Vic Guhrs, living his dream Sharon Meyerings asks Vic Guhrs, author of The Trouble with Africa – stories from a safari camp, about his boyhood dream, the art of writing, and the magic of Africa:
1. Why did Africa feature so strongly in your boyhood dreams? Can it be that some people are born into the wrong environment, the wrong families? Africa represented everything that was lacking in my German middle-class upbringing: freedom, adventure, choices.
2. What did your family and friends say when you left to follow your dream? “Oh, he’ll be back.” Except my mother, who knew I wouldn’t. I think mothers know these things. 3. Why did you study art in Johannesburg, instead of at an art school in Europe? My father was a businessman, my brother became an economist, my sister married a lawyer. Supporting his first-born in becoming an artist was just not part of my father’s thinking. In fact, his resounding “Nein” had quite a lot to do with my “running away”.
4. What has it been like raising a family in “Africa”? You’d have to ask my daughters. I think they see it as a unique opportunity, a rare privilege. It made them more independent and resourceful than their peers, and gave them insights and experiences not available to city kids. For us it was worrying at times, so far from medical facilities, and plagued by the ever-present question, are we depriving them of something? (Looking at them now, apparently not.) 5. Has there ever been a time when you thought it would be easier to be in Europe? Easier, yes. Better, no. 6. Do you encourage others to follow their dreams as you have? And are you still living your dream? Yes to both. Sometimes the day-to-day struggles and frustrations cloud the picture. But that’s life. If I step outside myself and take a good look at my life, I realise that yes, I’m living my dream. 7. Why did you decide to write The Trouble with Africa – Stories from a safari camp? I have always wanted to write. Becoming a writer ran a close second to going to art school. At the time I must have assumed (correctly) that I didn’t have much to write about yet. Twenty-five years later I did. When you live in an unusual environment among unusual characters, people are always saying, “Someone should write a book about this.” So I thought I would try. 8. You are a storyteller; yet you are able to use art and words to create amazing stories. What are the differences / similarities between painting and writing? Writing is more direct. We’re all familiar with the medium of language. To try and convey a thought or an emotion with paint, you have to make a kind of mental leap into what often seems strange territory. I find painting more difficult than writing, and more tiring, too. 9. Did you ever have difficulty finding the perfect word to express a colour or texture you wanted to share with your readers? Sure. It’s part of what makes writing so hard. 10. Which story in your collection is your favourite? I think the last one, “The Weaver”. In it I tried to sum up everything that went before, but in a less tangible way. I think the story succeeds for what is left out as much as for what it says. 11. Are there writers who paint vivid images in your mind when you read their work? Yes, there are many, too many to mention here. I am always drawn to their writing, and try and learn from them. 12. Which artists have inspired you? When I was at art school, it was the height of the pop art movement, and I wanted to be a contemporary artist. I was most inspired by Robert Rauschenberg, one of the forerunners of the movement. Then I decided that I wanted to live in the bush and paint animals, so those early ambitions underwent a major change of direction. But of course, nothing you learn is ever wasted, and some of those early lessons are still useful in my work today. As I get older, I find myself drawn more and more to the old masters. Their work has a timeless quality that I find lacking in much of contemporary art. Besides, those guys really knew how to paint. 13. You have become renowned as a wildlife artist. a. How would you categorise your art and your passion for your work? I have never really seen myself as a “wildlife artist”, never been terribly interested in creating realistic and detailed portraits of animals and their habitat. There are painters who do this far better than I do. I try to look for the essence, the soul of an animal, its elusiveness and its fragile grip on existence. For this, I prefer a looser, more impressionistic painting style. b. Is this the person you thought you would become, and the life you imagined you would live when you came to Africa? No, not in my wildest dreams could I have had a clear vision of this. But I must have known that something like it was possible, and I certainly knew what I didn’t want. 14. In all honesty, I had never been exposed to your artwork until now, yet the more I look at the replicas of your work in your book and on your website, the more lifelike the images become. What is your secret to “recreating” Africa’s wildlife? Passion, honesty, empathy. A communion, almost, with the animal I try to paint. I think I’d like to see what it would be like to be that animal, and by extension shed some light on the human animal, too – and those old questions, “Who are we?”, “Why are we here …?” 15. Which animal has been the most difficult to capture? Most cats, but especially leopards. They seem to be always in motion, and their movements possess a fluidity that makes it almost impossible to pin them down, either in observation or in painting. 16. Do you ever look at your work, breathe a sigh of relief (or of satisfaction) and think to yourself, “I have captured the essence of that creature”? Yes, but only temporarily. Too much satisfaction would lead to complacency, and I like the idea that there is always room for improvement, that with each new painting I have a chance to grow as an artist, to discover new things. The pictures in this book span a time-frame of over twenty years, and I find some of the earlier ones almost embarrassingly immature, and lacking in technical ability. But I included them for the sake of balance – and yes, sometimes even a poor painting has a spontaneity and freshness that can’t be repeated. 17. You mention the “magic” of Africa. Tell me more about that magic. Hard to explain in a sentence or two. I mean, I had to write a whole book about it … 18. Weren’t you concerned that the title of your book The Trouble with Africa would be too contentious, too easily misinterpreted? No. I liked the ambiguity of it: I felt it best conveyed what I was trying to say in the book. Every other title I came up with sounded bland and prosaic by comparison. I think a good title is one that arouses the reader’s curiosity, and I liked the way one has to read the book to discover the title’s full meaning. 19. What does Vic Guhrs do to relax? He reads, listens to music, plays his guitar and rides his motorbike. 20. If one of your readers had to come and visit you, what kind of man would they meet and what would be the first thing they noticed? Someone who reads, listens to music, plays his guitar and rides his motorbike. Oh, and paints. 21. What one other dream do you wish still to see fulfilled? To get better at what I do. Paint or write that elusive masterpiece. (Failing that, maybe a lap around a race track in a Formula One car …) 22. What image / slice of Africa never fails to take your breath away? Elephants. Elephants crossing a river at dusk, cows and calves going about their business; a bull elephant blocking the road and looking at you as if to say, “Yeah? What are you going to do about me?” 23. What has merged you with the dust and songs of Africa? The instinctive feeling that Africa can provide insights into the secrets of our existence that no other place can.