The View from Here

Discovering Africa
February 17, 2014, 11:05 am
Filed under: Adventures, Art News | Tags: , , ,


As an artist, I have had little interest in Africa. It is partly the hundreds of nature films about the continent, or most likely, it is the hundreds of paintings I’ve seen of African animals that have jaded me. Just being a painting of an African animal made it a cliche to me. I had gotten to the point that I just wasn’t interested in looking at another zebra or lion, no matter how well they were portrayed.
Going there changed everything. I knew it would, but experiencing such a place is a mind expander. This gets back to the fact that an emotional connection to the subject is the real inspiration to do a work of art. Not quite like falling in love, but a personal experience that is significant enough to make you want to express your feelings about it.


This definitely happened to me during my trip to Tanzania. Getting within a few feet of a pride of lions was an experience that brought tears to my eyes. Close enough to hear them sigh, to smell them, to have them look into my eyes (that was actually a bit disconcerting).


This same experience was repeated numerous times with many different species. Then there was the overwhelming majesty of it all. To look out over a spectacular landscape and see five or six species of large mammals, all at once and some of them in huge herds is just awesome, in the most appropriate meaning of the word. Meanwhile, behind you is a family of mongoose, and there’s an eagle, and oh, I see a python in that tree… it just doesn’t quit!


The purpose of the trip, however, wasn’t just to wow us. I was part of a group of nine artists from four countries that banded together to do what they could to help stop the slaughter of elephants.


Artist Ambassadors Against Poaching: R-L  Sandy Scott (USA), Tony Pridham (Australia), John Agnew (USA), Jan Martin McGuire (USA), James Hines II (USA), Robert Louis Caldwell (USA), Paul Dixon (South Africa), Julie Askew (UK), Dale Weiler (USA)

Our intention is was to experience wild elephants (and everything else), produce art works about elephants and sell them to raise money for elephant conservation. Specifically, the money will go to the African Wildlife Trust, an NGO in Tanzania formed to fight elephant poaching. Money will go to rangers for vehicles, radios and weapons, among other needed supplies. An impromptu auction on Facebook of sketches and small paintings raised over $2,000. A future exhibit at the Hiram Blauvelt Museum of Art will raise much more!  Watch for details and dates.

Experience wild elephants we did. Sometimes we experienced them a bit closer than we had planned, such as the group of females and young that we surprised as we drove around a corner in our open safari vehicle.


That’s my face on the right, as we were charged by the female elephants with young.  They were pissed because we surprised them, and they let us know. The rumble of running elephants, combined with the sounds of pissed-off elephant screams is quite enough to get your heart beating faster. Fortunately, Auntie on the left stopped short of our vehicle, and the rest of them then stopped as well.  They could have easily destroyed our vehicle, and likely us with it.  Most of our encounters with elephants were much more peaceful, sometimes even friendly.  I won’t bore you with the 3,000 images I took of elephants, but watch for some of them to appear as elements of future paintings. I took nearly ten thousand photos on the two week trip, not at all unusual for photographers in Africa, especially in this digital age that makes multiple photos easy and cheap. Others on the trip took twice as many photos as I did! I used a Nikon DLSR (D7000) with a 70-300mm lens as my primary. Changing lenses in the field was to be avoided at all costs, as it was an extremely dusty environment (end of dry season in late October).

I also painted in the field with artists Jan Martin McGuire and Julie Askew. There was certainly no shortage of subject matter for “plein aire” painting (painting outdoors). However, it wasn’t quite the same as painting “en plein aire” at home, as there were roaming lions, Cape Buffalo, and other dangerous animals. Our guides insisted on armed escorts while we were on the ground outside the vehicle.

John painting in Tanz_edited-1

Bees in paintwater

Painters in the bush

That’s Thomas with a .454 rifle, powerful enough to stop a charging elephant (god forbid). There was a pride of nine female lions in   the area where we were working, so the rifle was not just a prop. However, Thomas and our driver spent most of their time sleeping in the vehicle as we painted. As it turned out, we were harassed by bees, not lions. Some local honeybees discovered our paint-water jars, and soon the entire hive seemed to be enjoying the new water source. We had to construct a decoy out of a plastic water bottle that we cut in half with a Masai spear. This kept most of the bees busy away from our  painting spot.