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JOHN TOLMAY


Exchanging His Big-Game Rifles For a Clump of Clay

In the blur of two decades of attending hunting shows, one memory stands out: sitting with Zimbabwe-born professional hunter John Tolmay in his “booth”—an enormous U.S. Army 6x6. High above the convention floor, we drank beer, made plans for a moveable gameviewing safari, and talked, of all things, about art.

“What a pity Bugatti was such a flaky fellow,” he said. “I think he thought his mother hated him, which may actually have been the case, and he never allowed a woman to get close enough to transfer his affection to her. Picasso, on the other end,” he continued, “had nether regions like a pogo stick, and it shows in his messy work. But if Bugatti had been cut from the same cloth, I doubt he would have achieved what he did, working from caged animals in zoos.”

Ten years later, Tolmay returned as an exhibitor—not for his hunting company, Across Africa Overland, which he started in Zambia in 1992, but as an astonishingly refreshing bronze artist, surrounded by alert warthogs, wind-testing elephants, and a jumble of giraffes fleeing so fast over the savanna their hoofs hardly hit the ground. Frankly, having known John for so many years, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Tolmay’s life has been the utter opposite of animalier artists, whose references were limited to jardins zoologiques or royal menageries stocked with exotic Asian and African species from distant colonies. Far on the opposite side of the equator, John roamed his father’s ranch, Mahamara, in Southern Rhodesia’s Midlands, where kudu, sable antelope, and tsessebe were mixed in with the tick-resistant cross-bred Afrikaner and Hereford cattle his father fought to establish in the miombo woodlands.

John’s first teacher was a Karanga tribesman, Pania, who “simply taught me to be a bush African.” (Pania was later brutally murdered by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe’s thugs.) Shipped off at age seven to the Rhodes Estate Preparatory School, pristinely situated in the Matopos Research Station in Matabeleland, he sat still long enough to get a good white-boy education while gallivanting around this “little guy’s paradise,” fishing and collecting birds’ eggs.

Whereas I grew up drawing dogs being walked on leashes on city streets, John, attending Plumtree School near Francistown, Botswana, sketched the wild animals and Ndebele tribesmen around him as well as figures from the Wild West. In fact, in 1959 he received “Honours” on his Cambridge examinations for his first sculpture of the bust of an American Indian.

After attending agricultural college in South Africa, John expanded his knowledge of cattle ranching working as a cowboy in Nebraska and New Mexico. He returned to Rhodesia in 1966 and labored hunting meat for Anglo-American’s prospecting camp in the Nagapande Valley. As race relations soured, he was engaged “probably as the first-ever white tracker” to sniff out terrorist groups for the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR). “My rifle was a .375 Parker Hale that jammed if you looked at it too hard.”

Around this time, he married his blonde British sweetheart, Dinah, with whom he has two children, now living in New Zealand and Australia. And he began fiddling with oil paints and the occasional clump of clay.

In 1974, he started guiding overseas hunters on the family ranch. But “blessed” with the wandering genes of his 6-foot 4-inch grandfather, a transport rider hauling supplies by ox-wagon from Saint Lucia Bay in South Africa to Fort Salisbury (today’s Harare), and his 4-foot 11-inch grandmother, who spent her honeymoon helping hack their way 275 miles to Victoria Falls, he became a freelance professional hunter and worked with Pete Hepburn in Botswana, Robin Hurt in Tanzania, Pete Hogaard in Mozambique, and Andre de Kock in Zambia.

The soft-spoken and naturally modest Tolmay hardly resembles most PHs, especially in his early concern for wildlife, when he made the connection between poverty and poaching. In 1993 he developed the Nyawa Pilot Project in Zambia, whose object was returning revenue generated from hunting permits and trophy fees to local communities, which upset established industry applecarts, landing him in jail before being deported in 2003 as a danger to society, leaving wife and all worldly goods behind.

Although the verdict was later overturned, he settled his family in Montana, and turned, full-time, to art. “Without those hunting clients who’d become friends, I never would have made it.” Today, sculpting gives him a visual form for a lifetime of memories of Africa.

