The artist tells Anna Vujicic about her life in Kenya, owning a herd of camels and how Africa inspires her work
What do you love about Africa?
Africa has a freedom and beauty that I have never found anywhere else. It makes one aware of everyday life and of other peoples’ burdens – in some cases extreme misery and brutality. But there is also so much hope, ambition, extraordinary generosity and kindness.
You have returned to Kenya with your family. What do you love most about the country?
Following our life in Jerusalem, it was a complete joy to return to the wild and open spaces, lush greenery and friendly faces of Kenya. I love the fact that if you have imagination and energy, then you can make things happen and start projects. You can do things that you couldn’t dream of doing in many other countries.
What is it about Africa that inspires you?
I love to paint the majestic landscapes with the people and wildlife. I want to put it all down on canvas and paper before the nature is potentially replaced by urban buildings, just like the rest of the world. Africa is constantly offering new opportunities to explore the essence of what I see.
How would you describe your paintings?
Colourful, with the vibrancy of the African light. I apply a large palette of colour with freedom and confidence, and consider the surface of a painting to be a very fluid space.
You paint with both of your hands simultaneously, how did you develop that painting style?
When I started out, Cecil Collins was a big influence. He told me to slow down, calm down, and focus on how I’m feeling (as I paint). He then told me to make different brush strokes with both hands, and make dots and circles. I have taken these lessons and now apply them as I work in the bush. It helps me to maintain a relaxed and fluid approach to my work.
What is your favourite African animal to paint?
Am I allowed three?! The elephant, the ostrich and, of course, the camel. They all have characteristics and peculiarities of their own that make them so special.
What do you love most about being an artist?
It’s a way of life, a passion, an enduring love affair with highs and lows. I never made a choice to be an artist, it’s just what I’ve always done. It is a constant struggle to earn money, to evolve, to push boundaries, to keep fresh and experiment. But, good or bad, I live it and I love it.
You and your husband, Piers Simpkin, keep a herd of 60 camels. Tell me more
Our camels provide us peace and serenity in between the hectic life of working in Nairobi. They also provide us the opportunity of doing lovely walks into the wild of Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya. It gives my husband the chance to follow the productivity of four generations of camels, such as which produce the milkiest or hardiest calves, and the traits of each family and line of bulls. It also means that I have wonderful models at hand for my paintings.
In 1987, you joined the exploration society Operation Raleigh (now The Scientific Exploration Society) on their expedition to Kenya. Tell me about the work you did with them
Operation Raleigh was an organisation set up to provide people life skills that will help them break out of their troubled lives. They were encouraged to contribute to the local communities by building schools, dispensaries and water points. Being immersed into rural Kenyan life often had a therapeutic effect on them. My role was the official artist, and I went on an expedition from Lake Turkana to Maralal on foot. I ended up meeting my husband and fell in love!
Are you currently involved in any African conservation work or charities?
Yes, my husband and I help to support Soysambu Conservancy where we keep our camels. I also donate many paintings for auction to conservation and development organisations. There are no limits to how one can get involved: from conservation, teaching, agriculture, innovation, urban livelihoods and working in IT to tourism or travel.
What are your hopes for the future?
I am happy with how things are going for me. I hope that Kenya conquers corruption and poverty through good leadership and public will. I want to continue building my life here in Kenya. I want my friends to see Africa, and I want to see the art scene in Africa flourish.
From 25 April-13 May 2017, Sophie Walbeoffe is exhibiting her work at the Osborne Studio Gallery in Belgravia, London. Admission is free. Visit www.osg.uk.com to find out more. To view more of Sophie’s work, visit: www.sophiewalbeoffe.com. On the evening of 10 May 2017, the Osborne Studio Gallery is hosting a private view of work by Sophie to support Brooke Action for Working Horses and Donkeys, a charity helping working equines in developing countries.