The travelling artist

2008-10-09 00:00

THE plan for a hassle-free holiday following her husband’s retirement led Hildegarde Reid to a new job — teaching art on cruise ships. Reid, who lives in England, grew up in South Africa and, over the years, has been a regular visitor to Pietermaritzburg where her parents, Mike and Ilsa Botha, lived. Her mother died last year.

The holiday was a cruise to the Baltic, where Reid, who is an artist, joined in the art classes on board, and became friendly with the teacher. “He suggested I join the cruise company,” she says. “And so I did. We use a corner of the dining room — we can only do watercolours — but the idea is that while the ship is at sea, the passengers need entertaining. It’s for people not going to the lectures, or playing bridge, or doing napkin-folding classes.”

Most of the people who come to Reid are beginners or, at best, of intermediate standard. A lot of them are elderly — and can be demanding.

“Some are quite difficult — they have paid for a cruise, and they want their pound of flesh. I do a step-by-step demonstration of how to do a painting, and then I walk around the group and help them. They want to go home from the cruise with a painting, and so they do.”

I ask Reid if she doesn’t find it frustrating, teaching people who want entertainment rather than to learn. After all, in England, she teaches seriously, exhibits at the Royal British Artists Society in the Mall in London and, when she was growing up, the painter Maggie Laubser was a family friend.

“No, not at all,” she says. “After all, my husband and I are getting the cruise free, and doing the sightseeing. And I have to give six sessions of two hours each in return.” It has meant the Reids have visited the Baltic, the Arctic, Spain, Portugal, the Norwegian fjords and seen towns like Talinn in Estonia, St Petersburg and Casablanca that they would never otherwise have reached.

When it comes to dealing with tricky people on board the cruise ships, Reid admits that her training as a social worker is of more use than her ability as an artist. It all comes down to sensitivity and tact — Reid has to find ways of making students change their paintings, sometimes almost doing it for them. At the end of each cruise, she mounts all the work done by the class and holds an exhibition at which the captain presents a prize.

Although Reid took art as a subject at school, her father insisted she study something “useful”. So she qualified as a social worker and worked at Johannesburg General Hospital before marrying and settling in England. Art remained her hobby, and something she says helped her to keep a sane outlook on life, until 10 years ago when Reid decided that, because social work had changed from dealing with people to filling in forms, she would give it up and concentrate on art.

On visits to her parents, she tuned into the Pietermaritzburg arts scene and during the eighties had some lessons with Jane Heath. “She was one of my favourite teachers,” says Reid. And on the day I visited her, Reid had spent the morning painting with Penny Waller. Art may not have been “useful”, but it is what she likes to do — and now it pays for her holidays.

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