Home News Wildlife Artist of the Year Karen Laurence-Rowe – a journey into the abstract and the meaning of life

Karen Laurence-Rowe – a journey into the abstract and the meaning of life

In 2023, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) introduced a new category into our world-renowned annual wildlife art competition – Wildlife Artist of the Year. The category was ‘Abstract World’, and it celebrated freedom as well as non-linear interpretation and expression.

The dynamism and intrigue of abstract creation opens a door for pure and raw displays of feeling, enabling it to deliver powerful messages. Not only did it introduce a new spectrum to the competition, but it also gave us this year’s winner; The Journey by the Kenya-based artist Karen Laurence-Rowe.

The Journey – Karen Laurence-Rowe.

Wildlife Artist of the Year 2024 will feature a stunning standalone exhibition of Karen’s work, so let’s get to know her a little better.

Early introductions

Karen was born in Uganda, and as the daughter of a civil engineer, she was also practically born into a semi-nomadic existence, moving around East Africa to wherever a road or bridge was needed. This meant an early connection with wildlife was near on inevitable, with ‘home’ often being a prefab wooden house. It was common for the rumbling roars of lions and the cackle of hyenas to keep them company at night, or for the chicken house to be targeted by various other creatures, from honey badgers to snakes!

Being relatively isolated and having to be creative in how they spent their days, Karen and her siblings took to drawing to entertain themselves – a natural choice given the luscious range of subjects and vistas on their regularly changing doorstep. And of course, these memories of Africa’s virtually unspoiled landscapes have heavily influenced her subject matter as an artist.

An artist in the field

Karen is now more permanently based on the Kenyan coast, which enables her to venture into the field to draw on the beauty and rawness of nature that enchants and surrounds her, as well as the challenges she sees impacting the wild world. Armed with sketches and photographs from each exploration, it inspires new works and interpretations that keep her offering fresh and thought-provoking.

As well as being well-known for painting African wildlife, she also finds great pleasure in Plein Air painting, and has amassed a wonderful library of sketchbooks full of landscapes, seascapes, doodles, memories, and inspiration. That sense of wonder can also be seen as she switches medium to suit the subject and style she has in mind, working with pencil, charcoal, oils, and watercolours with natural versatility. It’s no wonder her work has become so sought after and now hangs on walls all over the world.

Karen’s deep concern for the decline in the world’s wildlife and the degradation of precious habitats is reflected clearly in her work. She regularly donates her paintings to conservation to help stem the tide.

Karen Laurence-Rowe in her Kenyan studio.

A personal journey

We’ll leave it to Karen herself to explain why her winning piece came to have a very personal meaning to her, and therefore us.

“I must confess that the conception of my painting ‘The Journey’ was not sparked by a lightbulb moment – no, this painting took on a journey of its own.

Back in January 2023, I decided to try and develop an exciting new technique and for an experiment, started work on an abstract piece of art – I wasn’t painting it for anyone or for any reason but for the pure exercise. Once complete, I left it hanging on the studio wall wondering what on earth I was going to do with it!

And then (and here comes the lightbulb moment) almost on the same day that DSWF announced the new ‘Abstract World’ category, I came across an image taken by photographer, Ed Ram. Seeing it stopped me in my tracks. Taken from the air during Kenya’s gruelling drought over the past two years, Ed’s photo was of six giraffe that had died, seemingly within hours of each other, around a dried-out waterhole. The impact of that haunting image was like a kick in the stomach.

I slowly turned to the abstract on the wall behind me and knew instantly that the painting was not yet finished – there was a crucial message on climate change and extinction to be made. Over the next few days, I concealed within the painting, symbols of giraffe, both living and dead.  Importantly I wanted the painting to look, at first glance, to be purely an abstract; but should the viewer stand in front of it for long enough, they would discover the giraffe on their journey – some that made it, a couple that had not.

Winning David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year in 2023 was, hand on heart, a complete surprise! What made the award even more significant for me was that it could so easily have been posthumous.  Shortly after entering ‘The Journey’ into the competition, I suffered a series of cardiac arrests which put me in intensive care with little hope of recovery. I was given only a 5%-10% chance of survival. It was a long road back to health, both mentally and physically.  During those early days my hands would shake so severely, I feared that I would never be able to pick up a paintbrush again. In a sense, my personal journey of survival went hand in hand with the giraffe that I had subtly depicted in the painting. I felt a strong affinity to both those that had died and the ones that survived.  Their journey, my journey….

I didn’t expect the painting to be shortlisted, let alone win, because it was so different to what I normally paint. So, on the opening night, when I heard my painting being described by Robert Lyndsay as the overall winner, it didn’t fully register at first.  But then it finally dawned on me that ‘The Journey’ had done it – I had won the overall prize! I was genuinely overwhelmed and enormously grateful for the honour.

Conservation is very important to me. I’ve lived in Africa all my life and have been shocked and saddened to witness the once vast areas of savannas and forests, teeming with free-roaming game, dwindling into ever decreasing pockets of wilderness. There are so many dedicated people desperately trying to protect what is left and their work is vital, but we must ALL do what we can and in my case, art is a way that I can contribute.

Working with DSWF over the years has been a pleasure and a privilege – I love the community of artists that surround it. The Foundation has a deep passion and commitment to save the creatures that we as artists, all so love to depict using our unique individual skills. I believe DSWF and their community of creatives have provided a crucial platform to raise awareness of the many species that are now on the brink of extinction. I’m proud to be part of that!

A united cause

If you know much about DSWF’s origins or have seen our previous blog celebrating our 40th anniversary, you’ll know that it was our founder’s own experience at a waterhole – which had been poisoned by poachers, that inspired him to use art as a platform for conservation. So, we’re especially moved to hear that similar circumstances ended up inspiring this stunning piece, although this time because of climate change. It’s clear that the challenges facing the natural world have only intensified and become more severe across the last four decades. We thank you for your continuing support and the incredible work it enables. We hope you’ll join us for this year’s Wildlife Artist of the Year at the iconic Mall Galleries in London, between 2-6 July, where you’ll also be able to discover Karen Laurence-Rowe’s work for yourself in her exclusive standalone exhibition.

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