Wednesday 17 April 2013

Chapter 12. Back at the garage

Back in the garage

After the Festival I entered a rather bleak period. Uninspired, tired,disillusioned, I struggled on without a strong direction for many months. I was still experimenting with different mediums and materials but the work was unsatisfying.
I signed up for a course with John Cowan at the Frank Joubert art school in Claremont. Being in a classroom again was inspiring and John was great- supportive and encouraging, he inspired me to take my painting more seriously and led me into expressing myself in a more abstract and mystical style. There were some well -known artists in my group- amongst them were Geoff Price, who worked mainly with a palette knife, and Brian Johnson an ex principal of Frank Joubert, who was working with enamel.
There were about 12 of us and it helped being with others, learning from them and getting positive feedback.
John persuaded me to join the South African Association of Artists. I did not think I was good enough but he persuaded me to give it a try. I became a member and submitted 3 paintings for their annual exhibition in September of 2000.
It was a daunting experience lining up with hundreds of other artists at the St. John's church Hall in Wynberg. It was raining and we huddled under umbrellas clutching our canvases and portfolios. My paintings were quite large and they were unframed. I felt so self-conscious as I saw how professionally framed and mounted were the other artists's work. I remember trying to keep my paintings hidden as much as possible, holding them to me with the painted side against my leg. I felt new, unknown and vulnerable. Every one around me appeared to know everyone else, chatting and laughing. I felt very isolated and strange and rather young. I noticed that there were a lot of  much older women in the queue and very few, if any, men. And also that it was  overwhelmingly "white".
An uncomfortable half hour later I eventually reached the head of the queue, where I presented my paintings to the assistant. Here was the moment of truth. I realised that my paintings were completely different to the type of work that was being presented. My abstracts were bold, colourful and quite amateurish I thought, compared to the very accomplished watercolours of flowers and landscapes that I could see piling up around the walls of the hall. I was cringing inwardly, thinking I had made a grave error of judgement in coming here. There were no abstract works that I could see- I was a complete misfit. There was a lot of conventional stuff-  still lives, street scenes, seascapes, nothing really unusual. I felt my work was matric standard art school- very undeveloped and too wierd for this gathering.
However I paid my R60 for the 3 works, handed them over for measuring, gave my details in as confident way as I could muster. There were a few umms and mmm's from the ladies taking the paintings, the odd "wow" , but I felt that was rather in shock and disbelief at my cheek at even thinking of submitting such substandard work!
We had to leave our work there for the day while it was judged by a panel of 3 judges, - art lecturers, gallery owners and the like from around the W. Cape. You had to achieve a score of 6/12 or more to qualify for the exhibition.
If I remember there were about 400 paintings submitted and about 120 chosen.
After a long, nerve-wracking day waiting, I went back at 5pm to fetch the paintings. To my utter amazement all 3 of my paintings were accepted! I was gobsmacked. I remember driving back home, feeling so elated, punching the air and saying "YES!" thinking I had now "MADE IT!!" I had been accepted into the prestigious SASA, home to famous artists like Maggie Loubser, Irma Stern and Gregoire Boonzaaier, and patroned by Alice Golden, Conrad Theys and Sam Nhlengethwa.

to be continued.
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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Chapter 11 The Grahamstown Festival, June 1996

It was June, 1996. The Festival was happening in a week. We had managed to find accommodation up on the hill in Grahamstown, overlooking Graham High School. My mother and her 80 year old husband were joining us for the week to help with babysitting the 2 boys.
I was in a state of high anxiety. I had sent all my sketches and unframed works by courier  and they hadn't arrived.
I was due to set up my exhibition in Victoria classroom the next day and I had very little stuff to put on the walls.
I went ahead anyway, arranging my framed paintings around the walls in the classroom on the ground floor. Next door to me another artist was setting up her work. I went over and introduced myself to her. Her name was Judy Bumstead and she had come all the way from Calitzdorp. Her work was very interesting- her framing was unusual- she had used bits and pieces of corrugated iron and wood in a very creative way. She seemed very nice. I was glad of the company next door as the venue itself was very quiet and out of the way of the real buzz of the Festival.
Having my parents around was sometimes more stressful than not as we still had to arrange meals and cook. Luckily my husband helped a lot and was very supportive, even taking a few stints in the classroom to give me a break.
My unframed prints and sketches eventually arrived the next day and we put them round the walls as best we could. The lighting in the classroom was terrible though and some of the paintings were not shown to their best.
It was difficult to keep cheerful and upbeat during those long lonely hours in the classroom. I had very few visitors. One guy came racing in, said "Is this the Art?" looked around for about 5 seconds and then disappeared. It was quite funny really how this was happening a lot. People who didn't know a thing about art but were told by their mothers or wives or whatever to go and "look at the Art"!
I sat at the cold classroom desk trying to keep positive. On the third day I had a visit from and old varsity friend who very kindly bought one of my larger canvases for his wife. I am eternally indebted to you, Mike!
Some other friends bought one or 2 paintings and I had some positive feedback from a teacher in a township who wanted all her pupils to come and be inspired by my work- "You have shown that anyone can be an artist" she said. Er,,, yes,,,,,well....that could be taken any way, couldn't it.
The days seemed to drag by and most of the time it was excruciatingly boring. I wished I had set up my easel and I could at least paint away the day.
A good thing that happened though was that I won 2nd prize in the best poster award. That R500 at least went some way to paying for my expenses.
By the end of the week I came out even. My sales had paid for our accommodation and the hire of the classroom.
It wasn't the most successful event, but at least I had proved something to myself. I was brave enough to "put myself out there"- I took a risk that all artists have to take at some point- expose themselves to the market and see if their stuff is popular.

