How Dürer’s Hare became inspiration for a Wiltshire artist
by Andrea van Poeteren
A few years ago, I met Joanna May, the contemporary wildlife artist and illustrator. It was a crisp and sunny November morning and we’d both been to the Remembrance Service at Keevil Parish Church in Wiltshire. As everyone else ambled away, we began talking. I found out that Joanna was 'an artist'; rather modest I thought for someone who I later discovered was listed in the Who’s Who of Art, whose work had been accepted for a Christies Contemporary Art Auction and had appeared on BBC’s Springwatch programme.
Joanna invited me to her Christmas Exhibition the following month. I was overwhelmed by the detail, colour and scale of her drawings and paintings. As you look at each of her subjects such as lion, tiger, giraffe, leopard, bear and, closer to home, Wiltshire’s brown hares you are drawn to their eyes. All Joanna’s subjects are endangered in some way and through her artistic interpretations you sense their vulnerability.
For many years, Joanna has been determined to create a book based on her zodiac hare paintings for which she is renowned. Her new book, The Hare on the Moon, published in November 2019 is an extraordinary and beautiful treasure hunt book. Beginning with Aries, Joanna has reworked her original zodiac hare compositions and each picture is accompanied by a beguiling tale, providing one of the twelve clues needed to solve the riddle of the treasure’s location. The story takes you on a mystical journey. With the help of the man on the moon, the hare is able to unlock the star signs at each stage of her journey which will help release her from the moon and return her to her beloved Wiltshire.
I recently caught up with Joanna to talk about the launch of her book as well as her successful career to date.
What sparked your interest in natural history?
For many years, my father was marketing manager for history at Book Club Associates in London. Inevitably, my two sisters and I were always surrounded by books such as encyclopaedias, atlases of wildlife and the latest, beautifully illustrated children’s books. My young imagination was captivated by Nicola Bailey’s Tiger Voyage and later on Masquerade by Kit Williams. I pored over art books and one day came across Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare. I became obsessed with the fine detail of the animal’s fur and from then on, all I wanted to do was draw and paint, particularly animals.
Sustaining a career as a professional illustrator/artist isn’t easy. Did you always envisage that this is what you wanted to be and how did you go about it?
Goodness that’s a big question. As I say, I adored drawing from a young age and was really encouraged by my father who assured me it was a worthy career. Being in the publishing business he knew how the illustrating profession worked too. All through school I was supported and encouraged - I was incredibly focused for a teenager. My A grade in O level art was retained by the examination board as a good example of the standard. I completed A level art a year early too, which enabled me to start a foundation course at Farnham Art College when I was just 17.
However, I frustrated the tutors. They wanted me to widen my horizons, but I was determined to make a career in illustration. So I dropped out and went to work as a studio junior for an advertising agency. I learnt so much, including how everything was pieced together for brochures including photography, design, typography and paste-up. It taught me about commercial deadlines too. Remember this is before computerised graphic design – well, before computers actually. I worked there for three years, but they said I really should study for a degree in art, but I had to save up first though. Eventually, I went to Falmouth College of Art to take my degree and was one of three students who was taken on by an art agent shortly before I graduated. For the next 10 years I worked as a freelance illustrator and was regularly commissioned by Collins, Readers Digest, BBC Wildlife magazine, Marshall Cavendish Dorling Kindersley and others.
The thing was, that whilst I was incredibly proud of my work, I was anonymous. No-one had heard of Joanna May. So, I took a huge gamble and started creating works of art with a view to selling them myself. However, I obviously needed an outlet if I was going to do this. By that time I was living near Marlborough in Wiltshire, and a chance meeting with a retiring gallery owner led to me agreeing to take on the lease. This was in 2000. My first painting was of two boxing hares in a spring scene which I sold to my business adviser when he was helping me to open up the gallery. The second painting was of an eagle owl which sold within a week. With both, I had prints made too, but the hare print outsold the eagle owl tenfold. Of course, I was over the moon and it encouraged me carry on with other pieces. This is how my hare paintings were born and, of course, they are synonymous with Wiltshire.
I know that you and your husband David are enthusiastic supporters of the Global White Lion Protection Trust. How did this come about?
I began to feel an enormous sense of responsibility towards the animals I was painting and was determined to give something back to them. I staged shows featuring my contemporary depictions of endangered wildlife and through each exhibition, I would give at least 10% of the profit to a chosen wildlife charity that was close to my heart.
