Earlier this summer, Deborra-Lee Furness welcomed a new guest into her East Hampton home with open arms and an open heart.
She and her son, Oscar Jackman, showered it with love, creativity and art — spending hours upon hours together, sometimes even late into the night.
But her husband, actor Hugh Jackman, wasn’t as enthused — considering the house guest was a slightly larger-than-life, resin, several-hundred-pound lion that Furness and her son painted and affectionately named “Ubuntu,” which translates from Zulu to mean, “I am because we are.”
“My art room is also a dance room, and because he’s preparing for a show, he had to tap around ‘Ubuntu.’ It wasn’t easy,” Furness said with a laugh. “He was quite happy to see ‘Ubuntu’ go on his way to his next journey.”
On World Lion Day, their sculpture will join 11 additional artistically inspired, maned comrades for the inaugural “U.S. Tusk Lion Trail,” which will be unveiled on Tuesday, August 10, at locations across the East End, including the Southampton Arts Center, Nova’s Ark in Water Mill, Urban Zen in Sag Harbor, Amagansett Square, Montauk Beach House and more.
“It’s a movement of hope for Africa and we’re super excited to be blessing the rains of Africa in the Hamptons this summer,” said Brady Forseth, CEO of the African Community & Conservation Foundation, or ACCF, which partnered with its sister organization, Tusk, for the campaign.
As much as the “Hamptons Lion Pride” is a celebration of the endangered species — and the people who live alongside them — the “Tusk Lion Trail” is, first and foremost, an effort to raise vital funds to support community conservation and the livelihoods impacted by COVID-19 across Africa, Forseth said.
The global campaign will also have a presence in London, Edinburgh and Bristol, as well as pop-ups in Cape Town, Nairobi, Sydney, Tokyo and Aukland, after Tusk raised nearly $1 million with its debut “Tusk Rhino Trail” in 2018 in the United Kingdom.
“We want this to be something that helps us endow the future of Africa together,” Forseth said. “We see that there are many rivers of hope that come from this trail, so we’re excited to be out in the Hamptons to beat the drums of hope for the people and the wildlife that have been affected by this pandemic.”
With increased lion poaching pressure following the economic hit from the loss of tourism and hospitality across Africa — their body parts, specifically claws, teeth and bones, are used in alternative medicines — the future of the African lion lies in the ability for them to co-exist with humans.
Sitting at the top of the food chain, lions only face threats that stem from human actions, including habitat loss and fragmentation, prey depletion, and human-lion conflict, explained Pete Mattson, vice president of ACCF.
“The lion population has decreased by more than 50 percent since the first ‘Lion King’ came out in the mid-’90s to the new ‘Lion King,’” he said, adding, “Human-wildlife conflict is a huge issue in Africa, especially in rural Africa where there’s no fences. Wildlife in these areas can come right into the communities. A lot of times, these people don’t have many viable employment opportunities, so they turn to poaching.”
Funds raised through both public donations and an auction that will sell the lion sculptures on Friday, August 27, at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack will support the work of ACCF, Tusk and their partners in protecting species and empowering communities across Africa through conservation, outreach and anti-poaching initiatives, Mattson said.
“A big part of what ACCF is doing, to create long-term changes and impact, is create jobs and help provide education and scholarships,” he said. “It’s all capacity building and conservation education that goes along with that.”
Passionate about the cause and project itself, artist Paton Miller immediately jumped at the chance to paint his 5-foot lion, and lived with it next to his house in Southampton for about a week before enlisting his sons to carry it into his studio.
“It was sort of like, ‘Huh, there’s a lion,’” he said, sitting under an apple tree on his 3-acre property while taking a break from teaching one of his art classes. “It was in my studio for another four or five days — this is very typical of how I paint — and then all of a sudden, boom, I’m working on it.”
He decided he would paint the lion as a lion, as if it were bronzed, “almost like a Renaissance lion” — its beauty lying in its solidarity, in its simplicity, he said.
“Other people probably felt compelled to gussy ’em up, do what they can with them, and I’m sure they’re gonna be great, too — and it might be more of what people were looking for,” he said. “But I felt like this is all about the lions.”
For artist Dan Rizzie, a life-long animal lover himself, he couldn’t help but treat his lion as a three-dimensional canvas, he said, once he got it into place.
“Two healthy young men had to carry it into my studio and put it on sawhorses so I had it elevated up off the ground, because once they were gone, I couldn’t have moved it,” he said with a laugh during a recent telephone interview from his home in Sag Harbor. “The thing weighs a couple hundred pounds.”
He started with several base coats, aiming for somewhere between fire engine red and orange, which took more paint and effort than he anticipated, he said.
“This was a very complicated surface to paint on,” he said. “My wife even got in there and helped me with it — she painted on it for awhile, didn’t you, sweetie?”
“I did!” his wife, fellow artist Susan Lazarus-Reiman, chimed in.
“I got into it. I found myself getting up in the middle of the night if I couldn’t sleep, going down there and thinking about it, looking at it,” Rizzie continued. “It was a similar process that I use for my paintings, but I had to adapt it to do it on this. You’re laying on your back painting the underside of a life-sized lion, with paint dripping in your eyes, you start to go, ‘Oh. Maybe I should have used spray paint.’”
Once he was satisfied with the base, Rizzie added flowers and birds in white paint — “I’ve often seen pictures of animals in Africa with birds standing on their backs, and they get along just fine,” he said — but it was the face that caught the attention of the actual living, breathing animals in his home.
“Watching the cat come into the studio and freak out was pretty much fun,” he said. “As soon as I put eyes on it, the dog started looking at it and the dog didn’t want to come into the studio because there’s this huge animal in there.”
Outside of dance practice, Jackman would often visit his wife and son in the studio while they were working on “Ubuntu,” offering words of encouragement to the creative duo. “He would have to come down every time I even put one mark on it and tell me, ‘It’s fabulous,’” Furness said. “He was the cheer squad.”
Furness and her son lived with and worked on the lion for about a month, and for two “very opinionated” people, they mostly worked in harmony, she said.
“I’d be covered in paint at 2 o’clock in the morning and I’m like, ‘Go to bed!’ Because you go into that vortex of creating,” she said. “But I loved doing it, I loved the whole experience, I loved that Oscar and I had to work it out together.”
They painted until the eleventh hour, Furness said, going so far as to load up the lion while it was still wet. It embodies the theme of “ubuntu,” not only in how the design and shapes work together, but also in how different African species achieve symbiosis, from zebra to crocodile to lions, she explained.
“We have to look after our most vulnerable, which is the animal kingdom, and keep them well and healthy,” she said. “I love that it’s raising awareness around that and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
As published in the Southampton Press and the Sag Harbor Express