Be a curator

When talking about the creative process the term ‘inspiration’ inevitably comes up. The general definition of the word is that of an impulsive urge that can be triggered quite suddenly out of the blue. An unconscious burst of creativity in ones artistic endeavors.

That is all well and good but anyone who does creative work knows that those moments, as wonderful as they are, are often far and few between. Rare and romanticized moments of magic where an idea seems to just arrive out of no where, illuminated with the excitement of wonder and possibility. If one had to rely only on these rare moments to fall ‘gift wrapped’ and fully formed into our laps – there would be long stretches in which no work would be produced at all.

Impressionist sun rise

That is why it is important as a creative to be a ‘curator’. The definition of the word curate is to collect and preserve. Expose yourself to the things that speak to your spirit and move you. Collect as much of these treasures as you can. Whether they be images, shimmering words, quotes, ideas, other artists work – one has to go looking for them. Keep them in a collection – a journal perhaps. Or, if like me you are scatterbrained and time is a rare commodity, ones phone can be a useful tool, not only for taking photographs but also for storing all ones creative inspirational treasures.

Aloe arborescens

When you want to do some creative work again you will have built up a collection of ideas and inspiration so sieve through – much like a prospector sieves for gold.

A arborescens so beautiful in the dry landscape

This past weekend I had the privilege of walking every day on my beloved mountain with my man. We started out early each morning to catch the sunrise which was so worth the effort and the chilly start. The Aloes are ablaze and begging to be painted! Below are some photographs which have been safely stored on my phone for future inspiration.

Walking in the sun-kissed veld
Allophylus africanus (false red current) – A chance to discover and learn about a new tree
These Arborescens were protected in the lee of a cliff side pocket
Detail of the curled end of an Aloe maculata leaf
Aloe maculata leaves with their gorgeous speckles
First A maculatas (soap aloes)

Mpati Mountain and her ‘Painted ladies’

Kalanchoe thyrsifolia or ‘painted lady’ as she is commonly called is a striking and attractive succulent plant – preferring to grow between the rocky slopes of the mountain and surrounding grasslands. This succulent is quite widespread throughout Southern Africa and is also found in Swaziland and Lesotho.

The attractive paddle shaped leaves

The grey green paddle shaped leaves tinged in red are attractive enough on their own. However in Autumn this plant sends up its elongated flowering stalks bearing grey white buds opening into clusters of yellow flowers. These are coated with a white powder – hense the name ‘painted lady’.

Kalanchoe thyrsifolia can withstand extreme temperatures. It is thought that the white powdery coating is a form of protection from extreme heat – In much the same way that it is better to wear a light or white coloured T shirt on a hot day and not a dark one.

Elongated stems with their white powdery coated buds ready to open soon. The seed pod from last year still standing.

The ‘painted lady’ flowers long into Winter and is a good source of pollen for many insects and butterflies. According to butterfly expert and author of ‘Butterflies of Southern Africa’ – Steve Woodall, the lava of the ‘pale hairtail’ butterfly, Anthene livida, feed on the flowers of this particular Kalanchoe.

Anthene Lavida or pale hairtail

Kalanchoe thyrsifolia grows well in cultivation, although it is not as commonly grown or known as its cousin Kalanchoe luciea, a similar plant. I decided to paint this lovely succulent in a landscape setting alongside another old time mountain resident – the Buff streaked chat. These handsome birds are a common sight on the mountain and surrounds. They are quite vocal and always a pleasure to come across as they perch conspicuously on top of the large rocks calling and chatting cheerfully to one another.

Kalanchoe thyrsifolia and buff streaked chat in a landscape setting – Acrylic and oils onto canvas board

Mpati mountain and its bountiful Bottle brushes – Greyia Sutherlandia

This small tree is endemic to South Africa – found mainly growing on the rocky cliffs of the Drakensberg. Our Mpati mountain however is also home to this lovely small deciduous tree. This tree (or large shrub) although having ‘bottle brush’ like flowers, is not to be confused with the Australian common bottlebrush ‘Calistemon’ which is grown extensively in gardens.

