Finding the link with ink

2013-06-27 00:00

ART is often used to express the deep emotions that are difficult to express, and for one ex-Pietermaritzburg artist and resident, it helped him come to terms with the emigration process, and find a link to a new country.

Film-maker Donald Guy (53) has found new meaning in art since his emigration to New Zealand three years ago. His famous abstract election picture, which has become an iconic image to commemorate South Africa’s first democratic election, was what made his name known in the art world.

Ironically, almost 20 years later, it is on its second print run, due to a new surge in popularity. Guy returned to South Africa recently to visit his mother in Underberg for her 80th birthday and enjoyed the fresh focus on his art since his relocation abroad. He said: “It was a great form of therapy for me because I was at a loose end when I first emigrated.”

Guy, who won numerous awards for his environmental films as a freelance cameraman and film editor with 50/50, always had a natural flair for art but pursued his passion for filming and conservation, leaving his artistic ambitions as a hobby that he sometimes indulged in.

The famous election picture —  Goodness gracious, gracious goodness!, a print of which hangs in The Witness offices — captured the excitement of the day. The long queue, which snakes around an election booth, captures the diverse characters that stood in the sun for hours to cast their vote — some with bicycles, one with a radio on his shoulder and old stooped gogos, and as the sun set, their shadows made interesting patterns on the ground.

Guy arrived in New Zealand without a job as his wife Cleone had secured employment, and he was very heart-sore at the whole process of leaving South Africa. Living in Howick in Auckland, he was alerted to an art competition in the local newspaper two years ago, which carried a big prize.

“I sketched the Tamaki estuary, which is the local river near where we live, in my usual ink freehand style and I went to hand it in. The gallery owner said it had to be framed, so I went back home and pasted it on a spare piece of wood, as we were stone broke. A few weeks later, I was shocked to hear that my sketch had been sold at the exhibition.

“At the time, I was working at a Kiwi fruit factory doing hard labour and this was the best piece of news for me. I was feeling really depressed and homesick. I told my sister on the phone, and she encouraged me to use my art to express my feelings.

“I then drew two sketches of elephants — one elephant lying on the ground lost and confused. The sketch is called Verlang (homesick), and a few weeks later, when I was feeling better, I drew an elephant that was up on its feet, being held up by strings like a puppet. These elephant sketches were also so well-received, and they expressed how I felt at the time.

“The response to these artworks from the people in New Zealand and from my friends in South Africa gave me hope. I exhibited some of my work at markets, but I realised that the paintings that were targeted at the local Kiwi equivalent of the Big Five were the popular sellers.

“Kiwis love lake scenes, boats, island landscape pictures and birds. You cannot blame them; it’s part of their national identity. But it was not part of mine. A turning point for me was when I met another South African artist in New Zealand, Alex Stone, who has become a great friend and mentor.

“He advised me not to try to change my style to adapt to the New Zealand norms, but rather to incorporate my style into what I do in the future.”

Guy is deeply influenced by Bushman art, and one of his first memories is of his father taking him and his brother up a mountain in the Drakens-

­berg to see Bushman paintings.

He is also very fond of the satirical style used by cartoonists and one of his early influences was SA cartoonist Derek Bauer. In his own art, he loves to use pen and ink, and employs a fluid style that shows a resistance to boundaries.

One of his first commissioned artworks in New Zealand was to paint a mural on a popular restaurant wall, depicting the Serengeti migration. The restaurant, which is a popular haunt for South Africans and tourists, is located in Browns Bay, also known as “Brownsfontein”. Guy says the picture has a hidden irony as it depicts the hoards of animals crossing the plains and a hungry lion waiting on one side to eat them.

“For me, it is like the emigration process — everyone leaves searching for greener pastures, but there are always hidden or unexpected troubles on the other side.”

Another person who has helped him find his new artistic identity is a Danish carpenter who bought that first sketch that he did for the art competition. Niels Nielsen is an amateur art collector and an accomplished carpenter who makes furniture from rare wood. Guy benefited from this artistic association when he realised the symbolic significance of the kauri tree in New Zealand. These magnificent trees have been decimated by forestry and there are huge efforts under way to preserve them.

Neilsen recovered some kauri trees from a local swamp and planned to use them to make furniture. He cut off some pieces that were damaged by huhu beetles, which eat rotten wood. Guy said: “Niels is a fantastic guy who manages to encourage you and he really is a great artist. I was filming him plane the massive tree trunks when I noticed he was not going to use the bits damaged by the beetles. I asked him if I could use the off-cuts to make a frame, as I thought the beetle marks were distinctive.”

Guy’s painting of the giant kauri tree was sold at an exhibition last year, and it fetched the largest price. At the same exhibition was a previous picture he had done of a baobab tree and one can see his style has changed, and yet it is still familiar. Guy had a solo exhibition titled Picture Stories, which exhibited both his old artwork and new work. It was a great success and well-received, and this event was to cement his emerging reputation as an artist in a new country.

This year, as he was preparing to visit South Africa, he received an

e-mail from a woman who wanted to buy a print of his election picture. She wanted if for a 70th-birthday present for a Norwegian woman who had been in South Africa during the 1994 elections.

The client had seen the election print above Judge Johan Kriegler’s desk and knew it would be the perfect present for her friend. Prompted by other inquiries, Guy has decided to print another run of limited-edition prints. But he is still humbled by the overwhelming reaction to that election picture: the original still hangs in his kitchen.

“I have met Nelson Mandela three times as a cameraman and that is a huge honour. I was meant to film the 1994 elections for the American TV network NBC. They cancelled at the last minute and I ended up in the queue waiting to cast my vote. That picture was my interpretation of events. If I had been filming, I would have been way too busy to pick up a pen and draw. That’s fate.”

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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