“Come and see me,” she said. Was that an invitation or a throwing down of the gauntlet? After all, they were so remote that not even the top African craft designers in the Cape would go and see them on site. But I accepted with alacrity, as I was going to be in Kwa-Zulu Natal anyway and had never been to Underberg. Added to which, Catherine Brennon is a big name in South African ceramics and it would be a unique opportunity to see her on home turf before she moved.
Catherine and I had been in email contact before, but it had been at the height of her lace phase, and whilst I liked it, I felt it was perhaps too English-looking for our market, so we held off. But now she was into Dream Boxes with lots of symbolic imagery and they looked gorgeous. Unable to get to the heart of this work from digital photographs alone, I decided it would be worth making the four hour round trip from Nottingham Road to the base of the famed Drakensberg mountain range, where the eponymous town is situated literally ‘under the berg’.
A tiny hired Fiat Punto is perhaps not the best vehicle of choice for such a journey, especially in the wet weather the area was experiencing last March. Undaunted, the little box on wheels negotiated the steep hills and the sharp bends, dodging deep pot-holes, wandering goats, stray cattle, small children and enormous on-coming trucks in the thick mist and intermittent rain. Sadly the views locals spoke of were non-existent, and the once bijoux town of Underberg is now dishevelled and tatty, but the warm welcome at the Studio Gallery from Catherine, her husband Lawrance and their friend Maggie was worth it.
It was like coming home. Aside from her own work, Catherine’s gallery showed work by many of the same ceramicists as we do, so we immediately found common ground. She also went to school with Sandy Densem-Winter, one of our artists, who I have known since I was eight, so the six steps to finding a connection were rapidly achieved in a short hop, skip and a jump.
Art and food so often go hand-in-hand, and with true South African hospitality, they treated me a lovely home-cooked lunch of quiche and apple pie in their beautiful home which was full of interesting art and original décor. Lawrance Brennon is a leading fine art photographer, so their combined artistic interests span a wide spectrum.
All this is in the past tense, because shortly after my visit, they were packing up to leave for the Western Cape. They were sad at this; they thought they would end their days in KZN, but times have changed in these rural outposts of South Africa. Crime and the cost of living are both high, and tourists don’t venture there anymore, so business is tough. They were moving to the coastal whale-watching hub of Hermanus, where holidaymakers flock and arty businesses thrive. They are not re-opening a gallery though as both of them seek to concentrate on their own art. Catherine is working towards a major joint exhibition with Lisa Ringwood and Heather Mills at the Irma Stern Museum later on this year. We wish her the best of luck, and I am sure even the Cape designers will be able to manage to get to that.