Peter Clarke’s exhibition currently running at the South African Gallery in Gardens in Cape Town is thought-provoking and intensely satisfying, more poignantly so as Peter lives just 10 kilometres away in Ocean View in the Scenic Far South Peninsula. I left the exhibition wanting very much to meet Peter Clarke the Man having learnt a fair amount about Peter Clarke the Artist though his paintings and the write-ups at the SA National Gallery.
As much can be found about Peter Clarke the Artist on the internet, I am going to be very brief in giving background details. Peter grew up in Simon’s Town before the infamous Group Areas Act forced him and his family and their neighbours to relocate to the newly developed town of Ocean View outside Kommetjie, where he has lived ever since. He left school at the age of 16 to focus on his painting. He has held a great many exhibitions, his work appears in many international collections and he has a string of awards to his name. A detailed account of these may be seen on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Clarke_%28artist%29
Albert Constant and his wife Dorothy, long time friends of Peter’s, joined us in a lengthy and light-hearted conversation at Imhoff Farm near Kommetjie and Ocean View. Albert had lent me his copy of Peter’s Fanfare, a collection of fan collages developed around various historical, mythical and other personalities with Peter’s prose or a quotation of the particular person below.
Viv: There are a great variety of people “speaking” in Fanfare. You are obviously very well read.
Peter: It was very interesting writing Fanfare. I took characters from a number of different sources: children’s stories, the Bible, history… and took liberties with them. We are always reading about people but we don’t know what they actually said, so I put words into their mouths. Salome was bored so she thought up nonsense things like having John the Baptist’s head on a platter. If her mind had been occupied, John might have lived! I like to speculate about what makes people do what they do.
V: I read that you started reading newspapers at a very early age, but you had to read them clandestinely?
P: My parents did not allow me to read newspapers. They did not actually say: Moenie vir jou ougat hou nie!” (Don’t be smart-alecky/ precocious), but their discouragement seemed to imply that!
P: Ideally they should have! My mom did not read to me but I always looked at her reading. She loved English magazines for their recipes and love stories. She would read into the middle of the night by candlelight. My dad was a great reader as well so it was inevitable that I would start reading too. I love reading fiction – short stories. Novels are too long for I like to give my attention to other things at the same time. I also like reading non-fiction – history and art. I read a lot of art books. I am not wild about sport so sports reports are not on my reading list!
V. And other hobbies?
P. Writing, crafts and creative things. At primary school I started taking an interest in writing. We had to write essays on different themes. When I was about to leave Arsenal Road School in Simon’s Town, the school principal, Mr George Joshua, a very perceptive person, said to me that I should either become a writer or an artist.
V. You certainly have become both! You too seem to be a very perceptive person, judging from your writings and your art.
P. Being perceptive is a matter of survival. You have to be aware of what is going on!
V. At your exhibition I did not notice any paintings of Ocean View? Is there a reason for this?
P. I haven’t painted any landscapes of Ocean View, but I did a drawing for a mug produced by the Ocean View Anglican Church, a little lino cut of the pine trees on the mountainside. Another picture comes to mind, an interior with a passing figure. It is a lino cut print of an inside of a room. You see a still life arranged on the table and from the window on the left you catch a glimpse of a woman walking past. This was inspired by Ocean View and my interest in spaces, both internal and external.
Most of my landscapes feature Tesselaarsdal near Caledon. In my younger days I would spend a few months there each year walking about and sketching. A number of my paintings have been worked from the drawings in my sketchbooks. A lot of my earlier work was done in Simon’s Town. Ocean View is totally different from both Tesselaarsdal and Simon’s Town. I have so many sketches from the past that have provided me with material for paintings, I would need another life-time to depict Ocean View! I have written about it in my book Plain Furniture.
V. And your writings?
P. My work has appeared in various publications – from 1950 onwards. I had a book of prose and poetry published, a paperback titled Plain Furniture which also features some of my black and white drawings. I collaborated with James Mathews from Athlone on a book of short stories, Azikhwela. He is a few days older than me and we have known each other for a long time.
