Q&A with Merit Winner 2019: Cecilia Maartens-Van Vuuren

Tell us about your artistic journey up until the point of entering Sasol New Signatures 2019

From a very early age, I have loved drawing and painting with watercolour. It was only at the age of 25 that I could afford to buy a few tubes of oil paint and started at the age of 28 with private lessons in oil painting with a former Northwest University art lecturer Joy Rossouw in Parys, Free State. I practised traditional art-making as a hobby until 2009 when I went for art lessons at Motheo College. I studied under the late Werner Wiid and Marian DeNard during this time. In 2010 I registered at UNISA for the University Diploma in Fine arts which I received in February 2011. This was my first encounter with conceptual art. In 2013 I enrolled at the UFS for a Master’s degree in Fine Art studying part-time. In October 2015, I retired from my employment as a State Accountant to study art full time and finalised my Master’s degree in 2019 with the required solo exhibition and dissertation titled Roots, rhizomes and radicles: a critical reflection on memories and the voyage of becoming.

Who or what has had the biggest influence on your career as an artist to date?

My year of study at UNISA paved the way for a career in conceptual art which had been enriched by my mentors at UFS and my research on Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze. I have learnt to give attention to life around me.  In my art-making, I am mainly influenced by the dynamics of the interaction and interdependence of plant, animal and human life on earth.

The unconventional use of colour and impasto by Vincent van Gogh and the application of thick paint and diverse materials in the artworks of Anselm Kiefer to interpret intense emotions, encouraged me to experiment with colours and the application of thick paint in the rendering of my oil paintings. The installation by Cornelia Parker, Cold dark matter: an exploded view (1991) inspired me to produce an installation with suspended material.

Have you entered the competition previously? And if so what was the result?                           

I entered the competition in 2013 for the first time, presenting a collage which was not selected. I entered again in 2017 and 2018. An oil painting was selected in 2017 and a series of acrylic paintings on Tela Fabriano was selected in 2018.

What motivated you to enter the Sasol New Signatures art competition this year?

Having been selected for the catalogue and exhibition in the previous two years motivated me. I learnt a lot from the observation of artworks of fellow finalists as well as from the feedback sessions provided, which motivated me to produce artworks of a higher standard. This competition is for me an indication of whether I am still in line with the trend in contemporary artmaking.

Tell us a little about why you created the piece you submitted?  

The actualisation of the past in the present as something new implies inner movement, change and invention, which is realised as a spiritual becoming – a product of the evolution of time, as conceptualised by Henri Bergson. Having embraced Henri Bergson’s thinking on revitalised life, the prolonging of the past in the present by means of memories, creating the new, I found the botanical rhizome, due to its peculiar mode of growing, suitable as metaphor to express the spontaneous aleatoric connection between memories, thoughts, feelings, and experience in my art. Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 16) adapted the rhizome as an image of thought, based on the botanical rhizome’s spontaneous growth – subterraneously and horizontally – that apprehends multiplicity, allowing for multiple non-hierarchical entry and exit points. The principle of interaction and the non-hierarchical structure accentuates creative continuous movement and change: new pathways are created and multiple connections are formed, even when a branch is severed. The modalities of the rhizome are analogous to the structure and dynamics of memory neurons in the brain, confirming the growth of the rhizome as a metaphor for the inner dynamics of memories, thoughts and feelings, in a theoretical sense.

In reaction to a complaint from my neighbour that the giant reeds in my backyard are invading his property, I decided to dig up the roots along the fence. In the process I discovered the roots are the most amazing rhizomes that grew in multiple directions turning and twirling their way between, over and under other roots, forming an intricate network. The theoretic comprehension of the peculiar growth modalities of the rhizome was practically demonstrated! I enthusiastically excavated more and more rhizomes. I decided to use these miraculously formed objects to produce an artwork to depict a metaphorical glimpse into the inner life of interconnecting, forming of new pathways (sometimes with difficulty). The growing process of the rhizome is furthermore analogous to human life interwoven with multi-dimensional environments, shaping our lives as we continuously form relationships and new perspectives, apprehending the future in terms of the experiences of the past. Bergson (1908: 197) explains this process using a cone (memories pile up in the past, which comprise the body of the cone) and are actualised in the present through intuition (i.e. at the point of the cone). The installation has deliberately been assembled in the shape of Bergson’s drawing of a memory cone and represents one’s life being implanted in time and memories intertwined with nature and one’s environment. The deeper pain and disappointments of life are explored in the installation through the burrs of the withering plant.