Our indigenous ‘Bottle brush’ has bright fire engine red flowers which start late in Winter, often before the leaves, and put on a showy display right through to early Summer. In Autumn the leaves add their own show, changing to lovely shades of red and orange.

The bottle brushes on Mpati have formed extensive colonies in and between the rocky cliff sides together with the Aloes and other lovely indigenous trees. Their splashes of red as they start flowering making for quite a spectacular show. Some of these small Bottle brush trees are truly ancient, their trunks and stems twisted and gnarled with the passage of time. One wonders what stories they could tell!

This painting with its Sun bird pollinator – A ‘Greater collared’ male sunbird, was painted using water colours and Acrylic onto board, in honor of these beautiful Mpati trees.

Greyia Sutherlandia with a male ‘Greater collared” sun bird

Mpati mountain and it’s ‘pride of Proteas’

Not all Protea species belong to the fairest Cape. The Drakensberg and many other areas of Southern Africa (usually at higher altitudes) are home to this iconic South African shrub or sometimes small tree. Our Mpati mountain is host to two species of Protea namely Protea caffra and Protea simplex.

These two Natal Proteas have similar flowers, often indistinguishable from one another. Protea caffra is a larger shrub however, sometimes reaching 8m, whereas Protea simplex remains much smaller, rarely exceeding a metre. Protea simplex is also distinguished by its leaves which cluster around the branches – not all pointed in one direction. Its stems are also thinner than the more robust protea caffra. P caffra flowers from October to January, while P simplex flowers from December to March.

Two years ago, after posting some beautiful photographs of our Protea simplex on a facebook indigenous plants group, the Millenium seed bank (working with SANBI) contacted me and asked me to take two conservationists to the site of these proteas in order to collect some of the seed. This was the first time that seed for this particular Protea ( P simplex) would be collected by the seed bank.

A very happy morning was spent walking the mountain and collecting seed and specimens with these two botanical conservationists – Sibahle Gumede and Mpho Mathalauga. Both these lovely and dedicated conservationists were astounded by the diversity the mountain had to offer and were a hive of information – which to the delight of a plant enthusiast like myself, they shared  generously.

 Another apt name for these proteas are ‘Natal sugar bushes’ because many birds and insects love to feast on the sweet sugary nectar they provide. I decided to honour our lovely P simplex with this painting done in acrylic and water colour onto a canvas board. The bird pollinator painted is a female Malachite sun bird.

Sauntering in Lesotho

The great Henry David Thoreau was a man of extraordinary wisdom. He claimed that for the preservation of one’s health one should “saunter through the woods and over the hills and fields”. Sauntering should be approached with a mind set of ‘presence’ rather than ‘productivity’.

The origin of the word “saunter” goes back to the middle ages when people used to go on pilgrimages to the holy land. When asked by the villagers where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre”, meaning to the Holy land. So it is that they became known as ‘saunterers’.

My man and I were recently lucky enough to be part of a Lesotho wild flower ‘sauntering’ trip. This was just before Covid 19 became a frightening reality for South Africans too and the borders were still open. My partner had been recruited to help with the driving and I was lucky to be invited along and help where ever I could.

Our weekend companions were a lovely senior group – all members of a gardening club. I usually find it a bit daunting to be thrown into a group of ‘strangers’ like that, but it was not long before even I was drawn into the cheerful banter of our friendly nature loving group.

Protea subverstita growing alongside the road up Qachas nek pass

The drive from Pietermaritzburg past Underberg, then Matatiele, and finally up Qachas nek pass and through the border took up most of the day. This was a very scenic drive however with many birds and flowers spotted along the way. Finally by four that afternoon we reached our destination – Sehlabethebe National park. We arrived in a misty drizzly haze of cloud, which although hampered the view of our surroundings, did not dampen our high spirits.

Basotho boy on his donkey wrapped warm in his traditional blanket

After a hearty breakfast we all set off at nine the next morning with much enthusiasm – armed with several books on the flora and fauna of the area. Binoculars and cameras were at the ready, my Elsa Pooley mountain flower book clasped to my lap.