I first heard of Linda Tucker who founded the Global White Lion Protection Trust when I was studying wildlife in the Kruger, but I didn’t meet her until her great friend the photographer, Karen-Jane Dudley was introduced to me when I was studying animals at the Isle of Wight Zoo. Karen or KJ as she’s known, loved my painting, Spirit of the White Lion so at her suggestion I sent a print to Linda at her Tsau Conservancy in South Africa. She invited me to fly out and stay at Tsau to learn about her white lion conservation work and that was it.
Through your extraordinary art you have been able to champion many wildlife causes. Why and when did your interest in the brown hare begin?
As I mentioned, on opening my first gallery, I put my new painting of two boxing hares in the window. Painting them reconnected me with my fascination with the fur of Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare. People then told me that Wiltshire has the second largest population of hares. I should have known shouldn’t I? As a result, my seasonal hares were then commissioned – the originals were in huge demand so it all helped to underpin my new business. I read up on and learned more about the hare all the time. I’d go out in the car at dawn and dusk hoping I would see some. Then one day, a BBC producer came into the gallery and overheard me talking about my hare paintings. Alex Griffiths invited me to appear on BBC Springwatch to talk about my passion for the hare.
Your new book is a work of art in itself. Tell me about the vision you had for the finished product and why.
Having painted seasonal hares and mystical hares I decided to take things a stage further by incorporating the hare into zodiac signs and connecting them to Wiltshire landmarks. They’re all surrealistic as you know - Water, Air, Earth and Fire all feature and the constellation of each star features in each. Clients said the paintings reminded them of Kit Williams Masquerade. I hadn’t even made the connection back to my childhood.
Before I created the zodiac paintings I painted The Hare in the Moon. In Asia and Africa, the shadows of the seas and mountains of the moon looked like a hare so they look up at the Hare in the Moon, not the Man in the Moon.
I decided that I wanted to create a magical story, whereby my unhappy hare who was trapped on the moon could be brought back down to Earth. It has taken me ten years to see my book come to fruition. I’m so thrilled with the finished product. It’s a big and beautiful collector’s book and you can buy one of 500 limited special first editions or a standard edition. I’ve designed it to grace your coffee table. I’ve made it a vision in its own right. I want people to be curious about it and to enjoy touching it as well as reading the story of course.
What are your plans for the future Joanna?
Well, I‘ve opened my latest studio gallery in Devizes, Wiltshire which is the principal outlet for The Hare on the Moon. This is a hugely exciting time for me, so the next few years are going to be very busy whilst I continue to promote the book. I am a great believer in serendipity though and I have a feeling that something will develop organically from The Hare on the Moon.
To contact Joanna and for more information about all of Joanna’s work including details of how to purchase The Hare on the Moon please visit www.joannamay.com.
The first reader to solve the riddle of the treasure’s location by registering their answer on Joanna’s website will win her original painting of Three Hares on a Golden Moon, depicted on the back cover of the book. It depicts three hares with interlinking ears, an ancient Celtic symbol for eternity, fertility and the lunar cycle.
About the author
Andrea Van Poeteren
Since receiving an MA in Travel & Nature Writing from Bath Spa University, Andrea is even more convinced that well-crafted stories, be they non-fiction or fiction and in whatever literary genre, are a persuasive means of conveying an emotional sense of our relationship with the natural world. With renewed enthusiasm and a willingness to challenge herself, Andrea is now writing articles and essays as well as short stories about everything she encounters.
As a former long-haul crew member with British Airways and Iran Air, Andrea is writing a memoir about some of the countries and cultures which fascinated her during these 15 years of her career. Her childhood dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot were never realised, but many years later, she is has grasped the chance to gain her private pilot’s licence. Doing so has also led to a new interest in pioneering women aviators such as Beryl Markham.
Her literary interests are wide-ranging, but the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop is a favourite and she is an enthusiastic member of the Katherine Mansfield Society, whose writing and personality also intrigues her.
Being the daughter of an RAF officer, Andrea became accustomed to living in different countries from an early age which she is sure accounts for a life of wanderlust. Having had six homes and attended eight schools by the time she was 18, the meaning of ‘home’ has always been open to interpretation.
Andrea lives with her Dutch-born husband in Keevil, Wiltshire – at the moment.