ESCAPE TO 'EMERALD CITY'
Prince Albert — The creative nerve centre of the Karoo
The man from the ‘New York Times’ summed Prince Albert up perfectly when he said that first sight of this place was like ‘spying the Emerald City after a long trek on the Yellow Brick Road’. Somehow in its early boom years, which began in the mid-1990s, arty folk started coming to Prince Albert, settling and indulging their creativity. Why?
It possibly has something to do with the looming sweep of the Swartberg range above it, the beautifully restored homes, the well-managed Western Cape town, the light at the bookends of the day, the stillness and the space. Also the goat’s milk cheese, the world-class cooking, the olive estates, the usually-gurgling water furrows, the guest houses, hotel, donkey sanctuary, Saturday morning markets, private school, skills college, heritage hawks, Art Deco theatre and gracious gallery.
Often dubbed the Franschhoek of the Karoo, Prince Albert has managed to attract foreign residents, well-heeled Capetonians and rich retirees from all over South Africa. But it’s the presence of the 30-odd members of the Prince Albert Open Studios route that helps to give it the kind of classy cachet that results in a relatively buoyant real estate market in the midst of a national property slump.
Top-end artists bring a kind of rock’n’roll credibility to the party. They make Prince Albert a cool destination. And on a practical level, when they move into an old village house, they tend to spruce it up quite dramatically.
The Open Studios concept was imported to Prince Albert by printmaker Joshua Miles and his wife Angela, previously residents in the Overberg. Every year in January and June, local artists open their studios to visitors who can meet them, learn about their process and, hopefully, walk away with a piece or two.
This concept of artistic collaboration is internationally recognised as the way forward for artists living and working in rural areas: to survive, you market together.
Botanical artist Sally Arnold says the positioning of the town — halfway up a mountain, protected, with water running into the valley — gives Prince Albert good feng shui.
“The presence of a sophisticated art gallery, a place to exhibit and gather, makes a real difference as well,” she says.
Sally fell in love with nature while growing up on a farm at Baroda station north of Cradock, in the Eastern Cape Karoo.
“My world, my television, was flowers and insects. I was barefoot all day long, climbing trees. My first illustration was done with a stick, in the dust. That’s why, years later, my first exhibition was called ‘Scratching in the Sand.’”
After a childhood spent in the South African platteland, Arnold lived overseas (Rome, Luxembourg and Munich) for decades, and has returned with a heightened sense of awareness of what makes an Art Town.
“I remember seeing an article in the Financial Times 15 years ago, about the fact that when artists move into a town, the property prices almost invariably rise. I could already see the potential of the Karoo years ago.
“Beauty is important. It’s getting people’s eyes to focus on these little tiny things that you might normally even just step on or overlook.”
Working in great detail, mostly with watercolours and pencils, Arnold is becoming increasingly inspired by Karoo plants and their intriguing shapes.
Pat Hyland and his wife Judith moved to Prince Albert from KwaZulu-Natal two years ago, and are increasingly charmed by their new neighbourhood.
Although he makes many things, Hyland specialises in quirky lamps. For example, he will incorporate the exoskeleton of a brass tap into the lamp, so that you have to switch it on and off by opening it as you would a tap; or pulling out a safety pin and flicking a fire extinguisher lever. It’s top-shelf steampunk at work.
He opens a cupboard and reverentially shows us his latest treasure — five pressure gauges that would have been expensive when new. But they are no longer in use, so there they were in the local junkyard, at R25 a piece. They’ll soon form part of some new pieces he is planning in his workshop.
He has turned work into play with skills he learned and used over decades of engineering. Hyland operates from his garage, lathing, soldering, woodworking, band-sawing, drilling, happily imagining lovely, unique little pieces that will find homes all over the world.
He fashions highly functional art, stuff with steampunk tendencies.
Then he has his Karoo range, a quirky lot of items made from a combination of enamel cups, bowls, plates, paraffin lamps and Weltevreden fig jars. He also turned part of a bicycle wheel into a lamp, confident it will attract the eye of a mountain biker soon. Currently, however, his “lamps from Land Rover parts” are all the rage.
Nearly 20 years ago, Di van der Riet Steyn decided to focus her art on making jewellery with silver and pieces of blue found porcelain. Prince Albert has been around for more than 250 years, which means there’s an awful lot of very old and shattered porcelain on the site of the town.
“I find the little porcelain shards all over Prince Albert, even in my own yard,” she says. “Of late, friends send me bits of porcelain they’ve picked up on their travels.”
Both porcelain and pure silver are soft, so they go well together. She offers one-on-one workshops on jewellery making, focussing on working with silver, which is unmistakably heavy, malleable, bright white and shiny.