Needless to say we were not disappointed. The variety and beauty of the flowers found was astounding. A visual ‘smorgasbord’. We would stop at points along the way to wonder around and see what we could find and share with one another. The excitement at each discovery reminded me of Easter egg hunting – but an adult one with flowers instead of Easter eggs! These precious finds were also not plucked up, rather they were ‘oohed and aahed’ over and left in peace again once they had been admired and photographed.

Nemesia
Gladioli ecklonii

There were many many flowers spotted and enjoyed during this trip, far too many to cover each and every one in a single blog post. I will en devour to share some of the flowers that stood out for me though.

Gladioli saundersii

The Gladioli were in peak flowering and we managed to spot five species! ‘Gladioli saundersii’ being the fem fa tale of the lot in my opinion, with her flamboyant ballroom gown so striking against the misty grassy hills. We also saw ‘Gladioli dalenii’, ‘Gladioli ecklonii’ with all her many freckles as well as ‘Gladioli oppositiflorus’ with her beautiful soft salmon colouring.

Gladioli oppositiflorus
Gladioli dalenii

A few grass orchids – always a treat for me. ‘Satyrium longicauda’ both in white and pink. There were two new grass orchids for me. First ‘Disa fragrans’ which I first mistook for a ledabouria because of the speckled leaves. This gorgeous orchid was growing on the top of a massive overhanging rocky outcrop, next to a rock pool, creating a perfect little alpine like setting for it. This for me was like finding the gold foil covered bunny of the Easter eggs! Then on our way down again ‘Pterygodium cooperi’ – another new species for me. The prettiest little orchid covered in pastel pink bonnet-ed faces.

Disa fragrans
Pterygodium cooperi
Zaluziansya microsiphon

‘Zaluzianskya microsiphon’ another special find. This pretty perennial plant has vibrant peach coloured petals on the outside outlined in cream. It closes them into a drum shape when the light is low and opens them again to reveal creamy white faces on the inside in the sunlight.

Wahlenbergia

The list goes on and on and I have included a few extra photographs without descriptions.

As the morning progressed the mist lifted and we were able to take in more of the beautiful scenery – rolling hills and mountains that went on and on into forever. Another special highlight for me was the breath taking display of ‘Kniphofia caulescens’. These spectacular red hot pokers were stretched out as far as the eye could see, flowering in masses, a sea of orange and yellow that tumbled down the valleys and into the marshy areas below the hills.

Kniphofia caulescens

Our last ‘sauntering’ walk took place late in the afternoon. A slow amble amongst the kniphofias down below in the valley. The mist had started to roll in softly again as we enjoyed our last moments in this beautiful ‘garden of Eden’. Some of us in pleasant conversation and others lost in our own thoughts.

We left to go back to our own realities again the next morning. Each of us taking home something of value, some intrinsic treasure, to be taken out and savored in quiet moments of reflection.

Rocky outcrops

Now we are in lock down, and I have taken out my treasures from the trip. Memories and photographs to pour over and enjoy – some to be painted. I spent a happy few days working on painting the Kniphoffias which had had such an impact on me. I enjoyed working in my oils again. This medium is smooth and silky – pure bliss to work with, especially for a landscape. This painting will be a happy reminder each time I look at it, of a special weekend spent sauntering in the magnificent Lesotho hills.

Red hot pokers marching down the hillsides – oils on canvas

Mpati mountain and the gladsome Gladioli

Mpati mountain or “place of good waters” as it is also referred to, certainly has lived up to it’s name this Summer. The long awaited rains bringing much needed relief for all. Our beautiful mountain and surrounding grasslands have produced an abundance of floral treasures this season.

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of exploring the mountain. During this time I have not only been delighted, but also utterly astounded at times – by the beauty, diversity and abundance of flowering plants, shrubs and trees that grow on and around our Mpati mountain.

Summer rain has produced an abundance on the mountain

I have been documenting these floral treasures ( as many as I possibly and realistically can), by way of botanical illustration, as a dedication – A dedication to the mountain and to all who take pleasure in the peace and connection to nature that Mpati mountain offers.

Summer time is Gladioli time. We have at least three indigenous Gladioli species on the mountain that I know of. There are possibly more. ‘Gladioli Ecklonii’ is widespread through Southern Africa, growing in the Summer rainfall zone. This species is found in stony places and occasionally at the edge of vleis and streams.

