Todays guest post comes from South African artist Andrew Putter who talks to us about the process of making Flora Capensis.
One of my favorite things about making art is that I get to have all kinds of adventures along the way. Typically, when I make pictures, there are many steps involved that aren’t seen once the final artwork goes up on the gallery wall. For this blog, I chose three of the many hundreds of photographs I’ve kept of the tests, meetings, and research I did during the process of making Flora Capensis, and talk a little about each of them in turn.
This first photograph is of a mountain and a bay about 15 km from the busy, built-up city of Cape Town where I live. When I turned 38 in 2008, I decided that I needed to take a break from my hectic working life, so for two years I walked along the edge of this mountain every day and swam in the cold Atlantic sea. The best thing about this bit of coast is that to get to the ocean, one has to walk for 20 minutes along a footpath: there is no road. The land (the entire mountain!) is owned by the National Parks Board, so no-one may build or live there. It’s remote and quiet, and the further one walks along the path, the further one gets away from people, buildings, the city. The Parks Board spent a lot of money in the last 15 years getting rid of the invasive alien vegetation which took over in the 1970s. They successfully restored the extremely diverse indigenous vegetation which originally grew there for millions of years. It was whilst walking alone in the sun along the path one day, amidst this exquisitely rich seaside vegetation that I suddenly realized that there had once been people who lived here before the Europeans colonized the area in the 1650s. Although they’d been mentioned in our school history books when we were kids, few people took them seriously, and I’d pretty much forgotten about them. These original people – the Khoikhoi (derogatively called ‘Hottentots’ by the 17th century Dutch) – would have lived in the local landscape when it looked very similar to what this remote bit of coast still looks like today. It was from this moment of walking in the sun along this path, and feeling in my body the historical presence of these people, that I became interested in trying to find out all I could about the Cape Khoikhoi, and their encounter with the Baroque Dutch (amongst whom were some of my ancestors) who landed here in 1652. Although I did not know it at the time, many of the people of Cape Town today have Khoikhoi ancestors.
These two photographs brings back really good memories. Once I knew I was going to need enough rare, wild indigenous Cape flowers to make the six big arrangements for my final Flora Capensis artworks, I began searching for people who could help me find these flowers. Because most of these flowers aren’t grown in people’s gardens and it’s illegal to pick them in the wild, I had to find people who had the authority to assist me in finding and picking wild flowers without interfering in any damaging way with the local floral ecology. In the end I met many such people, and was able to gather flowers from a number of different sites in the countryside beyond the edges of the city of Cape Town. This photograph shows a group of women – Helene Preston, Libbes Loubser, Judy Wood, and Maggie Fowler – who took me out into a part of the country called Darling, known for the wild flowers which carpet the veld there in Spring. Under the leadership of Helene, these women go out into the veld in a Landrover once a week to keep an eye on various populations of rare wild plants, sending their information back to a big national database on local vegetation. What fun they have! After wandering around for a couple of hours bending down to look closely at the colorful life that has sprung up since they last visited, they unpack a table, flasks of tea, and homemade biscuits, and sit down to relax and chat. That’s what the photograph on the left shows: tea-time. On the right is a photograph of some of the flowers I brought back to the city with me after that trip. I remember so well the warm still air, the strange sweet scents of many different kinds of rare flowers, the moisture of the wet earth after the rains, and the gentle conversations over delicious biscuits.
The photograph on the left is a preparatory test I did for the final Flora Capensis works (I’ve shown one of the final Flora Capensis works on the right). When I took art in high school, our teacher often told us to make preparatory drawings before making a ‘final’ painting. I had no idea how to do that, and saw no need for it anyway. Why not just make the painting! I only understood the value of preparatory work when I was studying art at a postgraduate level, and watched my teacher – the artist Malcolm Payne –produce a new body of artwork. Malcolm was doing his masters in Fine Art at the same time that he was teaching me, so I got to see a lot of his working process over those two years. I didn’t know him before then, so the first things I saw him make came as a surprise. They were little realistic paintings, and to my eye, they looked really bad. Every few weeks when I went to his studio to talk about my work, I would see whatever new things he had made since we last saw each other. There were funny bits of wood with shards of mirror stuck on them. There were images made with spray paint, using plastic chains as a stencil. And countless other things too. I remember thinking how unfinished it all looked, and wondered whether he was the right person to be teaching me. But as time went on something incredible happened. Malcolm started making new, much bigger and much more ambitious work. This series of monumental, extremely complex mixed media works turned out to be his final pieces. It was only then that I saw how all the many, many little works he’d been making in his studio wasn’t meant to be seen by others. They were tests and explorations – experiments – simpler versions of parts of the final work that he was practicing on before he got to make the ambitious final works. If he had tried to solve all of these technical problems whilst making the final works, he would have probably messed them up. His experiments gave him opportunities to learn skills he would need to make the final works, as well as start growing his ideas – one step at a time – for how the final works would end up looking. Which brings me to my preparatory work photograph, shown here, on the left. When I set up this still life in my garage, it was a good few months before I made my final works, and was still pretty unsure of how I’d make those final works. I knew that I wanted to photograph indigenous Cape flowers styled to look like a 17th century Dutch flower painting. I also knew from experience that the best way to understand something you’ve never done before is just to do it – badly! By doing a ‘bad’ version of it (fast and cheap) you quickly start to understand and learn about what it is you’re trying to do, and get an immediate, in-the-flesh view of your idea. So even though no-one was meant to see this test, it was an important step in getting me to the final works, helping me see more concretely what it was I was trying to achieve.