Lucy Wisdom: Performance artist and conservationist

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The Independent Online

Lucy Wisdom was a beautiful, spirited and loving woman who was successfully involved in the worlds of music, theatre and the performing arts from an early age. This all changed dramatically when, confronted with her own extinction, she focused all her energy on the plight of the Sumatran orangutans.

She attended schools in Kent, Crystal Palace and Croydon, plus Monmouth School for Girls. At 16 she spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel and then took her A levels in Hereford. She read Geology and Archaeology at Bristol University.

She then took many short-term jobs and travelled the world. She joined her brother Olli and his band, Specimen, as tour manager, as they performed in the UK and the US, before training in circus skills in Bristol and Fooltime in London. In 1982 she crewed a yacht from Europe to Barbados where she founded the Barbados Archaeological Society, which was active for a decade.

She joined The Mutoids, a performance group who recycled old cars, cranes and even MiG fighters into dramatic pieces of sculpture, and performed in Italy, Spain and Germany. They were based in a quarry near Rimini on the east coast of Italy. Wisdom made many lifelong friends there.

In 1994 she developed breast cancer and underwent surgery. She saw this as a turning point in her life and went to Sumatra to work as a volunteer in Bohorok Rehabilitation Centre. The Centre worked with orangutans whose mothers had been shot and who had been sold into the pet trade. Wisdom's circus skills helped her to teach her young charges how to survive life back in the jungle.

She soon realised that saving individual apes was not enough: their plight was due much more to deforestation, both from illegal logging and for palm oil plantations. She formed the Sumatran Orangutan Society [SOS] in 1996 and it was her life's work thereafter.

Wisdom made her home in Bali, on the outskirts of Ubud. She achieved charitable status for the SOS in Indonesia, the US, Sweden, Australia and in the UK. It grew from the tiny beginnings of a one-woman campaign to an educational charity that now works with teachers, schoolchildren and villagers in Aceh in Sumatra, with flourishing re-forestation programmes, eco-treks and successful fund-raising comedy nights in the UK.

During the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 Wisdom and the workers in Sumatra organised aid to stricken villages, bringing the first help after the disaster. With Greenpeace they hired a boat and took it up the west coast of Aceh – again, they were the first to bring aid.

Wisdom had five years free from cancer. For the last eight and a half years she lived with the disease, undergoing uncomfortable treatments cheerfully and stoically. She moved to London permanently in May 2009 when her illness no longer allowed her to travel.

SOS was her reason for living. She was very proud of her awards – Hero of the Month by Marie Claire magazine and Ethical Businesswoman of the Year 2009. She had a huge talent for friendship and was much loved.

Charlotte Jones and John Watt

Lucy Wisdom, performance artist and conservationist: born London 21 November 1956; died London 19 December 2009.