Enticement and freedom come from living creatively in the platteland
Quieter country places allow more time for reflection, innovation, and oneness with nature — all rare commodities in cities.
Thousands of South African city people switch to more creative lives once they move to the countryside. Former policemen have become cooks. Bankers and lawyers have started painting. Computer technicians have turned to the potter’s wheel. Dental mechanics have become musicians.
And of course, those who are already immersed in the arts of painting, sculpting, music and writing frequently move to quieter country places. It has much to do with time and space for reflection and creation — a rare commodity in cities.
Creativity and collaboration
Johan Trollip of Steytlerville used to be a banker — a job that kept him in big cities and overseas for most of his working life.
When the time came for retirement in 2011, Johan turned his back on Europe despite the very comfortable life it offered, and decamped to Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape, where his sister had once lived. He’d come for several family gatherings, and it was the one town he preferred more than any other.
“I also liked the fact that the town pays homage to the local families, of all races, through the clan crests in the main road. There is a great sense of community amongst all race groups living here. Just try sitting on your stoep and reading a book without being heartily greeted by each and every passerby.”
He bought a house and set up a studio, where his pent-up creative spirit poured out on canvas, in oil paintings of people and landscapes.
“One of the reasons I like living here is because there are other artists around to collaborate with. Only when I began to mentor some of the budding local creatives did I realise how much talent there is in Steytlerville.
“Our group shares ideas and we solve problems together. This is why I feel safe here. My art is my passion. It’s what encourages me to get up every morning.”
Johan also doubles up as manager of the Royal Hotel. Here are his tips for moving to the platteland as an artist:
“You’ve got to be healthy and relatively financially stable. You must have made your income or be able to sustain yourself. There are no big industries. You won’t be able to make money from the community. Master the use of Facebook or Instagram to market yourself.”
The value of idle time
While floating on a tyre tube in a farm dam near a cave just outside Clarens, reclusive painter Martin Wessels once remarked:
“Plato said artists and philosophers need a lot of idle time. They must be able to get bored because then the mind becomes mischievous. And through the mischief, something creative comes.”
Martin, who eventually moved to a farm near Joubertina, used to let great sheets of paper blow around his werf, acquiring hoof prints and mud scuffs and rain marks before painting on them. He collaborated and created with Nature.
Movie sets and succulents
In 2006, Allana Willox and her husband Pierre Fourie moved from Cape Town to his family farm outside Uniondale in the Kykoe Valley.
They are both on nodding terms with famous Hollywood actors and directors and have simply carried on with their occasional city careers, leaving the farm periodically to work on the sets of movies like Judge Dredd, Mad Max and The Mummy.
When not occupied with set-building, Allana tends a massive nursery full of cacti, aloes and succulents on a property called Kannabos, beside a gallery made of straw bales. This is where she paints on canvas and creates with ceramics.
“Painting is intense, you’re discovering yourself, working with emotion and feeling. Pottery is therapeutic. You throw clay on the wheel and there is instant gratification.”
Her various media, even the plants, are beginning to merge into her artworks. Otherworldly images of succulents appear in her paintings and bowls — the starfish-like flowers of the Stapelia, indigenous local plants like ostrich foot, Fenestraria, Haworthia, Gasteria and the Prince Albert aloe.
“It’s been wonderful learning about them, watching them grow.
“I’m fond of the daily change of the weather and the drama of the mountains. I can be more creative here than I can in a city. I am forced to be present because there are fewer distractions. I have this feeling of space, this feeling that I can fly.”
Nature as inspiration
During one of their visits to the village, someone made a joke to Martin about a house being available for R60,000 “for today only”. Martin made a light-hearted counter-offer and they suddenly owned a house in the Karoo that had been used for years as a garlic store and reeked to high heaven.
“Dry spaces attract creative souls. They are places for retrospection and reflection. In the platteland, you are more deeply affected by immediate life around you: deaths, births, christenings, funerals, water issues, farming, food security and the weather. You become more aware and mindful of everything all about — the grace and artwork that is written in the steenbok tracks and hidden veld flowers. Small things matter.”
People as inspiration
Roger Young started his professional life in Cape Town as a bespoke furniture maker. Then he moved to the beautiful Red Stone Hills near Calitzdorp to escape the crime and the noise.
The landscapes inspired him to pick up a camera, but it was the people of the region that moved him more.