Furthermore, A presentiment alludes to God’s pronouncement that humans will return to dust from where it was taken (Genesis 3:19). We were formed from the earth and will return to earth when our biological existence comes to an end. God’s inextricable plan of redemption in response to the fall from The Garden of Eden is further revealed when God prophetically clothed Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15). Thus, A presentiment offers a meditation on the temporality of the journey of spiritual becoming which creates tension at the zenith, the point of realisation of the past in the present. Rooted in the installation are the vitality and potential of the inner life and the hope of a spiritual becoming extending beyond this life.

Art competitions can be a huge motivator for artists. What do you think of this statement?

I agree, especially if sensible feedback is given that may help the artist to grow artistically.

Why is it important to focus on the experience rather than just the prizes?

Experience is an imperative ingredient for artistic growth, in the sense of exposure, advancing in an artistic career and enthusiasm to excel in technical skills and the exploration of creativity and uniqueness.

Do you have a mentor and how important is mentorship in developing a career?

I had mentors for painting and sculpting while pursuing my studies, whose inputs I sincerely valued. I believe that an artist should develop a unique style and therefore not solely rely on the inputs of the mentor. It is however very important to obtain the opinion of a mentor from time to time to get a fresh perspective on an artwork

What excites you about the creative process?

The element of surprise in the experimentation with material in the art-making process, which could lead to further avenues of exploration and creativity.

Tell us about your preferred medium/s ...and why?

I prefer oil painting as a medium due to its plasticity and richness. A variety of techniques are possible and layering is an adventure on its own. It can further be combined with other materials with great success.

If you could summarise your entered work in three independent words, what would it be?

Labyrinth, memories, life

Has entering this competition taught you anything about yourself?

Yes, by entering this competition I learnt to value the talent that I received and persevere in my attempts to improve my skills despite the outcome of the selection process.

Which South African artists do you admire and why?

I admire the work of Penny Siopis and particularly the exquisite oil and collage on board, Terra Incognito because I enjoy the detailed placements of paper integrated with paint which evoke a sense of the time-consuming toil depicted in the work. I also admire the oil paintings of Noel Hodnett because of the vivid use of colours and impasto in his rendering of animal and plant life.

What are you currently working on? What is next for you as an artist?

I am currently working on an oil painting (110 x 220 cm) titled A taste of vinegar. I endeavour to depict the diverse emotions experienced when physical pain is endured. The work was inspired by my physical pain one week after a shoulder operation on my dominant right arm. I started the painting that specific day by using my left arm and want to complete it mainly with the left arm.

Next for me as an artist is to continue with oil painting and other media as long as I can, and furthermore, continue to enter competitions. I would also like to develop further as an artist and would like to partake in a painting residency either in Italy or Spain.

What impact would winning this competition have on you?

I would be extremely excited, but would also feel grateful and honoured. My artistic journey has been equally delightful and arduous, especially after I chose to seriously pursue my passion for artmaking at this stage in my life. Winning this competition will further encourage me to develop as a professional artist.

The winner and the merit award winners receive lots of publicity. Is this something that excites or daunts you?

The publicity seems exciting as it means that people are interested in you and your art.

What does innovation in the visual arts mean to you?

For me, it means governments and institutions as well as artists realise and embrace the power of art, and thus the importance of artists in their community and country to be inventive and creative to depict new ways to viewers of how to appreciate and sustain life on earth.

In your work, how important is commentary on current social or political issues?

I believe that if one wants to change the world the change must begin within yourself. In the sense that we shape our environment which in turn shapes us. I need to comment on the impact of such issues on the individual and the environment through the lived experience by individuals of such issues in diverse environments. 

Art is... an experience that reaches beyond the human condition and may touch one in such a way that perspectives are changed.

Download the 2019 catalogue here