FROM a modest beginning drawing pictures as a young boy to having a painting accepted in the David Shepherd International Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition in London, is the success story of well-known Eastern Cape artist, Bob McKenzie, who now lives in Port Alfred.
But this took more than 50 years of hard work and dedication to achieve.
Born in Queenstown, McKenzie spent his entire school career at the famous Queen’s College. This was something of a family affair as his father, Lionel, taught at the school as a senior science and mathematics teacher for 23 years. At the same time, he owned and ran a small dairy farm close to the town.
Though it was obvious at an early age that McKenzie junior had a natural artistic talent, it was here that his love for farming developed. “I had this in my blood and always wanted to farm,” he said.
And so it was that after matriculating in 1964 he enrolled at the Grootfontein Agricultural College near Middelburg for a two-year diploma course. Besides achieving this, he also got his Springbok head for classing wool. This meant that he was now qualified to class farmers’ wool clips anywhere in the country.
He took art as a subject in his matric year for two reasons. “I loved the subject, but the only art teacher in the town taught at our nearby sister school, so we had to go there for our lessons. This also gave me the opportunity to see my girlfriend during these visits,” he said with a smile.
As a young man, McKenzie travelled the country with shearing gangs and met many interesting people. The first clip he classed was for a farmer in the Nottingham Road district in Natal and little did he know that he would marry this man’s daughter, Fay, a few years later.
He was paid the princely sum of 2 1/2 cents for every fleece classed and he said, “This was good money in those days and I earned more than my father as a qualified teacher.”
McKenzie classed wool for four years before managing a 500 – cow dairy farm in Natal. But he had a yearning to return to the Eastern Cape and this he did when he bought his own farm in the Tylden district near Queenstown. This farm had good water which enabled him to grow his own pastures for the dairy he developed with stud Friesland cows.
After 18 years, he sold this farm and bought a smaller property near his home town where he joined the Taurus Cattle Genetics Company that specialised in artificial insemination. He spent the next year visiting farmers to tap bulls of their semen and also taught them to do their own artificial insemination (AI).
Another of his mentors was the great Italian artist, Dino Paravano, who was rated one of the top three bird artists in the world. He has never forgotten his advice when he told McKenzie, “Paint anything and everything. Don’t become known as a painter who paints the cottages at Arniston, or just the sea. You will learn the most when you are out of your comfort zone.”
But after a year, McKenzie took the brave step of starting his own AI station on his new property which was ideal for this purpose. “I was lucky as it was just one of those happy things that flourished,” he said.
Throughout all these years, McKenzie never lost his love for painting and continued with this as a serious hobby. And so it was in 2012 that he sold his farm and moved to Port Alfred to concentrate on being a full time artist.
He loved drawing pictures as a child and remembers getting into trouble at an early age when he used his grandfather’s dairy book for this purpose. His parents were friendly with the late Les Elliott, who was a well-known and talented artist in Queenstown. One of Elliott’s sons, Dale, had inherited his father’s talent and the two youngsters became great friends through their love for art. They learnt a great deal from this talented man and McKenzie, who has concentrated on oils, produced his first painting at the tender age of 13.
Despite a busy business life, McKenzie continued painting whenever he had the opportunity and holds something of a record in that he has submitted paintings for the annual Queenstown art exhibition for 40 consecutive years.
Some 17 years ago, McKenzie started holding workshops to impart his knowledge on painting to people wanting to take this up. He has held 180 of these and is presently doing one as far afield as Zimbabwe. “I love to teach art and have met some unbelievable people in the process” he said. Commissions also make up a large part of his work.
He recently celebrated “50 Years in Oils” when he turned their Queenstown home into a gallery for an exhibition that went on for three weeks. He has also been involved in about 60 exhibitions throughout the country as well as one-man exhibitions in centres such as Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Cape Town. This one was opened by his old friend, Dale Elliott.
Perhaps McKenzie’s most satisfying point in his career was when he was invited to submit paintings for consideration in the wildlife exhibition in London in June last year. He submitted three, one of which was selected for final exhibition. This took place in the famous Mall Gallery, which is situated in the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace.
By Bob Ford
This column first appeared in Talk of the Town https://www.talkofthetown.co.za