Nature painter inspired by his native Sri Lanka

Published on July 19, 2010   ·   No Comments

FALLBROOK— Conserving nature is not a cause, it is a way of life for internationally acclaimed wildlife artist Gamini Ratnavira of Fallbrook.

But first, nature must be understood, said Ratnavira, a native of Sri Lanka. He uses his art to teach that understanding.

Every picture must tell a story, said Ratnavira, who has “slowed down from one painting each day to about 150 a year.”

As an example, he referred to one of his widely known paintings: a herd of elephants walking along a pathway in the subtropical jungle of Sri Lanka, with monkeys playing in the trees above and birds flying around and landing on the big animals.

“To most people, it is just a pretty picture of trees, elephants, monkeys and birds. But now add this knowledge,” Ratnavira said.

“That is a real herd of 64 elephants that walks a 30- to 40-mile trail each week in Sri Lanka,” he said. “The monkeys are a favorite food for tigers, but tigers don’t go near elephants, so the monkeys get a measure of protection. The monkeys feed high in the trees, but drop about 80 percent of the food they gather, which provides ready food for the young elephants in the herd.

“And the birds? They eat the flies and other insects that not only annoy the elephants but can spread disease,” Ratnavira said. “So the picture teaches the interdependence of different species, all working together for the common good.”

The same kind of interdependent support system is going on in every backyard and square mile of open land in San Diego County, the artist said.

“When we understand these delicate relationships that create balance in nature, we are more careful not to inadvertently or deliberately disturb them.”

Ratnavira became acquainted with nature early in life when his parents divorced and placed him in a Catholic boarding school in Sri Lanka shortly after his fourth birthday.

“I was the youngest student in the school. I was small and the others didn’t want to play with me. Of course, it didn’t help that I was this scrawny little Buddhist kid in a strongly Catholic school,” Ratnavira said.

So he walked the fields and forests, bringing back collections of bugs. “But they were not interested. They beat me up instead. So I learned a variety of martial arts as self-defense,” skills that he has passed on to some of his children, who have earned black belts and beyond.

For generations, the Ratnaviras have been gemologists to the leading families of Sri Lanka, including the president, and his father was not thrilled about Gamini’s interest in art.

But tensions thawed after Gamini worked with England’s Prince Philip on the World Wildlife Fund and launched the Let Them Live project with the prince. The situation improved more when the young Ratnavira painted a series of 38 national postage stamps featuring Sri Lankan wildlife, followed by a series of paintings for the presidential palaces to replace all the kings and queens on horseback left over from colonial times.

In 1986 Ratnavira became the first native Sri Lankan to have a one-man show.

“I sold 150 paintings in less than an hour, and my father said it was right for me to be an artist and he could now die in peace,” Ratnavira said. “He died three months later.”

The civil war in Sri Lanka drove Ratnavira to the United States in 1988, but he has visited often. Since that war ended in last year, he said he is amazed at how quickly the country is recovering.

Ratnavira is now working on the illustrations for the second edition of a book of the native birds of Sri Lanka. The first edition had 347 of his illustrations and sold out in less than one month. He is now adding the remaining species for a full complement of 495 native birds.

An ardent bird-watcher, he said his personal bird-watching list now exceeds 4,500.

Courtesy :

lanelle hills

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