V. Tell me about your friendship with Albert and Dorothy.
P. I have been living in Ocean View since 1973. We became friends soon after. Bert was braaing at Soetwater with friends when he saw me and two of my friends waiting for James Mathews to arrive to fetch us. He had gone to visit Gladys Thomas, another famous personality from Ocean View. We were sitting there like motherless children, one of my friends trying to hold himself together after having had a swim in the icy ocean. Bert came over and offered us something to eat. A lifelong friendship sprang up from then.
V. It always saddens me when beautiful things are said about people at their funerals and I wonder if the deceased was ever made aware of the love and respect they commanded while alive. Wouldn’t it be nice if people would express these feelings to people they love while they are able to hear them? Dorothy and Albert, what wonderful things would you like to say about Peter?
Dorothy: Peter is an exceptional person. If the people sitting around us now knew who Peter was they would want to be with us. He is world-renowned but so modest and down to earth. He is just a fantastic person.
P: You qualify as a member of my fan club!
D: He is such a busy person yet he makes the space to accommodate us.
Albert: “Ek voel eintlik honoured om a vriend soos Pieter te he. Ek is just a local oke. Hy is so besig, hy travel so baie, meets so many different people, maar elke Vrydag aand wanneer hy hier is kom hy oor om a bietjie pool en ‘n potjie te geniet. It is a place where he can live a regular beat, be relaxed and be totally himself. (I ultimately feel honoured to have a friend like Peter. I am just a local. He is so busy, travels so much….but every Friday evening when he is here he comes over to enjoy a game of pool and a “potjie” (stew cooked over a fire in a caste-iron pot)…)
When we take him a bakkie kos (a plate of food) Pete would bring out a bottle of wine – larney wine, given to him by his overseas visitors. In my house such a fancy bottle would gather dust! But Peter feels that he needs company to enjoy it .
P: If you drink on your own you worry that you are becoming an alcoholic – you need to share good wine with chommies (chums) so that you don’ t feel guilty about imbibing!
V: You have travelled a lot. What has made you always return to South Africa and to Ocean View, given the opportunities you have had to see the world.
P: I studied art at the Royal Academy in Amsterdam in 1962-1963 and attended an International Writing program in Iowa in the USA in 1975-1976. At the time a lot of people were emigrating from South Africa, but I never went overseas with the intention of staying away. I was in Oslo in September 1979. When I got off the plane it felt as if two icy fingers had been stuck up my nostrils! The air was amazing and refreshing. Two months later by 5 o’clock in the afternoon I could look up at stars in a frozen sky. I would think of all the people at home lying in the sun on the beach or braaing….and wondered what I was doing there! I met a number of others from Africa, all of whom were studying in Oslo. One of them said to me, ‘ You, know, sometimes I just want to stay in bed a little longer on Sundays but if I did I would not see the sun at all!’
V. Tell me about the writing programme in Iowa.
P: Foreign writers were invited to attend the residential programme, all expenses paid for three months. We could do whatever we wanted to do – people were writing poetry and some writing prose. Three of us were painters and writers. Each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon a writer had to present a talk. It was a very stimulating environment shared with 26 to 30 other very creative people. There were receptions where we met very interesting people. We had the opportunity also to travel around and go sightseeing. The American way of life was mindboggling, fascinating, attractive and weird! So much available and such a lot of waste! It was wonderful to experience so much art and music. It made me realise how much was not happening in South Africa.
V. I was fascinated by your drawings at your exhibition. You seem to be so sure about each line you place on the paper. Each line is a definite, finite mark, not the kind of tentative “feeling for a line” that one usually sees in sketches.
Albert: Our granddaughter loves to visit “Uncle Peter”. She is just 8 years old and one day she asked him: ‘When you draw, do you see something in front of you or does it come out of your head?’ Peter’s response was : ‘Sometimes I see things and draw and sometimes I draw from memory.”
P: The line is already there. All I have to do is go over it with a pencil. When you have an idea, the idea is in existence. All you have to do is to give it shape – anyone can do it.
V: You taught for a short while. I am sure there are many budding artists who would love to have lessons with you.
P: Kleinberg Primary in Ocean View was short of an art teacher, when their principal, Mr Manuel, had had a car accident. The acting principal, Mr van Wyk, and the art teacher, Mr Retief, who now had other duties to perform, arrived at my door urging me to take his place. My delaying tactics did not work (‘I have to think about it’) and I found myself teaching art to the children for five months. However, I had to present documents regarding my qualifications. I did not have a school teaching qualification but a visiting art inspector suggested I present copies of all my documents including a diploma from the Florentine Art Academy in Italy declaring me an honorary member. These weren’t good enough for the powers that be so I was given a temporary post with a very poor salary. At first the teaching was a strain but the children got on well with me and I ultimately enjoyed it.
