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Cambridge Open Studios: ecologist Mike Barker reveals why he was inspired to paint by Wicken Fen

An ecologist whose art is inspired by the biodiversity of Wicken Fen is to exhibit his work as part of this year’s Cambridge Open Studios.

After being given painting lessons as a 50th birthday present, Mike Barker says his interest in art has “rather taken over” and he regularly cycles to the National Trust site with camera and art materials to paint waterscapes and capture images of the wildlife.

Mike Barker, ecologist and artist (12773861)
Mike Barker, ecologist and artist (12773861)

Now, four years on from that first lesson, he plans to show his work in Swaffham Prior Village Hall along with a handful of other local artists.

“It’s rather nerve-wracking, actually,” says Mike. “I have produced all this stuff and haven’t really shown it to anyone and now I’m going to put it on a wall and invite the public to say what they think.”

His work is in oils, watercolour and pastel and explores the changing seasons on the fen or the Brecks. He explains: “Wicken is one of the last places where the variety of life in there is extraordinary so it can’t help but inspire me. I often go there and see things that I hadn’t noticed before.

Bitterns flying (12773863)
Bitterns flying (12773863)

“One of my most recent paintings is of water lilies on the lode. When I saw the water lilies coming up in spring I realised I had never noticed that when they first come up the leaves are red and then they go green. I thought that was very unusual, so I spent a lot of time painting red waterlily leaves.

“I tend to cycle to Wicken from Swaffham Prior and come in the back way. Monks Lode is where the cycle path runs right along and I have painted that ditch loads of times. I do water colour sketches and take photos and then paint with oils when I get home.

“It feels like with Open Studios I'm on the cusp of something that could change my life, potentially.”

Wind pump at Wicken Fen (12773865)
Wind pump at Wicken Fen (12773865)

Wicken Fen remains an area teeming with rare bird and insect species. Despite being only a fragment of the 1% of East Anglia’s original undrained fenland, it is still over 2000 acres in size, and has been described by a National Trust spokesperson as a “mosaic of natural habitats.”

The Trust is now 20 years into its 100-year conservation and development plan, the Wicken Fen Vision, which aims to significantly increase the overall area of the site and continue to enhance the resident habitats through a variety of conservation methods.

Mike’s work in ecology has led to his interest in painting Wicken Fen, which ismaintaining biodiversity, particularly in the face of ongoing property development, agricultural demands and globally changing climate.

Described as the UK’s most species-rich area with over 9300 recorded species, it is home to at least 188 endangered species and has seen over 25 completely new species identified there since records began in 1899, including a flat bark beetle called silvanus recticollis.

Watermill at Anglesey Abbey in Lode (12773867)
Watermill at Anglesey Abbey in Lode (12773867)

Mike says: “ There are so many challenges in maintaining these habitats, and with the threat of many mass extinctions thanks to climate change and human developments, it’s more crucial than ever for initiatives like this to be supported and sites like this to be conserved for future generations.

“Having this amazing place practically on my doorstep is a constant inspiration,” he says. “There is always some new detail to discover, something that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s a whole scene, often just a detail of the ditches and dykes, or a particular insect. I’m certainly never short of subjects!”

Although well aware of the long-running Cambridge Open Studios initiative, Mike didn’t consider participating until recently. It was only when visiting other artists’ studios in both Brighton and Cambridge that he started to realise the interest there was in local art, and began to gain confidence that perhaps there might be an audience interested in his ecology-inspired work.

His own studio was too small to exhibit however, and the cost and availability of public space was prohibitive. But when he met other local artists and formed the Prior Arts Group, they decided to exhibit together at Swaffham Prior Village Hall on on the weekend of 13/14 July and at 3 Fosters Road, Swaffham Prior for the weekend of 20/21 July 2019. Visit camopenstudios.co.uk or download the Cambridge Open Studios app from the App Store or Google Play, which offers maps, directions and descriptions of studios available in any chosen area.

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