Inspiring Conservation Through Art

Charity Oetgen is a California-based artist and conservationist. Born and raised in a small Illinois town, she currently attends the Laguna College of Art and Design. Charity has found a unique and inspiring way to combine her love for the natural world, particularly bonobos and their environment, with her talent as an artist. She creates spectacular works of art, primarily paintings, that depict bonobos and the threats they face in the wild.

Charity Oetgen, artist; Photo courtesy of Charity Oetgen
Charity Oetgen, artist
Photo courtesy of Charity Oetgen

Charity states on her website: “My vision is to use art as a means of positively fostering useful and honest dialogues regarding wildlife and delicate social subjects such as human rights. In future projects, I see myself continuing my work with bonobos, as well as bringing forth a discussion of eco-awareness and delicate social matters.”

Through her artwork, Charity aims to bring attention to the situation bonobos face and to “call for viewers to contemplate their relationship with their surroundings and their role in its preservation.” She currently works directly with both BCI and Friends of Bonobos, donating artwork and creating unique images for outreach purposes. Her work has been featured in many exhibitions and fundraisers, and is sought after by collectors of primate art.

BCI: Can you recall the first time you were introduced to bonobos? What was it about bonobos that struck you as so special?

CHARITY: The first time I heard anything about bonobos was in a book called “The Great Apes”, that was almost 16 years ago.  I grew up with a passion for primates, since before I can remember, however this was the first time I had ever heard of bonobos.  I was fascinated that they bonobos were matriarchal and solved conflicts without killing one another.  Almost twelve years ago I saw them at the Memphis Zoo for the first time and from there my connection with them took root.

BCI: What sparked the idea to combine your art with your passion for bonobos?

CHARITY: It was actually one of my teachers in art school that inspired me to finally go for it.  We were always talking about wildlife and the environment during breaks asked me how I would combine my love of bonobos and artwork, since I talked about bonobos more than anything else.  She suggested that I start by working with people in the bonobo world.  I contacted a non-profit working with bonobos and asked how I could use my artwork to help and everything unfolded from there.

Charity Oetgen in action; Photo courtesy of Charity Oetgen
Charity Oetgen in action
Photo courtesy of Charity Oetgen

BCI: Why do bonobos make good subjects for art?

CHARITY: I think they make good subjects simply because I am so passionate about them.  It is that passion that drives me to want to create art about them.  I think it is the feeling or emotional investment you have about the subject that makes it a good subject to paint.

BCI: What is the hardest thing to capture when painting bonobos?

CHARITY: Trying to capture their individuality can be difficult, but it is very important to me. I want people to see them as individuals with personality and their own story when they see the paintings.

BCI: How do you feel your artwork makes a difference for bonobos?

CHARITY:  I feel that my artwork raises awareness by sharing it with people who have never heard of them before and hopefully inspires people to get involved. I hope that my artwork engages people to ask questions about why bonobos are in need of protecting, how can we help, and ask themselves how do their personal actions play a part in bonobos plight.

BCI: In what capacity do you currently work directly with conservation organizations? (BCI included.)

CHARITY: My main work is providing artwork for organizations to use for fundraising.  I provide originals, prints, and thank you cards for them to use at their discretion. I have done live painting and live auctions at multiple fundraising events. I have collaborated with GRASP on a great ape  infographic and also provided art for their recent brochure cover.

BCI: What has been the highlight of your work in conservation thus far?

CHARITY: The highlight has been working so closely with people in the field that I have admired for years.  One recent moment that stands out, Jane Goodall recently saw my artwork in Chicago at the Joint meeting of the International Primatological Society and the American Society of Primatologists and she told me that I capture the primates souls in my artwork and that when people see my art it will remind them why we are all working tirelessly to make a positive impact.

BCI: You recently spent time in the DRC. Can you tell us a little about your experience there?

CHARITY:  I did, sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago and others like yesterday.  I was there in 2013 for three months.  I stayed at the sanctuary Lola ya Bonobo and their release site Ekolo ya Bonobo.  It was great being able to see them in their homeland and inspired me to work even harder to keep them free and thriving in their natural habitat.

Charity’s prints, generously donated to BCI, were a hit at the Wildlife Conservation Expo in San Francisco! Photo credit: BCI
Charity’s prints, generously donated to BCI,
were a hit at the Wildlife Conservation Expo
in San Francisco! Photo credit: BCI

BCI: What do you feel are the biggest threats facing bonobos right now and what would you like to see happen to stop those threats.

CHARITY: I think the greatest threat to bonobos is poverty in the DRC which results in local people consuming their resources to make ends meet(forests and wildlife). The instability of the DRC has increased this issue. We must improve our educational outreach opportunities here and in Congo and show the value in saving bonobos (similar to how China has accomplished this with pandas). Come up with sustainable use of    resources and ways to make money.

BCI: In what ways do you feel a regular person here in the US can help bonobos?

CHARITY:  I still ask myself this everyday.  I believe education is very important, and the more we talk about bonobos the more we can inspire others to get involved with protecting them.  Share your love and knowledge of bonobos and take action.  This action does not have to be huge, it is our collective decisions and actions that will make the difference.  Make a pledge to not use products with palm oil (and explain to people why), sign petitions (or start one), arrange an assembly at your school/work to educate your peers, be aware of what you buy as a consumer and where it comes from, sponsor a bonobo, do a mini fundraiser of your own (bike for bonobos).

Every little bit helps and I think sometimes people forget that or think the $10 they can afford isn’t worthy to send.  Just think if this week you asked everyone to send $5 to support bonobos instead of buying a fancy coffee before work…. it adds up pretty quickly!  Don’t believe me….. try it!