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from Africa & Beyond: The Art & Adventures of Simon Combes
If I had to choose one sentence which has had more influence on my life, got me into more trouble, created more dramas, caused more adrenaline surges or enabled more dreams to come true, it would be, “I bet you can’t…” I am a sucker for a challenge whether thrown at me by another person or self-imposed and muttered under my own breath.
“I bet you can’t make a living as an artist.” Something like that was said to me when I was still a professional soldier. I had always drawn, sketched, doodled and painted (with negative consequences at school for not paying attention to my studies) so I had an idea I could rise to this challenge. I planned and schemed and worked and eventually started to make a living as an artist.
Growing up in close communion with African animals taught me priceless lessons about their anatomy, their behavior and their habitats. As a child, hunting for food was considered a natural way of life. This childhood gave me valuable grounding for my eventual career as a painter of wildlife.
The paintings in this exhibition—Africa & Beyond—were all done within the past twenty-or-so years. One family owns the bulk of them. How did this come about? How does an artist have the great good fortune to meet a collector, a wildlife enthusiast, a philanthropist, someone who loves his paintings and, more importantly, has the means to acquire them?
In the early 1980s, I was on safari in Kenya with friends from the United States. Throughout our two-week journey, we crossed paths frequently with another party of Americans and their guide who happened to be a close acquaintance of mine. His two American clients were an elderly lady and her young nephew. One evening, we were all sitting under an acacia tree at a tented camp, drinking sundowners. We had beer and wine; they had only sodas. We invited them over to share our drinks and became better acquainted. She was a keen amateur artist so we swapped notes and she was obviously fascinated with what I did. The following year, on her recommendation, her son came to Kenya on his first safari. He fell in love with Africa and especially its elephants. On his return to the United States, he was determined to buy a painting of elephants. He was a person for whom only the best would suffice and, after viewing the work of several well-known artists, remained frustrated. He conveyed his lack of success to his mother who told him she had met a young wildlife painter in Africa whom he should try to locate.
I received a letter from him, asking if I had an elephant piece. It just so happened that I had recently completed Lake Paradise. I sent off a photo. The gentleman bought the painting and so started a long friendship and, for me, a most beneficial association.
I had been a professional artist for only five years when I painted Lake Paradise. I lived in Nairobi and my paint colors were what I could find in the city’s limited art supply stores. At about this time, my work was in the Game Conservation International Show in San Antonio, Texas. There I met the legendary wildlife artist, Bob Kuhn, who took the trouble to visit my booth and talk to me about my paintings. I was in awe. He was astonished to hear which colors I used and inquired if I had ever heard of the Cadmium range of tints. I had not. Nairobi didn’t have such things. He encouraged me to buy some before my return to Africa and so another milestone was passed in my artistic career. I have often said that squeezing Cadmium Yellow from a tube is like squeezing out liquid sunshine. Lake Paradise is one of the few paintings in this exhibition on which I used that old range of colors; you might call it “pre-Cadmium.” I believe the difference is very noticeable.
My association with this new collector progressed. He wanted to re-visit Africa with me as his safari guide. By that time, I was living in England because I wanted my children to benefit from that country’s education system and because I felt that if I could survive as an artist in that highly competitive environment, it would benefit me in the long run. I reasoned that to be halfway between the USA and Africa was to be halfway between my inspiration and my market; but I needed frequent “Africa fixes” so the idea of becoming a part-time safari guide was born. Every winter I migrated to Kenya to guide safaris. Many safari clients commissioned me to paint incidents from their trip and, at the same time, my thirst for Africa was satisfied.
On safari one day my friend asked me if there was something, some subject, which I had always wanted to paint but for whatever reason, had not yet done. Without hesitation, I said the great wildebeest migration.
“Why have you not?” he asked.
“Because the canvas would have to be huge.”
“Oh, at least ten feet long.” I said, still not grasping the fact that his questions might be leading to something.
“Do it. How much would you charge?” Now I was in a tailspin of concern and excitement. His attitude was saying “I bet you can’t…”
The result of that conversation is in this exhibition—The Wildebeest Migration. Many people have asked how many wildebeest are in it. My answer varies between “Dunno” and “1,245,679”. All I do know is that after three months at it, I could paint wildebeest in my sleep.
The collector loved the big canvas. We spent a day and a night at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya watching elephants. It was the height of the dry season so this was the only water for miles around. The elephant herds seemed to have a highly organized and disciplined routine for drinking. If one herd was at the water, the next would wait patiently until the other had finished. It continued day and night. The thirsty animals would emerge from the gray bush and start to run, the dust flying from their hides as each great foot thumped the ground. Then they would stand in line with their trunks dipping in the water, sucking up huge draughts and emptying the contents into their mouths. “Please paint this,” he said, “and paint it big.” So Heavy Drinkers was created.
The painting There Was a Time came about in a similar way although not the result of a safari. This same friend recommended I read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, a chronicle of the Lewis and Clarke expedition two hundred years ago. My most vivid impression was the description, as they traveled north up the Missouri River, of the endless buffalo herds, and their awe as they climbed the river’s banks and gazed across the plains that were black with countless animals. “I bet you can’t paint that,” my friend said. Uh-oh—here we go again.
