Open-air studio: Maiden serves nourishing portraits at the Talisman

Hildebrandt's Starling at the main entrance of Talisman, January 3, 2023, Karen. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

David Maiden has found the Talisman restaurant a warm and welcoming place to exhibit his art.

One reason is because he has such an easy time painting there, in the open air, even as passersby engage him in discussions about his art.

“People are curious and often like to speak to the artist,” Maiden tells BDLife soon after New Year’s celebrations when the place is packed with foodies meeting friends and getting set to go back to work.

In this festive climate, it's unsurprising that Maiden gets called away from our chat because someone wants to buy one of his works of art.

“It’s the ‘Mzee’,” he says as we want to know which one of his paintings just got sold.

Maiden has already told us he considers himself a portrait artist first and foremost.

Mzee is actually an 86-year-old Kenyan man who the artist met in Kilifi where he stays with his family.

Like all of his portraits, Maiden has taken his subject out of his everyday context and placed him in a collage-like setting that is fused with kaleidoscopic colours stroked in gentle geometric lines.

David Maiden at Talisman restaurant, Karen during the interview on January 3, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

His other memorable portraits include a beautiful old mama and a stoical working man whom Maiden calls ‘Fundi’ since the man once worked for the artist.

He had even sat for him as he sketched his impressions of a man he clearly admired.

Then, scattered all around Talisman, in its many nooks and crannies, are paintings featuring children, some Kenyan, most from Kilifi, and others from his own family, especially his son Bertie.

“My son was four or five at the time,” Maiden recalls, painted while his people were on holiday in Tsavo Park.

“We used to live in Tsavo since my wife was working there. But then we moved when it was time for my son to go to school. It was at that point friends told us about a school in Kilifi that we liked, and that is how we got there,” Maiden summarized.

Calling himself a ‘self-taught’ artist, Maiden says he studied filmmaking at university in the UK but had always loved to paint.

“I’ve been painting all my life, but there was a brief moment when I thought I wanted to make films,” he says, admitting he’s never made a single film. Instead, he went straight into portraiture.

But my question was about the birds. Blended into his show on a 50-50 basis (half birds, half people) are his focus on colourful Kenyan birds, especially birds from the Coast.

“I figured the birds are rather like me. We both migrate between Europe and Africa,” he says in a slightly glib way. But I don’t buy that idea. There must be some other reason.

He admits he actually loves birds, and feels not everyone is interested in owning images of endangered species like elephants or rhinos.

In fact, right as you enter Talisman, you are struck by Maiden’s large oil painting of a Hildebrandt’s Starling. Dressed in a rich, navy-blue cape-like set of wings, she’s got a black head and neck with an orange and yellow belly.

Then, all around her are the same colourful geometric shapes as we saw in the Mzee painting, only there’s a variation of colour, shape, and texture.

Finally, right at Hildebrandt’s feet is a smaller crown-crested creature named a White Bellied Go Away Bird. He too is beautiful and I believe he’s the same one Maiden met in Tsavo, the one that came to snack at the family’s outdoor dinner table one day.

Fundi by David Maiden at Talisman restaurant, Karen, January 3, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

In any case, I want to know why, when he claims to love portraiture, does he paint all of these birds. Maiden’s response is simple. He paints portraits of his birds.

So, in the same way, that he studies his human subject’s outer and inner beings when he paints, so he tries to capture the essence and character of each bird that he portrays, be it a Hornbill, Sunbird, King Fisher or Guinea fowl.

Whether he succeeds depends on his public’s response, and he has had a positive one every time he returns to the Talisman.

Born and brought up in the Lake District of the UK, Maiden might never have come to Africa if it hadn’t been for his wife.

“She trains tailors and has a clothing production factory that’s part of an EPZ (Export Production Zone),” he explains as he picks up his brush and gets back to painting a little girl watching a beautiful Red-billed Hornbill.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.