Some people are born into a life that eventually leads them to a particular profession, as if it was meant to be. Wildlife artist Mike Ghaui is unquestionably one of those people, says Will Pocklington.
It stands 12ft high at the shoulder, its head massive, trunk held loosely between two giant tusks protruding from weathered, wrinkled cheeks. Its ears fan out beside strong shoulders – a magnificent beast – but a certain serenity emanates from its bulky frame. The Tusker is a sight to behold. Perhaps more incredible, though, is that it once stood in a tithe barn in Gloucestershire, over 6,000 miles away from where it was first born as an idea brought to life by a dream-come-true commission for Kenyan-based wildlife artist Mike Ghaui.
Michael Ghaui was born and raised on a farm in southern Tanzania. One of six siblings, he describes how, from as early as he can recall, the whole farm was an endless playground of exploration – forests, rivers, dams, swamps and bush – where he would encounter all manner of wildlife. Tracking, hunting and fishing came naturally, and he would rarely be without his trusty catapult; a sterling education for an artist who now uses his ingrained interest in nature to great effect.
It would be unwise, though, to even attempt to draw parallels between Mike's upbringing and that of children from even the most rural parts of the UK. How many of us, after all, have shared a home with an elephant calf, a baboon and a brace of leopards?!
With so much at home to keep him entertained, it was to Mike's great displeasure when the local boarding school beckoned at the age of seven. His parents – only 40km away – even left his bed at home made-up, fully expecting their son's premature return. But two things kept him at school: the wildlife, and the art room.
“Every spare minute, a few friends and I would escape out of bounds, looking for birds' nests, small animals, tadpoles and fish,” he recalls. “And I can still smell the paint in the art room. I drew and painted every animal and bird I could think of, and entered my first painting competition at the age of eight. Soon after, I realised that it was something I really enjoyed.”
Throughout the rest of his schooling, Mike continued to paint and draw and could usually be found in one of the local art clubs. Upon leaving school, however, despite considering art college as a next step, he was encouraged by his parents, who were farmers themselves, to “study something useful”, and so he decided to travel to the UK, where he studied for a degree in agriculture at Wye College – part of the University of London.
During this time, Mike kept busy with the brush, and even managed to sell some of his creations whilst still at college – paintings of buffalo, herds of elephants, cheetah, kudu, zebra. “This not only kept me in beer money,” he says, “but made me realise that one could probably make a living out of being a wildlife artist!”
His first job, post graduation, was at a plant breeding firm in Norfolk, where he was charged with counting the ventral crease hairs on thousands of barley grains. “I smoked in those days, and so started with a pile of barley on one side of the microscope and a pack of cigarettes on the other,” he remembers. “By the end of the day, these had swapped places, the cigarettes reduced to a pile of ash.”
After a year of ventral crease hairs and a significant contribution to the UK tobacco industry, Mike had had enough, and announced that he was going home to be a wildlife artist.
His parents, though very pleased to see him, were shocked to say the least and soon steered Mike in the direction of a vacancy at a tea plantation close to the farm. “The only reason I took the job was because the manager's house was a piece of paradise,” he laughs, as he describes the first time he set eyes upon the old house, surrounded by lakes, gardens and thick forest. He took the job on the condition that a studio was built for him, and they duly agreed. He met his wife, Debbie, two years later, and together they stayed there for a further three years.
Although Tanzania was in the grips of socialism, the tea trade plodded on in old-fashioned colonial style. It was an interesting and fun time for Mike, but deep down a raw urge to paint full-time stirred. “After much deliberation, we decided to take the plunge,” he says. “It was an uncertain gamble, but we agreed that I would give it a five-year trial and if I hadn't made it by then, I would go back to tea planting and agriculture.”
Mike Ghaui was 28 years old when he officially became a wildlife artist. Thirty-five years later, his enthusiasm is unwavering. “Still now, I am very happy to say that whenever the five-year trial runs out, I give it another five,” he jokes. “There is so much to paint and sculpt out there and every day I see something that triggers another idea.”
Mike and Debbie now live on the northern shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya, their family's base for the past 30 years, where they typically spend half of their time. Here, they are surrounded by wildlife – buffalo, hippo, eland, zebra, impala and dikdik, to name but a few. They fall asleep to the sound of hyaena, jackal, occasionally leopard, and wake to the call of fish eagles, guinea fowl and doves. “These are the sounds of Africa. When you can hear these, you know you are in a good place,” Mike assures me.
For the remainder of their year, Mike and Debbie are likely to be found in the wilds of Tanzania, usually on the banks of the Ruaha – a place Mike has frequented since 1961, when the whole family first went down there in a lorry. “It is a true wilderness, and I only have to think about it to get excited,” he exclaims. “I can almost smell the wood smoke from our campfire and hear the sounds of the night.”
