Damian Elwes, Amazon Cloud Forest, detail 1A, 1998. Acrylic on canvas, 178 x 762cm (overall size of floor painting 712 x 762) cm
Damian Elwes, Amazon Cloud Forest, detail 3B, 1998. Acrylic on canvas, overall size of floor painting 712 x 762 cm
Damian Elwes, Amazon Cloud Forest & Goddess paintings, 1998.
Acrylic on canvas, overall size of floor painting 712 x 762 cm

Damian Elwes

Painting the Rainforest

The themes in Amazon Cloud Forest (1998) seem to be more relevant with each year that passes. When I made this artwork, I was thinking about human vulnerability in the face of climate change, deforestation and other man-made disasters.
.……..The painting describes a major source of the Amazon River, which exists in a cloud forest on a volcano called Puracé in southern Colombia. Each year, for one month in summer, the rain clouds evaporate in the sunlight and thousands of exotic plants begin to flower. By chance, this source is located at the top of the volcano. When the volcano erupts periodically, it destroys the entire ecosystem. But the rain is constant, the river continues to come up from the ground and life begins again.
I made the painting during the seven years that I lived in Colombia with my wife, Lewanne. Our home was two miles from the nearest village and we did a lot of walking. After a while we started riding horses everywhere on the dirt roads. It was like living in the Wild West and each home or store had a hitching post outside. There were few cars, no television, no phones and no computers. Without the distraction of the news, advertising or paperwork, each day lasted forever. There was time to read everything that we had ever wanted to read and to contemplate every memory or conversation that we had ever had. In all the years we lived there, we never saw or heard a plane in the sky. It was incredibly bonding to share such an adventure together. We were really present for each other and had to face so many challenges as a team. We had to be our own plumber, electrician, security and be able to fix anything. Meanwhile, the normal stress of the world melted away and we were left with what was the most important in the here and now.
I bought the property in 1989. My first marriage had broken down as soon as it had started, and I was healing from that by travelling to Italy, Morocco, and then Colombia. Given a key by an art collector to a house in the old city of Cartagena de Indias, I grabbed the opportunity and painted there for a year. Before leaving Cartagena with a series of paintings that were going to be exhibited in Los Angeles, I flew to a little village in the southern part of the country to see the rainforest.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with that place and, on a whim, I purchased about twenty acres where I eventually built a house and a studio. At the time, I didn’t know if I’d ever live there, but the knowledge of its existence brought a certain comfort. When I first started seeing Lewanne in Los Angeles in 1992, I instinctively knew that she was the kind of person who could enjoy and appreciate that lifestyle. I saw it in her smile and the way she adores dogs, cats, horses and all animals. Soon into our romance, we visited Colombia, and Lewanne immediately took to it. Setting up house, gardening, riding horses all over the countryside and designing my studio… It was like living in a dream..……..
.……..Every morning at 6am, while sipping coffee on our balcony, we could see a white volcano peeking up above the rainforest on the horizon. For the rest of the day, the volcano was shrouded in clouds and no longer visible.
I began to ask local people about the terrain at the summit. There was fear about this volcano because smoke billowed from it and it had caused a recent earthquake in Popayán. A friend of mine gave me some intriguing details. On a plateau, just below the crater, there exists a spring. As the stream descends the volcano it splits into three rivers. The Naranjo flows to the Pacific, the Magdalena to the Caribbean at Cartagena and the Amazon goes east through the vast Amazon Rainforest at the widest part of the continent to the Atlantic. Each January it was summer up there and the snow gave way to a myriad of flowering plants.
I have always enjoyed visiting river sources because so much life begins there. So I made a plan with my friend who was a guide. As soon as there was a break in the weather, we drove about twenty miles to the volcano. We went as far as possible up the mountain by jeep, and then hiked the rest of the way towards the cloud forest in plastic suits and rubber boots. The wet vegetation seemed like it should exist at the bottom of the ocean. There was often no ground beneath our feet as we climbed through tunnels of exotic plants and fauna. Sometimes, there was wet clay on both sides of us and we observed brightly coloured millipedes or large caterpillars nesting in crevices. At other times we spied bird’s nests in the branches as we emerged from the foliage to see the sky overhead. As we neared the crater, we saw steam pouring out of it. Just below the rim, we found the river source on a small plateau covered with flowering succulent plants amid larger ferns that were writhing in the wind from side to side like heather. It was as colourful as a coral reef, but the exotic flowers were often surrounded by spikes rather like pineapples.

