WESTGATE SCHOOL WALL PAINTING, SPONSORED BY SAVE THE ELEPHANTS AND ELEPHANT WATCH SAFARIS
April 1, 2011
My final stint in East Africa has been based at Save The Elephants camp, Samburu. Here I have been working on a mammoth 12 metre wide wall at Westgate school, Samburu, in Kenya. The commission involved creating a design that would entertain and educate the children as they lined up by the wall for food. The new kitchen, including ‘Oria’s stove’ had recently been donated to the school, and the painting commissioned by Save The Elephants and Elephant Watch Safaris.
There were a few challenges to combat on the way. Discovering the only paint store in the region was ‘out of red and blue gloss’ and only had two colours in emulsion required some creative thinking. Getting to school on time also proved a challenge, as during the rainy season, there were several sticking points along the way. I would have one eye on mixing two tones on an elephant‘s ear, the other nervously scanning the horizon. Whenever the rain threatened to pour down, we would have to quickly pack up all 26 cans of paint, jump in the car, and race against the oncoming rain, trying to reach certain crossing points before the rivers flooded the road.
Having painted the base layer in emulsion (water based) I discovered lesson 1; that the Equatorial sun’s drying qualities can wreak havoc with your paint supply (the paint was becoming thicker, going less far, and I was in danger of running out) I opted to leave the top foot of wall for the ‘pale blue’ emulsion that could form the skyline. When it came to open the pot however, I discovered the shade was more St Tropez swimming pool than the anticipated African sky. Lesson 2; do not in any way rely on the display colour on the can.
By day 2 I was ready for the challenge of creating a design that fitted around the windows and doors. I had the idea of overcoming the large kitchen window opening, by superimposing a Save The Elephants vehicle over it. In this way, the children could appear to pose ‘in’ the car, by sitting on the window ledge. Then, I thought, everyday, the kitchen staff could serve food from inside the car, providing entertainment to a hungry queue of children. Thus followed a series of sketches working out how to place the vehicle around the window, at a scale that looked correct, but didn’t take over the whole wall.
Once that was sketched out and painted, I realised with horror that all the logos and car design would have to be painted across a flat wall, with a large ledge jutting out in the middle of it. Cue much eye squinting and running to and from the wall to make it look like one flat surface.
By day 3 the outline was completed, and I began to paint each animal individually, opting for some acrylic paint I had in reserve, which was much easier to mix and apply. If this would stretch to the Gerenuks and Giraffes, the wall might henceforth be plain sailing.
The next day I returned, after 2 hours of shovelling mud from under the car wheels, to see that the wall, though plastered and primed was apparently still thirsty and had absorbed my 2.5 elephants and Gerenuk head over night. Back to the gloss paint (oil based )
A week, 3 mud incidents, 22 litres of paint, and a new addiction to peanut butter sandwiches later, the wall was nearly complete, and it was time for the final touches to be applied, by way of an art class for a group of 15 of the school’s students.
The final morning had come. The Suzuki, to give it credit, made it 98% of the way to the school on the final day. It slid over several muddy spots without getting stuck, glided over the last river bed, and up the steep climb on the other side, whereupon it inexplicably died, 15 metres from the finishing line. With the help of some teachers and children, we wheeled it up the hill, and left it underneath the shade of an acacia tree with a rock on the brake pedal (handbrake no longer works).
And so the class began. The youngest were given a big bucket of green paint to place their hands in, and then print onto the wall, making leaf shapes around the tree branches. As well as allowing them to get very messy, this technique overcame a lack of available paintbrushes. Others were given specific projects, painting the giraffe, and using templates to add in hornbills, geckos and warthogs.
A few hours later, amidst lots of squeaks, singing, and paint splatters, the wall, and the children were completely covered in an array of colours, and my work was done.
With a little Mechanical persuasion the Suzuki made it back to camp, and straight to the next door lodge for a celebratory beer. If anyone has watched ‘Ice cold in Alex’ an old black and white war film, they will know what that drink meant to me.
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