Just this year, the Ramona resident claimed a first and second prize at the San Diego County Fair, a first place at the Indian Wells Arts Festival and Best of Show at the Oct. 12-13 Sedona Arts Festival in Arizona. The Sedona award recognized his talents as the best of 125 artists from throughout the United States who showcased their specialties in a variety of media, including ceramics, fiber arts, glass, jewelry, painting and photography.
His realistic elephants, rhinos and other wild animals, including an elephant nearly as large as Chitura, are displayed at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Safari Park patrons will notice his carvings on the doors as they enter the park.
Chitura found his calling while growing up in Zimbabwe, Africa. Without realizing the artistic talent that lay within, Chitura’s father, Gibson Chitura, noticed stone carvers along the side of the roads while he traveled to work every day. The carvers were young boys about Alex’s age when he was 16.
“They used to work by the side of the road every day,” Chitura said. “My father was inspired by that to have me do the stone carving, so he sent me to college. The college was the foundation of everything.”
After graduating in 1979, Chitura went to the second largest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo, to ply his trade. Since he was more interested in welding than art, he started by looking for a welding job. But within a year, his uncle told Chitura about the Sondela Exports company in Bulawayo that specialized in wood, stone and ivory carvings.
“When I showed the owner of the company my certificate, he said, ‘You can come and join the other guys here,’” Chitura said. “Because I was good enough, he sent me with two others to open a branch in Botswana, which was a neighboring country.”
Chitura had the opportunity to work as a carver in the country of Zambia, too, before he decided to return to Zimbabwe in 1990 to work as a self-employed wood and stone carver of elephants, rhinos, water buffalos and other animals.
Chitura maintained a catalog that listed the prices and measurements of each piece, which he sent to his clients every year. Even as the local African economy was turning downward, Chitura maintained steady prices. He said he ran his business reliably by tracking orders and providing on-time delivery.
By 2005, Chitura set his sights on increasing his profits. His wife, Tina, moved to the United States first, in January that year, and Chitura followed her in December with their three children, Joyce, Johannes and Brendon, who are grown now. The family settled in Philadelphia, Pa., to be near relatives, but Chitura’s big break was at the San Diego Zoo in 2007. The assignment was to carve a sleeping hippopotamus out of stone. After carving the hippo for two months, he decided the weather was nicer in San Diego than Philadelphia, so the whole family moved here.
One of his bigger projects was the large stone elephant at the Safari Park that took him nearly two years to craft. The elephant can be seen at the park opposite of a bronze rhinoceros sculpture created by another artist.
His connections at Safari Park led Chitura to a place in Ramona where he could work independently. Then Safari Park friends, Debbie and Steve Morris, offered a free place to work at their house in Ramona.
“If someone wants a special animal, then they can order it,” he said.