Damian Elwes, Fallen Tree, 1997. Acrylic on canvas, 300 x 346 cm
Damian Elwes, Lewanne and Cosima.
Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 79 cm

.……..There is a very good reason why I would want to make a painting of this extraordinary place. Up until then, I had been making circular paintings of rainforests that people could enter and walk around inside. I was inspired by how Monet had joined his canvases together to create the beautiful oval painting of waterlilies that one can visit at L’Orangerie in Paris. My own mission was to record those giant trees before their inevitable, sad destruction or, hopefully, to raise awareness of their predicament. We had seen the effects of forest fires every year caused by the ‘slash and burn’ methods of the local people. They were clearing the forest for cattle or farming. There were days when the fires were so bad that little birds, fleeing the destruction, would crash against our windows. Gradually, the primal forests were only to be found on inaccessible mountaintops. Sometimes, we drove through smouldering, hellish landscapes that had only recently been dense rainforests teaming with life. For miles and miles there were only giant, charred stumps and roots and not a blade of grass, nor birds or animals of any kind as far as the eye could see. One could only surmise that overpopulation of this planet would lead to the complete destruction of the natural world.
.……..By contrast, here, on the top of the volcano, there was evidence of a very different outcome. This volcano erupted every few years, completely eradicating the vibrant ecosystem around the source. Yet the rain continued to fall and the water continued to rise up from the ground and after each annihilation a new ecosystem was born. This cycle of life and death had been repeating itself, perhaps for millions of years. Such a phenomenon made me realise that some parts of the natural world will certainly outlast humanity. The eruption of the volcano was like a nuclear explosion. Humans could not survive it, and yet various forms of nature still flourished. By chance, this particular river source had been raised up into the sky by the emergence of this volcano. My idea was to make a vast landscape painting that could fill a gallery floor from wall to wall. I would place it under plexiglass and people could walk all over it to examine the exotic fauna and find the river source.
My friend and I constructed a grid with ropes and tent pegs around the source, the same size as the finished painting. We divided the area into twelve sections. I made a video of the plateau to capture all the plants flowing in the same direction as the wind. Soon the painting began to emerge on the floor of my studio. In total, I had to create twelve very large paintings over the next eighteen months, which needed to fit seamlessly together. After a while, I began to understand the pattern of this ecosystem where the large bushes were separated from each other by smaller, flowering succulents. The smaller plants reminded me of artichokes in their pattern and in the way that the leaves grew from the stem and ended in sharp points. When I first arrived in Colombia, I had made the initial forest paintings with oil colours but soon realised that those colours never dried because of the rain and moisture in the air. Oil paint on my jeans would wash out easily whereas acrylic colours would last forever. So by now I was using only acrylics. It would be fun one day to reproduce this painting as tiles for a pool or fabric to cover walls.
Without the financial pressure of living in a city, I had enormous freedom to paint precisely what I wanted to paint. I learned so much from recreating the trees, the sky, the landscape and the unique details that each plant, insect and bird that lives in that forest possesses. While making this painting I also discovered from watching a documentary that some Amazonian tribes, in their mythology, consider the source of the river to be the first woman, from whom all life comes.
Our daughter, Cosima, was born in 1997. Lewanne gave birth in the United States, but we brought the baby back to the farm in Colombia when she was three months old. The forest was her playground and classroom. I would come home from an all-day journey to the volcanic plateau, where I had been filming and mapping the huge floor painting that I was creating, and be greeted by the sweetest baby girl and a wife invigorated by her day of caring for our daughter, the dogs, the chickens and the horses. When we first moved there, Lewanne brought some vegetable seeds and would open the package, hold up a seed, and ask, ‘Are we sure that this tiny speck can really grow into a carrot?’ It was really exciting when it actually did! Later we discovered that there was about sixteen feet of warm black earth beneath us and it was so easy to grow anything. In fact dozens of exotic fruits, vegetables and edible roots existed naturally on our property.