I love history. The subject of my thesis at the Military Academy, Sandhurst was the American Civil War. Nineteenth-century North America was an opportunity to indulge myself in a fascinating project. I toured North and South Dakota for a month searching for a likely location for my painting and found the right place just south of Bismarck. First, I had to keep all signs of human habitation out of my drawing. I pored over history books which described that era. I studied the paintings of Bierstadt, Russell and others.
Then I set off to study today’s buffalo herds—a tiny remnant of the fifty million that once lived here. The result was my largest canvas to date, twelve feet in length.
The Greenwich Workshop has been my print publisher for the past twenty-five years. In the early 1990s, I persuaded them to let me do something I had dreamed of for years—to paint a series of the world’s largest cats. Cats have always been my favorite subjects so I was very excited when they agreed. They hesitated a bit when I determined that the project would require me to visit the actual habitats of each of the ten animals. The accuracy and authenticity of the backgrounds in which my subjects are painted has always been of paramount importance. We worked out a plan and I set off, on a shoestring, to visit Siberia, Thailand, India, Mongolia, Venezuela and North America. The big cats of Africa were, of course, included, but I lived there and knew them well.
The first painting in the series was Siberian Winter—the world’s largest cat, the Siberian tiger. The trip was an adventure across the whole of Russia, in winter, in the early days of glasnost. I was the guest of a joint US and Russian team of scientists who were attempting to put together a program to save the last of these magnificent animals. The Siberian is one of the rarest cats and therefore, not surprisingly, I did not see one in the wild. This created a challenge but the painting was eventually completed and I sighed with relief—but not for long. It dawned on me that I had nine more of these paintings to complete and none could be of a lesser quality than the first. It was a daunting thought but I was delighted with the series that was completed several years later. All of those paintings are included in this exhibition.The snow leopard portrayed in Mountain Myth bears mention. This, too, is one of the world’s rarest animals.
I had few expectations of seeing one in the wild since it inhabits the high, inaccessible mountain regions of central Asia. Indeed, deciding where to search for one was a nightmare in itself. A chance invitation to join an American field researcher in Mongolia solved that dilemma but I did not expect to see an actual snow leopard. Imagine my euphoria when I did. I sat on a snow-covered mountain cradling a (tranquilized) snow leopard in my arms, a silly grin all over my face, wondering how many other wildlife artists had had this enormous good fortune. I am truly blessed.
In 1998, the Greenwich Workshop published my book about this project, titled Great Cats. My first book, An African Experience, was published in 1989. Both books convinced me that I love to write. There are writers in my family going back generations. I look forward to writing more.
My art has taken me on many adventures to wild and beautiful parts of the world. In Rwanda, I spent several days sitting close to the mountain gorillas which Diane Fossey spent many years habituating. I felt I was in the presence of great dignity, wisdom, intelligence and tolerance. I felt gauche and somehow insignificant in their presence. If they looked my way, it was not to look at me but through me. Mountain Gorillas came from that Rwanda safari.
Africa & Beyond includes a few paintings of people. The nomadic tribes of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia were among my first subjects. I was soon told that there was more to be made from painting wildlife so I switched; but I still hanker to paint the human face. I still yearn to travel to wild and unspoiled places, to paint the ever-decreasing wonders of nature. I hope, as I grow older, I will not moderate when I hear, “I bet you can’t….”
Simon Combes was born in Shaftesbury, England, in 1940 and, at the age of six, moved with his family to an 800-acre farm in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. At the age of eighteen, he took a job in western Kenya, managing a 2,000-acre farm with about 150 employees. The following year he was drafted and served in the Kenya Regiment. He then applied for, and received, a commission in the King’s African Rifles. Combes’ subsequent adventures included fighting in a guerrilla war with Somalia, leading Kenya’s new airborne unit (requiring a visit to Parachute School in England) and promotion to major at the tender age of twenty-four.
Of greater significance, perhaps, was the start of a new hobby. During moments of inactivity in the northern desert, Simon began to draw, and eventually to paint, the local nomadic people and the landscape in which they lived.
In 1969, he was persuaded to stage an exhibition of his work in Nairobi’s New Stanley Art Gallery. The show was a near sell-out and an idea about an alternate career began to form in Combes’ mind. In 1974, Combes said farewell to the army, bought a small house on the outskirts of Nairobi and set up shop as a freelance artist.
In the three decades since, he has achieved worldwide success, countless commissions and many prestigious awards—including the Society of Animal Artists’ Award of Excellence. He was chosen “Artist of the Year” for the 1994 Pacific Rim Wildlife Art Show and the 2001 Florida Wildlife Expo. The success of his work has aided Combes as he seeks to raise awareness of wildlife conservation; he has made contributions and served on the councils of several conservation organizations. He is currently Rhino Rescue Trust Project Director Kenya.
Reproductions of his work are published in signed and numbered limited edition prints and canvases by the Greenwich Workshop, Inc. Combes is the author and artist of two critically-acclaimed books published by the Greenwich Workshop, Great Cats and An African Experience. He now lives in Africa, where he continues to research the animals he portrays and the environment in which they live. For more information visit his website at www.simoncombesartist.com.
On Sunday, December 12, 2004, atop a beautiful ancient volcano near his home in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Simon’s life was tragically taken by one of the wild animals he so lovingly portrayed in his paintings. He never “gathered moss” and now he has come home. He is survived by his wife Kat, his children, Cindy and Guy, his sister, Jenny all of Kenya and his former wife Susie of England. We shall remember Simon well.
Official Simon Combes Website
The Greenwich Workshop
All artwork ©Simon Combes