“I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” ? American painter and teacher Robert Henri.
A disabled artist from Nyeri happened upon the art scene and blossomed.
Now she is a flower gone too soon but her works will live for ages to inspire generations.
About 40 years ago, Mary Wanja presented Mzee Jomo Kenyatta with the gift of a beautiful painting of flamingoes flying over Lake Nakuru.
The President, who was visiting the Dagoretti Children’s Home then, was fascinated by the piece of art.
But his fascination at the beautiful piece of art before him could not measure up the joy of the then 15-year-old physically disabled girl who had done the painting.
She had lost her limbs at a tender age of six years following a polio infection, rendering her totally incapacitated, and confining her on a wheelchair.
Thus the fact that she had done the whole drawing using her mouth is something she took great pride in.
She grinned innocently, totally speechless that she could impress the most powerful man in the republic despite her physical disability.
The bright smile on the young girl’s face glimmered throughout her older years, as she eventually became a leading mouth artist.
But the curtain has now fallen on the career of Wanja at the age of 56. She passed on at her Nyeri home on Sunday night.
Wanja’s journey to art commenced shortly after she was diagnosed with polio at the ADH Hospital.
Mary Wanja who lost her limbs to polio wows many by drawing and painting by mouth.
Lying on the hospital bed and still mulling over how she would associate with normal children, who she envied as they played freely outside, Wanja saw something that shocked her.
A white man suffering from polio, who had been admitted at the hospital and whose limbs had also turned numb, was using his mouth to draw caricatures.
The white man, Ian Bompas, would from then onwards become Wanja’s mentor as she later moved to Dagoretti Children’s Home for the physically impaired.
“I begged my parents to buy me plain papers and painting brushes and they thought I was crazy,” said Wanja during a previous interview.
With her deft mouth and impressive creativity, Wanja did all manner of paintings depicting various aspects of social, political and economic life.
In her words, she never struggled to devise a painting idea as she was an avid reader, a keen follower of current affairs and a passionate observer of the environment.
When we visited her house in May last year at Kimathi estate in Nyeri Town, we found her delving into the latest edition of The Nairobian.
Kibaki and Raila
Her sitting room was decorated with myriad paintings of wildlife, African artefacts, beaming faces of Africans in traditional attire and drawings of renowned political icons and media personalities.
A conspicuous painting of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga smiling side-by-side with retired President Mwai Kibaki captured our attention.
Although drawn in simple black and white, the painting was visibly “pregnant” with a message to any person who looked keenly at the faces of the two leaders.
Wanja explained that the painting was motivated by the violent scenes of the 2008 post-election violence she saw in the media.
In fact she drew the picture when the violence was at its peak to pass the message that the two leaders had the ability to dialogue in the face of the ongoing chaos.
In a day Wanja – who was an active member of the Association for Mouth and Foot Artists – could do up to fivepaintings, although the association requires a minimum of 10 submitted per month.
On that day, Wanja had planned to draw a picture of a multi-coloured bush creeper plant which she had recently spotted in a TV wildlife documentary programme.
Perched on her wheelchair adjacent to her painting table, she picked the brush – with her mouth – from a tin aided by her househelp.
We stared in awe as Wanja occasionally dipped the brush in water.
She shook it and then rubbed the brush against the mound of paint before meticulously moving the brush on the white sheet of paper.
While at it, she left a trail of beautiful contours – which at the end of the breathtaking exercise turned into a beautiful multi-coloured plant.
She explained that for the more complex paintings like portraits of people, she would take up to an entire week or even a month to complete one drawing.
But she was surprised that most Kenyans are yet to appreciate art, saying that citizens from other countries are known to compete to purchase such paintings.
“It is important that Kenyans learn to appreciate art even in this age of digital technology,” said Wanja, adding that some of her paintings can be scanned and printed on cards.
She said that despite her physical disability, she had been appreciated by the society and her family for her work and asked people to venture into whatever they had a passion for.
“It was because of this confidence, that my dad at his death bequeathed me land just like my brothers,” said a chuckling Wanja.
Wanja is survived by two children, a grandchild and the generation of artists she inspired through her work.