A bespectacled young man looks up from his desk as I walk into the airy studio. Garnett Ludick, manager at Spier Artisan Studio, introduces himself. His eyes sparkle as he outlines the work in this chic new art space in the Cape Winelands.
With art collections displayed throughout Spier estate – including the striking Dying Slave mosaic installation and the Spier Mosaic Kraal, which is featuring the country’s first permanent outdoor exhibition of mosaic. The Stellenbosch wine estate is firmly on the art connoisseur’s map, but opening the working studio has allowed the artisans to engage with, and expose their unique artisan skills to, a broader range of local and international visitors.
Our journey from apprentice to artisan
Garnett and three other graduates of the Spier Arts Academy in Cape Town have been granted free workspace in the studio for 12 months. “The Spier Artisan Studio deepens the scope of what the academy’s Apprenticeship Programme offers, giving graduates the invaluable opportunity to gain work experience in a studio and retail environment,” says Mirna Wessels, CEO of the Spier Arts Trust, which administers this space as one of several arts projects.
I stop at the desk of another graduate, Dean Laminie. “The three-year Apprentice Programme was much more than just mastering artisan skills,” Dean tells me. “It covered all the areas that we had to understand in order to make it in the ‘real’ world – costing, materials, invoicing, developing collaborative relationships with artists, preparing for exhibitions.
“But this studio gives us the opportunity to showcase our artworks and to share our journeys from apprentice to artisan. It’s an exciting step in my career.”
On a typical day, 15 to 20 people will come through the door, as much as 30 in high season. Most are visitors to the wine farm who are interested in art, and are pleasantly surprised to stumble on a working mosaic- and bead-production studio, where they can interact with the artists.
The stages of creation
Like the other visitors that afternoon, I’m enthralled by the mastery of the work and the diligence of the artisans. Heads down, with intense focus, they are all hard at work, one at a school desk, two on opposite sides of a big table on which a mosaic is being painstakingly created. “It’s an interpretation of a work from the Spier Creative Block project, which supports both established and emerging artists,” Garnett explains. “It purchases artworks that are then sold to collectors.”
Briefly he outlines the stages involved in the creation of a piece. “First we sketch a template by upscaling the Creative Block artwork and using marker pens to create a ‘map’. If it’s a big piece it will be broken down into sections that different artisans will work on.
“Then we choose materials that match the colours and textures of the original artwork. The beauty of mosaic is that it allows you to use a variety of materials both natural like stone and precious gemstones, and man-made such as glass and ceramics.”
He takes us to a wall of shelves where numerous jars are displayed that look like they belong in an old-fashioned sweet shop, their contents covering a spectrum of colours. A jar of smooth, cobalt-blue pieces of Venetian glass catches my eye, as does the alluring, golden-streaked tiger’s eye.
Passion and enthusiasm
When the artisans first start planning, they use a sample board, on which all the available colours are displayed on a gradient, to choose the appropriate materials. “One of the most rewarding elements about mosaic is that I’ve learnt to see colour in a different way,” says Dean. “We’re effectively working with pixels, as in a digital image.”
Also working in the studio is Nolobubalo Kanku, one of the owners of the Qubeka Bead Studio. Owned by three professional women bead workers, Qubeka is run independently of the Spier Art Academy but the process is similar – the bead artisans translate works of fine art into beadwork.
“Materials are pre-mixed, and threaded,” explains Nolobubalo. “The result is a single layer of beads on top of a wooden board.”
Whatever awkwardness I feel about interrupting the artisans at work, the passion and enthusiasm of the participants in this new venture soon put me at ease. Eager to learn more, I arrange to visit the mother ship, Spier Arts Academy in Union House, Cape Town.
A Creative Block collection covers the right-hand wall of the ground floor. The blocks are small, each with an individual theme, but the effect of seeing them displayed together is mesmerising. Mirna explains that the Creative Block collection is constantly evolving.
“We have 250 participating artists and purchase the best Creative Blocks immediately. The collection represents their individual stories, subject matter and style. When they’re displayed together, they showcase a rich, contrasting and extensive expression of South African art.”
Taking us down to the water basement of the four-storey heritage building, Mirna explains that the premises was formerly used to store textiles, which were then loaded onto ships. The sea used to come right up to where we’re standing. Now the basement is used as a ceramics studio and storeroom, the treasure chest from which the trainees and graduates at Union House, along with the artisans at Spier Mosaic Studio, source their material.
Among the trays of now-familiar natural and man-made materials that I observed at the Spier Artisan Studio, are fragments of kitchen and bathroom tiles and other discarded materials sourced from dumps. And, appropriately, trays of corks.
It’s here that I begin to understand the scale and international regard for Spier Arts. Photographs on the wall show some of the major works that have been sold to buyers in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and the UK along with some intriguing local pieces like the ‘eyes’ in the urinals of Cape Town’s Long Street baths.
To my surprise, I notice that many of the large-scale works are displayed in Nando’s restaurants and offices, as part of the South African-founded restaurant chain’s Global Arts Initiative, which supports local artists. “Nando’s is one of our major patrons,” Mirna explains. “They provide funding for canvases and materials, and in return they have first option on pieces and can buy the artworks at a reasonable price.”
All about collaboration
Moving upstairs to the first floor, we encounter Tamlin Blake, chief curator at Spier Arts Trust and artist of the Threaded Floor, a large-scale floor mosaic artwork at Union House, with some third-year mosaic apprentices who are presenting samples of artworks that they wish to create, for her to critically assess. After moving around the tables offering praise and technical advice, she joins us. She also stresses the support that the Spier Arts Trust offers in helping graduates of the academy move forward.
“We encourage our apprentice artisans to collaborate and work together with the artists whose work they interpret – perhaps co-working on independent projects or exhibiting together – in order to develop a relationship that will continue once they leave the nest.”
For a lucky few, that won’t be when they graduate. If they successfully put forward a proposal they will be offered the opportunity to continue at the academy as journeymen – teachers who lead teams of four or five apprentices, or who work on private commissions. And then they might be offered a place at the artisan studio at Spier.
Whether you’re a devotee or, like me, an uninformed admirer of art, I’d thoroughly recommend a visit to the Spier Artisan Studio. But be warned, it’s hard to resist leaving without investing in a Creative Block.
Get Down to some Fine Art
The Spier Artisan Studio is open from Tuesday to Sunday 09h00 to 18h00. Entrance is free. www.spier.co.za
Creative Blocks are sold at the Spier Artisan Studio, Wine Tasting Room and Spier Hotel, and at the AVA Gallery in Church Street, Cape Town, GFI Gallery in Port Elizabeth and Union House in Cape Town. The Creative Block Project also participates in art fairs such as Turbine Art Fair (Johannesburg) and KKNK (Oudtshoorn).
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Pictures Shaen Adey and supplied