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Fired and inspired: Gift for Dudley Zoo from artist

Dudley | News | Published:

Growing up listening to stories about leopards prowling the jungle inspired Rama Samaraweera to become a keeper at Dudley Zoo.

But this love for big cats also got the self-taught artist the sack – because he spent more time sketching the animals than looking after them.

Now aged 89, he has created three original oil paintings for the zoo to say thank you being his 'art school' – and also to make amends for 'not being the best ever zoo keeper'.

Thank you gifts – one of the paintings for Dudley Zoo

Birmingham-born Mr Samaraweera, known as Sam, began working at the Castle Hill attraction in 1962, and before getting the elbow became fond of many of the animal residents, who he loved to study and draw.

Rama Samaraweera at Dudley Zoo in 1962

His love of animals came from his father, a doctor and surgeon from Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, telling him stories and encouraging his art.

He said: "As a four-year-old I drew tigers and other animals and was always encouraged by my father.

"Dad trained in the UK and worked as a GP in Birmingham where I was born. He told me stories of leopards and elephants in the jungle and told me I was an artist, and not a doctor.

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"Forty years later I became a self-employed artist, having learned to understand the big cats and other animals whilst working as a zoo keeper at Dudley Zoo.

"I was soon sacked for spending too much time drawing and studying the animals. This was my only art school."

Mr Samaraweera said he grew a particular soft spot for some of the animals during his time at the attraction.

He added: "I fell in love with Grace the giraffe, who took a banana from my coat pocket each day with her long tongue.

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Memories – Sam's father would tell him stories of leopards

"I used to walk the cheetahs round the zoo which always caused excitement, and much amusement when one lay down and would not be budged.

"It often took two keepers just to move it!"

After leaving the zoo his art career took off, leading him to exhibit at the Royal Academy, The Society of Wood Engravers, The Graphic Society, The Society of Wildlife Artists and The Pastel Society.

While in the 1970s his 'Clouded Leopard' picture was the biggest-selling print in America. He said: "After training as a teacher, my wife Sue and I went to teach in Jamaica and I lectured in art and English literature.

"Later my publisher and great friend, the late John Solomon, gave me my first

London exhibition, which sold out.

"John then published several prints during the 1970s and my painting of a clouded leopard became the best-selling print in America.

"The house we now live in is called Solomon House, after John Solomon, and the royalties from the leopard print and many others paid for our home.

Snow leopard – the last of the three original oils for the zoo

"John told me I must paint for love, and never money – and I never forgot this sound advice. Like most artists, I am very driven and have to go to my studio every day."

Mr Samaraweera, who now lives in South Wales, wanted to thank the zoo for inspiring his successful career as an artist, which has spanned five decades.

His nephew Phil Brooks, who is head of photography at Dudley College, delivered the masterpieces to the zoo.

"The three pictures are to say thank you to Dudley Zoo for inspiring Uncle Sam and also to try and make amends for him not being the best ever zoo keeper.

"He's been a professional wildlife painter for the last 50 years and to this day credits Dudley Zoo as the catalyst for his career.

"Uncle Sam was only at the zoo for a year but he did love the animals, especially the big cats."

Mr Brooks said his uncle's GP puts his good health down to painting, adding: "His doctor says it's the painting which keeps uncle Sam young because he gets so deeply lost in his work that it puts him into a meditative state."

Zoo director Derek Grove said: "We are so grateful to Sam for giving us these incredible pieces of art and, of course, for sharing his remarkable story.

"I'm glad he's enjoyed such a rewarding career in art after leaving zoo keeping behind and we'll definitely make sure the paintings take pride of place at Dudley Zoo."

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