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Naturally inspired: Taking the Jikeleza art route

Naturally inspired: Taking the Jikeleza art route

“Anyone can learn to draw,” says Kathryn Harmer Fox matter-of-factly. “It’s a learned skill, like reading. You just have to put your mind to it and practise.”

From her home in the coastal village of Kwelera, Kath is at the northern end of the Wild Coast Jikeleza Route, some 30 kilometres away from the trail’s start just outside East London. At Kath’s peaceful studio, surrounded by the Kwelera Mouth Nature Reserve, and with views of dolphins and whales in the waves, the name ‘Jikeleza’ lives up to its isiXhosa meaning of ‘invitation to wander’.

Jikeleza art route

At home in his Sunrise-on-Sea studio,
it’s clear why Jeff Rankin is famous for his graphic prints.

The multi-media artist specialises in fibre art, painting with fabric, and drawing with thread. She’s passionate about nature, and her layered works are rich in texture and colour. And while her ‘weapon’ of choice is her sewing machine, it all starts with drawing.

“We have to learn to see and develop our own style – there are too many copyists out there,” she says. “We need enthusiasm, excitement and passion in life; it’s where we place our focus that counts. It’s the same for any form of expression; it’s just a matter of finding your medium.”

Fibre art is relatively new in South Africa and encompasses a wide range of techniques and materials, but the big galleries here are catching on to this international trend. Since she started using fibre as her medium, Kath says her painting and drawing have improved.

She shares her insights at her regular Saturday morning drawing classes in her studio and at fibre-art workshops – this year she’s been invited to run them in Australia and New Zealand for a third time.

“Art is very healing and takes me to a joyful place,” she says. “But you’ve got to get ‘art fit’ or ‘drawing fit’.”

Jikeleza

Kathryn Harmer Fox’s wicked sense of humour and cheeky playfulness are clear.

It’s a joy that’s very visible in her work: a coelacanth, a burst of sunflowers, a coat of many colours, charming bird and animal postcards, compelling portraits. Her passion for nature comes through strongly in the mixed-media fisherwoman and her rhino poacher portrait titled Hang Your Head in Shame.

“Here I am constantly reminded that I am merely a part of nature; nothing more, nothing less. And when I really look and actually see, I know that this is enough,” Kath says.

If you think fish just swim in the sea in orderly shoals, you haven’t yet seen Jeff Rankin’s art. The fish in his whimsical Submarine Dreams series of watercolour monotype prints float through the sky, peer thirstily up at dry taps and have muscular arms that clutch umbrellas. From his double-storey Albatross Studio in a tower attached to his house at Sunrise-on-Sea, Jeff can watch the changing moods of the ocean beyond the narrow strip of the Kwelera Nature Reserve.

He used the emotive power of his art to chronicle the community’s struggle against developers who wanted to erect an abalone farm on this unspoilt coast.

“My wife Judi and I moved here from Durban in 1994 when city life became too much. It’s a good community and my daughter lives next door in my mom’s old house.”

Jeff lectured for 30 years at art and design schools in Durban and East London before ‘retiring’ ten years ago to put more energy into his own work, and still teaches at his studio and at workshops countrywide. Widely known for his graphic arts, printmaking, and woodcuts in particular, Jeff has exhibited in group and solo shows locally and internationally. Rich in social commentary, his work has been snapped up for both public and private collections.

“Metaphor, satire and the crafted image are strong parts of my visual language, looking mostly, often obliquely, at South Africa’s social landscape,” he says.

art route, sculpture

Sculptor Stephanie Bester is adept at capturing movement in her bronze figures.

Jeff was the political cartoonist for the Sunday Tribune for 11 years in the pre-democracy era and says politics today continues to provide rich material. His reputation for graphic satire led to the revived Vrye Weekblad asking him to use his barbed pen for their new online publication. “Drawing is still my first love,” he says, holding up a cartoon of a big fat local government official flushing a toilet that spews its effluent into a small woman’s dismayed face.

“Art is my therapy. If I’m angry or frustrated, without a centre, as long as I have a project on the go, I retreat to my studio for therapy. I love drawing – it keeps me off the streets of my normal, chaotic life,” says Jeff, perched on a stool in his eagle-eyrie studio, where he gives small classes in printmaking and drawing. “I believe passionately in the soul value of creativity.”

Further north, the Olivewood Private Estate & Golf Club overlooks the broad sweep of the Chintsa River, but on entering the airy foyer, I am immediately drawn to a series of finely wrought bronze sculptures of people and animals.

“My work is about the relationship between people, God and nature,” explains the magician behind these works, Stephanie Bester, as she gives me a guided tour. I meet a tree guardian, a warrior in a yoga pose and a woman holding an eagle head. Fright talks about our emotional responses to fear and Conversation demonstrates the lack of free communication in our society.

Stephanie has her studio at her home in Glen Navar on the coast nearby, and exhibited at Decorex in Johannesburg last year for the first time. Turns out she’s a nursing sister who got into art late in life. It started as a hobby and a course at the Open Window Institute in Pretoria, but the joy of being able to express herself made her take it more seriously.

