Kenyan master sculptor Peter Kenyanya Oendo carves exquisitely balanced and self contained sculptures – mostly in stone but occasionally in wood.
As far as artistic mediums go, there is nothing quite like stone to lay down one’s vision for future posterity. As a painter I know I’ll be tremendously lucky if my work survives a few centuries.
Peter’s work is an entirely different story. We are talking here of sculptures carved from granite, beryl, diorite and amethyst. As long as his sculptures are not at the epicenter of a nuclear blast, his pieces will survive for millennia.
Considering the depth and beauty of these pieces, I take great comfort in that. Whatever is said about the current state of humanity many generations from now, anyone with a soul who might encounter Peter’s sculptures in the future will take solace in the fact that there was once an incredibly gifted and noble man who made wonderful sculptures carved from stone.
Peter Kenyanya Oendo does magical things with stone: he can turn green granite – so unmovable, intransient and dense into a great big fish arrested in mid-motion. He can tease out the secrets of the cosmos from the hardest stones formed when the solar system was young. He can melt hearts with rocks.
Here’s his story…
Jonathan: Hello Peter! So nice to connect…
Peter: Hi, Jonathan! I’m so happy to be talking to you. I’m honoured for the opportunity.
Jonathan: I assure you… the honour is all mine. Let’s begin with a rather enigmatic statement I read on the homepage of your website under the heading Stone, Time and I. You say (and I quote):
It’s not about the stone, not about me, nor is it about time, but about stone, time and I.
Can you elaborate a little on this mysterious relationship between you, your medium and the time it takes for this symbiotic relationship to result in a sculpture?
Peter: Hmmm. The best way for me to answer that is to compare sculpture to loving someone. Real love needs time to grow and mature and so does a good sculpture. You can’t rush things. You need to let the process unfold naturally and deal with thorny issues in a harmonious way. In love, the main ingredients are two people – complete with their emotions and physical bodies – and time. In sculpting, the main ingredients are the sculptor, the stone and, again, time. As in love, time is the critical factor for a successful outcome. Both love and sculpting are tested by time and the patience required to make the relationship work.
My experience as a sculptor is this: the time spent with the material determines the outcome, the more time I spend with the material, the more detail I can extract from it, or, to put it another way, the more time I have, the more effectively I can release the figure from the stone and the better the outcome.
The moment I see the material in its raw form, I start admiring it and I immediately see its potential. Before I do anything I’ll be totally distracted by the need to get that rock home to the studio – no matter the size, distance, location, hardness, texture or color of the stone. So even at the initial moment when I’m looking at a rock, I know that sooner or later that rock and I will establish a deeper line of communication. The rest, as they say, is history. When I get the material home a lot happens, sometimes the material is carried in and out of my house to the workshop as I work on it ceaselessly. Eventually when the stone has become a finished sculpture, I tell myself I can now sleep easy: time has played its role. So, a sculpture is the result of me spending a lot of time with a stone. If you separate these three factor – the stone, me and time, you get nothing.
Jonathan: Tell me, how did you and stone meet… how did you come to be a sculptor?
Peter: It goes way back to me watching my grandfather carve. He worked full time as a local government clerk and carved during his free time. I liked staying with him – being in his company. He also liked my company… after all, he was not easy to get along with, so most of his grandchildren avoided him like a plague. But he and I, we had a special connection. He would send me off on errands for him and in return he would tell me stories from his childhood, like how the pottery work his father and others were carving were given as gifts to colonial masters, who would then give them some favours in exchange, like special food rations during famine time.
I grew up knowing that being an artist could be a profitable and creative way to put food on the table. And that is what I wanted to do: carve and have an opportunity to trade with white people. I have vivid memories of “borrowing” my grandfather’s tools when he was away at work. I would use them in his absence and right before he returned home from his job as a clerk, I would return them and pretend that nothing happened. This was happening at the tender age of between eight to ten years. I continued to steal the tools which I used to carve in secret until one day, someone recognized that what I was doing was pretty good. He commissioned me carve him pieces which he then sold. In exchange he paid for my school uniform. At the time, I thought this was a good idea. I started working full time after school and weekends so that I could meet his target.
After that, I then went to the next level: carving stone pieces to help my parents pay my school fees. I did this for the duration of high school. Carving stone paid for my education. When I completed high school, I joined a commercial handcraft production company. I worked there as a carver for 1 year. Later I moved from that town to the outskirts of the capital city of Kenya – Nairobi. A little later, I went to live with my cousin who was an established artist and worked under him a while. From there I established myself independently. Today, I work in my own studio here in Nairobi. I have never looked back. I have traveled to different countries to do sculpture work in monument size. It’s been a tremendous journey.
