Cooking art: The hospitality man creating magic on paper

Some of Josiah Mwangi’s art works. [Peter Theuri, Standard]

You probably expect to find Josiah Mwangi, who recently graduated with a BA in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Dedan Kimathi University of Technology (DeKUT), juggling with cutlery. Or popping his head out of the sunroof of a tour van – or fiddling with binoculars in the wild.

Something that relates to what he pursued in college.

But when he spreads out his paraphernalia on the table, it screams drawing. There are coloured pencils, drawing papers, erasers, reference photos, and rolled-up sleeves braced for work. 

Mwangi plots out delicate grids on paper and then starts the painstaking sketching. It takes him a few hours to replicate, on his paper, what is in the reference photo. After another hour or so, he will have fitted the photo in a frame ready for delivery.

Gifted from a young age, Mwangi remembers drawing on the blackboard whenever the teacher needed a sketch.

“There is nothing that I was happier doing than plotting those diagrams. And oftentimes drawing my friends’ faces, and cars. But I never really thought about going pro,” he says.

But in 2018, everything changed.

When he was in form four in Nyeri High School, the institution started an art club. Submissions by amateur fine artistes were considered for pinning on the noticeboard, and Mwangi soon wanted to join the list of the newest celebrities in school.

With renewed passion and what was merely desire for approval, Mwangi submitted his art and was soon among the most revered on the board.

“It felt good seeing fellow students stopping to appreciate our work. And I had a lot of work going onto that board, I tell you,” he says.

Within some time, the art club started rewarding the finest three drawings in an annual competition. He received drawing pencils and a book once as the best artist.

The drawings were also put in the school magazine, Erudite. This was a huge motivation to the students.

In the last edition of Erudite when he was still at the school, Mwangi managed to have his art appear in the magazine.

When Mwangi joined Dedan Kimathi University of Technology in 2019, he continued with his art, delivering with more finesse as time went by.

Covid-19 would soon come and more time at home gave him time to hone his skills and monetise his talent.

His first commissioned art was in 2020, when he was home as the pandemic raged. He drew a fellow student and framed the photo. It was an A4 portrait sized photo for which he charged Sh1,500.

“I did not know how well it would go, but that was the boost I needed. There were referrals, and soon I had quite a number of offers,” he says.

That same year, two lecturers asked to have their portraits drawn. He charged them Sh3,000 each, a good amount for a student’s maintenance. This opened his eyes further to the possibility of drawing other people apart from his classmates.

In the same period, a number of his schoolmates and friends started making their orders, and while for some he did not necessarily frame and charged less than his already established rates, there was a budding business.

The university also had an art club in which he soon became an official, not only participating in making some of the finest art that the club was producing but also helping other talented artists.

He made sure to hone his skills during the Covid-19 pandemic such that by the time physical studies resumed, he had improved greatly.

His breakthrough drawing was of Egyptian’s Liverpool football superstar Mohamed Salah. A sporting great admired by millions, the photo received a high number of views and new orders started coming in.

Shortly after, he drew portraits of his parents, which he posted on his Facebook page. These proved huge attractions to friends who knew them.

Mwangi went on to draw Argentina’s national football team captain Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup trophy in 2022, one of the most iconic images from the 2022 Qatar event.

He later drew a photo of Messi with his key nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, which also went viral.

“Because many people across the globe will easily identify with these faces, it was the best way to increase interactions and announce myself to new audiences,” he says.  

Mwangi then drew portraits of Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Energy Permanent Secretary Alex Wachira, Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga, and Nyeri Senator Wahome Wamatinga.

He also drew musicians Nyashinski, Samidoh, Muigai wa Njoroge, Jose Gatutura, Waithaka wa Jane, Karangu Muraya, and Gathee wa Njeri.

Kikuyu radio presenters Muthoni wa Kirumba aka Baby Top and Joy wa Macharia have also been drawn by the talented artist, as have top athletes Eliud Kipchoge and Faith Kipyegon, the latter which was picked, and displayed, by Kenya Sports page.

By the time he drew most of the above named people, he had turned pro, and the appreciation was shown by artistes who readily shared his work on their social handles, attracting thousands of views, hundreds of shares and tens of offers.  

Some of Josiah Mwangi’s art works. [Peter Theuri, Standard]

“I have been following some very gifted artists on social media and I have been learning from some of the very best,” he says, showing drawings from Percymad, a French fine artist who is one of his best inspirations, and hyperrealism artist Arinze Stanley.

As his expertise has grown so has his rates for framed countrywide deliveries. He charges Sh4500 for the A4 drawing, Sh6,000 for the A3, Sh12, 000 for the A2, and Sh25,000 for the A1.

Drawing on both Ivorian and Strathmore Bristol papers, watching Mwangi at work is witnessing a master in his craft, oozing talent with every stroke of his pencil.

He refuses to get distracted because one slight mistake could change the whole drawing. “You have to look at a balance of many things. Symmetry, texture, colour balance- everything.  In the end, it is these little details that matter,” he says.  

Mwangi hopes to take his art to the international stage, like some of the artists he admires, and to be able to receive orders from across the globe. He thinks that is within reach, with some of his drawings of internationally recognized football stars giving him good traction.

Mwangi plans to also start participating in art exhibitions. With an interest in painting as well, soon his acrylic work will be hung on walls, he says, as he plans to explore art in its diverse forms.

But does it mean, therefore, that his career in hospitality and tourism management ended before it could begin?

“No, not possible. I love it as much as I love drawing, and I can draw from the kitchen or from the jungle. I will know how best to juggle; both are equally interesting and I cannot choose,” he says about his profession and his passion.  

And even as he anticipates his first forays into hospitality and tourism management after graduating in December 2023, Mwangi has given himself an avenue to earn and to grow.

To other young men and women wondering what to venture into, Mwangi advises keenness so one can identify their talent, or strength, and to focus to grow a fire out of a spark whenever they feel it.  

“Follow that passion. Do not give up when things seem not to go as you would expect,” he says.

“And make it a habit to practice every day. Remember every day makes one’s talent better, and a day spent without practice is a step behind. Also, use the resources you have at your disposal; they will give you the better ones you need in the future.”

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