Chef launches cardboard art business from Covid-19 ruins

“I started by making a simple toy gun which I sold for a couple of months for Sh50 within my neighbourhood which had lots of kids,” says the 23-year-old who operated from Kawangware at the time.

As Covid-19 ravaged jobs and businesses, Dancan Shear’s enterprise was shaping up.

He had just lost his job as a chef and was now focusing his energies on something else expressing himself through art using cardboard.

Today, he prides himself in a collection of pieces he has designed, including corrugated images of human beings, school equipment replicas and animals.

“I started by making a simple toy gun which I sold for a couple of months for Sh50 within my neighbourhood which had lots of kids,” says the 23-year-old who operated from Kawangware at the time.

The toy guns were made using a combination of cardboard boxes, plastic cloth pegs and rubber bands on which he spent less than Sh500.

This sharpened his appetite and he went into more research with artistic gusto to know more about corrugated artwork that helped to awaken creativity within, moving on to designing human images.

These were, however, not coloured and were basic, meaning they lacked contrast that would appeal to the human eye.

After two months, he introduced colour to the pieces but had to contend with the marketing challenge as the art is pretty novel, making them to be a hard sell.

“So, in 2021 I went back to being a chef at a kitchen bar in Upperhill, Nairobi, but my passion for corrugated artwork kept burning,” he says.

He quit the cooking business eight months later to focus on art.

His aha-moment came when activist Boniface Mwangi posted on Instagram an A2 piece he had done, which earned him followers and clients at the same time.

Shear says it takes him around four hours to come up with such a piece whose process involves extracting a vector of the image from the computer vector, transferring it to the cardboard, then cutting and spraying.

Material can be manipulated in different ways in design, art and craft, not just by cutting, painting, bending, gluing or combining pieces together, but also through manipulations of texture.

Making subsequent pieces takes a shorter time since they are generated from a template.

Shear operates from a workshop at the heart of Kasarani in Nairobi where he has upgraded to making more complicated pieces.

One such artwork is a microscope prototype that targets schools that are keen on hands-on learning and collaborative play. With time, he hopes to make other school pieces such as human skeleton, the skull and pelvic girdle that would be used in studying human anatomy.

But this, he says, is dependent on him acquiring a machine for precision cutting for the more nuanced artworks.

The cost of acquiring the machine is one of the challenges for the budding artist who is crafting a career from the ruins of Covid-19 that left many people jobless, even displacing many from what they have relied on for survival.

However, the chef-turned-artist is taking a different route, including leaving a job and sector he has known for years.

He says he opted for cardboard as a raw material since it is both economical and environment-friendly.

“I source raw materials from Garden City from a friend who works there. After things are delivered and unpacked, he keeps the boxes for me at a fee,” says Mr Shear.

The biggest expense in this business has been the spray paints whose prices keep jumping, compelling him to pass on the cost to the customer.

The prices of a can of spray jumped from Sh250 in January to Sh480, and he does not know the reason for the increase.

While he would charge Sh850 for a corrugated image in January, the same has been increased to Sh1,000.

“Currently I earn roughly Sh40,000 a month. Art can pay and I am hopeful that in the near future it will pay me better,” he says.

To ensure durability of the artwork, he sprays them with wood glue and varnish or frames them. He adds a disclaimer that the more “you protect the piece the longer it will last”.

Aside from the complicated school arts, Mr Shear is looking to make car-toy replicas for adults and toy-guns for children.

Company logos

He is also exploring branding and advertisement for corporate bodies to get to their customers by appreciating their products more.

To this end he has designed a drink can and logos for a number of companies.

For home art, he has designed a deer’s head that can be mounted on the wall. He plans to make animal head artworks of the big five, including lion, rhino, elephant and cheetah.

Samuel Kimemia

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