Updated: Nov 14
I guess at this point I shouldn't be too surprised when I find myself in completely ridiculous situations that are completely beyond my fathoming. In the last three years, I've been stuck in New Zealand for a global pandemic, won a competition to Everest Basecamp, only to be helicoptered off the mountain with HACE and six months later my appendix blew up. And yet. Here we are.
Back in 2019 a friend introduced me to the concept of becoming an "Expedition Artist". My mind promptly exploded. Could this be my ticket away from a desk? Could something I enjoy actually fuel my adventures!? It would take me four years, but I finally made it to the Royal Geographical Society's "EXPLORE Symposium" to find out more.
Armed with a bunch of pens and a whole load of business cards, I settled into five days of sketching within the 200 year old walls of the RGS. It all got a bit surreal.
Starting out with a field journaling workshop with Roseann Hanson, this was the first time I'd been back to a school-like environment in years. The mix of established artists and scientists who had never drawn in their life was fun to see. I loved the idea of the two meeting in the middle. We learnt the importance of combining sketches, words and scientific data. There's no point making things pretty if they don't have any context.
As a result, when it came to sketching that evening's Art of Exploration panel I found myself scribbling notes all over my page, allowing my words to become part of the art. I really enjoyed the process as a way of digesting information. Half my attention would be on what was being said on stage so it loosened up my sketches.
The panel itself was really interesting as all five artists were out there creating a difference in the world, but from very different angles. I particularly related to the work of Ali Foxon, who advocates for sketching being a vital way of connecting with nature. Something we all need if we plan to reverse the biodiversity crisis. She also challenges those who insist they "can't draw" as it's a learnt skill, just like speaking a language. Amen to that!
Things were off to a great start. I was over the moon to discover that Expedition Art was in fact a lot more established than I'd realised. Just because none of my immediate circle had heard of it, didn't mean it was actually rare.
Then things started to get a little bit mad.
I was sketching Thursday evening's lecture on the first ever disabled crossing of Iceland's Vatnajokull Glacier, which touched on the importance of men leaving their egos behind and being vulnerable. Mixed with a fine blend of Niall McCann talking about his penis a lot. As I finished, my artwork caught the eye of "Nigel". I'd seen him in the building the day before and he seemed pretty important. Little did I know he was the founder of RGS Explore and previously Deputy Director of the RGS. Having absolutely no clue of this at the time, we were taken to the bar and the networking exploded. Big words like "Fellowship", "Directors gallery" and "Grants" (ok that's a small word but it has big implications) were used and I left completely gobsmacked. Nigel wanted me to meet pretty much everyone and really believed I had something special to offer.
I could barely contain myself as I walked home. It had been a very VERY testing few years and despite being battered around by a pandemic and various life changing misadventures, I'd managed to hold on to a vague plan. Relying heavily on the two words "Expedition Artist", with no real clue as to whether or not they would lead anywhere. It was finally happening! And apparently extremely quickly! I had a little dance in the street. A little cry. A mix of adrenaline, excitement but mostly relief. Relief that I was on the right path.
It was only day two of five!
Friday saw me delayed by the tube so I ran the length of Hyde Park. Turns out it's big. Or I'm not a runner. Either way, I burst into the lecture hall and caught the eye of Shane. "Sorry, we're not really letting people sit at the front… except I know what you're here to do, so I'll let you off". Barely able to catch my breath I extended a hand shake. "I'm Tom by the way. Great to finally meet you." Shane being the Head of Expedition Operations at the RGS. I continue to meet every speaker that night and the Deputy Director, all in about 30 seconds. Top tip. Sit at the front of things. Nobody's going to meet you at the back!
That night was a challenge. Postcards from the Field showcased some of that year's expeditions in a series of eight minute talks. With around a 30 seconds break between each one! An hour and a half later I'd sketched seven talks and was absolutely knackered! No time to rest though. A deep breath as I jumped back into a third round of networking and excitable conversations about the future. How on earth was I going to keep this going for an entire weekend!?
The following morning I shook like a leaf as I got out of the car. My social anxiety finally catching up with me, after what had already been a super intense few days. Now I had to meet an entire building of new people! AND spend a whole day with them! OK I didn't HAVE to. But I hadn't waited four years to hide in the corner. Time to put on the brave pants.
I proceeded to sketch all the speakers that morning. Varying from 5-20 mins per sketch, often not knowing how long I'd have so there was a lot of frantic scribbling. Come the break, I stood in a queue of people in an awkward silence. Sketching is such a great icebreaker but as soon as you take away my superpower, I'm just left feeling awkward! Thankfully a soon to be new friend Richard started things off with "so what are you all hoping to get out of this weekend?". A question I later used repeatedly over the weekend. It was gold! He then invited me to a retreat in Dartmoor and a road trip around Europe, all within about 30 seconds. "These seem to be my people" I thought. I'm going to have a good weekend 🙂
After another round of talks and a lunch provided by Firepot (not sponsored, just credit where it's due) we broke away into workshops, which I used as an opportunity to mix things up a bit. Capturing crowd scenes and flitting between a couple of them. Choosing to prioritise adding to my portfolio over learning content this time around.
