BENSON KIMATHI talks to two artists who made a living from painting, moulding and sculpting
What is the life of an artist like and should Kenyans expect to make a decent living from the profession?
While few Kenyans pursue art as a profession, those with hidden talents can certainly learn to harness them. With a little talent, lots of persistent hard work and some business know-how, Kenyan artists can learn the tools of the trade while mastering the techniques of successful Western artists. Theo Stone, a fine artist, and Kioko Mwitiki, a junk metal sculptor are a living testimony.
Ever wondered who paints on those colourful cups, dishes and plates you eat from? Have you ever stopped to admire a large, detailed piece of artwork by a hotel swimming pool, or on a piece of ceramic and wondered whether it was machine or hand-made?
In a quiet, almost lonely stretch of land in Ongata Rongai, about 20 kilometres from Nairobi, lives a gifted, petite woman who is almost bored by civilization. To generate ideas for her creative masterpieces, Theodora Stone must have total concentration. She has chosen to live away from the distractions or all modernity.
I stand outside the artist’s lone, rented house – one of a bout three houses in the vicinity. Her compound is beautifully dotted with flowers and bushes. Because the tow workers who help in the house are quiet, there isn’t a noise but for the whistling of bush insects and the rustling of leaves swaying in the wind. Her never-barking, tail-less dog runs around lethargically.
Bordering Theo’s house on one end is the sprawling Nairobi National Park a few kilometers away. On the other end is a stretch of green plains. The nearest sign of life is the Ongata Rongai market about four kilometres away. “I am a bush girl,” she says suddenly.
On her own, she has through the years produced
countless works and made a comfortable living from it
On her first-floor studio, Theo Stone sits on a swivel chair by a tiny desk that is littered with paints, water colours, pencils, art brushes and books on plants and trees.
In her living room is a collection of both her works and those by admired artists. On a rack are six licensed, hand-painted ostrich eggs. One egg bears the painting of the claws of an Egyptian Vulture, as if it were grabbing the egg, probably for its next meal. On another egg, Theo has painstakingly crafted a dung beetle edging its way through animal dung. After working on an egg for about a week, she sells each for about US $300.
The fine artist has adorned her ceramic lamp-stand with a green, leafy tendril, and her table-top with turtles. On her walls are paintings of birds whose names she explains with zeal. Theodora Stone makes her livelihood exclusively through her art. When she is not painting indoors, she is working in the field (at a hotel, home, school or park) on commissioned works. Depending on their size and detail, some works take her as long as four months to complete. Occasionally, she exhibits her works.
A Greek by descent, Theo was born in Uganda in 1951 to Theodore, a Greek miner. Brought up in Uganda, she attended primary and secondary schools in Eldoret, Kenya. After sitting her O ‘Levels, she proceeded to an art school in England for a course that should have taken four years. One year later however, she dropped out for lack of fees.
“What you see today is utterly self-taught,” she says. “I knew I had (the talent) in me…some people have it in them but they don’t pursue it.”
In the early ’70s at the start of Idi Amin’s terror in Uganda, Theo’s family migrated to Kenya. In the mid-eighties, she did not even have a home to live in. “Then a friend told me that a ceramics was looking for a fine artist.”
After about a year at the factory, however, she got bored of working on ceramics and decided to go solo. On her own, she has through the years produced countless works and made a living from it. Because she took time to perfect her craft, she is able to make paintings – small and large – to the extracting of clients.
She however says there are obstacles to joining the profession. “It takes an enormous investment.” Besides, she adds, “Kenyans do not think of art as a profession.” On one occasion, Theo was stunned to discover that someone at a hotel had obliterated her signature from two of her paintings.
Undeterred by the seemingly insurmountable stream of obstacles, Theo confidently says: “I wouldn’t leave this (profession) for anything.”
Who wants to live in a home that is infested with elephants, ostriches, a crocodile, cheetah, porcupine, ants and scorpions? Such is the life Kioko Wwitiki wallows in at his home-cum-studio in Westlands, Nairobi. The 39-year-old however has nothing to fear: each of the life-size animals is a work of his hands – all sculpted at his workshop, the Pimbi Studio.
When he landed his first job at a Nakuru-based welding workshop in 1986, Mwitiki had no idea this would be his door-way to boundless creativity. Born in Kajiado in 1962 of a Maasai father and Kamba mother, he joined Kenyatta University in 1983 for a Bachelor of Arts degree. “I wanted to become an arts teacher.”
Mwitiki was however expelled from the institution in 1985 after participating in a student riot. A year later, the university drop-out found himself serving an apprenticeship at the Nakuru Aluminium Works. “I was ashamed that I was being supervised by class-seven guys.” In-between routine work, he would gather junk pieces of metal and weld them together into abstract sculptures that were then more of a pastime than a means of livelihood.
One day, a passer-by picked out a piece of artwork from Mwitiki’s growing heap.
Mwitiki has done a nature trail of crocodiles and
vultures for Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park
“Are you selling this?” the man asked. “I almost said no,” recalls Mwitiki. The stranger bought several pieces for about Sh5000. Several other orders from the same buyer followed.
Soon thereafter, Mwitiki saw the works he had sold to the stranger displayed in a Nairobi shop. They were going for nearly 10 times his selling price. Mwitiki quietly told a buyer at the shop: “I made these and I can sell them to you more cheaply.” That is how he got into business.
In his early learning days, the sculptor who also paints had sold the painting of a flamingo to a buyer. A few days later, the angry buyer returned the painting, reminding Mwitiki that a flamingo’s beak must hook inwards, not outwards like a chicken’s. That taught the young artist to pay attention to detail.
Now an ardent observer and a seasoned artist, Mwitiki has lost count of the number of sculptures he has produced. His realistica-looking junk-metal elephants can be found at the entrance to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. He has sold numerous works to tourists and clients who order to specification.
Mwitiki has done a nature trail of crocodiles and vultures for Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Besides freely giving away some metal works to friends, he also rents them out for use in parties. A Nairobi hotel has ordered a metal menu in the shape of an African shield that Mwitiki is currently working on.
Always by his father’s side, the artist’s inquisitive five-year-old son, Mansa Koikai, stubbornly announces: “Dad, instead of being a lawyer, I will become an artist when I grow up.”
Mwitiki, a married father of three, distantly studies his nails. “It is very tough being an artist,” he quietly observes. “Maybe things will change in future.” Behind that facade of cynicism is a seasoned junk-metal artist whose skill and experience make him a true embodiment of creative workmanship.
Title: Master Crafters – talented artists and their masterpieces
Section: Main Feature | Publication: SATURDAY Magazine – page 12-13
Date: Saturday April 28 to May 4 2001
Writer: Benson Kimathi | Location: Nairobi, Kenya