The bug bit so hard she enrolled at the Buffalo City TVET College in her 40s after she and her doctor husband moved to East London nearly 20 years ago. She followed this with an advanced diploma and a master’s in visual art through Unisa. “One of the best journeys I’ve done. I started looking at things differently, whether it’s people or trees,” says Stephanie. “It’s a spiritual journey too.”

The beautiful environment on the Jikeleza route is a constant inspiration for her. “There’s nature everywhere. We walk on the beach, watch whales and birds, and buck cross the road when we drive to the shops. And I can go to the local game reserves to study animals before doing a sculpture.”

Creating bronze sculptures is also a highly technical process that she’s had to learn, starting with a maquette in clay, tin foil or wax that eventually goes to a foundry for casting. “Sculpture has taught me to look at nature in 3D, whether it’s the shape of a tree or clouds.”

Jikeleza

Kate at work in her Let Sleeping Dragons studio in Chintsa East.

In an art studio called Let Sleeping Dragons, this time in the village of Chintsa East, there’s a mischievous elfin energy. It’s where Rhodes University fine arts graduate Kate Teesdale displays her work and that of other artists, gives drawing lessons and holds off-beat film evenings that provide ‘thought food’ to those with enquiring minds. “It’s a kind of gathering place,” she says when I pop in to visit.

I find her working on a large and very intricate drawing of Lord Gautama Buddha sitting under a banyan tree, sheltered from driving rain by a large, caring cobra spreading its hood over him. They’re embraced by the womb of Mother Earth in a complex web of life rich in symbolism. Intrigued, I ask if she’s a Buddhist.

“What’s a Buddhist?” she replies, and I soon learn that Kate is constantly questioning whatever comes her way, her wide, grey eyes alert to unmanifest possibilities. Watching a world emerge on the page as she alternates between pencil and ballpoint pen, I wonder why she does art.

“The question is: why does art do me? Why do these ideas come through me? I don’t know, I just respond,” she replies. “We are creative beings and it manifests in different ways. Design is evident everywhere you look. Music, art and dance were the first ways we expressed ourselves on this planet. We are visual beings and we live in a visual culture. Every other way I tried didn’t work. Only this works for me. It’s the right way for me.”

Kathryn Harmer Fox’s bright, instantly recognisable colours.

Kate’s always been fascinated by light and form and patterns – as a child she counted spaces between poles on family roadtrips. “Maybe I have a natural inbuilt pattern mechanism that is very loud. I see beauty in the world and want to draw people’s attention to it.”

For her, making art is a form of meditation: as she works, answers reveal themselves, whether she’s drawing one of the wagtails outside her studio or working on a big commissioned painting of a Chintsa seascape.

“I feel blessed and honoured when a bit of the godhead comes through. My response is to hone my skills enough to do justice to the images. As an artist, I play with images and reserve judgement.”

I feel her getting drawn deeper into her drawing and leave her absorbed in the creative process to go and imbibe a bit of Jikeleza beauty myself. The light is softening and plays across the trunk of the big fig tree across the road, creating patterns. Should I try drawing these transient shadows? Instead, I take out my trusty camera and play with the light through the lens.

Next morning on the beach the same thing happens, and I see new shapes in the sand and reach for my camera again. I laugh as the realisation hits. The Jikeleza way of seeing nature afresh has got me.

Creative Contacts

Kathryn Harmer Fox’s home studio is in Kwelera Mouth Village. 043 737 4814
Facebook: Kathryn Harmer Fox Artist

Jeff Rankin’s Albatross Studio is in Sunrise-on-Sea. 082 202 4917, Facebook: Jeff Rankin Artist / The Albatross Studio

Stephanie Bester 072 238 0950 [email protected], www.visualart.co.za

Kate Teesdale’s Let Sleeping Dragons studio is in Chintsa East village. 072 111 1804,
Facebook: Letsleepingdragons

Take the Jikeleza Route

Jikeleza means ‘invitation to wander or meander’ in isiXhosa. The route starts just outside the East London suburb of Beacon Bay, and ends on the N2 some 30km away. For the most part, it follows the T1 Road
with several stops on a number of tarred and well-signed trunk roads ranging from the T2 to the T10.

Driftwood Studios

art route

Artist George Kockett

The late George Kockott mentored many artists, both local and international, in residencies at his Driftwood Studios, tucked into coastal forest on the edge of the Kwelera Mouth Nature Reserve in Rainbow Valley. Sadly, he succumbed to illness in April 2019 while this article was being written, but his wife Claire continues his legacy, hosting artists needing a quiet space to give free rein to their creativity in George’s workshop and gallery, where some of his work remains on display.

Guests stay in a garden cottage or thatched treehouse, and these are also available to holidaymakers seeking a tranquil spot on the Jikeleza Route.

083 479 2750, www.driftwoodstudios.co.za

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