Crossing Continents with a Sketchbook
(Article from The Sunday Times)
Internationally acclaimed professional wildlife artist Gamini Ratnavira who will be in Sri Lanka to launch his latest book, an autobiography, talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Undoubtedly, he is ‘one of the greats’ not just in Sri Lanka but across the globe as well.
As he prepares to fly down to the land of his birth, childhood and youth, from Fallbrook in California, United States of America, and present to the people here his ‘Brushes with Nature’, just seeing the cover of his autobiography opens up the creativity and wonder even to the uninitiated, transporting them immediately to the wilds where creatures come alive.
“It is a sketchbook of my childhood encounters with nature from birth to age 37 when I left for the States. These illustrated stories are lessons and memories I learned from nature that structured who I am today,” is how 68-year-old Gamini Ratnavira describes his latest work in an e-mail interview.
From where did Gamini learn his ‘art’ would be on the mind of anyone who views the expert depiction of animals in all their variety and beauty.
“Nature was my teacher,” is the simple explanation of this self-taught artist, who put pencil to paper at the tender age of five, when most children would still be trying out their hands at forming their A, B, Cs.
There seems to be a family trait too, for his two older brothers, Chinko and Jojo are also talented artists with father Sardha having been into jewellery-designing and mother Wimela adept in the intricacies of sewing embroidered silk flowers. School lessons were at De Mazenod College, while being boarded in Kandana and holidays at home in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo 7.
Sketching, drawing and painting came naturally to young Gamini who is convinced that the early influences were “my love of nature and the lessons it taught me”. Of course, having a leopard at home and many other pets set him on this career path without a doubt and these are the sketches he has tenderly drawn that adorn his autobiography. Gamini has been a professional wildlife artist since he was 19 years old.
Gamini’s travels to exotic destinations and forays into the wilds researching endangered wildlife have helped keep the passion for painting alive. During visits to more than 55 countries, including Bosnia, Serbia, the Balkans, Canary Islands, South Africa, Afghanistan, Tasmania, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia and more crossing continents, he would whip out his sketchbook and deftly capture nature in all its magnificence, while also clicking loads of photographs, before taking them back to his studio to form the basis of his vibrant and colourful images using his photographic memory. These images would be accompanied by intriguing stories and research.
Going back to the time when he accompanied Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, “into the jungle” in 1986, Gamini says that it was when this member of the British royal family visited Sri Lanka as Director of the World Wildlife Fund to support the major elephant conservation programme, ‘Let Them Live’ initiated by respected conservationist Lyn de Alwis.
Gamini with a fox that daughter Natalie considered her best friend. (Courtesy Gamini’s website)
It was the year before in 1985 that Gamini accompanied another eminent British artist and conservationist David Shepherd on a wildlife art expedition throughout Sri Lanka with David’s words: “Just keep painting the nature you love” propelling him towards conservation through painting.
Having moved to Fallbrook back in 1986, it was a mutual love for the majestic elephant that forged a bond between him and Lisa, setting in motion a partnership not only as husband-and-wife but also work partners running the Hidden Forest Art Gallery together, while raising their three children, daughter Natalie and sons Beau and Brooks. He also founded and directed Fallbrook’s nationally-acclaimed ‘Reflections of Nature’ wildlife art show.
This is while his eldest son Neil, born in Sri Lanka, also moved to America when 19 and is an artist in his own right.
Gamini is not hemmed in to sketching only wildlife but is also ‘a mineral artist’ who depicts the facets of minerals, picking up as an example an amethyst in its natural form, which is a mineral specimen a collector can commission him to paint.
While Gamini’s contributions to Sri Lanka include 38 postage stamps; paintings for the late President J.R. Jayewardene; the mural at the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake; 80 paintings of birds and fish for SriLankan Airlines; the logo of the Department of Wildlife Conservation; Illustrated Birds of Sri Lanka; and Mammals of Sri Lanka; his achievements in the international arena include paintings sold at the famous British art auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams; 42 paintings at the San Diego Natural History Museum; collections at the prestigious R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport; the Vanishing Wildlife of Texas; Lories and Lorikeets; and illustrations for Even Frogs Care by Natalie Ratnavira and Grief’s Labyrinth and Travelling with Pen and Brush by Lisa Ratnavira.
He is a member of the Society of Animal Artists and Artists for Conservation and has exhibited with Birds in Art and Arts for the Parks Top 100 tours. With his bird-watching list exceeding 4,000 species, Gamini has soared high illustrating several plates in the Field Guide to the Birds of Peru by Dr. James Clements, while exchanging views on artwork with Sir Peter Scott of the Wildfowl Trust in England.
Not content with standing before his easel, Gamini has donated many an original and print to raise funds for wild creatures ranging from tapirs to parrots to hummingbirds to elephants and panthers and also the Fanconi Anemica Research Fund and in Sri Lanka for the Prithipura Infant Home and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Another highpoint for Gamini was when in 2005, his first bronze, a 48” high, 36” wide and 18” deep, hand-painted life-size Hyacinth macaw, titled ‘Jewel of the Emerald Forest’ was among only five bronzes selected to be exhibited via the Society of Animal Artists at the Explorer’s Hall in the National Geographic Society Sculpture Garden in Washington DC from April 15, 2005 to June 30, 2006.
In recognition of his extraordinary skill, Gamini had also been commissioned by the Rare Bird Club in England to produce original watercolours which were gifted to its Lifetime Members.
Even though Gamini left the land of his birth more than 30 years ago, he and his family keep coming back every other year not only to take a break from their busy schedule but also to support many causes. One such very close to his heart is the Prithipura Infants’ Home that his father, Sardha, had donated all the beds to.
Meanwhile, after the tsunami of 2004 left a trail of death and heartbreak in its wake, Gamini raised US$10,000 from his gallery for those affected by the monstrous waves.
Their lives too like those affected by the tsunami have not been without tragedy……each and every painting of Gamini has a tiny dragonfly next to his signature.
“We lost our only daughter, Natalie, on June 23, 2012 at the age of 22 to an atrial venous malformation or brain haemorrhage,” states Gamini with tangible emotion, adding that the dragonfly is painted with much love in her memory……..A fish in Sri Lanka, Devario annnataliae, has also been named after her.
“Natalie lives on in our paintings, our books, our nature centre and in kind acts done in her memory,” adds Gamini.
From childhood days to renowned artist
One of Sri Lanka’s foremost wildlife artists, Gamini Ratnavira, will launch his autobiography ‘Gamini Ratnavira: Brushes with Nature’ next Saturday, December 16, at 4 p.m. at the BCIS (Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies) in Colombo.
Richly illustrated with charming animal characters, this hardcover book is a limited collector’s edition, suitable for both children and adults.
‘Brushes with Nature’ will be sold at a special price of Rs. 2,500 at the launch, after which it will be available at the Barefoot and Odel Bookshops at Rs. 3,250.