Into the African wild: wildlife artist Craig Bone stays true to his roots with a passion for art
To understand the history and inspirations behind wildlife artist Craig Bone, you must know the history of his country, Zimbabwe, from which he left in 2005 to live in Coral Springs, FL, with his wife and three children.
After World War II, England encouraged servicemen to move to its colonies, and Bone’s parents ended up in colonial Southern Rhodesia, an African country now known as Zimbabwe.
Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1955, Bone began drawing cartoons as a child. Thought to be a “fancy boy’s” subject, Bone says the arts were never encouraged. His high school didn’t provide art courses, so Bone decided to bicycle five miles to a neighboring town where art classes were offered. Not considering himself a “fancy boy” Bone also played on the rugby team. Straddling these two subjects–one “artsy” and creative and the other “manly” and physical–played out in other forms throughout his life, he says, whether it was shooting photos in the bush, teaching Cub Scouts or fighting a war.
In 1965 the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia was signed by the white minority government of Ian Smith, whose Rhodesian Front party opposed the United Kingdom’s push for black majority rule in the then British colony. Nine years later, after studying graphic art at Natal University in South Africa, Bone found himself performing his National Service in the Rhodesian Light Infantry.
Bone thought he was fighting to keep communism out of his country, but he says he later realized he was only fighting for a small group of men with unjust intentions. He compares it to Americans’ experiences in the Vietnam War. “When you’re 19 years old, you don’t look into the ethics. You don’t ask why, you just do your bit,” he says. “But then 10 years later you ask yourself, ‘Why would people send children to a war?'”
Yet the Rhodesian Bush War didn’t hold back his propensity for art. Bone drew the scenes of battle–soldiers, helicopters and death, a fate he was lucky to escape and one that helped him realize his future as an artist. After a mortar attack put him in the hospital for four and a half months, he was sure of his calling. “I was literally lying in the field bleeding, and I decided, Tm not a soldier; I’m an artist,'” he recalls.
Continuing his art from the battlefield to the hospital, Bone painted wounded and deceased soldiers for families as well as gentler subjects. Here, the juxtaposition from his youth of physical activities and the arts crossed once again as the corporeal horrors of war and the beauty of painting met. “I’d be sitting on my stretcher painting a flower or a bird, and then the siren would go up for battle,” he says. “Then I’d come back to try and paint the flower.”
As a physically active person, Bone’s leg injury after the mortar attack was an obvious limitation. He ended up breaking his wounded leg and threatening its amputation after kicking someone during a fight. The doctor said he would lose his leg if he didn’t slow down his activities.
That’s when Bone decided to go out into the Zimbabwean bush, where his popular wildlife art was born.
Heading out into the African wilderness might not be exactly what the doctors meant by taking it easy, but Bone says he found magic while watching the animals. “It’s like I’m in an ambush position, but I’m shooting with my camera.” He spent months learning the “way of the bush” with a group of poachers. This experience, along with his military training, taught him valuable techniques for photographing wildlife and for, what he calls, “activating the animal.”
The more an animal is involving the photographer, the better the image, he says. “You don’t want a backside shot of an animal. You want a full-frame facing shot with eye contact.”
“Like war, it’s the same thing: man-versus-man and elephant-versus-man.” Bone says photographers have to be aware of their surroundings and make calculated decisions when photographing in the bush, otherwise, “you’ll be just another figure in the newspaper.”
He engages animals by persuading elephants to charge, chasing a herd of buffalo, or stopping by the butcher for some rancid meat before visiting a big game park. “You have to do these things to get the picture; you have to break the laws.”
But breaking the laws hasn’t been without consequence. Bone has been fined by parks, reported to safari tour managers and threatened by an angry field researcher.
“I’d rather pay the fee then walk away without the pictures,” he says.
This is the mindset that has allowed Bone to amass thousands of slides of his own photography from which he paints. He can use as many as 30 to 40 photos for a large painting, combining subjects such as trees, rocks and zebras from different images into one painting.
Bone feels this is what sets him apart because a lot of artists buy their slides from professional photographers. Viewers can see the experience in his paintings because he was there. “I know what fresh dung looks like,” he says. Just that seemingly small detail–a pile of fresh dung–makes his paintings even more realistic and sets them apart from other wildlife artists.
Bone says his approach to painting is similar to combining different life experiences to tell a story, another skill he enjoys.
As a Cub Scout master and an arts education advocate in Zimbabwe, Bone says teaching the youth life values through art, story and experience “makes your heart just pound with pride.” He is currently in the process of creating a book of his children’s stories illustrated by Iraq War veterans. “My goal is to get on Oprah,” he says with a chuckle. The Web site, www.xllv.com will have more information on that project in the coming months.
Bone is also painting two sheiks from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, who have since passed away. He uses a network of e-mails to send images of his paintings to people who knew these men and can advise him on perfecting and creating more realistic depictions.
But Bone feels there is a downside to using technology in the art world.
“Where has the romance of selling a painting gone?” he asks. He admires the classic sale image of an artist and a prospective buyer discussing the piece over wine and cheese. “You want some sort of juice to come out of a sale,” he says.
Bone has also been doing some work painting landscapes of the Florida Everglades near his new home. “It’s like the old days [of being in the bush] and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes,” he says.
* Craig Bone, www.craigbone.com
* IAG Galleries, 219-693-1980, www.jaggalleries.com
Art Business News intern
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