In Latin, the word “vita” means “life.” For African painter Kobus Möller, Vita is not only the evocative—and fitting—first name of his beloved wife, it is a liberating spirit that flows through his art.
As you read these words, gaze upon Möller’s image of a lion on the current cover of SAFARI magazine, and then ask yourself, “What more do I see?” It’s not a trick question.
What Möller will tell you is that the glowing eyes peering back toward us are the inextinguishable sparks of life eternal. He has stared into them countless times while making close and sometimes harrowing contact with wildlife subjects in the bush. He’s been charged by elephants and Cape buffalo, spared from being gored but for the nearsightedness of an incensed rhino, and he’s spent years studying the behavior of predators and prey.
More profoundly and deeply personal, this artwork also earned the
heart-melting look of approval from Vita as he sat next to her bed, easel at the ready, when he made portraits of animals that inspired them during the course of their marriage. Surveying the gathering series of works, Vita declared that the one before you now was her favorite.
Why this matters I’ll explain in a bit, but for now let’s consider Kobus Möller the artist. Over many years, his booth at SCI has been a much anticipated stop for art collectors drawn to his impressionistic style and the ethereal atmosphere of his scenes. “I have no desire to replicate photographs,” he says. “I would like people to see.”
In 2010, Möller was named SCI’s Conservation Artist of the Year for generously making his artwork available to raise huge sums for causes ranging from rhino, elephant and lion protection to hiring more game guards to battle poachers. He is concerned that the Africa he knew as a boy is rapidly disappearing, like the things he values most close to home.
Born in 1949 in the rural outpost of Masvingo (previously Fort Victoria), Möller grew up the youngest of four boys in Zimbabwe, when that country was still claimed as a colonial extension of Britain. Both Möller’s father and oldest brother, Charl, were respected practicing artists and he absorbed much, he says, by watching how they worked.
Möller enrolled in college during the mid-1960s, but dropped out halfway through to fight in the long protracted Rhodesian bush war, spending a long stretch of his service stationed in the Zambezi River valley. “That is where my love of wildlife really blossomed,” he says.
Filling notepads with drawings since he was a boy, Möller pursued no formal art instruction in college after armistice was formally declared in 1980. It was during those early impressionable years that Möller met and married Vita, a soulmate who nurtured his confidence to paint long before the larger outside world realized he had uncommon talent.
Self taught, he doesn’t regret having never attained a degree. “I count that fact to be an asset because I had no overriding influence that lead me into any particular style of work,” he says. Indeed, what defines Möller’s art is that it’s dynamic, original and constantly evolving. He can tell you about how life and art and nature are interwoven; how there is no disconnection between heaven and
earth, between memories that reside in the immortal soul, those collected in dreams and those attained through living experience. Like his paintings, there are no hard edges between boundaries.
Above all else, Kobus Möller is a man of devoted faith. Dwelling in Africa, confronting change that often comes unexpectedly and can ambush your personal plans, is a lesson that comes from tethering one’s identity to that continent. From his studio in South Africa—the family relocated there decades ago—he longs to gather reference material based on direct observation.
“The big difference between a hunter and an artist who researches his subject lies in the different goals. The hunter needs to find his animal, decide on his target, and get close enough for a good clean kill shot. Once he or she pulls the trigger, the situation has changed totally,” Möller says. “I often go in after the animals with no back up gun, I need to get in much, much closer, and want to stay much longer, and then I have to get out again without any serious incident.”
These past few years, Möller has had a lot weighing on his mind. Zimbabweans are known for being a tough lot, for doing what it takes to survive under adversity. When Vita became stricken with terminal, stage four brain cancer, his resolve was put to the test.
“Due to my particular circumstances, I have been focusing on and searching to find the meaning of our very short lives on this planet,” he says. “I am trying to figure out what is really important. God is really important to me and my family. As our maker, he is the first cause of our lives and should be our first priority. As an artist, I am more fascinated than ever by the concept of ‘creativity’ and my mind boggles at the shear depth and complexity of God’s creation.”
Alongside Möller’s name whenever he signs a completed painting, he prints the words “Soli Deo Gloria,” which means “Glory to God Alone.” It’s his way of asserting that he is not making art to achieve personal adulation, but using his talent in praise to God, venerating the divine work of creation. Few artist speak of the spiritual aspect of wildlife art; Möller insists that there be no mistake.
But he, of course, is not the first visionary to declare his humility. Classical music composers George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach also invoked Solio Deo Gloria after they finished their masterworks, saying they were mere mediums for channeling the inspiration of a higher power. And so, too, does Möller give credit where he believes credit is due—to God and to Vita.
Wherever he goes, Möller leaves an impression on people that exerts itself in sometimes surprising ways. John D. Morgan, senior pastor at Sagemont Church in Houston, believes that great art can help searchers find answers.
“From the moment my eyes focused on Kobus’ art two decades ago, I was drawn to take a closer look at his incredible gift from God. Seeing the artist’s proclamation Soli De Gloria on every painting alone made me want to meet this humble but extremely gifted man,” the reverend Morgan says.
“And, from that very moment, I wanted to know him better and enjoy the artistic work to see what God was going to do with Kobus’ talent. He has a personal relationship with the creator of the wildlife he paints. I respect and admire him as a man and as an artist.”
Today, Möller’s work greets parishioners at Sagemont who show up every week to church services and partake in Bible study. They add to the joy of weddings and communions; they comfort the grieving. The church commissioned Möller to paint a massive 45-foot by 8-foot mural in the foyer of the sanctuary and three additional 16-foot by 4-foot murals that adorn other entrances.
“Everything done well and with dedication has the power of raising passion,” he says.
Longtime SCI members and art collectors Irene and Chet Silvestri have treasured the three Möllers on their walls. “Chet and I had the good fortune of meeting Kobus and his beautiful wife, Vita, several years ago at Safari Club,” Irene says. “His art work caught our eye immediately. Kobus’s paintings capture not only the beauty of his animal subject and environment in which they live, but also his emotional attachment to his work.”
For Möller, his canvases also reflect what is happening in his own life. The lion painting on the cover of SAFARI isn’t only about an iconic cat whose continued survival in 21st century Africa is less than assured. It is about hope for the species. It is about reverence for life. It is about Vita.
While many have tried to emulate his style and technique—he routinely teaches field workshops that operate as photo safaris—he stands alone.
Unlike contemporaries who rely upon photographs—and, in some cases, project those images onto a surface and then trace the outlines of animals— Möller has a far more involved process. Each painting is the net result of integrating five different, accumulated compositions that ultimately results in a harmonic blending of animal subjects and their habitat. Möller says his paintings are not orchestrated around line, form and color, as so many contemporaries’ are, but the magnetic pull of surface texture. In the last phase of creation, the animal literally emerges from its impressionistic background, completing the revelation he aspires to convey.
“Since the days when I was a younger man, I’ve been intrigued by the very idea of ‘beauty.’ I have pondered animals, sunsets, passing cloud formations, even the ornate patterns of bark on trees,” Möller says. “And each time I ask, ‘Is it beautiful?’”
Invariably, Möller’s response is always yes, but whether those same aspects of the natural world possess universal beauty for all beholders is more complicated.
“Keeping in mind that God’s creation has, from our limited perspective, unlimited visual potential, what I attempt to do hardly touches the surface,” Möller says.
His mission is to open the hearts and minds of art lovers to Africa’s divinely inspired magnificence, to let its mystery loom larger in their personal spaces, to appreciate in every moment the people and things that matter.– Todd Wilkinson