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South African painter inspired by 'real' moments in the wild

Michelle Decker, a wildlife artist from South Africa, is one of several painters traveling to Charleston for the 2017 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition from Feb. 17-19.

Decker spends hours under the hot sun closely observing and photographing animals, then retreats to her studio where she makes detailed, close-up paintings of her subjects using acrylics and subdued tones.

The result provides viewers an opportunity to observe fantastic African beasts with an intimacy rarely achieved, either in real life or in art.

Q: At what point in your life did you decide that you would apply your impressive artistic skills to the portrayal of animals, and why?

A: In 2004, I spent six months deep in the African bush, in Zambia, where my parents owned a guest lodge. While I had grown up loving wildlife, my time there, living amongst wild animals, sealed my determination to represent them.

Q: In what ways has living in South Africa informed your views of the natural world?

A: Being blessed to live in a country so rich in wildlife and natural beauty has made me very aware of and sensitive to the preciousness of what we have. Every minute in the wild fuels my desire to share it with the world and bring attention to the spectacular beauty of these animals, which many people, unfortunately, will never have the privilege of seeing up close.

Q: Your paintings are unusual in that they hone in on your subjects and seem to express a sense of personality. It’s as if they transport the viewer into the mind of the animal. Describe your philosophical approach to your work.

A: What a compliment! That is precisely what I strive to achieve. Each animal has unique characteristics and detail that define them. To me, these elements, when focused on, convey the true spirit of an animal. By eliminating surroundings and even color, the viewer is drawn into the very nature of the animal before them.

Q: Compositionally, you adopt interesting and unorthodox angles and framing. Sometimes the subject is actually looking away from the viewer. What are you trying to achieve by this?

A: There is always a particular element I am trying to draw the viewer’s eye towards and this is achieved by thoughtful placement of that element within the frame. As I aim to capture real moments in each animal's life, I look for angles that will give the viewer a sense of the mood or leave them wondering what the animal was looking at. Animals have a lot going on in their natural world and are far more concerned with that than looking directly into camera for me — so I need to find the gems in every shot I’m able to get.

Q: Do you have any experience painting wildlife from other continents? Have you visited the U.S. before? And what does it mean to you to participate in the Southeastern Wildlife Expo here in Charleston?

A: Until now I have only focused on African wildlife as it is what I have been exposed to and able to photograph. I visited the U.S. for the first time early last year and will be spending quite a bit of time here photographing local wildlife, which I would like to start painting within the next year. It is important for me to get a sense of the animals before I can paint them so I’m hoping for some great sightings and experiences!

I am honored and delighted to be participating in SEWE. The standard of exhibitors is incredibly high and very diverse, which makes for a culturally rich show. Being surrounded by so many like-minded people, all with a heart for nature and a creative way of interpreting it, will be nothing short of inspiring.

This will be my first trip to Charleston and I am very excited to be presenting my work to a new audience.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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