This stunningly realistic painting of a zebra looking at rhinos was created in acrylic by artist Mark Middleton. At Grand Rapid’s 2014 Art Prize, the piece placed in the top 20 overall and 5th of 980 works in its category.
“I was a conservationist living in the bush [of South Africa] until I married a Michigan girl,” Mark said when I asked him why he painted South African wildlife. “My passion is wildlife, and I now live that passion through my paintings.”
I met Mark at Kathryn L. Kircher’s KLK Design & Art Studio in Walloon Lake. KLK takes over the entire second floor of its building, located just across the street from the Barrel Back Restaurant. It is the only place that you can purchase Mark’s artwork, and he has several pieces on display. At first blush, it is an odd location for an artist whose most popular works impart emotions and souls into South African wildlife. Yet after walking through the gallery and seeing how Kathryn’s team of designers utilize the pieces to create warm spaces full of life and emotion, one realizes that this is an ideal marriage of artist and studio.
After a brief talk about Art Prize, Mark and Kathryn guide me through the gallery to show me several of his latest pieces. Mark’s paintings express his passion for wildlife, nurtured through a career as a conservationist in a South African national park. “I do believe that it is my love for the bush and its wildlife that drives my talent to create a painting,” Mark is quoted on his website. “It is that very passion that will always make me realize that I am but a student in this amazing world we live in.”
I asked Mark about his career as a conservationist on a 60,000 hectare park. He talked a bit about his work trying to keep the ecosystem of the park in balance, but it was his relationship to the animals that intrigued me the most. When I asked him if he knew all the animals in his park, and had names for them, he seemed surprised by the question. “There are too many. Besides, I don’t believe in giving animals titles or names. They don’t belong to us. It is a personal thing, a name,” he said. “Although, I do have a photograph of me walking with a hyena. We had a terrible drought one year and had this hyena, a male, that would wander around the house. I would give him water every day. Eventually I called him Eugene. And he was there every single day to get water. Eventually he got so used to me that I could walk into the pack. Just walk right in. They wouldn’t even bother me or run away. So I gave him a name because he was my mate.”
When I returned home, I visited Mark’s website to get a look at the paintings already sold. Through these paintings, I learn that his gift is not only the photo-quality realism of his art, but his ability to convey deep emotion in the eyes of his subjects. From the pride of a leopard, to the peaceful gaze of a gorilla, Mark paints more than just animals. He captures lives.
“I use references,” Mark tells me as I study his water buffalo painting. “But I don’t use photographs. I have worked with these animals, closely. I know them.”
Mark has been painting all his life, and professionally for over 15 years. “I was living out in the bush. So I had spare time to paint.” He moved to Petoskey three years ago, and this year was his first as an entrant to Art Prize. He currently has four pieces for sale through KLK Design & Art, the three paintings shown above (zebra, buffalo, elephants) and a close up of a cheetah.
As for the Art Prize piece…
Mark entitles it Perspective and it holds deep meaning for the artist. The reflection in the eye of the zebra is of two rhinos, a highly threatened species due to illegal poaching. The stripes of the zebra are meant to represent the black and white rhino species that roam Africa. The artwork is hung on rusted corrugated tin, meant to represent the poverty of South Africa. It is Mark’s belief that this poverty leads to the illegal trade in rhino horns.
Mark has promised a portion of the proceeds from this artwork to anti-rhino poaching charities. He is a supporter of several organizations that are fighting to protect this unique species. You can learn more at sanwild.org, protrackapu.co.za, and stoprhinopoaching.com.