ATM, street artist, on his photograph of Glen Affric in Scotland
GB Tell me why you chose this.
ATM I just came back from Glen Affric. There are only a very few locations in Britain where you can still see the original forest from 10,000 years ago. At the end of the ice age, when the ice melted it was colonised by Birch, Scots Pine and Junipers. A lot of areas in Scotland have been used for forestry and farming but this is still like a jungle. The only other place in the whole of Europe that you find this primeval forest is in the Bialowieża Forest in Eastern Poland. When you’re there, you get his magical sense of tree spirits and it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. There’s this sense of the fecundity and the harmony of life. Some forests are managed through processes like coppicing, which creates a good habitat for a few species but doesn’t create the complexity you get when there’s this vegetation on the ground, like in Poland where the forest has this unbelievable carpeting of wild flowers. It’s the same in Glen Affric. There are ferns growing on top of trees, lichens on every branch, the dying fallen trees are just left. 60% of insect species need dead wood so the insects thrive too.
GB I think most people aren’t aware of how managed the countryside is.
ATM Across the whole of England, what we think of as nature is man made. It loses the mystical power that a pristine environment has. When you have this natural variety in these ancient forests it almost looks as though these little gardens have been created within it. There are different scales and lovely spaces formed by fallen trees covered in moss with flowers growing on top.
GB I suppose that appeals to us on a basic evolutionary level because it looks like a good landscape to live in.
ATM Yes, it’s multi-layered and multi-dimensional. We’ve reached an extreme now with monocultures. We keep a few crop species and kill everything else. There is a movement to re-wild the Highlands and groups like Trees For Life are replanting the Glens. There are too many deer and they eat everything until the landscape becomes an empty barren moorland. The deer have no natural predators. There’s a really powerful argument for bringing back wolves, as was shown in Yellowstone National Park. When the wolves were reintroduced it had a profound effect on the entire ecosystem. The deer stayed away from the riverbanks so the trees were able to grow and hold together the riverbanks so the rivers became cleaner. There was less silt so there was an increase in spawning salmon. Pronghorn antelopes came back because their young used to be eaten by coyotes but wolves eat coyotes so they became much more timid. Wolves don’t hunt the pronghorn antelopes because they’re quite small and very fast. They just eat the big deer.
GB You use the word mystical. Does this landscape that’s untouched by humans make you more ready to believe in something spiritual?
ATM Yes, totally. It makes you so aware of the beauty of creation and the way in which it’s all interlocked.
GB That sounds like a sort of pantheism.
ATM I am a pantheist. I believe in the idea of a spirit that imbues everything. I think a lot of things have consciousness. I don’t believe that consciousness only arises after a certain degree of complexity. I think it’s there from the beginning. Even individual cells self-organise. Slime moulds reorganize themselves. It’s not the same as human consciousness but I think it’s there. I don’t think computers will ever become conscious because I don’t think consciousness has anything to do with complexity.
GB So is it this pantheism that you want to bring to urban areas through your bird paintings?
ATM I see birds as a symbol of all that as well as being a part of it. Evolution tells us that birds aren’t designed but the process of creation came up with all this incredible beauty as well as functionality. I wonder why they appear to be so beautiful to our eyes. One of the reasons they develop that plumage is sexual selection but the question is, why do those subtle colours and contrast and touches of another colour look so beautiful and harmonious to us? They are invariably beautiful to human eyes as well as the eyes of other birds because we’re part of the same process. If they were as separate as we like to think then we wouldn’t recognize them as being so beautiful.
It’s easy to think that we live in a technological world and we’re separate in some way but that’s an illusion. We can’t live without being part of this process even though we try to believe that we can. If I’m feeling burned out and I can’t take it any more, I go to these places like Glen Affric and they can renew my spirit like nothing else. It’s on such a profound level it’s beyond words or rational understanding.
GB So your photograph can’t possibly capture that.
ATM No. There’s the cleanness of it, of the air and the water, the sound and the smells.
GB What kind of birds would you find in these trees?
ATM There would be crossbills, capercaillies, crested tits, golden eagles, peregrines.
GB Do you see yourself as doing something more self-consciously beautiful than other street artists, like the huge Stik painting up the road there?
ATM That’s beautiful. It’s a different approach to it but he’s trying to communicate some of the essence of what it is to be a human being. It’s just a different way to do it. I want to inspire real change in the way we treat our environment and I still don’t know if I can do that but making people aware that these birds exist is the first step. I like to paint birds that have a connection to the place where I paint them.
GB Do you think that beauty became a dirty word in the art world?
ATM Well I do think that creating beauty in an artifact is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, so it can make life a lot easier for an artist to claim that they’re not pursuing beauty rather than attempt to do it and fail.
GB Have you been influenced by any other bird painters?
ATM When I was a kid I really liked John Gould and Raymond Harris Ching who painted the AA book of British Birds. I love the way their paintings are accurate but have real character. Audubon was incredible. His paintings were all done from shot birds and he was the first person to paint many of them so it was an amazing achievement. Apparently, the first 200 paintings that he did for his great book were eaten by rats so he had to repaint all those. So that might be why there are a few birds we don’t recognize because he couldn’t quite remember the exact anatomy and so he made a few mistakes. But then losing 200 paintings would have broken a lot of people.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
ATM I have to feel it in my guts. It’s an emotional experience. Intellectual arguments can be beautiful but even then, they’re moving. You feel it in your body.