Jonathan: Before we get into deeper questions about the art, maybe you can answer a few technical questions for me: Can you tell me a little bit about the different types of stone you use? Are there significant differences between types of stone? Which do you prefer and why?
Peter: Among the stones I use are granite, marble, soapstone and these days I also use Mix medium materials wood and some gemstones like petrified wood, green and red jasper, rhodendite, amethyst, among others. Let me quickly add that we are blessed in terms of raw materials here in Kenya. I have no particular favourite among the stones. I enjoy working with each and every one of them, however the workability and pleasure depend on having the right tools for the specific material one is working with. Soooooo, my clear favourite is not so much a specific type of stone but a project that challenges both my mind and muscles.
Jonathan: Why you did chose to work principally with stone? Is it because this is the medium you were introduced to by your grandfather as a child?
Peter: I like working with stone because, as you said, it was the material I was introduced early on. It’s what I know. My grandfather’s tools where stone carving tools. Also, the material – stone – is readily available. Kenya has amazing stones.
Jonathan: What sort of tools do you use? How do you achieve such exquisite lines and curves with such a “hard” medium and how difficult is it to achieve that amazing level of polish in your pieces?
Peter: The tools I use range from hand tools to power tools. Some of my hand tools that I use for soapstone and wood are a lot like the ones used by a carpenter. The main ones are wood chisels, hand saw, rubber mallet, machete which we locally call a panga, rasp file, and so on. I often improvise tools according to need. For example, out of a sharpening file, I’ll create a pen knife that is used to create smoothness on the stone. Over time I have improvised tools to make my work easy.
Power tools which I source from outside the country include various grinders. These are essential. I have different sizes of grinders. I apply them to my work of sculpting according to purpose, material and function. I use diamond cutting disks to cut and the diamond grinding wheel for roughening the surfaces, or, conversely to achieve a relatively smooth surface. I will then use more fine ones to bring the grain down and finally use diamond coated rubbers to give the final finish. Grinders start from rough to smooth: 50grid – 3,000 micro smooth. When I apply them all in consecutive stages, I get to arrive at the smooth shinny surfaces. The process of finishing soapstone and wood are slightly different and frankly easier. Here I mainly use hand tools and sand papers.
Jonathan: Let’s talk about the subject matter of your sculptures. From what I gather, there seems to be three broad categories to your body of work: (1) mammals, birds and reptiles, (2) Humans, and (3) abstracted sculptures representing inner states of being. How do you decide what a sculpture is going to be “about”? What does each of these categories mean to you? How do they inter-relate? What is the driving force behind your work as a whole?
Peter: I try to keep my work as fluid as possible. I don’t stick to a certain theme/themes – each piece has its own story to tell. But if you look at my work in retrospect, you will see that it is divided into four main categories, Human, Animal, Birds, and Abstraction that can fall in any of the three categories.
Once, somebody asked me in my exhibition why people from my region do mainly bird sculptures. I did not have an answer then but that made me realize that more than half of my sculptures were birds! It is amazing how someone’s observations contribute to your own understanding of your work.
Birds form an integral part of our lives and they also have various attractive behaviours and character. We have great stories about birds. My grandpa use to tell the story of a bird he called “Ekeongo” referring to the bird that used the power of the sun to rejuvenate and make itself young by staying near the sun during the day and only coming down to the earth to feed at night. When he told the story it was meant to criticize somebody who disappears all day long when there is work to do, only to appear during meal time. Out of that story told by my grandfather during meal time, I created a sculpture and named it Magical Phoenix, bringing the story in line with its deeper meaning.
Another meaningful animal sculpture I carved is the Reindeer Head. This is based on a dream from my childhood… memories that kept on repeating over and over again in the form of a recurrent dream. Interestingly, after I did the sculpture the recurring dream about the Reindeer stopped. For some mysterious reason, this led to me to travel to Europe where I was invited to take part in a symposium that led to the realization of that sculpture in monument size.
Returning to the birds, today I mainly do owls. This is to counter the harmful effects of a local myth that if left unchecked might lead to the total extinction of this gentle and wise creature. Here is how it goes: if an owl visits your homestead and hoots then most likely someone will die soon. Many families prior to the death of their loved ones claim that owls visited their homes at night and hooted, then that led to the death of a relative and so on and so forth. The fact is the owl has the capabilities to carry information from one world to another. That is why we see owls as being full of wisdom. But here in Kenya, we see this information mainly as bad information… a bad omen. And we take it out on the owls!
Jonathan: We have a saying here “Don’t shoot the messenger!” meaning, if I bring you bad news, I’m not the cause of your problems, just the messenger. Don’t shoot me!
Peter: Haha! That is excellent! You understand what I am saying. So what this means in Kenya is that the habitat of the owls in this country will be destroyed. The poor bird is hunted using firebrands if its night time. So I carve owls to celebrate their beauty and wisdom.
