The Cat Man Named Coheleach

An all-American original who sees the fire in the big cat’s eyes, and paints it.
by Brooke Chilvers
From the November/December 2008 issue.

Years ago in the Central African Republic, three lions strode into our safari camp in full daylight. The staff scattered, climbing into trees or vehicles, while I hid in my straw hut armed with a fishing spear. The thrill of fear that day fueled my infatuation with paintings of big cats.

Lions—and leopards, tigers, jaguars, and pumas—are captivating creatures, and few artists interpret them better than Guy Coheleach, illustrator of The Big Cats, a 1982 best-selling Book- of-the-Month Club selection, and both author and illustrator of The African Lion as Man-Eater (2003), his in-depth book at the natural history of Panthera leo, peppered with accounts of limbs gnawed and torsos eviscerated.

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Expensive Meal

Drawn from more than a hundred game-viewing and big-game-hunting safaris in Africa since 1966, Coheleach’s work demonstrates to biologists, professional hunters, and wildlife-art aficionados alike his understanding of the anatomy and behavior of animals, their aura, and their mood. “One [species] has power, one has grace, one has beauty, one is ominous,” he told author Terry Wieland. And he expresses their life force with a broad range of styles that he seemingly picks at will, whether highly detailed close-ups of black-maned male lions in gouache and acrylic, or expansive landscapes in oil of rocky outcroppings “peopled” with prides looking over the woodland savanna, or loose watercolors that catch a streaking cat. Coheleach, who admits to boring easily, moves unfalteringly among them all.

He has been at the top of his game since the 1970s, practically defining the genre “wildlife artist” and having a wonderful time doing it. His list of accolades and awards is long: eight-time winner of the Society of Animal Artists’ Award of Excellence, works exhibited at the White House and the Corcoran Galley, two PBS films, articles in Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post, an honorary doctorate, and more.

The last of nine children, Coheleach was born in 1933 into a broad-minded Depression-era family. His love affair with wildlife began on Long Island’s South Shore, keeping venomous snakes in the basement and “hunting” migrating peregrine falcons—not just for fun, but to handle and draw them—by camouflaging himself in the sand. (Roger Tory Peterson praised his many wonderful bird paintings.)

After attending Catholic high school in Brooklyn, he studied art in the 1950s at New York’s Cooper Union, where his Realism went unappreciated during the height of Abstract Expressionism (think Jackson Pollock). His course, however, was interrupted by a stint in Korea and Vietnam in the intelligence unit of the Army’s 65th Combat Engineer Battalion, where his talented eyes were employed for “pattern analysis,” interpreting from a light reconnaissance aircraft whether a bridge could support a truck.

He finished his studies with a strong sense of design embedded in his vision, ripe ground for zebra stripes or strips of winter light. His ability to comprehend motifs later found expression in the spotted coats of cheetah, jaguar, and African and Asian leopards. And his spell working for a Madison Avenue catalog publisher gave him the self-discipline to be creative on a deadline.

Coheleach’s success as a wildlife artist began when Don Eckelberry, who painted virtually every bird in North America north of Mexico for the Audubon field guides, passed him an assignment for an illustrated wildlife calendar. Then in 1966 he won the Winchester National Trap and Skeet Championships, which came with a plane ticket to London that he skipped in favor of Nairobi.

Soon he was hot on the subject of predators and, by definition, prey. Death stalked Coheleach, not only in the riverine forests of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley when he tested, one too many times, the theory that you can stop a charging elephant in its tracks by holding your ground and flapping your arms (when the elephant failed to tusk him, it tried stomping him instead), but also on America’s roadways. A hit-and-run driver killed his youngest son, and Coheleach’s father died when the wind blew over his camping trailer while traveling around the country to visit his grown kids.