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Wednesday 10 October 2012

Chapter 10- a bit of Billy

While working at Dorman Street, Billy Mandini used to stroll in occasionally. If class started at 9.30, Billy did not arrive till sometime near 11am. I used to feel annoyed, because we would all be concentrating hard on the model and Billy would come in and spread his paper on the ground and generally make his presence felt. The rest of us would have been working a good hour already and Billy would take a piece of charcoal and in the space of 20 minutes would have produced a masterpiece! The guy was talented, irritatingly so! His drawing was so powerful. He would not say a word to anyone- I thought he was rude, but then someone explained that he was probably stoned and didn't know what was going on around him. I learned later that he had some serious personality problems along with a serious drug addiction. When I heard of his death in 1999, I was so saddened - he was born out of time. Just a decade later and he probably would have had a much easier time in his life.
Billy. you were a master. Although I did not say much to you, I saw your talent and was moved by your work.
R.I.P
Dorman street's doors had closed on us now. I wondered whether I would see any of my class mates again. What happened to you all. Are you still painting. Thank you for being part of that special time in my life.

Now I was on my own. I went back home, set up my canvases in the garage and continued, sometimes late into the night, trying to find my style.
Later that year I threw caution to the wind and decided to exhibit at the Grahamstown Arts festival the following year. A series of fortuitous events led me to believe it was the right decision. In hindsight, maybe it was a premature move, but a necessary step in reaching a  deeper understanding of myself.
A significant influence on my artistic life at this point was a book called "The Artist's way" by Julia Cameron. I read it thirstily, drinking in the nectar, loving the positive encouragement contained within those pages! One by one my self-doubts began to melt away in the conviction that was I had to offer was unique and precious and valuable.
At around this time I had been attending the School of Philosophy, learning meditation. I had been to a few of the art classes offered by the school. One day I invited the head of the school, Rodney to come and give me a crit of my paintings that I was taking to Grahamstown.
He walked into my lounge, took a cursory glance at all the work I had lined up around the room and said in a sombre voice.
"what is Art?"
I was in no mood for a philosophical discussion. Being rather in awe of him, I said very little, just said that I painted "from the heart" or something like that. He hummed and hawed and carried on for about 10 minutes pontificating on the nature of Art and his opinions. when I asked him directly what he thought of my paintings, he muttered something along the lines of "I see you have some skill in drawing" and left it at that. Of the paintings themselves he said nothing. I took that to be negative. When he finally left, I burst into hot angry tears. I felt insulted, disappointed.

However I was too far along the road at that point to pull out of the Festival. A week or so earlier when I had inquired about the application, I had been told it would cost R1100 for a space and advertising in the fringe magazine. I thought this was a fortune and couldn't afford it, feeling that it was too much of a drain on the family. I had almost decided not to apply when a day or so later I found a mysterious cheque in the post box for about R1000- some investment I had made some years ago and forgotten about had matured. I took this as a sign. I must go ahead with the application.


I had had confirmation of my venue-a classroom in Victoria Girl's High school, and I was in the fringe under the title, "Digging up my dreams". There was no going back. I had 6 more months to fill a classroom with my work.
I put my back into it for the next 6 months, painting furiously and drawing.
I relied heavily on Julia Cameron to see me through the days and counter the continous stream of negative mindspeak that polluted my brain.
Little did I know what lay ahead in the months to come.

To be continued
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