When John first attended hunting shows in the early 1980s, there were few so-called “wildlife artists,” and what he saw made him think he could do better. “In fact, I thought that anybody could ‘do art,’ but quickly learned it takes talent, skill, and time.” John is virtually self-taught, and if he’s learned from other people’s work, he’s not the sort of fellow who takes classes or attends workshops. It helps that he’s a former PH, and “other than a human beings, I’ve probably quartered, disjointed, cut through the spine, skinned, and dug through the guts retrieving clients’ bullets of every game species I’ve portrayed.”




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Although the verdict was later overturned, he settled his family in Montana, and turned, full-time, to art. “Without those hunting clients who’d become friends, I never would have made it.” Today, sculpting gives him a visual form for a lifetime of memories of Africa.

When John first attended hunting shows in the early 1980s, there were few so-called “wildlife artists,” and what he saw made him think he could do better. “In fact, I thought that anybody could ‘do art,’ but quickly learned it takes talent, skill, and time.” John is virtually self-taught, and if he’s learned from other people’s work, he’s not the sort of fellow who takes classes or attends workshops. It helps that he’s a former PH, and “other than a human beings, I’ve probably quartered, disjointed, cut through the spine, skinned, and dug through the guts retrieving clients’ bullets of every game species I’ve portrayed.”

He started bringing wax from the States to Africa in 1986 and tried his hand at small pieces—kudu, skull and horns compositions—that he displayed in his safari camps. John doesn’t use photos for inspiration or limit himself to popular Big Five species to cater to big-game hunters. It all starts in his head. “Once I get a quarter-ounce of an idea, it takes over, and I just run with it.” He’ll look back on some drama he witnessed on God’s untamed stage, like a standoff between an ornery old bachelor bull Cape buffalo and an itchy young lion, and ponder the outcome. “Who’s going to make the first move? For in Africa, who dares first is often the one who wins.”

But his work isn’t always about jungle warfare and who eats whom. Take that quick-tempered steamroller, the black rhino. In John’s piece, Service Department, the horned heavyweight is dancing in oxpeckers, cattle egret, jacana, and saddle-backed storks. His object is to express simultaneously their fortitude and endangered status. “My work should say both ‘Don’t mess with me!’ and ‘God, save this animal—leave it in peace!” No easy task.

Or for another example, take the wild dog, an oft-despised species indiscriminately shot by ranchers and pastoral herders for its unrelenting chase that ends with disemboweling and consuming its prey alive. Tolmay’s Scent of Africa captures a moment of rest, ruffled by the perfume of carrion on the wind. Her scrawny spine and full belly describe a tired matriarch whose job is to set out hunting, yet again, to feed her pack’s young or feeble members.

The patina in his African painted dog’s chaotic pelage is bold and daring. “You have to be careful, though; sometimes you want to put it all into a work, which makes it kitschy, not catching; decorative, and not art.”

If women like John’s giraffes and meerkats, and men like his elephant and Dagga Boys, nobody likes hyena—except the artist. “It’s the most difficult subject I’ve ever done. Not only is hyena anatomy completely confusing (you can’t tell males from females), but the texture risks being untidy.” He wants viewers to like it, “but to wrinkle their noses at the smell of the bugger.” Africa’s “big cats” are challenging, too, because their swinging gait, softly rounded features, and smooth coats mustn’t entirely cloak their explosive ferocity.

Getting the body stripes or spots right is equally important. On leopard, Tolmay does this by indenting the surface with a stick or piece of wood to generate a playground for light. “But if it isn’t really subtle, it quickly becomes ridiculous.” He achieves Tragelaphinae markings by subtly raising and polishing their grooved edges.

To create expressive eyes without actually carving out globes, he lifts the perimeter around an empty socket and gently buffs it, which captures the light above it, creating a shadowy depth within. “I want your eye to deceive you into seeing animal eyes.”

Although he admits it’s sometimes easier to work for change in Africa from abroad, John recently returned to apply his community-based wildlife management model to Uganda’s arid Karamoja region (as in W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell). “As long as I can make a mold, I can sculpt anywhere in the world.”

“I hate the thought of turning 66—there’s so much I want to achieve, and the clock ticks on.” John’s not referring just to his art, but to all he wants to give back to Africa—its people and the wildlife that have made him the man, and the artist, he is today.

Brooke, also married to a professional hunter, relates to Dinah Tolmay’s chagrin at seeing her husband’s bags packed for yet another long pilgrimage to a dangerous corner of Africa. “I suppose we both knew what we were getting into, but . . .”

 

 

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