Gladioli ecklonii peeking through the grass

Gladioli are important horticulturally. They are used as cut flowers and in cultivation many hybrids exist. Our indigenous Gladioli ecklonii flowers have whitish tepals covered in freckled spots. These range from pink through to red. Like other Gladioli species it closes it’s flowers as the sun goes down and opens them again as the sun comes up in the morning.

flowers spent but still beautiful a few days later

Possible pollinators are two long – tongued bees, namely ‘Amegilla capensis’ and ‘Amagilla fallax’.

‘Amegilla capensis’ a long tongued bee – graphite on board

This particular beauty was growing alongside a rocky path on the mountain. I managed to photograph it in it’s prime. A very special sighting indeed.

Gladioli ecklonii – Water colour, Acrylic and graphite on canvas board

Painting again – Lessons from creativity

“The human hand allows the mind to reveal itself” Maria Montessori

Malachite sunbird on a Kniphofia

“The human hand allows the mind to reveal itself”. I came across this beautiful quote the other day by the founder of the Montessori school system – Maria Montessori. It got me thinking once again about the power of creativity and why it is so important to live a creative life. This need not be as a formal ‘painter’, ‘writer’ or ‘sculptor’ as we traditionally like to label creative people. It may be as simple as finding enjoyment in everyday life experiences – cooking, gardening, rearranging the furniture in the living room!

The life lessons learned from the metaphors that present themselves through creativity have become, (and are continually becoming) braided into my being, my identity and the way I confront this thing called ‘life’, with all its tumultuous ups and downs.

Dartanian aka ‘Blacky jack’ contemplating lifes’ tumultuous ‘ups and downs’

It is not the end result in which the fulfillment lies – fulfillment and sustenance are to be found in the actual process of making and creating. First the inspiration, the idea. That is usually the easy part. Getting started is sometimes easy, but often one is confronted by various obstacles – procrastination, a sudden wash of fear and self doubt, a lack of time (sometimes genuine), to name a few. Soldiering on, one might realize that one’s initial plan or idea is not working – then back to the ‘drawing board’ so to speak. Time to reassess and make changes. If I am painting it is usually the composition which suddenly decides, out of the blue, not to work anymore! Problem solving is a huge part of the creative process.

Perseverance and discipline are required too. One has to have a healthy serving of these two essentials. Courage, one can never have too much of. Sometimes it has to be dredged up from the very depths of your being but it is important to dose oneself regularly with it, as it is often unfortunately short lived. The saying “fake it until you make it” is not just some catchy rhyme to say – it is an act of cognitive behavioral therapy!

Of late I have been painting again, and loving it. Painting on to glass has led to other doors opening including a few commissions. These botanical paintings have just been completed and are on their way to their new home in Gauteng.

The Yellow Arum Lilly – ‘Zantedeschia petlandii’ is a joyful sunny yellow arum which is found mainly around the Lydenburg area in Mpumalanga. The numbers of this particular lilly are sadly declining due to it being harvested and sold for horticulture. The attractive yellow swathes of the flowers make it sought after by gardeners and collectors. This for me was a joy to paint.

Zantedeschia petlandii

Agapanthus inerptus or ‘drooping aggie’ was also part of the trio. This lovely South African plant is common in cultivation and there are a few hybrids with beautiful blue and violet hues.

Agapanthus inerptus – drooping agapanthus

Last but not least the indigenous grass orchid – Eulophia ovata. I have come across this lovely orchid whist walking in the Drakensberg, albeit the yellow one. I thoroughly enjoyed painting this beauty.

Eulophia ovata – indigenous grass orchid
Trio complete and ready for their new home

Expedition to the top of a ladder

Cape chestnut tree blossoms – ‘Calodendrum capense

Finally this week, after admiring my Cape chestnut tree flowering through the season, I decided to paint some of the flowers. As ‘Murphy’ would have it, now that I had decided to get going with painting I could not find any flowers in reach. The few that were left flowering were way up high and I found myself standing under the branches kicking myself for procrastinating and scratching my head at the same time. What to do.