In his images, intense and simple moments are revealed, framed by space and time: the connection between an old man and his dog; the awkward hug between a father and his son after a fight; the shy smile of a farmworker’s wife; the last picture of a granny called Ou Mietjie who literally died laughing; a portly fellow and his Boerboel; a bride and groom cutting into a wedding cake (he grinning with joy and she frozen with fear); a daughter standing protectively over her dying mother; an old gardener with a beautiful face, holding an injured sunbird gently in his hands.
His partner, former professional ballet dancer Phyllis Midlane, is a costumier, mascot-maker and seamstress, frequently spending long months in Cape Town on productions like War Horse. In her studio, she has now also turned to the equally three-dimensional arts of hat-making and sculpture, stirred by the faces of those around her.
The Karroo Theatrical Hotel
Concert pianist, entertainer and clown Mark Hinds and singer Jacques Rabie had first moved from Cape Town to Tulbagh, looking for a better life but “eventually we were just sitting on our stoep counting cows,” says Mark.
One day in 2003 they spotted an advert for a hotel to be auctioned just outside Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape. In the photograph, it looked like an irresistible cross between Arizona Art Deco and a South American hacienda.
Says Mark: “We drove to Steytlerville to have a look, and suddenly, on the horizon, we saw the church steeple and this strange Mexican village on the hill.”
It was a derelict shell, unoccupied for years. Everything of value had been stolen — light wires were hanging out, the copper piping was gone. The filth was shin-high. But it did have 13 rooms, three bars (one with a salvageable brass foot rail), a dancehall and a squash court. They bought it.
Over the years they have both become creative multi-taskers of note.
By day, Jacques is the maintenance manager at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel. There isn’t a roof leak he can’t fix, a toilet he cannot unblock. After the sun begins to droop over the mountains, Jacques is the hotel chef. He runs the dinner menu, while Mark is the frontman, host and social media maven.
And when the curtain goes up at the in-hotel Grimaldi Theatre on a Saturday night, Jacques takes on his third role as Dame Leyla Lamborghini. But not before spending a bit of time in a little backstage dressing room, putting on the Ritz and the war paint and getting into full drag. He also designs and makes all his own costumes and the fabulously swagged curtains around the hotel.
With Mark at the grand piano (as Freddie Ferrari) and Jacques in full costume, they present The Steytlerville Follies. It comes complete with song, dance, a musical bottles display by Mark and a duet by Jacques and a puppet called Charlie.
“Yes, I’m a ventriloquist as well,” sighs Jacques, as he totters off on his high heels to fix the pesky gate motor.
Venetian masks in the forest
Inside a workshop deep in the woods near Plettenberg Bay, run by Carla Engelbrecht and her daughter Charnelle, there is a festive sense of carnival, with nodding ostrich plumes in every colour poking out of great big beer beakers.
There are trays of shiny beads and sequins, rolls of ribbons and brocades, walls and tables lined with colour and worksheets, swathes of velvet, taffeta, lace and sumptuous fabrics.
The Engelbrechts, originally of Wierda Park in Pretoria, used to have a family firm that produced moulds (ceiling roses, cornices and finials) for the construction trade.
But their lives changed after a holiday to Venice, Italy, in 2005.
This is where the highly creative mother and daughter team saw Venetian festival masks for the first time, and were entranced by their beauty. The masks were made of light porcelain and leather, encrusted with sequins, gold leaf, decorated with gems and feathers.
When she came home, Carla decided on a masquerade theme for her next birthday party. Carla’s husband Neels helped with the papier mâché moulds, she and Charnelle decorated them, and the masks were a wild hit with her guests.
One of them placed an order for masks to be sent to Portugal. Then another business client commissioned 700 masks for a huge function at Sun City. Once images of the masks were posted on a dedicated website, the business started to flow in.
“Eventually we realised we didn’t have to be in Pretoria any more, and we started looking for property in our favourite part of the country – the Garden Route.”
They found a ramshackle place in the forest and set about restoring it. Now they live at the end of a fairytale road through trees leading to two interesting buildings signposted with wrought iron masks. It feels like the set of a Tim Burton steampunk forest fantasy.
They create party masks, ride their big Harley Davidsons when they please, and run a Hot Chocolate Café.
Air delivery access and Internet connectivity are especially important for La Carla Masks Pty Ltd, because they are opening up markets all over Europe including, believe it or not, Venice itself. DM
This is an exerpt from Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa, by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected].