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Irene was born in a small village on the slopes of Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano straddling the border between Kenya and Uganda. A striking natural region of cliffs and calderas, warm springs and waterfalls, rainforest and caves, it is home to elephants, antelope, buffalo, monkeys, and hundreds of species of birds and butterflies.
When she was very small, Irene watched her grandfather carve cooking sticks and mortars and pestles for the village, creating functional, beautiful pieces of art from forest wood. Following Kenya's independence the family moved to the town of Kitale in the Rift Valley, seeking better farmland in an area vacated by colonials. Irene attended school there, married a teacher - later a renowned magazine and newspaper editor, and spent a year with her young family in New Delhi before returning to Kenya.
Settling in Nairobi to raise her four children, Irene began making art during rare free moments, using clay, yarn, and household items as media. A series of crocheted wall hangings, seen by a neighbor, helped procure an invitation to a sculpture workshop at the Kuona Trust, an arts center based at the National Museums of Kenya. One of the pieces she created there sold at the workshop’s culminating exhibition, and launched her artistic career. In the following years, Irene would turn her home into an ever-changing sculpture garden, filled with works in both wood and stone, as well as collaged sculpture using found objects and discarded items.
Irene's art first leapt overseas when she received a commission from the relief and development agency CARE International to create a monumental wood carving for the lobby of their headquarters in Atlanta, commemorating the organization’s 50th anniversary and memorializing CARE staff who had lost their lives in the line of duty in East Africa.
Irene has exhibited widely throughout Nairobi, and taught a workshop in wood carving for women at the National Museums of Kenya. She has been artist-in-residence for several summers at the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in Rutland, Vermont, and is the 2015 artist-in-residence at the Spillway Fund in Southport, Maine.
Irene selects material for carving based on an initial feeling from the raw wood or stone, then pursues that feeling, teasing out the form hiding in the substance. Her work is full of the life and spirit of the worlds she has lived in, from the abundant natural environment of her childhood, to the human drama in both rural and urban areas in East Africa and South Asia. She draws on a strong feel for natural materials to create bold works full of surprises, wit and organic power.
Humans and animals both mythical and real interact in her art, inhabiting an imaginative, fecund world that is wholly African (the spirit and workaday worlds always just around the corner from each other), yet draws comparison to the surrealism of Max Ernst and the expressionism of Max Beckmann. Her work is at once dramatic and playful, revealing and life-affirming.
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