Colourist Mary Collis find inspiration in her garden

Artist who draws inspiration from her home garden

“All the orchids I have are indigenous to Kenya, and they are beautiful.”

Mary Collis by her orchids in her garden. Photo/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Alan and Mary Collis moved into their home in Loresho in 1976. The home, which sits on a 2.5 acre plot, came with an unkempt, overgrown garden which ended at Mathare River.

Soon Alan took up the role of restoring the garden, it all started with two thorn trees, a flame tree, several palms and a monkey puzzle tree.
Today the beautiful garden is a source of inspiration for Mary, one of Kenya’s leading abstract expressionist artists and the co-founder of Rahimtullah Museum of Modern Art (RaMoMa).
She founded it with Carol Lees and currently being revived on Mfangano Street in the Rahimtullah Library.
Mary admits she is not, and never was, a gardener but it’s in her garden that she draws inspiration. As a colourist, she favours gardens that are rich in a wide variety of riotous hues giving the example of the late Erica Boswells garden, founder of the former Jax fashion house.
“We left Just about half of our land (2.5 acres) to remain as it was, wild and overgrown, which has a natural beauty of its own, especially as all of those trees are indigenous to this area of Nairobi,” says Mary, who has been painting her own as well as other people’s gardens for many years.
She loves the variegated shades of green that she finds in her own garden. Her garden boasts a variety of shrubs, succulents and the majestic Monkey Puzzle tree, known as the Araucaria araucana or the Chilean Pine, which seems to crown her front lawn with a dazzling display of abundant verdant vines that hug and spread out widely around the base of a tree.
The trunk of the 38 year old tree rises strong, thick and erect with the leafy green branches that veritably explode at the top of the puzzle tree extend in the sky almost as widely as the vines on the ground.
For Mary, the only tree in her garden that can match the Monkey Puzzle for majesty and strength is the Mugumo tree (Fig tree). “It’s been here long before we arrived so we have no intention of ever chopping it down,” said the second generation Kenyan.
One of her favourite shrubs in her back yard is an Indian Almond, a large tropical tree known as Terminalia catappa, which she says the birds adore. They are always hanging around it, especially as it’s not far from the bird feeder, she says.
One of her greatest delights is waking up and having breakfast at her veranda which looks directly out on the Indian Almond and seeing bird watching.
She draws a lot of inspiration from her rose garden, which was not in full bloom when we arrived recently.
She anticipates painting it again when the roses are flush with bright beautiful hues of pink, yellow, white and bright red.
It’s hard to tell that the colour scheme in her abstract expressionist art comes directly from her garden. Often the work looks like splashes of colour, not discrete pink or purple petals bound together at the stem.
One of her favourite flowers in the garden, apart from the roses, is the Orchid. Her orchids are in portable pots so she can take them out into the open air when it rains but also to have them close at hand for inspiration.

“All the orchids I have are indigenous to Kenya, and they are beautiful,” she says.
Mary is a self-taught artist who began her career as a graphic designer but gradually realised her first love was actually painting not graphics.
Mary and Alan live on the far west end of the Mathare River Valley and the lush floral greenery of their garden gives one an inkling of what the same Mathare Valley must have looked like many years ago when it was still well-watered bush.
Today it’s more of a slum devoid of the vegetation.
One can only hope that one day the entire city of Nairobi will again be the green ‘city in the sun’, just as lush and cared for and conserved as the space occupied by the Collis’s.
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