Capturing the wild: VCUarts alumnus finds inspiration in Africa

Caldwell on his first safari to Tanzania, Africa in 2012.

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Wildlife artist Robert Caldwell (B.F.A.’00/A), owner of RL Caldwell Studio and Gallery, is known for his highly detailed, photorealistic paintings. His early works feature Northern American birds sprinkled with a few other types of animals he has observed on his travels around the country. In 2012, a trip to Africa sparked a new direction for his art, as if overnight elephants, zebra and monkeys appeared on his canvas. He has since returned to Africa three times, leading groups of professional artists as well as students from his Midlothian, Virginia, teaching studio on photo safaris. This Monday, he takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram account, as he makes his fourth trip to Africa.

What sparked your interest in art and wildlife?

I have always loved the outdoors and do whatever I can to get outside and see wildlife. Although I would much prefer to be in the African bush or on the side of a mountain in Colorado, I still search out and find small wildlife in any setting, even here in Richmond.

It was actually in college that I was sitting in the studio waiting for the professor to show up when I picked up a magazine called Wildlife Art and started flipping through its pages. It was that day that I was introduced to Robert Bateman and several other artists working in the wildlife art genre. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t that be a great and rewarding career?” I did not set out from that point to be a wildlife artist, but the seed had been planted.

Why did you choose to attend VCU’s art school?

Actually VCU chose me. In high school, I went to National Portfolio Day, and VCUarts was one of the programs that reviewed my portfolio. As the then-assistant dean of the School of the Arts started looking at my work, she began asking questions like “Were you helped with these drawings?” and “Did you trace them?” and a few others that I thought were odd. Odd because, of course, I didn’t have help, they were my creations.

While I was packing up my work, she asked if I could come back at the end of the day. When my parents and I returned, she asked me if I wanted to come to VCU. I answered yes without much thought, and the next thing I knew she accepted me on the spot.

In addition to being an artist, you’re also a teacher. How did that transpire?

Eight years ago, I was approached to teach a drawing class at a small art studio in Midlothian. That’s when I realized I liked teaching. Within a year, I was teaching four classes a week, which grew to six classes six months later. The studio I was teaching at decided to downsize, and it was about the same time that I was entertaining the idea of opening my own studio/school.

In 2016, I opened the doors to the RL Caldwell Studio and Gallery, where I teach, on average, 70 students a week in six different classes. Two of my former students have joined the school as instructors, and we now have classes Monday through Thursday. I leave Fridays and the weekends open so that we can hold art shows for the students and bring in outside instructors for special workshops.

When did you first go to Africa and what prompted the trip?

I went to Tanzania for the first time in October 2012. A friend of mine, Jan Martin McGuire, who at that point had been to Africa 18 times, kept telling me about all the wildlife, the habitat and just the sheer beauty of Africa. One day, after about an hour of conversation, she invited me to join her and her husband on their next safari to Tanzania. I was fortunate enough to pay for the trip by doing presales of new work I would create from my safari adventure.

What keeps you going back?

It’s simply the most amazing place to see and experience wildlife on a grand scale. As a wildlife artist, it is really important to continually observe animals in their natural habitat so that you can accurately depict them in your paintings and drawings. I feel very fortunate that I can now share Africa with my collectors, students and friends who join me on safari on yearly trips.

What has been one of your favorite moments in Africa?

My entire trip in 2012 was a life-changing event. Within the first hour of driving into Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, I saw my first wild elephants, impala, zebra, wildebeests and even a cheetah! I immediately saw a difference in the animals’ behavior and muscle structure and knew that I would never draw or paint another zoo animal again.

Of course, the fact that I even traveled to Tanzania was life-changing. It takes two very long flights, one eight hours and the other 10. This is where I mention that I’m petrified of flying, the type of petrified where you break out in a cold sweat and freak out at every strange noise and bump. I had also never been out of the country and was traveling by myself. That trip, and every one to Africa since, has completely taken me out of my comfort zone but it is worth it.

What stamp do you want next on your passport?

There are a few places I’d like to travel, and Africa continues to be high on that list. I have two safaris already planned for 2019, one to Botswana and the other back to Kenya with an extension to Rwanda. The Botswana safari will be another life-changing event as you have to take small bush planes to get from camp to camp (did I mention I hate flying?). The Kenya safari will introduce me to several new parks, including the Maasai Mara, but it’s the Rwanda extension that I’m really looking forward to. There, we’ll be spending time with mountain gorillas. What an adventure that will be!

Up next, though, is a trip this fall to Rome and Florence, Italy. Not a wildlife trip, but an art tip that several of the students at my art school have asked me to plan and schedule. I, of course, will be taking my camera and looking for urban wildlife.