Also, Elephants are facing extinction and termination. It is estimated that in the next 50 years the elephant will be wiped from the face of the Earth. So, most likely my great grand children will only see elephants in photos. That is very sad. My work as an artist recognizes this and in a small way gives back to a campaign for the preservation of this gentle creature.
It’s obvious sometimes I use animals as metaphors to represent real people like when it comes to fighting corruption, where you cannot use real images of the people you are criticizing.
The piece entitled “Pioneering in Education” is one of the sculptures of human abstraction that I have done based also on a story told to me by my grandpa about a man who was employed by a white seller a long time ago.
The story goes like this: The man was sent to go buy bread for the white seller, but on mid journey (shortly after buying the bread), he felt tired and angry and decided to eat one of the loafs of bread. When he reached home, he showed the receipt to his colonial master. Of course, the amount of bread delivered to the white colonial master and the receipt didn’t add up. The master was furious as this had happened several times previously. This time was the last straw and so man was fired. He went home so furious asking himself how a small paper “the receipt” was able to betray his actions done in secret. So what did he do? He sold part of his livestock and enrolled himself and his kids in school so that they could all know how to read and interpret the so called “small paper”. That is how education reached the villages. I donated the sculpture to the Agha khan international university in Nairobi.
Jonathan: So if I understand correctly, an important aspect of making a sculpture is to keep something in that sculpture alive – be it your part in conserving elephant and owl populations, but also stories from your grandfather as well as images from your dreams. So where do you fit in to all this? Who is this guy named Peter Kenyanya Oendo?
Peter: It’s hard for me to talk about myself, but let me try. Who is me? I’m made up of four main parts: Career, Spiritual life, Husband and Father. It’s easy to be a father, but a father and an artist – that can be hard. It’s a game of juggling all the time.
The truth is that I have embarrassed three of the four parts of me. The key, I have learned, is maintaining a delicate balance and a thin line in between the four. I go to church when I have to, when I’m at home I’m the best father I can be and a good husband. But then, too much domestic life means my career suffers. My career must come first in these four categories because it is the center thing that holds my family together, makes my church relevant, and basically puts food on the table. I’m an artist and like a lot of artists I sometimes long to be an Artist and nothing else, BUT! Sacrifices have to be made and delicate balances should be struck. If you remove the church from me: Spiritual breakdown… I would most likely go back to drinking. If you take away my family or separate me from my family, I will lose everything worth living for. If I have nothing to work for, my career as an artist becomes meaningless. I would be like a headless chicken hahahahaha!!!!. The four put together is what forms Kenyanya.
Here’s how all these things about me are reflected in my work: first, there is a heavy sense of discipline in my work. I am a disciplined man and very focused on perfection. When I start something, I have to go all the way. That is why my lines, the form, the shinny finish and the tidy neatness you find in every one of my pieces are the way they are. From the under side of my pieces to the back they all matter to me. All of it is extremely vital. Everything including the final display has to be tidy and neatly done. Perfect!
When he is about to go to bed, my son Moses dresses up in his best pair of trousers, shoes and even belt. He tucks his shirt in his pants like he was going to church. When I look at him I always tell myself fondly that this is how I was exactly. Is this an inborn attributes or in the genes?
This perfectionist streak in me has helped me to stand out from the rest of the pack. I’ve been able to do well with myself. People often wonder how I manage to keep a family when a huge percentage of artists worldwide struggle to do so. I will tell you: it’s only by the grace of God.
Jonathan: I like how you break down the four core aspects of your life. I quite relate to what you are saying. I’m also a husband, a father, an artist and a Christian. These four aspects of my life are not always easy to harmonize, I’ll tell you that. Like you say… only by the grace of God. And what artist doesn’t long for more time in the studio? Do you think your son Moses will follow in your footsteps and become a sculptor too?
Peter: Yes, my son Moses has already shown that he intends to follow after me but first I want to give him the best education. After that, if he decides to become a full time artist it will be up to him. What I know is that the seed is already in my three kids Gifty, Carmen and Moses.
Jonathan: What’s it like being a full time artist with a family to support in Kenya? What are some of the challenges in your part of the world? Moreover, I’m curious about the business end of being a sculptor (as opposed to a painter like me)… shipping your work must be a challenge to say the least! How do you manage the business side of being an artist? Where are most of your collectors located? How do you go about connecting with prospective collectors?
Peter: Yes, I’m a full time sculptor and it come with challenges and advantages in equal measure I would say. When people want to buy a piece of art, they consider many things… they try to compare sculpture to painting depending on who, where and how. There are people who don’t care as long as they have found what they want, they will spend a fortune to ship or transport to any part of the world. But some who mind the weight will always go for a painting since they are easier to transport and less costly in that respect.
