Antioch artist turns grief into inspiration
By Lou Fancher For the Contra Costa Times Contra Costa Times and MercuryNews.com
ANTIOCH -- The human propensity for turning profound loss into blessed opportunity can be found in the life and work of Antioch's Guy Combes.
Eight years after the shocking death of his father, the well-respected British painter Simon Combes, the 42-year old wildlife artist and environmental activist has pulled a renewed spirit and career from the ashes of his grief.
Born in Kenya, Combes' childhood was filled with wildlife and art. His father was instrumental in saving the black rhinoceros from extinction. From his parents, Combes gained a healthy respect and avid appreciation for the natural world.
"I loved the hidden narratives of a species of animals, the settings -- I learned why it's important to keep something that is so visually magnificent alive," Combes says.
He also learned intimidation: not only from animals like the buffalo bull that became enraged, gored and ended his father's life, but from the long shadow of his father's international reputation as an artist.
"When my ability was recognized early on by an art teacher, I was herded into an art program," Combes recalls. "I wanted to paint, but having a father who paints, I had a crisis of identity. If I aimed at it for a career, I'd never be as good as he was, and I would be compared to him."
To distance himself, he pursued sculpture and conceptual art. Exploring three-dimensional forms provided separation, but it wasn't enough. Combes "jumped ship" completely and dove into the world of hotel management.
Along the lopsided journey for self-identity, he advocated for conservancy, leading safaris and conducting seminars on Africa's biodiversity. Soysambu Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving cattle ranch land in the Great Rift Valley through reinvestment of tourism revenues, became his primary cause.
A 2006 retrospective of his father's work at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum in New Jersey jolted him out of his comfort zone.
"Really, I was given a hefty kick up the backside," Combes admits. "There were lights that went on upstairs, if you see what I mean."
The "light bulb moment" rejuvenated his long-repressed urge to paint full time. He accepted a one-year artist-in-residence position in New Jersey. The "visit" turned into five portfolio-building years, and when he met fellow Antioch artist and partner Andrew Denman, he found himself with ties to two very separate countries.
Today, Combes is seeking his green card and recently participated as one of the artists in "Captured: Specimens in Contemporary Art" at Walnut Creek's Bedford Gallery. He has warmed to the embrace of America.
"In Kenya, people are more critical of my work because there isn't the reverence for me as the wildlife artist," he says, revealing his father's lingering effect. "Here in America, there's more unquestioning enthusiasm."
Combes' style is couched in realism, with exquisitely detailed landscapes and tight, forceful compositions. A collection of black and white sketches demonstrate masterful rendering and an innate understanding of his subjects. Especially in his drawings, each line, shadow and highlight reveals the animals' raw mix of beauty and danger.
Although steeped in traditional painting, Combes shows equal enthusiasm for his newest tools: an iPad and software program FiftyThree. The immediacy of the technology -- images go from hand to pen to screen in a flash -- is a reality he predicts will be thrilling to a young generation accustomed to speed.
"It's incredibly exciting in terms of field drawing and spontaneous image capture," he says, rapidly refining a cheetah's profile as he adjusts the stylus, spins a color wheel, or rewinds an icon to erase.
As fond as he is of his "second" home, Combes says he will always remain focused on environmental conditions in Africa. Stimulated by the success he had in 2010, when a proposal to build a highway transecting the wildebeest migration route across the Serengeti inflamed his indignation and moved him to action, he is his father's son.
"I started a Facebook page about it; contacting influential people in the U.S. who I thought might try to stop it," he says. "The project was canceled, the Facebook page has 50,000 followers, and I'll always support any causes of the people in this country who were involved."
To see his work and learn more about the Soysambu Conservancy and the expeditions he continues to lead, visit www.guycombes.com/Home_Page.html