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Lawyers and Bankers

Then, starting in 1972, Coheleach stalked death, abandoning the well-worn tracks of Africa’s national parks to hunt hot spots such as the Zambezi Valley, the slopes of Mt. Meru, the Okavango. He tracked Cape buffalo, faced elephant with a rifle instead of a movie camera, checked the freshness of spoor in the Kalahari sand, and shared sundowners around the campfire with some of Africa’s most famous professional hunters, including, just to name a few, Terry Matthews, John Lawrence, John Dugmore, John Northcote, and Mike Bartlett—as hunting client, honored guest, friend on game-control, or helping them fill their licenses or quotas. He knows enough to have contributed chapters to Amwell Press’s Hunting the African Buffalo and Hunting the African Elephant (where he recounts his elephant incident).

Although over the years he has bagged well over a hundred buffalo and a dozen-plus elephant, he is more interested in getting close enough to smell an animal than in killing it. “Guy was not a trophy hunter as such,” Dugmore wrote in a recent e-mail. “He hunted for the experience and excitement. What still stands out in my mind was his heavy breathing as we approached our quarry—not from fear, but from pure excitement. I am sure these experiences contributed to his paintings, particularly his charging elephant and buff.” Coheleach has killed one lion, “but I’m not proud of it,” and no leopard. “Sure, I’m weird for buffalo. But I never shot an elephant that I didn’t feel sick about afterwards,” he told Wieland.

Artists can read studies by wildlife researchers, like George Schaller, and fill hard drives with photos of zoo- or game-park cats, but a human-habituated collared resident of a luxury safari lodge doesn’t give off the same electricity as a “real” one. The difference is the fire in the eyes, the tension in the muscles, and the fat on the belly.

Coheleach was influenced by Swedish wildlife artist and hunter Bruno Liljefors (1860–1939), who depicted the interaction between predator and prey unsentimentally in the Impressionist style. Liljefors also looked for patterns in nature, which might explain Coheleach’s attraction to spotted cats, striped spiral-horned antelopes, and gamebirds; by American ornithologist, artist, and Alaskan explorer Louis A. Fuertes (1874–1927), who madly sketched live birds but worked from the specimens he shot, placing them in their habitats in works as remarkably composed as Audubon’s; and Berlin-born Carl Rungius (1869–1959), who hunted and painted the big game of the American West and the Yukon Territory.  

In Coheleach’s art, design translates into appealing storytelling compositions, like his cougar descending a rocky incline by obliquely traversing the canvas from top right to lower left, or a Cape buffalo charging across and out of the canvas toward the viewer. He also uses composition to create the suspense between predator and prey. In Monkeys Above, a hungry leopard looks up into the highest branches of a thorn tree that continues off canvas, tricking the eye into both quadrupling the size of the painting and suggesting impending carnivorous action. He often provides the viewer with other clues—kicked-up dust, fresh tracks leading out of the frame, a burst of feathers against the sky—that simultaneously convey movement.

It’s no accident that his leopards, resting post-prandially on a branch in the dappled light of acacias, are familiar to big-game hunters, who probably constitute the biggest audience for his high-priced originals and limited-edition prints, and want to relate art directly to their experiences in the field, whether pursuing elephant, kudu, or wild sheep.

Coheleach works on every scale, from 10 by 8 inches to 3 by 6 feet. Miniatures, he says, oblige the artist to be spontaneous, painting the overall design and shapes first and keeping it simple, shunning doodly details. Because “interesting colors make interesting paintings,” he looks for the siennas and ochres in a patch of green grass and will often use a palette knife to keep them clean and bright while creating surface texture. He thins quick-drying acrylics for backgrounds, spattering with a brush or dabbing them on with a sponge to create textures and depth, avoiding their sometimes plasticky look. He uses gouache, a type of fast-drying watercolor-like opaque paint consisting of pigment suspended in chalky water, often employed by commercial artists for posters and comics. But he still likes old-fashioned oil on a linen canvas best.

If early in his career Coheleach catered to the market’s taste for representational art, his loosest, most impressionistic works are his most poetic and expressive.

Guy Coheleach is an all-American, tax- and attorney-hating, action-loving original. And how can you not love a wildlife artist whose favorite rifle is a Champlin-made custom .460 Weatherby?





Although not an artist herself, Brooke says that, “to see lion and leopard, I’ve done my fair share of sitting numbly in dead silence in a hot blind, mopane flies everywhere and a fickle wind carrying the putrid odor of four-day-old bait.”
 
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