British artist and illustrator, George Butler, specialises in travel and current affairs reportage. Working in pen, ink and watercolor, he aims to give an alternative dimension to global news and conflict, while mobilising public opinion. His current exhibition The First Casualty, showing at London's Chris Beetles Gallery, features his most recent work, including drawings from the war in Ukraine. George created the Hands Up Foundation with three friends in 2014, funding health and education programmes in Syria and neighbouring countries.
What led you to observational reportage drawing?
In 2006, still at University, I went to Afghanistan and on to Helmand Province, where I sat in the British Army bases drawing the young men and women that were fighting ‘the war on terror’. It wasn’t the fighting I witnessed, being only an artist and still wet behind the ears, but I was conscious that even drawings of soldiers waiting to fight must be of some value alongside our relentless news cycle. Proving this value over the next 15 years led me to some unusual places with wonderful people. I went to oil fields in Azerbaijan, down gold mines in West Africa, drew in courts rooms in Germany, a caesarean in Afghanistan, leprosy patients in Nepal, Isis in Mosul, spent time with a militia in Yemen – the list goes on – occasionally these stories get picked up in newspapers and when they don’t it makes me even more determined to try again.
Your work illustrates the ravages and entanglement of war, offset against the human spirit. How do you portray this balance? Do you ever struggle to find compassion amongst the atrocity?
Many of these drawings are about the intimacy and vulnerability of life, despite the situations (good and bad) that we find and put ourselves in. I hope they are human and straightforward, unthreatening and available, that they do justice to the subjects but also connect the viewer to that person through a handmade line; an imagined connection that can relate one to another who would otherwise never cross paths. In some cases it's about making the shocking comprehensible or the abhorrent beautiful. And, as I often found in Ukraine, the story became more important than the drawing. For example: the case of Madame Olga, who at 99 lived on the top floor of her apartment block in Kyiv, too frail to move when the air raid sirens sounded; she told me her story of surviving the great famine, becoming a Nazi slave and walking back to Ukraine after Dresden had fallen to the Allies. Alongside her words my drawing became just a prompt.