Connections continued to happen all around me as I pulled Nigel over to the side. "Nigel, we've spoken quite a lot already but I'd love to steal five minutes of your time to have a proper chat this weekend…" Great, how about now?". This would be the first of three times people would offer help right there on the spot. Amazing! We had a session at his help desk. Concluding that basically, being an expedition artist was so feasible that it's not a case of where I'm lucky enough to do it, it's where do I WANT to do it and then find an expedition that suits. "For example… where would you go if I gave you £10k right now?"... WHAT!? "Err I don't know, I guess my tip-top dream place would be Antarctica"... "OK anywhere but there. You wouldn't get there on that! But I do know a Dame Professor who could help". What!? The level of networking and connections inside this building was bonkers!
Another round of sketches later and I asked the organisers if I could join the list of on-stage shout-outs that had been happening across the day. "Sounds great. Actually, I'll tell you what. If you can get me a photo of all the sketches that you've done so far, we'll stick them on the main screen…" ARGH! OK! I can do one better, I thought. I'd be up until 1am designing a twelve foot business card!
That evening, things finally started to catch up with me. The bar was INTENSE. The high ceilings and cacophony of excitable conversation reaching a volume that sent my anxiety racing. I hovered about for a while, feeling awkward on the sides of other people's conversations, until I remembered I could hide in the sketch book! It's what I was there to do after all!
After a quick sketch of the bar, stood in the corner by the bins (I don't get to choose where the best angles are!) I went for a quieter wander through the Art of Travel exhibition. I found myself standing in front of a grand looking ship's journal from the HMS Challenger, 1872. A beautiful watercolour sat within its writing and I found myself getting emotional. Humbled to be following in the footsteps of scientists and artists hundreds of years before me and it wasn't a dream. It was happening at a rate of knots (boat pun!) and was very VERY real.
The following morning I spoke to Shane to see if there was a spare table to display the sketches I'd done so far. "Oh why don't you just put them in one of the exhibition cases…" "err what?" "yes come with me, we can just empty this one, and probably this one"...
Five minutes later and technically my first ever public display of artwork was inside the Royal Geographical Society, directly opposite the HMS Challenger journals! I was part of its history already and I was only just getting started! ARGH!
For the last day of the Explore Festival I'd decided to mix up my techniques else I would end up with a huge portfolio of people standing behind the same plinth. I'd never used watercolours for people's sketches before so I gave it a go and was pleasantly surprised by the results. I wouldn't choose to use it in a hurry because of all the colour mixing but it definitely adds a little something extra to the pen sketches. I sat in on the Mental Health & Wellbeing workshop, enjoying the concept of "mental health training". Most of us know to physically train for things but how many of us think to mentally prepare? Train resilience? Make sure we're mentally healthy before a big trip? Something I'll be considering in future for sure.
I then had one last painting on the bucket list. The main auditorium (of which I'm sure has a much better official name). So I sat up in the circle for 45 minutes of storytelling lectures, painting a room that was riddled with history. The Scotts and the Livingstones of the world engraved on the walls. Which reminds me... I was also interviewed for a film in the Director's office! With Livingstone's table behind me and Scott's portable generator to the right. Of course I was. By this point, it couldn't get much more surreal.
Nonsense. Of course it could.
Things were coming to an end at the Explore Symposium. I was fiddling around with my kit and someone shouted my name. I turned around to see my artwork projected on the main stage. Niall McCann gave me the kindest recommendation I've ever heard, declaring me "tenacious and fearless". Ironic for someone diagnosed with moderate anxiety so I must be doing something right!
After I'd survived the awkwardness of standing up and being introduced to all the other delegates, Nigel shouts "Tom, haven't you got something to give to Joe?!" When we'd first met back on Thursday, he'd craftily commissioned me to sketch Joe Smith, the current Director of the RGS. "How long do you think he'll be on stage for?"... "oh I think about 3 minutes… good luck!". Oh blimey. No pressure or anything then!
I wandered across the auditorium and delivered Joe his sketch. "This is for you, Director of the RGS". Who then proceeded to take it up on stage with him and use it for the bloomin' closing talk!
Well. That happened.
It's really hard to summarise something like Explore. Especially my extreme experience of it. I've never been in an environment where people proactively go out of their way to make other people's dream projects come true. It feels truly unique. I really hope it isn't. But if it is, I'm honoured to have been part of it. It provided hope to a group of people who can make a significant impact, at a time when it really matters. I'm so grateful for every interaction that took place. Most of which I haven't had time to write about at all.
Walking through the doors of the Royal Geographical Society, I was looking for purpose and curious about becoming an Expedition Artist. Sketching RGS Explore, I've left confident in the knowledge that not only is it totally possible... I am one, and I'm going to make a difference wherever possible. I can't wait to see where this takes me next 🙂
Thanks for reading!