Her stamps, however, were not destined to accompany the royal mail of Great Britain, where Cairns was born and raised. Nor would they adorn letters in the United States, her adopted home. The privilege of licking and sticking Cairns' adhesive art belonged to residents of the southern African country of Bot- swana.
Today, the 46-year-old artist, whose art has been on display since Saturday at Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp in Pescadero, works from her home studio near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz. But for almost a decade, she lived among the people of Botswana, telling their story in paintings with her trademark folk-art flair.
Cairns was just 21 when she moved to Kenya in 1982, fresh out of college and eager to explore the African continent and capture its wild, untamed natural beauty on canvas. A land of vast deserts, open plains and rich jungles, it was a far cry from her tiny hometown village of Harwell in Oxfordshire, where the most spectacular natural wonder was the blossoming cherry orchards each spring.
She immersed herself in the local culture by working as a tour guide visiting a Masai tribe in the Kedong Valley. From Kenya, she moved briefly to South Africa and then up to northern Botswana, where she lived for a year in a tent at a primitive campsite in the Okavango Swamps region, the world's largest inland delta, bordered by the Kalahari Desert.
The next year, Cairns upgraded her residence by moving to a camp of reed huts that she would call home for most of her stay in Africa. She traveled the Okavango and painted at every opportunity, inspired by the rich blueness of Bot- swana's open sky and the incredible light it cast over the region. Her paintings, she says, aim to combine that richness with the joyful spirit of the villagers.
"The Okavango is about the size of Switzerland," Cairns says. "I also learned to travel from place to place in a dugout canoe, and how to live off the land, gather figs, fish and shoot pigeons with an air rifle."
Her first exhibition, at the Bot-swana National Museum in Gaborone, was a financial drain. "I spent all my money on framing and attended the opening night barefoot," she recalls. The head of the museum's philatelic department noticed her art, and that led to the stamp commission from the Bot- swana postal service.
Recognizing a larger market for her work, Cairns created a line of postcards and greeting cards. She introduced a more whimsical element into her art, and the style proved popular with safari tourists and city businesses that stocked the cards.
Three years after designing the wildlife stamps, Cairns met then-President Ketumile Masire and was asked to paint a pastel portrait of him.
But life was not all pastels and palettes for the adventurous young artist. Living close to nature, often in harsh environments, there were times when she was forced to defend her campsite from marauding monkeys and, on other occasions, sprint to the safety of a nearby river to escape inquisitive lions.
The river did not always provide safe harbor. One time, Cairns recalls, her black Labrador was swimming in the river and was snatched by a crocodile before her eyes, disappearing underwater. Remarkably, the dog survived. "He became a local hero," she says. "No dog had ever escaped the jaws of a crocodile."
Cairns' stay in Africa was also personally fulfilling. In 1985 she met John Bulger, an American biologist who was researching baboons for his UC Davis doctoral thesis. "He had a unique affinity with the primates that was both touching and impressive," Cairns says. The two married on the banks of the Chobe River in northern Bot- swana.
After Cairns' husband finished his thesis, the couple moved to Southern California in 1992 and lived in Davis for several years before eventually settling near Davenport, where she continues to paint images of Africa. Much of Cairns' art is licensed through a New York agent, and it appears on many products, including calendars, jigsaw puzzles, quilts, fabric and Christmas decorations. But she takes the greatest delight in teaching children about life in Africa through her book illustrations. Her first book, "Off to the Sweet Shores of Africa," won an American Library Association Notable Book Award in 2001.
Of her seven books, four have African themes, including "We All Went on Safari," which was written by Connecticut author Laurie Krebs and was nominated for the 2004 Kate Greenaway Medal in the United Kingdom.
"I loved the color and texture she infused in the scenery and clothing of the people," Krebs says. "I also love the posture that she depicted in the children who took the safari. They are handsome, proud people, and she captured that perfectly."
Cairns returned to Botswana for several weeks in March and caught up with old friends who had been the inspiration for much of her art. Many of the sleepy towns she remembered from 14 years ago had been transformed by commercial and residential development. But some things hadn't changed.
"The skies are still vast, with rich sunsets, and the Okavango was just as I remembered it," she says. And that, Cairns adds, is the essence of Botswana. "It remains a quiet, gentle country, uninhibited by its own beauty."
Julia Cairns’ work will be on display at Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp through July 31. 2001 Rossi Road at Highway 1, Pescadero. (650) 879-1100. www.costanoa.com.
More information about the art of Julia Cairns also can be found at www.aptosartshoppe.com.