I remember one time in my exhibition somebody from another African country came in and pointed out some sculptures and said pack them quick, quick! I thought he was joking when he started counting the dollars, the personal assistants started to dissuade him from buying heavy stuff, but he insisted by saying that even if it means carrying them on his head he was leaving with those sculptures.
When I engage my prospective buyers, I offer them incentives like discounts, free packaging with a 100% guarantee for shipping… esp. overseas packaging. I realized that most of the clients are worried about the safety of their work during transit but I assure them and even go to the extent of demonstrating to them how I do it. Knowing how to talk about my work is an added advantage.
Most of my work is in Canada. I mean most of it is concentrated in Canada. I have a few serious collectors who have bought quite a few pieces.
I must say being a full time Artist is quite hard. There is a degree of compromise between doing what you like and doing something else. At times you do things that otherwise you would not have done if you had something else to support your income. But you know… this is my path. I always have to go on and I have never thought even for one second that I can be something else. I am an Artist and that is what I was born to be. And what will be, will be. It is worth the challenge and the risks. Still, there is always a delicate balance one has to take.
Jonathan: Commissioned work is indeed a balancing act. Personally, I enjoy doing commissions. If handled properly, they are essentially guaranteed income. The piece is already sold! It’s just super important to secure a deposit and set up a regular payment plan as the work progresses. I find that it’s also important to be on the same page with the patron in terms of what exactly they want from you and how that ties in to your overall style and integrity as an artist. Like you say, this will involve a degree of compromise. The downside is that the creative spark has been tamed somewhat. That can impact motivation. How do balance that? How do you keep that same level of passion and dedication to the art in a commissioned piece?
Peter: When I handle commissioned work I have to make sure I remain loyal to the client but also true to myself and my course as an Artist. I have to stick to the common principles to guide me through the whole process. I have to personalize the commissioned piece so that I care about what I’m doing, but I also have to customize it to the client’s desires. I have to like and feel what I’m doing from the inside but always see everything from the side of the Client. I always have to make sure that I take all the client’s instructions in minute detail, gathering as much information as I can from the client. Then I have to figure out the time lines in relation to the work to be done and finally when pen meets paper I have to make sure I’m happy and the client has to be happy too. How does the process start? A prospective client approaches you, he/she may have a something… a photo, sketches or a model. Then you will go to the next stage and discuss the material to be used, the actual size of the finished sculpture, and so on and so forth. All this has to be in relation to the created model, the finishing details, the duration of the work and, of course, the price.
If the idea the client has only exists in the mind then he/she will give a description and you will listen and come up with some sketches then finally a scale model that will guide you through the whole process. It’s important to visit the site where the sculpture is going to be installed if possible. Or to know a lot about it before the process begins. Sometimes it might be practically impossible to install, for example, a 20 tonne stone sculpture on a second or third floor of a building. That would be a logistical nightmare!
Jonathan: When you say that you are totally dedicated to being an artist and that there is really nothing else that you can envision yourself doing, that prompts me to ask an important question that you can answer in which way you see fit: What does your art – the spirit of the thing – mean to you? Why do you do it? Why is it so important to you?
Peter: When I’m communicating something though my art, there is a higher purpose to it that is difficult to explain. There is also a profound sense of responsibility to see it through. Stopping at any point would be like abandoning the cause. It’s funny… no one has put a gun on my head and said “carve or die!” but there is no way that I would ever stop doing what I’m doing. I enjoy doing it, it is exciting as each and every day unfolds. I discover something new, I work totally on self regulation, I see things differently mostly from four perspectives. I think in 3D. I turn stones into bread for my family and though my art I am able to share with others what is deep inside me AND what is hidden in the stone.
Jonathan: Finally, where do you see yourself five years from now? Any big projects on the horizon? Any desires to try new materials and/or techniques?
Peter: My plans fall within a period of ten years. I want to hold a number of shows abroad, attend international Art residencies and cultural exchanges, organize an international sculpture symposium in Kenya for which I have acquired parcels of land where I hope to construct an Art center to help nurture young and upcoming talent in rural Kenya. However my immediate plans are to have a permanent workshop and show room to help me find financial stability before I move to other areas.
Jonathan: Peter, it was a pleasure interviewing you! Thank you kindly for taking the time to answer my questions about your amazing work. You’re a wonderful artist and a wonderful human being. I wish you well…
Peter: Thank you Jonathan! This has been a grand experience. I look forward to reading your masterpiece!
You can view Peter Kenyanya Oendo’s refined, obsessively polished and amazingly fluid stone sculptures here: http://www.sculpturekenya.co.ke/