As an artist, Mike is impressively versatile. His paintings are oil on linen canvases, ranging from loose, sepia sketches to more detailed finished works, whilst his sculptures are modelled in various mixtures of clay – cast in bronze and sterling silver at Pangolin Editions Foundry in Gloucestershire. Among his greatest influences as an artist, he acknowledges Terence Cuneo, Wilhelm Kuhnert, Rembrandt Bugatti and, in the early days, David Shepherd. His specialism, not surprisingly, lies in the wildlife of East Africa, and his work has found its way into private collections the world over.
Mike first experimented with sculpture back in 1996, inspired by a photograph of family friend Rungwe Kingdon standing beside a life-sized bronze elephant. “Rungwe Kingdon and his wife Claude Koenig own Pangolin Editions, one of the leading bronze casting foundries in the world,” says Mike. “I asked Rungwe if they would be able to cast my work and, fortunately, the answer was positive. The only problem being that I had never made a sculpture before!”
Mike's sculpting debut came in the shape of buffalo, elephants, greater kudu and warthogs, supplementing his diverse portfolio of paintings. Ever since, he has worked in both mediums, often on the same subject at the same time.
In 2008, a client in the U.S commissioned sculptures of three larger than life-size lions, a project that gripped Mike like no other previously. From this, the seed was sown for what is, arguably, Mike's career-defining piece: The Great Ruaha Tusker.
The Great Tusker
In 1971, a huge bull elephant, with mammoth tusks, was poached from the Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania. The tusks of the fallen beast, since confiscated by the Game Department, are the third largest on record and weigh over 200lb a side. They are still on display in the ivory rooms of Dar-es-Salaam, today.
Several visits to see the tusks first-hand, and relayed descriptions of the beast by senior game warden Eric Balson, who had seen the magnificent animal on several occasions, fuelled the fire in Mike's imagination. He dreamed of sculpting a big bull elephant.
In 2010, the dream was realised, and Mike was commissioned to sculpt a life-size bull elephant. He immediately set to work. Over the years, he had painted numerous canvases of the legendary bull in its Ruaha habitat and, along with yet more painted canvases, sepia sketches and sculpture maquettes, these provided the root of the final chosen maquette – the model that would be up-scaled into a larger than life tusker.
Work on the full-sized version commenced in May 2011 at Pangolin Editions – the enlarged model made out of polystyrene, with a steel armature framework inside. From this, Mike was able to sculpt back a large part of the detail he required, before applying many coats of terracotta mixed with sand and adding further detail in clay, to a final finish.
The next step was down to the team at the foundry, who arrived at the tithe barn one sunny morning in October 2011. The decision had been made not to adopt the usual process of rubber moulding for the lost wax casting method, as this would involve the use of too many sections, causing distortion when welding the cast sections together again. Instead, the sand moulding method of bronze casting, which allows bigger sections to be used in the casting process, was employed. When using this method, each section is imprinted in sand to get the negative required for a bronze positive.
But an alternative approach did little to stem Mike's utter shock at seeing his huge clay sculpture noisily cut up into 19 different pieces. “The old barn looked like a poacher's den,” he exclaims. “The destructive nature of the experience put me into reverse gear for a few days!”
Once all the sections were cast in bronze, the sculpture began to take shape again. By the time it was fully assembled, with a stainless steel armature welded together inside its colossal frame for added support, the total weight of the sculpture amounted to six tons.
All that remained was the patination – a process whereby a mixture of heat and chemicals were used to create the warm soil colours that so often disguise elephant skin – really bringing the old bull to life.
Several weeks later, and the swallows that had spent the summer in the beams and rafters of the old tithe barn – witnessing so much of the giant sculpture's making – sat atop its roof, preparing for a momentous migration back to the lands of the bronze beast's namesake. Meanwhile, the dream of Mike Ghaui had finally been realised. The Great Tusker was complete, strapped to a low-loader lorry and winding its way through the Gloucestershire landscape, on a journey all of its own. Finally destined for its new home...
The artist's footprint
Mike's work has been represented in New York by Sportsman's Edge and King Gallery since 1983, and more recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the naturalism department of Gerald Peters Gallery. He has also participated in a number of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum's annual shows and has work in their permanent collection, has showed paintings at the Tryon and Moorland Gallery in London, and at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg.
The Great Tusker is now kept on a private ranch in Texas, U.S.A. Mike would like to see the Artist's Copy of this sculpture placed in a city, where it would raise awareness of the plight of this magnificent species.