 2'x3' oil on canvas.

In my work, "Bone Breaker", I aimed to capture the bird in a more vulnerable state while still maintaining its "ferocious" attitude. The act of the vultures staining their feathers red remains unclear to scientists, but is speculated to be a symbol of status among the species. Iron-oxidized soil (the source of the red pigment) is a difficult thing to find in the mountainous regions where the birds reside, and so, the red pigment most likely represents and communicates the birds strength and wherewithal to find the iron-rich mud. Because of this, the dying of their feathers is done in secret (only having been observed by those in captivity) and is thus a very private and vulnerable moment. This vulnerable moment is captured in the painting, portraying the bird in the middle of this unusual ritual.

The bone crown that the vulture wears plays into not only the obvious 'Bone Breaker' reputation, but is also meant to reflect the iconography of Christ's crown of thorns. Misunderstandings and old fears of the species was largely what lead to its near demise and endangerment over the years. However, despite its role as the 'sacrificial lamb', the population of the Bearded Vulture has steadily been making a 'resurrection' these past few years. Overall, this piece was meant to shine a gentler light on a species known to be one of the 'hardest' and downright metal in the animal kingdom. While the Bearded Vulture is no doubt not a species to be trifled with, it is important to recognize that it is truly an asset to its ecosystem and essentially harmless to us. It is not a species to be fearful of, but rather one to be intrigued by and protected.

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