Medeya Lemdiya: Hello Guy! Can you tell us more about the professional and artistic path that has made you and artist?
Guy Combes: I was born in Nairobi when my Father was just beginning his career as a wildlife artist. Very quickly he became popular and successful in America and is now famous within this genre. At first I was too intimidated to consider following in his footsteps because I was intimately aware of the challenges involved, but later I realised that I could embrace those challenges with the knowledge I learned from him. That was far more valuable to me than the short period of time I spent at art college in England.
ML: Why did you choose painting as your way of expressing yourself rather than another one (photography for example)? What triggered it?
GC: I tried as many other means of expression and use of material as I could, but always came back to what I had been taught from childhood. Sometimes I still make use of other media but I have found confidence in maintaining focus on what I know best. That confidence is the key for me to push myself to try new projects for the future.
ML: Does your life and its different stages have an influence on your art? In what way?
GC: During a period where i was trying to distance myself from being compared to my Father, I experimented with abstract images and ideas, and lived a life in England for a while that was extremely different from my childhood in Africa. But then I reached a point where the urge to go back was so great I had to say goodbye to England and follow my heart, and as soon as I had done that I knew at once that I was always meant to paint what I do now. I feel very fortunate to have experienced two opposite worlds and I know that a confluence of those worlds will feature in my art in the future.
ML: How would you define your work? What do you say about your work to someone who has never seen a painting by Guy Combes?
GC: My work reflects my passion for the land that made me, and all of us. I respond instinctively to my subject in the same way that the first ‘intelligent’ humans did when they painted the walls of caves. The natural world to me is an endless source of wonder, and a mirror which in many ways reflects the human condition. I want to open a window and accurately describe my experience of it. Nature has a visual noise of order and chaos, and my journey as an artist will be to try to represent that with honesty and reverence.
ML: You are engaged in the protection of wildlife and nature, particularly in Kenya. Can you tell us about this struggle you have been through? What forms of it?
GC: Hand in hand with my passion for my subject, is my sense of responsibility towards protecting it. The mix of emotions I feel towards environment destruction is indirectly present in all of my paintings, and a huge motivation for me to spend as much time as I possibly can surrounded by it. I am a firm believer that presenting a positive outlook on the future of wild places is vital to their preservation. Now that I have moved to the USA, I am able to use my experience to educate about conservation and I am development director for a 48,000 acre conservancy called Soysambu, located in the Central rift valley. I have also been actively involved in a social media campaign to block a highway construction across the Serengeti.
ML: Your father was also a brilliant painter. To what extent is the pictorial art for you a family story?
GC: It has always been there so it’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like without it. I often think about that though.
ML: What is the starting point of a painting, the early stages of your work? (a sketch, an image, chance, pure imagination, a little of this, a little of that?)
GC: My process begins with an encounter in the field, or a set of encounters that I can bring together in one image. This usually involves numerous photographs, sketches and video. I use whatever means I have at my disposal to gather visual information when it is fresh and present. many of my sky landscapes in my recent paintings are from pictures I took with my phone. My aim is never to get the perfect photograph, but to use all means necessary to create the perfect painting, and imagination is very important in the editing process when it is used with the authority of experience.
ML: What painter from the past would you like to meet, and why?
GC: Carl Akely was a painter, sculptor and taxidermist responsible for some of the greatest dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, which inspired and influenced the creation of the first national parks in Africa and the USA. He was the ultimate adventurer who would go to almost superhuman efforts for his craft. His experience and emotion comes through in his work despite it being entirely representational, and I aspire very much to this with my work.
ML: And contemporary painter?
GC: I have already met one of my most influential and revered artists, Ray Harris Ching, and it was absolutely terrifying. He turned any and all assumptions I had about him completely upside down, and I left feeling as though I had been reprimanded by my most feared professor at school. Despite that it was one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life.
ML: Could you tell us about a painting you would like to see with your own ayes? Why this one in particular?
GC: The Sistine Chapel. I want to go larger with my paintings, so having seen images of it throughout my entire life, I want to really get an idea of what it is like in person.
ML: According to you, when does a painter, a photographer, a musician... becomes an artist?
GC: To me, anyone who wishes to communicate an idea, and can do that in such a way that their audience understands their message, is an artist. I regard science as an art, and many scientists as great artists. In the same way, art can be seen as science. What distinguishes good artists is another matter entirely.
ML: Can you tell us about the exhibition of another artist that has left a special mark on you?
GC: I try to get to as many exhibitions as I can, so my opinion is constantly shifting. I will go with my most recent inspiring show which was Daniel Sprick at the Denver Art Museum this summer. I left wanting to run to the studio and try to experiment with his use of colour and form.
ML: What is your most emotional memory of a personal exhibition, and why?
GC: This summer I was at the Society of Animal Artists annual exhibition at the Wildlife Experience in Parker, Colorado and I got to see my Father’s most landmark painting of his entire career in their permanent collection, the same evening as I collected an award for a painting I had in the same show. My father is no longer alive but I felt his presence that evening more than at any time since he passed away.
ML: Can you tell us more about your other duties that have a link to your work as a painter?
GC: Aside from the conservation work, I guide safaris in Kenya almost every year for artists and conservation biology students. It enables me to communicate my passion to groups of people in the wild, and to get my own reference to take back to the studio. It’s work, honest!
ML: Artistically speaking, is there a dream you haven’t fulfilled yet?
GC: I constantly push my gallery in New York to find me a collector who has enough passion in my work, and enough resources to commission a large piece such that my Father did many of during his career. By large I mean a ten foot long canvas or larger. It seems as though a golden age has passed when such commissions were the norm, and I think that time can return if artists are prepared to make the sacrifice and have the guts to challenge themselves to go bigger and better with every project. I am attempting to do that incrementally.
ML: Tell us more about your current artistic occupations? What are your artistic projects?
GC: I am producing a steady amount of work for my gallery in New York and keeping up with a lively annual show schedule which includes museums and workshops in the US and Canada. Aside from that, as I said before, I am hoping to increase the size of my paintings and right now am working on my largest yet; a herd of elephant crossing a river in Laikipia.
Titans I Buffalo
ML: To give our readers a general idea of our artists, I like to ask our guests the « desert island » questions. If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you take with you?
• What book?
GC: Africa - A Biography of the Continent by John Reader
• What film?
GC: The Gods Must be Crazy
• What music?
GC: Roger Whittaker - My Land is Kenya
• What object?
GC: A pot of Marmite
• Which one of your paintings?
GC: The biggest one with the biggest stretcher bars. (for making a raft)
Titans II Lion
ML: What trip would you like to make that you haven’t yet?
GC: So many places it’s hard to choose, but Costa Rica would be high on the list
ML: When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming as an adult?
GC: A farmer. I hated the idea of war, and had the notion that I wouldn’t have to go to war if I was a farmer.
Thank you Guy Combes !