Sometimes Van der Riet Steyn takes bits of discarded bracelets, bangles and sugar bowls, snips them up and melts them down. Sometimes she will combine items, like a tiny doll’s head and two curved silver bits that might work well together to make a little angel brooch.
“Although I spend a lot of time fooling around with bits and pieces, I also do normal jewellery stuff like sapphire and diamond rings — that’s my bread and butter.”
She loves the “alchemy part” of jewellery-making: adding a precise amount of this to an exact amount of that, lighting the blowtorch and turning solid metal to orange-green flame and hot liquid.
Back from Belgium
Philip Willem Badenhorst grew up in the Karoo, on a farm between Colesberg and Steynsburg, graduated at the Michaelis art school in Cape Town and then went to Belgium to paint, and teach at various academies in Antwerp. He also travelled the world with his wife, Marijke Coornaert.
He paints on the floor of his studio or at a table, mostly in acrylics because it dries quickly. It allows him to work in finely detailed layers, often creating in diptychs, focusing on interlocking images of people and nature, inspired by themes like mending the broken.
Why Prince Albert?
“In the 1990s I came here for a few months to paint,” he says. “I had never worked so well. I loved the seclusion. There were no distractions. People just left us alone, yet they are friendly. In 2001 we came back and stayed for three months again. That’s when I bought this property — two old houses next to one another, each with three inter-leading rooms — and had it restored.”
Happily thriving in Prince Albert, Philip says his days belong to him. “I paint when I want to, I read, I sit in the garden or I slip out to the yoga studio across the road,” he says. “As an artist and simply as a person, I love the solitude, the vast panoramas, the silence, the veld.”
The very happy hermit
Di Smith has a comfortable, compact home in Prince Albert, an all-terrain Suzuki Jimny in the garage, a mountain bike and a deep love of the outdoors. Prince Albert suits her perfectly.
She is also someone who has embraced the all-around concept of being creative in body and mind. Smith works out in a home gym, meditates, drinks good wine, eats healthily and lives a solitary yet sociable life on her own terms.
A former long-time corporate executive from Cape Town, Smith has been in Prince Albert for less than two years but says she has more friends here than she ever did back in the Mother City. “They respect your space in Prince Albert,” she says.
Her pent up creativity pours out in a torrent, flowing in several directions at once. While paint from a new piece is drying, she might work on a conceptual piece involving origami and sewing, or reading up about the plight of refugees and migrants, and sculpting a gravity-defying piece depicting a kite flying a boy.
If she’s not working in her kitchen, she’s on her stoep, or in the veld, picking up bones and interesting stones, inspired by the “subtle opulence of the Karoo”, as she describes it.
“I’m usually doing five or six things at once, working eight hours a day on my art. I love being present in my life. Curiosity keeps me going.”
At the forge
Everything about Kashief Booley, the blacksmith of Prince Albert, says “old school”. And watching him work in the Striking Metal smithy on a rise overlooking the village, is to segue back a few centuries.
There’s a flaming forge, rows of hand-made tools, hulking anvil, hissing water bucket and the all-important hammer. But then there are also signs of the times: T-shirt and blue denim jeans with the Springsteen cut, gas burners and angle grinders.
Booley is always busy with some piece of metal artistry: a beautiful hand-forged set of hooks, door knockers, gates, balustrades, tables, stools and other décor items. He’ll tell you: “When that forge is lit, I go into another place.” It’s a place where an ancient craft meets a modern creative mind and together they make something special.
Author-artist and photographer Sue Hoppe of Port Elizabeth moved to Prince Albert relatively recently with her husband Max. They bought the first building you find (coming from the Swartberg Pass side) on the left, which used to be a restaurant before it partially burned down. They put some serious sweat equity into renovating the place, upcycling and recycling wherever possible, turning it into a delicious dwelling.
Part of the Hoppe spread is Sue’s studio, which bears the name of their company: El Gecko. It’s a former wagon house full of her exuberant mixed media and encaustic works.
The Hoppes did considerable Karoo road time in compiling The Climax Collection and Travels (Troubles) with Koos, two popular armchair reads which heralded a number of other publications via the El Gecko imprint. But now they are well-rooted in Prince Albert, and Sue in particular is one of the key organisers of the Open Studios concept.
Memory of fire
Psychologist, artist and Jungian analyst Louisa Punt-Fouche and her husband Ian own the Kredouw Olive Estate near the pass of the same name.
You’d think she was busy enough in her life, but Punt-Fouche finds time to write books, build art installations and mandalas, play the piano and paint. She also assembles art out of bones, feldspar and crystals gleaned from the Swartberg mountains that loom over the farm.
