I am a Russian native, Singapore-based wildlife artist and conservationist. Currently, I spend about half of my time working at the IUCN SSC Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group and the other half creating art and participating in art-conservation related activities and events. In my artworks, I often work on lesser-known, less covered conservation topics
I draw inspiration from my work, the work of my colleagues, research and news that I read and things that I see around. Most of my pieces are about wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflict, which is easy to explain. My current and past conservation work has been mainly focused on tackling the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade.
Most of my works are in watercolour, linocut or mixed technique, but I still keep experimenting. I am now working on an installation made of wire and embroidered fabric.
It is hard to say if I have not found my style yet or actually need all these experiments with medium to fuel my creativity.
How did you become the artist you are today?
When I graduated from architecture school in 2014, I struggled to find a job and started to paint. I drew and painted before but not as actively. It did not take long for me to realise that most of the subjects of my works are animals. Through art I realised that I am passionate about wildlife and would love to be involved in conservation. After a couple of volunteering opportunities, I got my first job in an NGO. Starting my conservation career did not stop me from continuing painting. Whether I volunteered, studied, worked part-time or full-time, I always continued creating and participating in exhibitions.
How did you decide upon your chosen medium?
I still have not decided. I am always searching for better materials that meet my needs, but also are as eco-friendly as possible. I've tried acrylic, watercolour, linocut, mixed technique, worked with fabric and embroidery... I enjoyed working in all those mediums, but also became more aware of their footprint. It is painful to know how many art materials are produced unsustainably, involving animal cruelty or contain harmful to the environment and human components.
How long have you been working as an artist?
It depends on how you define ‘working’. I had my first exhibition in Riga, Latvia in 2015. Back then, I did not have many artworks, and I had to create nine 100x70cm pieces within a couple of weeks. After that experience of multiple sleepless nights, I realised that my hobby got a bit out of control, and I probably can start considering myself an artist.
How do you support wildlife conservation and why do you choose to do so? Apart from being an artist, I also work part-time for a non-profit conservation project.
With my art, I use my works to bring more attention to lesser-known conservation issues. Unlike some wildlife artists, I do not strive to create appealing pieces for sale to fundraise. I hope that my art will spark curiosity, question people's choices and hopefully, contribute to a change. That is why I also often choose underfunded venues such as museums to showcase my works. Those exhibitions do not necessarily bring me income but have the potential to reach a different audience.
From time to time, I donate my artworks for charity auctions and sales and offer my skills to help with the design. However, after years working in conservation, I learned that recurring donations are often the best option as they allow organisations to plan their work. So, my partner and I have a list of organisations that we support continuously.
What has been your biggest learning curve as an artist?
For me being a wildlife artist and actively engaging in conservation is constant learning. Every new project, every new collaboration teaches me new skills and brings me to a new level. This learning process is not only about artistic skills but also management. The way I present a project or a piece of art, find collaborators, do research, engage my supporter is constantly evolving. Lately, I have been involved in several long-term projects, which heavily influenced planning and logistics around my creative process.
What is your favourite/ most enjoyable part of being a wildlife artist?
Freedom of artistic expression. As a conservationist, I often have to be careful about how I express my personal opinion and craft a message, so that it does not do more harm than good. When it comes to wildlife conservation, even the most harmless on the first sight messages can easily backfire. We spend a lot of time finding words and editing texts trying to prevent any potential misinterpretations. As an artist, I can be more straightforward and express what I think in a way I want to. It does not mean that my messages are different from what I express at work; they usually end up being pretty much the same. It is a feeling of freedom to be louder and bolder when expressing through art that I really like.
Linocut print on paper
I created this work as part of my art series about the Asian songbird trade. It is popular among songbird keepers in Asia to participate in so-called singing contests. The scale of these bird singing competitions in Indonesia is impressive. Even in a small town, several competitions may be happening simultaneously at weekends. But those local competitions are nothing compared to the President’s Cup - Indonesia’s most prestigious songbird contest attended by thousands of bird keepers.
My artwork questions the “price” of organising, participating and winning in such contests, as they raise serious conservation and animal welfare concerns.
Which species are you most involved or interested in supporting through conservation projects?
For the last couple of years, the main focus of my work has been the Asian Songbird Crisis. Demand for caged songbirds in Southeast Asia is one of the major threats for many species in the region, yet few people are aware of this issue. I invite everyone to read about it on the IUCN SSC Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group website - www.asiansongbirdtradesg.com/ and on Creature Conserve page - www.creatureconserve.com/asiansongbirdconservation.
What is the best piece of advice you could give an aspiring wildlife artist? If you really want to impact people with your art and contribute to a positive change of their behaviour, do your research. Spend time researching a topic you want to cover in your art: read scientific papers or conservation groups’ reports and connect with professionals working in the field. You would be surprised how many threats one species may face and how many ways there are to talk about each threat. Proper research will make you and your art more informed and provide you with a much-needed background to make a positive change for wildlife.
To see more of Sofiya’s work, follow along on Instagram.