A note about this blog post: After recently seeing the Lion King, Diana wanted to share memories of her own trip to Africa in 2007.
by Diana Madaras
One of our missions when I started the Gallery was to give back to the community. Now, every week, we receive three to five solicitations for donations of art. We give a print or a box of note cards to as many organizations as we can. If I have a personal commitment to the charity, I often donate an original.
In 2006, the ladies who worked at TROT (where my horse Bisbee lived) came calling.
“We’d like you to paint a zebra,” they requested. “We want to use the image on the front of the invitation for our black-tie event, and then auction the original painting at the party.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “But a zebra, not a horse?”
“Yes, a man in Tucson has given us a safari for the auction, so the theme this year is ‘Horse of a Different Color.'”
“A safari!” I said. “That’s incredible. Who is this guy?”
“His name is Terry von Guilleaume, and he’s South African. He moved to Tucson a few months ago and just opened a safari company. We’re going to meet with him after we leave here.”
“Can you take him something from me as a thank you for being so generous to TROT?” I rifled through our bins and pulled out a print of a lion and her cub. “Please give this to Terry and tell him I think he’s terrific.”
Two days later, Terry called to thank me. “I like your work. I checked out your website and see you have an animal foundation,” he said. “We need to talk.”
During our lunch at a Chinese restaurant, Terry leaned forward and, in his charming South African accent, said, “Let me cut to the chase. If I send you on safari, would you be willing to do a charity show for Africa?”
“Really? How would that work?” My eyes grew wide. “I will send you on a first-class safari for three weeks, all expenses paid except airfare. You photograph the animals on the game drives, and when you get back to the States and finish the paintings, we’ll throw a big party and sell the work. The funds will go to several African charities including an animal sanctuary and an AIDS orphanage.”
‘I’d love that!” It took only 30 seconds to decide. I’m going to Africa!
Right away, we were deep into planning the trip. We settled on a date in early October and Terry said if I had friends who wanted to come too, he’d give them a break on the cost.
Three girlfriends and another couple whom I’d met through the gallery signed on for the trip, and the six of us set off on a great adventure. At the first lodge in South Africa called Leadwood, Katie and I stayed in one of four elegantly appointed houses on the property-1,500 square feet all to ourselves on the edge of the African jungle. We gathered at the palatial outdoor dining area for meals and headed out each day at sunrise for the first game drive.
Every morning, we’d spend four hours in the jeep tracking animals to photograph, then go out again at four o’clock for the second game drive and shoot photos until dark. We were thrilled when we saw a giraffe cross the dirt path in front of us, a leopard sunbathing on a rock, and a lion stalking through the reeds. One evening while we stood on the veranda of the dining area, we witnessed two hippos ambling by in the dry wash below us. Amazing!
After the morning game drive one day, we walked back into our house and I stopped in my tracks.
“Katie,” I shouted gesturing frantically. “There’s an elephant outside our window!”
We grabbed our cameras and ran out the back door to catch a shot of the seven-ton animal munching tree trunks near the side of the house. This elephant slowly trudged around to the back where we were standing. All that separated us from him was a narrow wading pool. When one of the staff at the lodge noticed the commotion, she shouted in a panic. “Girls! Ger back inside the house. You can’t be out there with that elephant!”
We hadn’t realized the danger and quickly retreated, laughing with nervous excitement about our up-close encounter with African wildlife.
Every day brought a new adventure as we traveled from lodge to lodge-two in South Africa and two in Botswana. We got within 15 feet of a sleeping lion; we watched a cheetah with her cubs; we saw a leopard climb the tree with her prey while hyenas paced anxiously below hoping for scraps that might fall. We also took a boat ride at sunset on the Chobe River and watched an alligator chase an elephant at the edge of the bank. Thankfully, the elephant got away.
In Phinda, a private game reserve on the eastern edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa, we startled an elephant while driving on a winding dirt road at sundown. Our guide didn’t see the massive animal until we rounded a hairpin turn. The elephant whirled around to confront us in battle-ready stance. He rocked back and forth from one leg to the other, and when he shook his head, his humongous ears flapped about. He then threw back his head, raised his trunk, and trumpeted-his large ominous rusks aimed straight at our heads.
“Oh shit!” we whispered in unison.
We’d been on enough game drives to know what this posturing meant; most injuries on safari were sustained when an elephant turned over a jeep. We sensed it was his move–either charge us or run. The guide had no time to grab his rifle or reverse the jeep, so we had few choices. We collectively held our breath.
Thankfully, the elephant retreated. He ran to the side of the road and hid behind a tree trunk. We laughed with huge relief as we watched him peek around the skinny tree to observe our next move, as if he were invisible to us.
By the end of three weeks, we had seen 40 different animals and just as many species of birds. I had 3,000 photographs to narrow down to IO paintings.
Once back in Tucson, I couldn’t wait to paint. The lion would be first. I knew there would be pink in his mane-the sunset surrounding this majestic being as he gazed across the distant plains.
As I began to paint, my pent-up emotions poured forth onto the canvas. The painting came quickly and easily, flowing from somewhere deep within. I didn’t need to adjust it or alter it or rework any part of it. Elation!
Within a week, King of Sandibe was done. It sold it the moment it was finished and raised the first $10,000 for the project. Whenever I am asked to name my favorite painting, I always say this one. It was so loose and fun and free. Every moment of the magical trip came rushing back with each effortless brush stroke, guided by the soul of the lion himself.
Seven months after the trip, the African Sojourn show opened at Madaras Gallery. My sister Sandy, a TV producer, had traveled to Africa shortly after I did (also compliments of Terry) to create a video promoting the art show. Her video premiered at the gala and featured the three charities we had chosen: a wildlife sanctuary for injured African animals, a community garden that provided food for school lunches, and an AlDS orphanage. In addition to a few artist friends, I invited several well-known South African artists to donate paintings. Cole and Jeannie Davis, who had accompanied me on the trip, underwrote the expenses for the party, which meant the charities received 100 percent of the proceeds. Amazingly, we raised $80,000 for the three African charities. Plus, we donated some of the proceeds to TROT and the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson.
I had founded Art for Animals as a way to give back. What I received in return was priceless.
This piece was originally published in Diana Madaras’ coffee table book, “Private Spaces,” available here.
To watch the video about Diana’s trip to Africa, click here to view on YouTube.com.