V: What a loss to Kleinberg Primary when you left!
Dorothy: And to Ocean View!
V: Are your family members artistic?
P: My sisters knitted and did beautiful craftwork. All three brothers, now retired, were carpenters. Our interest in creativity came about because our parents had to improvise. We grew up in the early years of the Depression. Lots of people didn’t have what they needed so they improvised with what they had. My dad was a dockyard labourer. He would come home with scraps of metal from which he would make a shoe-horn or repair a pot or make a frame for photographs. It was a poverty that was visible. “Gelapte broeke” (patched pants) weren’t out of fashion! This experience was influential in my using scraps in my art. So much waste is created that could be used in another way.
V: You are indeed a very modest man. I feel so comfortable talking to you, as if I have known you for a long time.
P: I have only become ‘famous’ over the past two years. The paintings now on exhibition at the South African National Gallery were displayed at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg last year. I was invited to the opening. I was amazed at the number of people there. I had to do a walkabout. There were lots of young artists who spoke to me with such reverence. One shook hands with me and whispered something I did not hear. ‘What did you say?’ ‘Bless me! I asked you to bless me!’ I looked up to see if anyone was looking and then put my hand on his head and blessed him. My thought was: ’O Here, die’s serious!’ (Oh Lord, this is serious!) This young artist and I have become good friends – and my blessing seems to be working just fine too!
I have had a lot of calls from people who have seen the exhibition. And visitors from Lebanon, England, the USA…all over. It has been very interesting up to now but also very demanding. After minding my own business for so long what convinced me that I had become a ‘very important person’ was when I went to a local jeweller shop to buy a chain for a pendant. The young woman behind the counter said, ‘I would like you to do me a favour. Will you shake hands with me?’ Afterwards she said, ‘This is the first time that I have shaken hands with a VIP! You’ve made my day.’ But I have neighbours whose cats pooh in my garden…it brings one down to earth, I suppose! (All this said with a merry twinkle in his eye.)
Rejection at the early stages in one’s career is like the kiss of death. You don’t know how good or bad your work is. Rejection slips don’t tell you anything. In later years it does not matter what critics say. A critic is not God. He is just another very ordinary human being with a personal opinion. The Finnish composer Sibelius, a composer of very heavy dark music, one day was visited by a young composer who complained that none of the critics were taking his music seriously. Sibelius’s reply was: ‘Don’t worry. Have you ever seen a statue of a critic?’
Albert: You haven’t asked Peter the question that you asked me!
V: I thought it would be impudent, but since you have brought it up….! Peter, I asked Albert why such a good looking and talented man like you has never married?
P: I have thought about marriage. At one stage wanted to. There was a marvellous woman who turned me down! I was thinking more of a relationship. My first concern was to become an artist and then only could I pay attention to being a hubby and a father. I recently went away for a weekend. A friend phoned while I was away and left a message on my phone. When I phoned him back he obviously thought that I had been away for ‘a dirty weekend’. My response was: Some people make babies. Others make history! (That twinkle again…)
A: Peter would not be able to come home to a ‘waar was jy gewees? Kyk die tuin en die hond se gemors….!’(Where were you? Look at the garden and all the dog’s mess!)
P: Once James and I went home with a friend who had recently got married. He was met with ‘You were out the whole day. Where the blerrie hell do you come from now? …and then you still bring people home with you!’
But on the other hand maybe I should have got married. I would have been safe from serving on art committees! I could always have said: ‘I can’t say yes. I first have to check with my motjie.’ I have always wondered about the power of the Motjie! (South African Moslem term for ‘the wife’).
What a privilege it was to meet Peter Clarke the Man. I hope to have more interaction with this delightful, extremely talented 82 year old with a zest for life and a remarkable lack of bitterness (despite the unfairness with which he and his people have been treated under both the Apartheid and new South African governments) that make him a truly remarkable man.
Peter Clarke’s exhibition at the South African National Gallery has been extended until the 13 May 2012.
Viv von der Heyden