The first time Deborah Ross realized the impact of her work drawing and painting with children in remote African villages, the renowned wildlife artist was collaborating on a book with Dr. Shirley C. Strum, director of the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project in the Laikipia Plateau region of Kenya.
This was in 1997, and the children in the community would crowd around her every time she began painting.
“I needed something to distract them and keep them out of the way. Otherwise, they would just stand there and stare at me, so I gave them paper and paint and they went and did their own paintings, which were really wonderful,” says Ross, who has devoted her career to conservation awareness through her expressive watercolor art.
She remembers one of the young Maasai boys layering on his colors, creating beautiful patterns with his work.
“None of these kids had prior experience. They just go — no inhibitions whatsoever,” says Ross, who never imagined those impromptu art projects would ultimately lead her to offer dozens of art workshops for children in several African countries.
This past summer, we selected Ross as our first Scatter Joy Art Ambassador, providing her with a grant to purchase art supplies for workshops in Madagascar. The New York City illustrator and fine artist, who is also on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, travels annually to Africa to study and document the people, animals and landscapes there in her light, expressive hand.
Her workshops with the children are a constant source of wonder and delight.
“Often with my other work, I’m just alone working by myself. I do better when painting accompanied,” she says. “I really feed off of community. I get all hyped up. With the kids, there’s all that energy — the fun, the inspiration, the community. It’s really joyful.”
There are also the rewards of providing them with a new tool for self-expression and watching their absorption in the play of paint and paper.
“Because they don’t have computers or eat a lot of sugar, they really concentrate,” she says. “That surprised me from the start, their determination and their absolute focus on what we were doing and their realization of the importance of this work.”
Over the years, she’s received letters from many of her students expressing how much they miss her classes and thanking her for the joy she brought to their lives.
About 10 years ago, when she returned to the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project, a young man assisting on site asked her for paper and pencil.
“He went out and did the most elaborate drawings for me of the baboons and all of their activities — these beautifully layered, very detailed drawings,” says Ross. “I was just awestruck.”
She was convinced he was the very kid who had meticulously layered on color after color in his paintings a decade ago. Though one of the staff members dismissed her insistence, the young man gifted her with his paintings when she was leaving, inviting her to visit his home upon her return.
When she asked where his home was, she discovered he was indeed the boy, all grown up, that she’d remembered — and he’d been eagerly awaiting her return.
“That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “When I visit, some of the kids I taught who are now men will return to see me and come and paint with me.”
This past summer, she spent several weeks in Madagascar teaching children ages 10 and up in the rainforests of Ranomafana National Park, home to 13 lemur species.
Over the years, Ross’ paintings of lemurs and other wildlife in that region have led to assignments with “Natural History Magazine” — her illustration of a fat-tailed lemur appeared on one of its covers — and collaborations with the Lemur Conservation Foundation, for which she illustrated a series of children’s books with primatologist Dr. Allison Jolly.
The books have become central to conservation efforts in Madagascar, where slash and burn agriculture and illegal activities such as gold mining lead to erosion and water shortages that ultimately affect the survival of wildlife in Ranomafana, as well as the preservation of the forests.
Ross blends painting instruction with conservation education in her workshops.
It is vital, she believes, that the children have a sense of their own ecological identity and the role they can play in preserving the forest habitats where they live.
As a Scatter Joy Art Ambassador, she not only was able to provide art supplies for her workshops over the summer. She also used some of her grant money to help launch a new art curriculum in 12 Malagasy villages in partnership with the School of Visual Arts in the fall.
“I just want these kids to be proud of themselves and get confidence,” she says, “because I know how tricky their lives are going to be.”