“I don’t necessarily consider myself an artist, I like to represent things on paper or canvas.” –Tony Henneberg
A downy woodpecker, a red-tailed hawk, a winter warbler, chanterelles, king boletes, black trumpets, and even the occasional bovine, Pine Plains painter Tony Henneberg pays attention to nature, in particular birds and mushrooms, wherever he goes. Ethology (the study of animal behavior), anatomical studies, and more recently, mycology (the study of mushrooms) combine with habitual quiet observation to elicit the inspiration for Henneberg’s watercolor and oil paintings.
It was nature from the start
Tony Henneberg was born in Germany to a farmer father and artist mother. When he was four, his family moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to work on his maternal grandparents’ farm. Nature, in Henneberg’s childhood, was always the focus. The countryside was teeming with game, and on holidays his family would travel to national parks where they saw kudu, impala, bushpigs, giraffes, elephants, duiker, and more. There was even a resident hippo who wandered around between the dams on their farm and would stomp down the fences that surrounded the paddocks.
“I had something of a wild childhood. When we first moved to Rhodesia, I couldn’t speak English properly. My mom tried to teach me at home, but that was sort of a failure my first year. I just wanted to go outside into the bush and mess around.” Henneberg’s mother worked at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo making rocks, leaves, and scenery for the display cases. After school Henneberg and his siblings would roam the backyards and vaults of the museum, fascinated in particular by the bird skins.
Art was a family affair
Since there was no television, Henneberg, his grandfather, mother, and brother spent their leisure time painting the wildlife they saw around them. Henneberg’s grandfather showed him how to do an outline, put down a wash, and choose colors. With the basics in place, Henneberg continued to teach himself. He painted from postcards or copied other paintings, Michelangelo in particular.
Because of the war and sanctions, there was no other choice but boarding school, the first of which Henneberg attended from the age of seven to 13. The school was located in the Matobo Hills, where Cecil John Rhodes (a British imperialist who founded the southern territory of Rhodesia) is buried. The Matobo Hills are a large group of densely packed, distinctive granite landforms that rise up to form a rolling sea of hills. They have one of the highest concentrations of rock art in southern Africa displaying images of the lives of foraging societies in the Stone Age and the agricultural societies that came to replace them.
Henneberg took art classes in school, eventually surpassing what his teachers could show him, and continued to self teach. At university, because of the sanctions due to the ongoing wars, he sold paintings to buy petrol to get himself home over holidays. “Instead of getting a bartending job or something, I painted, and I found people to sell to.” He studied agriculture because, “I knew I wanted to do something that didn’t keep me in an office.”
Pine Plains in Zimbabwe
After college, Henneberg worked for a stock feed company formulating animal feeds, and he taught himself how to use a computer program that optimized the price and nutritional value in order to make the most efficient stock feeds for dairy cattle. Because of the repercussions of the war, opportunities were extremely limited, and Henneberg’s father encouraged him to leave Africa. It was about this time that some members of Pine Plains’ Mashomack club came to Zimbabwe on safari. They were interested in finding a dairy farmer to do business with, and the veterinarian in Bulawayo introduced them to Henneberg’s father as a potential business partner. The Mashomack members were also nature art lovers, and after seeing Henneberg’s paintings on the walls of his family home, encouraged him to come to the states. Henneberg took them up on the offer, and after an invitation from former owner Dan Daly, became the artist in residence at Mashomack, where he stayed for three years, after which he moved to his own home in Pine Plains.
His artistic approach
If I were to describe Henneberg’s approach in terms of a linear process, I would say that he starts by looking at animals, often birds, chooses one he wants to paint, decides what he wants it to be doing, embarks on an anatomical and ethological study of it, and then paints. But this description suggests a deliberateness of the very idea of process that, in my view, Henneberg is humbly indifferent to. Rather, Henneberg simply exists as an observer, who during his observations is inspired to, as he puts it, “represent things on paper or canvas.”
I witnessed Henneberg’s keen observation skills firsthand when we sat down in his backyard and he immediately spotted a barred owl in a pine tree. It took me a solid five minutes with a pair of binoculars to locate said owl hidden high up in the branches. That same backyard is often Henneberg’s inspiration for his bird paintings. “Very often with the birds – thrushes, Canada warblers, red-winged blackbirds, especially when they come back in the spring, I’ll hear something and I’ll want to paint them. Usually I’ll work out what I want the bird to be doing, then I’ll find the references from either my books or the Internet that tells me the information that I need.”
Extended walks in the woods foraging for mushrooms inspire his fungi paintings, and he recently even came across the extremely rare netted rhodotus.
There is an unsentimental deference in Henneberg’s point of view. His work is simply attuned to the experience of a moment in his environment. Each of his animate subjects are completely unaware they are being watched. His technique is careful and detailed, and subtly captures the essence of presence in nature; allowing it to exist on its own without interference, as seen by an observer.
“I call myself a painter, more than anything else. The word artist is pregnant with meaning that it doesn’t deserve, you’re no one special because you are an artist. I do it because I can get away with it at the moment. If I had to get another job I would, perhaps work on an oyster farm in Maine or something.” •
To learn more about Tony Henneberg you can visit him online at tonyhenneberg.com.