In the quiet serene bush lands near Kigio — less than two hours by car from Kenya’s capital Nairobi — Chris Campbell Clause’s eyes keenly watch as his hands effortlessly move from the pot to the board.
As the tropical sun generously lights up his work, the artist knows that he has all he needs to create yet another masterpiece. Africa’s wildlife and conservation are closely linked to and personified by this Kenyan artist.
“Since I was a small boy, wildlife and its immediate surroundings have always fascinated me,” Chris says as he puts away a sketch he has been working on. “They are a source of inspiration. My love for them shaped my destiny.”
“Sitting in the wild, watching as nature takes its course brings out much excitement and satisfaction as well as passion to capture the image on paper,” he adds .
Born into a Kenyan farming family, Chris was educated in Kenya and England. In 1979, he attained an Honor’s Degree in three-dimensional design, specializing in silversmithing from the Middlesex Polytechnic in London.
“Most of my lecturers and colleagues opposed my idea of taking up fine arts as a major,” Chris says with a chuckle. “They argued that there wasn’t enough money in the business, but I wanted to fill up the gap in me. I chose a lifestyle, not a profession,” he adds with a light smile.
He took up wildlife painting seriously on his return to Kenya because: “I had all I needed to do my work. It was out there waiting for me.”
With his wife Christine, he has traveled on safari throughout Kenya and overland to Botswana.
“I do a lot of my own research in the field, namely sketches and drawings, as well as photographs. I find sketches invaluable for the color references,” says Chris. “While on safari, I paint in watercolors and later complete the painting in oils at the studio.”
Inspired by the beauty of the African wilderness, Chris’ affection for the flora and fauna is apparent in his paintings. Whether using oils or watercolors, he captures the essence of his subjects, birds or wildlife, and the spirit of the African landscape with its dramatic vistas.
“In my landscapes,” he says, “I prefer to paint the drier, semi-desert scenes with their soft colors, but in contrast, I enjoy the vivid colors of the African birds.”
Kenya’s Northern Frontier District is one of his favorite painting locations due to its diversity in color and texture, where spectacular mountain ranges contrast with rocky outcrops, trees and sandy luggas, small hills found scattered over the drylands of northern Kenya.
His unquenchable thirst for wildlife painting saw him establish the Natural History Gallery in Naivasha Town, on the shores of Lake Naivasha, in Kenya’s picturesque Rift Valley Province.
The gallery is stocked with wood and soapstone carvings of wildlife animals, as well as antiques from various communities in Kenya and the rest of Africa. Tourists going to or from the Maasai Mara National Park visit.
The successful artist has an enviable international reputation. His work sold at Christies’ Wildlife Exhibition in 1997. He has held several solo exhibitions in London between 1988 and 1998, as well as at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa and a couple of exhibitions in Botswana and numerous one-man shows in Kenya.
Even though there are few wildlife painters and exhibitors in Kenya, Chris is quick to add, “There is raw talent in Kenya, but an up-and-coming artist needs to work as an apprentice for a very experienced painter to learn the ropes of oil painting.”
Chris not only paints wildlife, he is also trying to preserve this African treasure. This is why he helped to set up and manage the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy. The 3,500-acre (14 km²) sanctuary was established in 1997 on what used to be a beef and dairy operation owned by the local Kikuyu (the largest tribal group in Kenya) community.
Funded by the European Union, Biodiversity Conservation Program, Tusk Trust (UK) and Born Free Foundation (UK), the former cattle ranch was fenced and Kenya’s most threatened Rothschild Giraffe — of which only 250-350 remain in the world — were relocated here. Safe from poaching, plenty of other wildlife has settled here since and numbers of many species have increased significantly. Today, there are 1,500 head of wildlife in the sanctuary, up from only 100 in 1996. Through the development of ecotourism — there is an educational center, two campsites and a 12-bed eco-lodge — Kigio is financially self-supporting.
Chris has been instrumental in sensitizing the local communities on how best to manage and take care of the environment. He says he got an in-depth appreciation of the environment through experiencing the African wilderness and closely observing its flora and fauna in detail.
“Through my art and getting out and being part of where I paint has definitely made me more aware of the delicate environment in which we live,” he remarks. “It has become very important to me to try and preserve what is here and educate people in environmental awareness.”
Chris believes that if people understand about wildlife and the environment and the threats posed to them, then they will be more willing to participate in conservation.
Art is the catalyst that motivated Chris to become a dedicated conservationist. Hours spent observing wildlife in the natural environment with watercolors and ink are reflected not only through works of art, but also in a way of life. With a young family of his own, Chris is determined to play his part in helping Kenya to conserve its natural heritage for the enjoyment of future generations.
If You Go
Kigio Wildlife Conservancy
Tusk Trust on Kigio Wildlife Conservancy