Ever since her granny placed a paintbrush in the seven-year-old’s hand, Geraldine Robarts has never stopped painting.
It’s been three-quarters of a century since that day, but her passion for painting has never waned. She may have slowed down to have a family and raise four children.
But even then, they would go on holiday to the Coast and she would be painting skies, seas, and village scenes with them close by.
She may have been interrupted by her teaching art at Makerere and Kenyatta universities, but even then, she was teaching with a brush in hand and having a learning-by-doing strategy that saw her take her students out to paint and draw everywhere from Kariakor Market and Kitengela Glass to Parliament, Nairobi River and Maasai Mara National Park. And always, she would paint alongside them.
She was vaguely tempted to quit when doctors told her oil paints were bad for her joints. But even then, she said she would consider shifting to watercolours and pastels, but not acrylics since for her they lacked the luminosity and sheen she could only get with oil paints.
The exhibition that Geraldine held at her home in Nairobi’s Karen revealed that she could not abide by her doctor’s advice. The show is practically all in oils, most dramatically displayed in the gallery she built right next to one of her two studios.
Both studios are also filled with her paintings. But the one next to the gallery is also close to the house so when she feels inspired, she can dash a few steps and get back to work.
The other is past the garden, made of two 12-feet tall containers, spaced so there is a large open tented area in between where Geraldine goes to experiments with her large ideas. It’s also where she invites guest artists to come and work.
But it is in her living room and dining room that one could get an overview of Geraldine’s whole exhibition, apart from the new works in her gallery. The major themes are all there, the sea, the Coastal villages, turbulent skies, fascinating and brightly coloured abstract pieces with some layered in crystals and gold leaf.
In the dining room hung her trees, one created early in her career, the only painted recently which is dramatically different. The first tree was a wood cut, simply but elegantly drawn with distinct branches and leaves making a calm, soulful statement.
By contrast, her recent tree is thicker, older, weathered without any leaves, and textured with multiple layers of broadly-stroked oil paints. The older tree has burgundy and pink striped bark blended with touches of blue, yellow, and black. It is surrounded by a sea of green grasses that give it pride of place.
But it’s in Geraldine’s gallery that one finds a rare collection of her art. It’s as if one huge whirlwind of inspiration hit her to paint what she calls her lockdown series.
Painted incessantly over the past few months, these dozen paintings reveal a fascinating study in the use of colour and design. For most of the works in this white-walled, high-vaulted space, the artist only used a limited range of colours: orange, yellow, red, black, brown, and blue.
“Each colour represents a different aspect of experience,” says Geraldine, while gesturing toward the first painting in the series.
“This is where I began. Here at the bottom of the piece is the earth, there at the top is the sky, and in between are the people.” She explains the nature of this work that might otherwise pass for abstract.