Being a part-time amateur artist and a wannabe good one, I enjoy delving into the minds and ways of those who paint and draw professionally. It was therefore with great interest that I met with Peter van Straten who recently exhibited at the Casa Labia Cultural Centre.

Having read that Peter is a private person, I was afraid that my questions would be too intrusive, but was delighted to hear from him that he enjoys being frank as this is a form of “self-interrogation.”

“Being is a journey of discovery. I take it for granted that I do not know nearly enough about myself. The only way to learn about self is to lift the lid. Art is an escape from reality, yet in pursuit of reality. It is important to allow the self to be uncomfortable in reality in order to learn.”

As a child, Peter’s home in Irene near Pretoria lay adjacent to a farm. The only rule that he and his siblings had to obey was to be home by sunset so they roamed freely and explored. This suited, or cultivated, his personality which is “pathologically terrified of boredom!” Peter and his family moved to Cape Town when he was in Grade 9 at a time when he was “about to disappear down the rabbit hole of art.”

Peter’s creative genes come from both his parents. His mom is passionate about African myths and legends which she made accessible to young African children while his dad wrote Afrikaans plays for theatre and radio. Like that of his parents, Peter’s inner world is rich, imaginative and very visual, which is instantly obvious from his paintings. He also writes short stories which are ‘‘usually surreal and about spiritual issues.”  And not only is he a painter and writer, he can add being a singer/songwriter to his repertoire of talents.

It was when he was in high school that Peter started to take art seriously. “I needed to run hard with it – I became obsessed – for I have a terror of having a ‘real job’.”

The backgrounds to Peter’s paintings do not look South African and in reply to my question about this, Peter admitted to always being Eurocentric. “I am slowly wanting to engage more and more with the African landscape. For me, the landscape is always the setting in which to put people and events. I always have at least one painting of Table Mountain on the go. I am wanting to paint more naturalistically, to get into the detail of places, to tell the story and move on.”

As far as Peter is concerned, he is self-taught. His three years of studying art at university – an “education-free environment and kindergarten for souls” – gave him the time in which to train himself. He did not complete his degree but instead, taking the cue from his classically trained musical mum practising her scales, he drilled himself in art, practising drawing. “There is value in drawing – you engage in one object for the whole day!”

Does he visit art galleries to gain inspiration? Not at all- he would rather spend the afternoon on Table Mountain than in a gallery. “I find everything interesting. My favourite artists are the comic artists: The Russians Komar and Melamid, and the Englishman Bansky. I want to take my work seriously, but not myself.”

Peter also loves the work of the Old Masters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci  who made such exquisite use of light in their paintings. Like them he uses the glazing technique in his pictures, diluting his oils with a mixture of 50% linseed oil and 50% turps. At any one stage he has twenty paintings on the go at a time, working from photographs, at least two dozen per painting. These photographs, from all sources, provide the locations for his images.

Asked how he gets the ideas for his paintings, Peter explained that 90% of his images are a result of ‘lightbulb’ moments, fully formed images emerging in his head with the details evolving thereafter. Every now and then he spends a week not painting, and just thinking “about stuff. I search the web for ideas with a very receptive headspace and cross-pollination takes place.”

“Because of the recession I would rather paint fewer pictures and have them all be iconic rather than personal. I depict the experience of humanity in general, the experience of being human. The way to survive though is to be as flexible as possible and to make a clear distinction between accessible work and confrontational work. Creativity is about visualising things that are not there. I don’t find it interesting to reflect on where I am, but I have accepted that I have to be somewhere. I therefore occupy a conceptual landscape, which is philosophical, esoteric. Now I find landscape is irrelevant so I will paint it. In the past it was relevant so I would not!”

In his twenty years of painting, Peter has held 20 solo shows. He sells his work through galleries, his website and from his home studio.


© Viv von der Heyden