“Art is the manifestation of our ultimate concerns. What is in the crucible of change that will lead humanity to kindness?”
She takes us on a tour of her elegant art gallery, the farm shop and an installation dedicated to the memory of the recent fire. And then Louisa Punt-Fouche sits down at her home piano and plays a Bach piece while two large poodles, Bella and Yoda, gather faithfully about her.
A cup of coffee later, we are in the company of Heleen de Haas of Aswater Farm. She is an accomplished calligrapher, practising an art which she describes thus:
“It interprets sound, goes beyond legibility or meaning. It combines the senses. It is writing with the heart. You think visually, but interpret what you hear in the strokes.”
Everywhere on the farm, there is art. The family house is full of examples of her exquisite calligraphy. The poplar forest nearby is marked throughout by displays of land art and fine writing on stone. There is a labyrinth and Die Letterhuis, a gallery that also accommodates guests.
Heleen de Haas holds workshop retreats on the farm, where visitors can learn the basics of her interesting art form and stay for a while, far away from busy lives. “And here, especially with the land art, you see how Nature picks up the paintbrush after humans have had their turn.”
Knives and freedom fighters
Here’s Cobus van Bosch, a man with a love for bonsais and the back story of South Africa. A former arts journalist from Cape Town, Van Bosch brings incredible atmosphere and presence to his paintings, working from a treasure trove of visual historical material sourced from the Cape Archives.
He is photographed standing in front of a riveting piece that portrays Boer prisoners and their captors. Other paintings are part of his Forgotten Freedom Fighters collection, depicting various South African minority groups. He brings to life the forgotten or sidelined parts of South African history.
Van Bosch is also a knife-maker of repute. In his neat workroom is an arrangement of ancient sheep shears, waiting to be turned into brand new blades. “Those who buy these from me are mostly farmers wanting a good skinning knife and those who appreciate something that is both functional and beautiful,” he says.
Joshua Miles makes these distinctive limited edition prints, painting directly onto linoleum in a process called reduction block print-making. “The chances of messing up are massive,” he says. “Picasso called it ‘suicide printing’.”
His wife Angela once ran a mobile hairdressing salon in Scotland, then studied cabinet-making at the Glasgow School of Art. In fact, the couple own a studio home in Scotland, where they plan to spend part of their year. They started up the Open Studios in Baardskeerdersbos before bringing the concept to Prince Albert.
“I am always looking for the qualities of light that evoke emotion. The crisp light tones of Scotland and the Karoo, the luminosity in landscapes — those are my biggest inspirations,” says Miles.
A Prince Albert fan
Although she is not a permanent resident of Prince Albert, sculptor Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe loves working in the town. She is intoxicated by the Karoo’s simplicity and currently trying to capture it via the sculpture of a beautiful woman lost in thought, her hair swept by mountain winds, her dreaming face looking out across the horizons.
“I love to create in this air, this light and these mountains,” she says. “I’m translating these elements, so new to me, into sculptural form. Her eyes are open in wonder and peace. She’s slender but strong.”
The art of being a child
The POP (Path to Prosperity) Centre is located in North End, Prince Albert. There, amidst the joyful jumble of many children dutifully wearing all manner of safety masks, we meet project coordinator Naaim Briesies, who is also a local rap artist with the name of Gellyblik, “A Gellyblik what we call a little fire in a small tin,” he laughs.
Part of the Prince Albert Community Trust (Pact), volunteers at the centre fed hundreds of North End children during the initial Covid-19 lockdown period. Pact is supported by the Prince Albert community at large, local farmers and well-wishers from afar.
“The pandemic has seen the richer South End part of Prince Albert reach out to North End in many ways,” says Briesies.
The POP Centre is buzzing with a programme of events and projects for the children, including a playgroup for the tots and courses in home-baking, knitting, backyard veggie gardens and the game of chess.
This is also a place of art. The world-famous Cape Town-based street artist called Falko One has decorated the POP Centre with joyous murals, many of them depicting his trademark multicoloured elephants.
“This is a creative space for the kids to hang out and play in safety,” says Briesies. And although he’s talking about the children at the POP Centre, he may as well be speaking for the whole precinct of Prince Albert, this enterprising “Emerald City” deep in the dry Karoo. DM/ ML
This is a chapter from Karoo Roads II, by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Moving to the Platteland — Life in Small Town South Africa for only R720, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected].
The next Prince Albert Open Studio Winter Edition will be held on June 16-19. Click here for more details.
In case you missed it, also read No shortage of space, better weather and costs: Why tying the knot on a Karoo farm is a great idea
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