Shorter strides for artist in lockdown

Antoinette du Plessis' art pieces.

Antoinette du Plessis used to walk at least 5km a day, so when Covid-19 lockdown hit, she panicked – mostly because her daily walks represented sanity to her.

Walking in her Brooklyn neighbourhood, circling the Milnerton lagoon or hitting the contour path above Kirstenbosch, the ceramic artist would clear her head of creative, business or personal anxieties.

Lockdown has signalled the restriction of our free ride (or walk or jog), says this maker of unusual ceramic objects.

“Without transparency and responsibility, the world can’t be a safe place – we have to get back to basics,” she muses. “We are fortunate that the official coronavirus response in South Africa has both these qualities. The president and health minister have risen to the occasion – we have reason to be optimistic.”

From her own mom, who single-handedly put her six children through tertiary education after losing her husband, she learnt one of her most valuable lessons: in an emergency, look at the small picture; do what is immediately most useful, one thing at a time; panic is never useful.

“Not being able to take long walks every day is nothing against losing the means to feed your children. Look around, find ways of supporting parents who are struggling with the most basic issues,” she says.

The Peninsula School Feeding Association is one of the non-government organisations she supports. “I’m also in awe of Milnerton Can (Community Action Network), a community organisation helping to channel food and basic necessities such as hygiene products to vulnerable people in Dunoon and elsewhere.”

After years of successful trading at the bi-annual Rondebosch Potters Market, her sales have ground to a halt. Art galleries in Cape Town too, have been hard hit. The tourist industry has all but vanished. What is an artist to do?

“Now I’m just building up stock. I work in my ceramic studio every day – who knows if one will be able to sell art again, ever. But hand-building beautiful things gives me hope, it keeps me optimistic that a better world could emerge if we simply look at the small picture and do what we do, the best we can.”

During the 35 days of Level 5, Antoinette’s artist eye had to dig deep in the confines of her 100m2 house and tiny garden in Brooklyn.

“Hearing but not seeing people is interesting,” Antoinette smiles. “I am sure there is a novel to be written, hidden in the muffled sounds from across the high fences.”

Antoinette works in dark earthenware clay which she finds more interesting than white clay or porcelain as the iron content of the clay influences the final product.

“You can never tell exactly what your work will look like once it has been through the glaze firing. Opening every glaze kiln is a huge surprise. It’s addictive.”

She loves ancient and classic African art and hopes that her own shapes and forms reflect her continent as inspiration. She keeps mostly to making pots as a basic form, as she believes containers to be a primordial human artefact, irreducible and irreplaceable in artistic thinking, like a blank canvas or a raw block of stone.

She is at heart a colourist, pursuing oxides and glazes that will increase the visual complexity of her forms.

“Lots of beautiful glazes are available commercially, and I make much use of them, but mixing up your own glazes brings a deeper dimension and great excitement to your work.”

Making a living from art is challenging under any circumstances, but doubly so under lockdown, Antoinette says.

“Art is such a basic thing. There will always be people who appreciate what you do, your work only needs to find and connect with them. Ceramics is one of the oldest of human crafts and speaks to an ancient, universal human need.”

Now, under Level 4 lockdown rules, her walking limited to her neighbourhood, Antoinette forgets which philosopher claimed that there is no problem in the world that cannot be solved by walking, but she agrees. Wholeheartedly.

The Rust-en-Vrede Gallery and Clay Museum in Durbanville is appealing for donations to open again. Head curator Hamlin Jansen van Vuuren said: “As doctors and nurses are saving our lives, the arts are saving our sanity and humanity.

“No one knows what the future will hold, but what we do know for certain is that there will be a place for art, there must be a place for art.” Email or call 021 976 4691 for more information.