Under The Skin: Making no bones about extinction

We had the opportunity to catch up with James Harrison, the co-founder of Under The Skin. With his brother Ed, James decided to put his talent of graphic designer towards raising awareness of the pressures faced by endangered species through an interactive print series. When under UV light the artworks reveal a surprising phosphorescent skeleton, the symbol of all that remains once a species becomes extinct.

📸 Alex Sedgmond

James shared with us how this project came to light and explained why he believes that everyone can be a positive change for nature.

Julia: I stumbled upon Under The Skin last year and was instantly amazed by the concept of your artworks! What triggered you and Ed’s interest in conservation and the natural world?

James: Surfing was a big part of us being connected to nature and the outdoors! We would always rush out of school to go surfing and would be chasing waves down the Gower Peninsula, which is arguably one of the most beautiful coastlines in the entire world. We were so lucky to grow up there!

Through surfing, in particular, we saw a lot of plastic pollution. From a very young age, we would all go surfing [James, Ed, and their brothers] and seeing the plastic pollution was interesting because I never thought that it would be such a worldwide problem. I just saw buckets and things washing up and always thought it was local plastics.

📸 Bo Eide

When we were younger, we used to go to France every year, surfing in the South West Coast in Biarritz. We were there one year when a big oil spill had happened and we were actually surfing in it! We saw birds struggling to fly and we just really witnessed the devastation that one oil spill could have.

The experience of surfing, climbing, snowboarding, and being in the outdoors, has just opened our eyes to the changes that are happening in the world and the impact those changes have. So we’ve always been engaged in these issues and we’ve always discussed them.

Julia: How did Under The Skin come to life then?

James: The idea of Under The Skin came about when we [Ed and James] were both on a ski trip in Austria in early 2015. I had been printing in the Glasgow Print Studio for a couple of months after I graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. I had also been working on a few screen prints for some events and posters and I had been experimenting with nature.

Ed far Right and James to his left 📸 Alex Sedgmond

Ed, while he was in Brighton, was working on a project called Animalia Daily where he illustrated an animal a day for 100 days. He was breaking them down into simple geometrical shapes and was trying to represent those different species in simple forms. He also worked on a project called Animal Senses where he compared animal senses to human senses and he saw how acute they were through smell, through touch, through sight.

We both ended up injured during the ski trip, I ripped a ligament in my shoulder and Ed did this massive cliff drop and injured himself. That’s when we started sharing our projects with one another. Ed and I were sitting down at the chalet and I was showing him the screen prints I had been working on and he was showing me an animal project he had done at university.

He was telling me how he had those illustrations of animals but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with them. He really wanted to celebrate species and asked if I wanted to print one. And, of course, I said yes! He had this one illustration that he had done with an African elephant skeleton for one of his Animal Senses project and he had also done the nervous system through the elephant but he didn’t know what to do with the skeleton. That’s when I mentioned the idea of printing it with interactive ink. I had never done it but knew that it was possible to screen print with a glow in the dark ink. We both looked at each other and came up with that idea of screen printing illustrations of endangered species.

📸 Alex Sedgmond

Within half an hour, this idea grew to the point where we came up with the concept of just doing endangered species, trying to make screen prints, and raising money for animal charities. I don’t think we’d ever been so inspired to start working on a project!

As soon as I came back to Glasgow, we decided to start with a polar bear artwork. I printed the artwork, then printed the skeleton, shone the torch on it, and it worked! I knew instantly, though, that the strength of the project was going to become apparent once we had lots of these animals. It would become powerful once they could build up to a collection to the point where somebody walks in a room and would see them all around the walls.

Julia: You’ve got quite a few different species in your collection already! How did you pick the species you’ve been working on so far?

James: It started with four iconic species: the polar bear, the African elephant, the giant panda, and the Western gorilla. That was our launching point. Then Ed spent time developing the website and we came up with the brand. I did graphic design at the Glasgow School of Art, which is more hands-on, and Ed did graphic design in Brighton, which is more digital-based, so we both came up with the logo, the branding and the packaging.

📸 Alex Sedgmond

From there a magazine in Bristol [called Another Escape] contacted us and said that they really loved the concept of the prints and wanted to do a project with us. They were about to travel to Borneo and wanted us to work with them on a series of six prints that were going to be part of a series around Alfred Russell Wallace. As Wallace predicted in Borneo, a lot of species are going extinct there and so we wanted to create a series of six prints which were based on the species that had predicted would be disappearing. They travelled in Wallace’s footsteps across Borneo to basically uncover what was happening there!

After that, we got contacted by Sea Shepherd, which was crazy! Their captain, Paul Watson, asked if we could make a print of a vaquita. Ed and I both had no idea what a vaquita was so we looked it up and discovered a story of sadness, greed, and loss. The vaquita is on the brink of extinction and Sea Shepherd is doing everything they can to try to save the species from going extinct. We had never heard of that species but we felt that if we made an interactive print it might raise awareness of its plight before it’s too late.

📸 Alex Sedgmond

That’s really what’s pushed us from the first four iconic species into more unknown species like the Sunda pangolin. I didn't really know what a pangolin was before doing research for Under The Skin. I didn’t know a lot of these species but they all had those crazy stories! To be researching and covering those stories really opened our eyes to the scale and magnitude of the problems and what we can try and do to raise awareness of them.

After that, we’ve also done the silverback chevrotain with Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), which we’ve now finished. We’ve just finished the filming of the process and what we want to do now is tie that up with a documentary out into the habitat in Vietnam. We want that film to have a positive message.

Julia: Talking about films, you recently had your very first exhibition in Brighton where you showed some of your films. How did it go?

James: It was our first solo show and it went really well! We were deliberating [initially] when to start showcasing this work. Exhibitions require so much preparation and they take a lot of financing so we had dropped the idea of an exhibition for years. We had decided to make as many artworks as we could for now and to work on an exhibition later.

📸 Alex Sedgmond

We loved the fact that our first exhibition took place in Brighton, which is a very liberal city. It has the only green MP in the whole of the UK and is very switched on when it comes to conservation issues. The exhibition space there was the perfect size and we had just the right amount of pieces around the wall. There was a little cinema room downstairs where we could showcase our films.

I’d been running print workshops at the Glasgow Print Studio for a number of years and just before Brighton, we had the idea to expose some fabric screens and bring some simple designs down with us. A week before the exhibition, we just decided to wipe out some designs, put them on screens, and brought them down with us to print on clothing. We had no idea that it would be as popular as it was!

The success of the gallery space, the print workshop, and the films tied it all together in a way that we hadn’t thought would be as strong as it was. We found that if we just had the gallery space and the films someone would come and see it, they’d maybe spend half an hour to two hours there and they would leave, tell their friends and wouldn’t come back.

With the print workshop, people kept coming back to print more [old] clothing! We told them not to buy anything new for this as we wanted to repurpose old clothes and relook at the fashion industry. There was a charity shop right next to the entrance of the gallery and they got absolutely hammered through the week. People could then chose their colours, chose their designs, lay them up and we were teaching them how to print them on their clothes. Everyone was super engaged in the print process!