Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Journey of a Painting

Original oil/canvas paintings by Viv King Travels in the Karoo

These paintings were completed after a magical trip to the Karoo area of South Africa. The journey was to fulfill a longheld desire of mine to visit the shrine of one of the most famous and eccentric artists South Africa has produced, Helen Martins. Her "Owl House" was completed shortly before her death in 1976. Helen's hometown Nieu Bethesda has become a living monument to her incredible achievement with the help of a local sculptor, Koos Malgas. The garden is full of the cement figures which all face East to Mecca, thus interpreting a dream/vision which Helen had. One of the most famous of these is the Nativity scene.
To me, though it was the interior of her humble dwelling which has left a lasting impression. She painstakingly covered every inch of wall space and even some of the ceilings, with minute shards of crushed glass, which she glued by hand to the surface. Running one's hands along the wall is like stroking a piece of rough sandpaper. The effect is extraordinary and one can imagine the pain she must have endured. I couldn't help thinking of Michaelangelo and the Cistene Chapel, as she must have had to lie on her back to do this!
Helen was particularly intrigued by the way candlelight was reflected by the glass chips and would invite the local Dominee, one of her two only friends, for a Christmas drink during which she filled the room with candles and they would gaze at the beautiful light dancing on the walls. The Dominee tried in vain to convert Helen to Christianity. She eventually took her own life in 1976.
One can almost sense the tragedy in the house - it has an eerie, rather sad atmosphere, but it is nonetheless a remarkable testimony to one woman's pursuit of her own truth, at tremendous cost to herself, both personally and as a member of community. Not surprsingly perhaps, Helen was shunned by the local community who considered her crazy if not quite evil for her strange Eastern beliefs and her close association with her coloured sculptor who did the bulk of the legwork in the garden. This was in the heyday of Apartheid South Africa, after all. Still today there stands the crusher and hundreds of old broken beer bottles - a poignant reminder of the pain they must have suffered together.

The actual inspiration for my own paintings came from a trip to Graaff Reinet in 2004. We drove up to the look-out point just outside Graaff Reinet where we could look out over the valley of desolation. The rock formations there are incredible - powerful, rugged and framing deep caverns. Pierneef's gallery in Graaff Reinet has some wonderful studies which he did of these very rocks. I could picture him trekking up the valley with his canvas and painting equipment battling the strong winds to get a fine perspective. The winds up there were certainly fierce so I had to make do with my camera to capture some of the views, which I then worked on in my studio back home.

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