Texas State graduate helps
South African man with art career
By Robert Grogan
Class of 1970
In March of 2005, my wife, Lee, and I visited Franschhoek in the Cape winelands of South Africa. We were delighted by the beautiful and very paintable surroundings and by the charming little village itself. Each time I set up to paint outdoors, at least one of the friendly villagers would stop by to chat and check out what I was doing. The conversation always ended by that person asking, “Do you know Alex? He is a really good artist.” I finally decided to find out who this Alex was that everyone seemed to know about.
It turned out that Alex was Alex Zinhanga, a young man from Zimbabwe, who was working as a guard at one of the gates on the Grande Provence Wine Estate. He spent much of each day sitting under the shade of an umbrella and sketching and drawing. When I first met him, he was mostly copying magazine photos, although he had done some consignment drawing from photos people had given him.
He was an engaging soul with a broad smile, and when I asked him if he had ever worked in color, he replied with great eagerness, “No, but I would really like to learn.” The next day I took my pochade box out to the estate and set it up to show him how I use it to do paintings en plein air. I showed him one of the studies I had recently completed in Franschhoek, and his face lit up like a sparkler. This was the first impressionist painting he had seen, and to have it be of something so familiar to him as his daily surroundings was remarkable to him. He was so excited about the possibility of working in color that I immediately decided I would try to help him get a start in painting.
Because I learned that Alex was supporting his mother and four siblings back in Zimbabwe (none of whom were able to find work), I wanted to try to get him started on an income stream as quickly as possible. As soon as I saw the quality of the pencil drawings he was doing, I knew he was capable of working on wildlife art; I asked him if he had ever done any wildlife drawings. He replied that he had not, as he had no reference for animals. Keep in mind that for this young man, just buying pencils and recycled paper was a stretch to his already very thin budget.
Since Lee and I were going on to Namibia when we left South Africa, I suggested I could send him some of the photos I planned to take in Etosha National Park, and those photos could provide the reference he needed for his drawings. As soon as we returned to the United States, I did just that, using one of our friends in South Africa as a go-between to expedite mailing things back and forth. In a few months’ time, the first package of Alex’s wildlife drawings arrived. I was amazed at how well he had done. We encouraged him to do more and suggested that he make them all a standard size.
After I had received about 10 or so of Alex’s drawings of African wildlife, I approached the director of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyo., regarding an exhibition for Alex’s work. I had been chosen to be the museum’s artist-in-residence in July of 2006, and it seemed to be a unique opportunity for Alex to have his work on display where I could talk to people about it and about him.
The exhibit he had in the rotunda of the museum was very well received and popular, and it was a testament to the quality of his work. It so happened that David Shepherd, world renowned wildlife artist from England, was lecturing at the museum during this time. Impressed with Alex’s work, Shepherd remarked, “This man has a career!”
When we returned to Franschhoek in January of 2006, we were loaded down with supplies for Alex, including a complete plein air painting setup donated by Peggy Chang at Artwork Essentials in California. The look of astonishment on Alex’s face as he realized this equipment was his to keep and could mean a path out of poverty for him was heartwarming and humbling.
He and I began work almost immediately. We painted together, usually once a week on his day off from Grande Provence. By this time, he was working as a waiter in their restaurant, and though it paid better than his job as a security guard, it meant that he no longer had “drawing time” while on the job.
Alex is such a bright fellow, and his personality is a magnet to those who meet him. He continues to be one of the restaurant’s most popular as well as competent waiters. I set out to use with Alex the same teaching methods I have used in the workshops I teach. I introduced the concept of the limited palette, using only the three primary colors plus white. I basically showed him how I mix color, told him I can mix any color in nature with these primaries, “you can, too,” and nothing more was said about mixing color. He got the hang of it rapidly and competently, and today he produces paintings very realistic and natural in color.
Because his drawing skills were good to begin with, we did not have much difficulty in that regard, but he needed help with simplifying his subject choices. He at first struggled as any beginning painter does, but the thing about Alex is that he never seems to make the same mistake twice. If I show him something to fix on a panel and explain why it needs fixing, he’s got it, the first time. It has been exciting for me to work with such a quick and motivated learner. I keep reminding myself of how many things Alex has working against him in his personal situation, yet his determination and eagerness make me hopeful that he will live up to his potential as an artist.
Alex is very grateful for the instruction, guidance, and friendship that we have shared the past few years. He is now volunteering as a drawing teacher at the nearby elementary school, as he is hoping his success will encourage children who have a special interest in art as he did. Alex remains committed to living his life as an artist, and his motto is, “Drawing is my passion; painting is my dream.”