Damian Elwes, Edge of the Forest 2, 1996.
Acrylic on canvas, 178 x 218cm

Damian Elwes, Forest of Statues, 1997.
Acrylic on canvas, 178 x 218cm (panel from a circular painting)

.……..Soon Lewanne was pregnant with our son, Aubrey, and we were well- nourished from all the fresh food and well-exercised from all the long walks. By this time we had a telephone so when we needed a car we could call for a jeep to come up the mountain to get us. For prenatal care, we travelled forty-five minutes down the mountain to a larger town for the ultrasounds and tests that Lewanne required. The bigger Lewanne’s belly grew, the more I worried about the bumpy, winding road and whether the drive might bounce our baby out of the womb too early. Simple tasks like getting a mattress, washing machine, and bathtub took tremendous amounts of coordinating and patience, and so we appreciated every little comfort and luxury. It was thrilling when a taxi arrived from Bogotá, which was nine hours away, with a mattress on its roof. From a rocking chair to chocolate or Marmite, every little thing was a joy and a treat. Eventually, we brought a VCR and a box of our favourite films, which we viewed over and over again. Cosima must have watched Mary Poppins one hundred times at least.
.……..We still have the property and visit whenever we can. However, it became necessary, as the children grew and my career started to blossom, to return to a metropolitan life. Our children are almost finished with their education, so we are looking forward to spending more concentrated time in Colombia.
Lewanne misses all the beautiful orchids that grow in the trees around our house. We collected those wild orchids on our walks through the forest surrounding our land. That is one of the places I miss the most. Every time one enters the forest one comes across some miracle of nature. Among the towering trees, one feels connected to something far larger than one’s self. My daughter Cosima, when she was a toddler, loved to walk with me down to this forest to see the different butterflies. One week we spied something very unusual. There were black butterflies that seemed to have coloured lights emanating from their wings as they fluttered around. Beneath the trees on the mud floor the only flowers that grew there in the filtered light were little pink, red or white impatiens. We followed one of the butterflies until it landed on a pink flower. We were amazed to see that the butterfly had one exact, photographic image of this pink, five petaled flower on each of its black wings. It is moments like those that we long for again.


The Colombian Edition of The London Magazine is out now and available from our online shop. Published in anticipation of next month’s Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, this issue will be followed by a Spanish language version, out in January 2022, in Colombia and the UK.
Cover image: Ritual (Pescadores), oil on canvas, 100x150cm (Pedro Ruiz, 2010)


Damian Elwes was born 1960. He was raised and schooled in London. In 1979, he backpacked across South America before attending Harvard University. At graduation, his playwriting professor gave him a palette knife that had once belonged to Henri Matisse. Later that year, Elwes met Keith Haring who encouraged him to start painting. His first paintings were exhibited alongside those of Basquiat by London dealer Robert Fraser. Instead of going to art school, he spent two years in Paris, searching for artist studios and asking artists if he could make paintings of their workplaces. Elwes built a home in Colombia where he lived from 1992-2000, creating vast paintings of rainforests. After returning from Colombia, he focused on human creativity by once again painting artist’s studios. In 2018, his solo exhibition at the Musée en Herbe in Paris attracted more than 100,000 visitors. Damian Elwes is represented by Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, London W1 (email: art@unitlondon.com). Website: da- mianelwes.com. Instagram: @damianelwes.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.


Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.