Painter captures the world's vanishing cats

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GREAT CATS: STORIES AND ART FROM A WORLD TRAVELLER

By Simon Combes

The Greenwich Workshop Press

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

168 pp., $35

After searching in vain for the elusive tigers that prowl through the thick, snow-clad forests of Siberia, Simon Combes realized that his dream to paint the world's great exotic cats would not be as easy as he hoped.

An English-born Kenyan acclaimed for his finely detailed paintings of African wildlife, Mr. Combes was traveling to the earth's remote corners to find the ferocious cats that had long fascinated him.

"I wanted to do it because I loved cats and I was intrigued by the non-African cats," Combes says in his gentle English accent, during a visit to Boston. "But the more I got into it, at the early stages of research, I began to realize how incredibly endangered most of these cats are. Then, it became a bit of a crusade."

His travels resulted in a new book, "Great Cats: Stories and Art From a World Traveller," replete with exquisite portraits of his rare subjects - from a cougar softly padding through the wintery wilderness of Idaho to a Bengal tiger lurking in a bamboo jungle in India. The paintings are accompanied by Combes's engaging, sometimes comical insights on the local color and inhabitants of the places he visited.

Combes also shows the cats' dramatic decline due to human encroachment. Scientists told him that poaching had decimated the number of Siberian tigers to between 200 and 300 in the wild. A gene pool of 500 animals is considered necessary to sustain the species. "Here is the world's largest cat ... and it's just teetering on the brink of extinction," Combes says indignantly. "It makes you almost embarrassed to be a human being."

When he was forced to abandon the search for a cat, he resorted to captive animals instead. In his book, he describes the challenge of turning a somnambulant creature into a wild, unfettered animal on canvas.

A bemused look steals over Combes's good-natured face when he's asked about the unexpected turn of events that led to his career. "I never really had a plan for my life."

Growing up on his family's ranch in British-controlled Kenya, the young boy thought he would become a farmer and delighted in hunting the wild cats that roamed the desert plains. But in his late teens, Combes joined the army. "It was the only way I could get [a trip] to England for free," he says lightheartedly.

He remained in the army for 13 years, even after Kenya gained independence in 1963. "Eventually, I was the only white man in this 15,000-strong army, which wasn't a problem - I was a Kenyan."

While helping to fight a guerrilla war against neighboring Somalia, Combes took up drawing to relieve his boredom. The fighting "sounds quite dramatic, but there were very long periods where nothing was going on, and we just sat up in the desert country," he explains. "So I thought, 'Hey, I've got to do something! I've got to find a hobby.' "

The days spent hunting and observing wild cats as a boy helped him depict animals' subtle expressions and movements - the confidence of a cheetah, the intricately patterned coat of a leopard, the sudden tension of a lioness catching sight of her prey.

A full-time artist since 1974, Combes has raised many thousands of dollars for wildlife conservation causes. He divides his time between painting at his family home in England and working as a safari guide in Kenya.

Although he has won numerous fine arts awards, he prefers to call himself a draftsman rather than an artist, and winces when his work is likened to a photograph - unsure if that comment is a veiled criticism.

Freshly returned from a trip to North and South Dakota, he is now working on a 12-foot canvas of migrating American buffalo as they appeared 200 years ago, before they were decimated by human development. He is relying on descriptions of the buffalo found in the diaries of the 19th-century explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose footsteps he followed through the Dakota wilds.

"I've worked hard, but I've been very fortunate," Combes reflects. "It doesn't get lonely. When you're not with people, it's great to be among the animals."

* Caryn Coatney is on the Monitor staff.

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