These are the elements that I have been working with to create my most recent body of work: “The Art of the Craft: the Lamu Dhow.”
I paint from shapes. I am interested in the shape of those white sails against the coastal sky and water. To me, the compelling thing about being a painter is the physical act of painting, and the challenge of simplifying what I see into an elemental study of forms and values. Like so many artists, I attempt to extend Cezanne’s early theories about form and color. When I look at the dhows, I think “white triangles.” But it never stops there for me, because then I look again, and see that they are not really triangles at all, and that blue sky is not really a blue sky. And then I turn it upside down, and make major color changes, to see if it still makes sense.
Simplification of forms feels essential to my craft. Like a distillation or reduction of “essential Kenya” (as Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and friend Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in praise of my work), I am all about getting to the absolute essence of the thing I’m painting. I have fallen hard for Kenya. It’s getting into my bones, and I am excited by the patterns and designs of the coast, the upcountry landscape, and the rich, vivid colors.
The dhow (or, in Swahili, jahazi) is an almond-shaped sailing vessel traditionally used for trading in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. The boat is characterized by its lateen sail, a triangular sail set on a long yard mounted at an angle on the mast. My husband and I are occasional weekend sailors and when we arrived in Kenya four years ago became quickly intrigued by these boats we saw at the coast. Riding in a dhow is sheer delight -- the speed with which that narrow hull skates into the water is a thrill, and with no motor you can really hear the sounds of the coast and smell the ocean, the pungent mangrove, and that wonderful briny smell so apparent in Lamu and Malindi.
These dhow triangles are also fun to paint, but I quickly became interested in what is happening at the Lamu port, and how these dhows are part of a tradition that is rapidly disappearing. Of course, my feelings about the boats changed, and grew more complex -- just like in a relationship with someone you really care about -- it gets more intense the longer you live it.
One cannot help but be struck by the culture of the Swahili coast: the donkeys, the veiled women, and the clusters of fishermen repairing the boats. I was lucky enough to visit a dhow repair shop and get yards of the sail canvas to paint on, and a huge clump of cotton batting (used to repair the dhow hulls) both of which were incorporated into the paintings.
I use only archival materials: pure cotton or linen canvas, recycled aluminum, gesso primer, and stable oil pigments. This attention to detail with materials makes a huge difference in the finished product. Instead of garish colors you get fine, deep pigments with a creamy finish. I love sweating over a painting, picking out the finest color balance and distressed detail until I am entirely satisfied. Only then can I move on to the next thing.
I have had the incredible privilege to be invited to print with Mark Attwood at The Artist’s Press near White River in Mpumalanga, South Africa, outside of Kruger National Park. I will be residing at the press in late August. Just now I’m preparing solar plates, which will be the basis of printed solar etchings. They’re relief prints, using the sun to “engrave” the film plates, and the whole project will be Africa-based, which I am very keen to complete. I am hoping to incorporate handmade African papers for this project, which will make it all African.