What to do!

Where there is a will, there is a way. Undeterred I marched off to the shed to fetch the ladder. This itself was quite a job – it is a long ladder and cumbersome to carry. Finally I got it under the tree, after a few frustrating attempts at a level spot.

I consider myself fit and adventurous, but I have to confess to a few moments of panic as I tried to steady myself whilst balancing almost at the tippy top of the ladder with a broom in one hand to hook the singled out branch, and the other hand gripped to another branch, hanging on for dear life. I must have looked a sight.

Finally after a few frustrating attempts I managed to hook the branch and pull it down enough so that I could break off the intended flowering tip of it. Needless to say, although I was rather pleased with myself – waving my branch like a flag, I was relieved to be off the ladder!

Salem, aka ‘Black cat’ and sometimes ‘Thug cat’, my painting companion

The vase I had chosen was quite big, ‘urn’ shaped with a pretty pedestal. After my first attempt I decided that my composition was too ‘skimpy’ for the scale and ‘weight’ of the vase. Once it had thoroughly dried I added a leaf and extra blooms which improved it considerably.

Composition ready for gesso – I added onto it later

Cape chestnut or ‘Calodendrum Capense’ trees are found throughout South Africa and are not related to the ‘Horse chestnut’ tree at all. It is reported that the ‘father of South African botany’ Carl Peter Thunberg, was so excited at the sight of this beautiful tree whilst in the Cape in 1772, that he fired his gun at the branches until one broke and fell to the ground. He was the botanist to name it ‘Calodendrum’ – meaning in Greek, ‘beautiful tree’.

If I had had a gun perhaps I could have tried that instead of risking life and limb, swaying at the top of a long ladder armed only with a broom!

The fruit enjoyed by pigeons and doves

Birds such as pigeons, doves and Cape parrots enjoy eating the seeds which are enclosed in a prickly rather large pod. The nectar of the flowers is not utilized by birds, but several species of butterflies do feed on them.

Our Cape chestnut is a beautiful shade tree in the garden and a favorite perch for the two Black orioles which call in their melodious way from the branches. A worthy and beautiful indigenous tree.

A path of curiosity

“If you can let go of passion and follow your curiosity, your curiosity just might lead you to your passion” Elizabeth Gilbert

I once thought that to be labelled as an ‘artist’ – that grand title that aspires to so many, one had to fit a very stereotypical ideal. My idea of what that ideal looked like was a rather romanticized one. I remember in the height of my amateurish enthusiasm, (and I was told this by more than one ‘arty’ person) that to start selling your work it was important to develop a ‘style’. My own artistic style so that I could be noticed, and so on and so on.

Well that never happened. I am one of those people who could never keep a consistent hand writing never mind artistic style, I did not fit into this category. I have jumped around exploring and enjoying all sorts of mediums and subject matters – from pastel, portraiture, drawing in pen, painting – even fabric craft.

Weaver on a Mason jar

Personally I think that this has been a better way to learn. Gleaning from each ‘phase’ what I could, keeping somethings and leaving or changing others. Certain things have come through consistently – my love of botanical as well as landscape art, probably because they feature so strongly in my personal life. There is nothing I enjoy more then traipsing around mountains discovering indigenous plants to identify.

painting onto cut wine bottles

My latest artistic adventure started with a rather fun wine bottle cutting hobby to make candle holders and vases. It wasn’t long before I was painting onto these and learning to work in acrylic paint again. This has led to sourcing glass ware from second hand shops to paint my botanical art onto – and so the learning and adventure continues.

Gebera hybrid worked well with the shape of this little vase

Painting onto the glass is challenging as the smoothness and transparency make it difficult. The end result once accomplished is so worth the extra layers and time taken. So for now I have found my niche! I may stay here a while or down the line this may lead to something else again, another artistic adventure perhaps.

Female malachite sun bird on a Protea

What I am learning through all of this is that in art and in life nothing is wasted. Everything can be ‘re framed’ and changing ones mind is also perfectly okay. It is important to stay curious though, for who who knows, that may just lead you to your passion.

These two cake domes were perfect for these dusty pink Proteas

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