He is making a mark with glass
By Brian Obara
Art in Kenya seems to be stuck in a time warp. Beside painting and sculpture little else seems to be on the up and up. Working at the fringes, one man, Jeremy Gituru, is attempting to change that using his chosen medium of expression; glass engraving.
Gituru has been around the Kenyan Art scene for a while now. Eleven years to be exact. You probably remembered him best as the guy who rendered KTN’s iconic ‘robotic man’ logo (complete with the tv-size head) in glass. He got a lot of buzz after the station returned the favour and featured him in one of its art programs.
When we met at his at his small studio in Kahawa Wendani, Gituru remembered fondly how, when he was a struggling artist looking for odd jobs around the city, he was introduced to Phillipa Simpson, the director of the Glass Gallery in Karen;
“She (Phillipa) took several of us in and taught us the art. Some were unable to continue after some time but I stuck on till the end.”
“Am grateful for what I learn there because without it I wouldn’t be the artist I am today.”
First taste of success
The first born child in family of four has had to grab his opportunities with both hands when they come along because he learnt early in his life that luck favours the prepared. His ‘artsy’ temperament was always evident to teachers and they encouraged him to enroll in art competitions.
He got his first taste of success in 1993 at Igoji Primary school when he came third in a nation-wide art competition sponsored by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife. As a prize, he and the other winners of the competition got to spend five days in the Mara. It’s an experience that is seared deep into his mind;
“That was the first time I realised that I could make something of myself using this ‘art’ thing.”
Even so, Gituru’s decision to become an artist was less a choice and more of something he was forced into by circumstances. In 1998, after sitting his form four examinations at St Pius Seminary School Meru, financial difficulties at home made it impossible for him to continue with his education. This would later prove to be a blessing in disguise since it set him on the path to where he is right now.
A delicate art
Gituru is quick to point out that the fact that he deals with glass means that he has to work with the caution of a bomb disposal expert;
“I can’t afford to make any mistakes when am working. Any small error and I have to begin from square one. This means that I have to work with extra caution so that I don’t waste glass,” he says almost mournfully.
Gituru doesn’t do faint praise, especially when he is extolling the virtues of his craft. Chief among these, he insists, is the fact that glass is a three-dimensional art form;
“Even though I work on a flat surface, I get the three-dimensional effect by varying the depth of the engraving,” he gushes.
“And to get a darker shade, I use polishers because a cut surface of glass is white and when you polish it, you make it ‘dirty’, hence the dark areas.”
“Unlike on paper, where the artist and the viewer both view the work from the same point of, when using glass, I engrave on the negative perspective of the object so that the viewer to see it from the positive perspective.”
The thirty-four old likes to talk shop. More specifically he likes to talk about how some of his Kenyan customers are ‘a big let-down’;
“You find you use so much money buying the glass and spend time working on it only for a client to come off the street and want to buy it from you at a throw away price.”
The oft-repeated lament by his clients is that ‘glass breaks easy so its difficult to keep for long.’ Gituru brushes this aside and is frank about what he thinks the problem is. He puts it down to ‘art illiteracy’ especially when it comes to glass art;
“Kenyans have no appreciation for artists who work with glass. They think they are buying the glass and not the art engraved on it. This mindset is hard to change.”
Not that Gituru hasn’t been trying either. Recently he was commissioned by a friend who was getting married to engrave the wine glasses to be used at the wedding with the names of the important guests in attendance. He did the job gratis, partly as a wedding present for his friend and partly because he knew the work he did would be an advertisement in itself for his business, as Gituru explained a knowing smile playing on his face;
“They wanted 12 sets to be made, each with the names of the different people in attendance. I made it for them and offered it as a wedding present.”
While he waits for his fellow Kenyans to embrace glass art, Gituru has had to make do with the steady stream of orders for engraved commemorative plaques and crests from British Army soldiers at the Kahawa Army base. He shows me an etched photo cast of a bereted-soldier’s head with an engraved desk clock on the side.
“They sent this back because, in my haste, I had engraved the wrong motto of the battalion at the bottom of the plaque. This happens. You just have to be more careful,” he said with a shrug.
Beside the customers from the Kahawa Army base, Gituru is also building up some contacts in the corporate world. He showed me some customized plaques, etched paper weight and pen bases that he has made for his clients. He told me hopes to get commissioned to make engraved awards for his corporate clients because “that is where the real money is”.
As he showed with that famous sketch of the KTN logo, Gituru is a man who doesn’t skimp on detail. In his Kahawa Wendani studio he pulled out two miniature model KQ and Fly540 airplanes and showed me how he had painstakingly made sure that the proportions of the models matched those of the actual planes. He said it he did it because he knew that a trained eye would be able to spot any errors on sight:
“The people who work for the airlines know their aircrafts well. They will know the instant they see them that the proportions are not right. That’s why I have to use exact measurements.”
Raging against the machine
Guturu does all his work by hand using a machine that looks like one of those you usually see at the dentist’s with a drill fixed at the tip. He says he doesn’t dream of mass producing his work by using a machine and would rather train and employ a few other people in his studio than mess with the ‘purity’ of his craft in that way.
What of the future? Gituru hopes to expand his business by opening up a gallery and maybe employing a few more hands to help him run it. For now though, he wants to be realistic;
“The best I can hope for is that more Kenyans will embrace glass engraving as an art form. This is something that has enormous potential as long as more people give it a chance. There is some room for growth for sure.”