LAURIE GLENNY: THE FINE ART OF CREATIVITY
“This journal here started off last year as more of a nature journal. I made myself go out and paint in nature. I have a little water colour kit, which is tiny and has been completely abused, a jar of water, my pencils, my paintbrush and my paper which fit into my basket which I take with me,” explains Hillcrest artist, Laurie Glenny, as she shows me pictures taken by her son – his mother in her garden at Cotwold Downs painting aloes, his mother perched beside a rock pool at San Lameer.
This is not artwork that she intends sharing. It is her own way of experiencing and trying to capture nature – a cormorant moving around in a wetland, sometimes just a cloud formation or even simply sitting with the lichen on her lap.
“I love botanical observation. With water colour, you can get incredible detail unlike oil which is thick and lumpier. While I am working, I get the feel of the breeze, the sand,” she explains.
As Glenny pages through the many journals in her studio overlooking her tranquil family home, it is almost impossible not to feel her passion. This is a world filled with peace and joy.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH PROTEAS
She has a journal devoted to proteas which are the paintings for which she is currently probably best known. Two brightly coloured and much larger versions are on easels at various stages of completion behind her.
“I think I’ve worked out a way of capturing them that’s slightly unique. Proteas have to be done botanically correctly but with emotion. So, if I could sum up my work, it is my emotional response to the world around me,” she says.
To reflect her special relationship with proteas, she has started another journal that will be dedicated to studies of proteas. “I want to eventually fill this book with different species of proteas that I’ve found. I will then keep it as an original that is leather bound and hand stitched. It will have a theme to it. It will be a collection.”
Another journal is strictly for commissions – reflecting not only the detailed brief of a customer but her own notes and interpretation of the message that each person is trying to convey. Some are portraits but others far less conventional. There’s even a fascinating baobab from a Hoedspruit farmer.
Then there are the bold and bright portraits in one corner of the studio reflecting a plethora of expressions of people aligned with the Nation Changes project at her local church.
“The portraits are quite new for me. I hadn’t done a portrait in years,” she says, explaining how she had decided to paint them for auction in order to raise funds for one of the church’s particularly successful projects – the clothing box.
Clothing donated by households and even companies is sorted and displayed in a store setting. The poor are then invited to come and shop. The first bag comes free and they are encouraged to return and buy a second bag for resale, ultimately creating informal businesses.
The project quickly outgrew the two little containers that housed it and the church appealed for donations to help build a larger distribution and skills development centre. Laurie volunteered to photograph some of those who had been positively impacted and then painted portraits that could be sold to raise funds.
She took down their stories and their names – and then realized that, during lockdown, no shops were open for her to buy canvases. So she used the paper that she had in her studio, ultimately creating a collection of 12 originals. A copy of each has also been given to the subjects of the painting.
Laurie has also continued to paint other beautiful characters who have been part of the Nation Changers project and will continue to donate a portion of the proceeds from sales to the church.
What is not evident during my time spent exploring her fascinating studio are the artworks making up her recent solo exhibition at the Stepping Stones studio in Shongweni.
“Last year I had this body of work I had done. It had a theme of finding beauty in unexpected places,” she explains.
It, too, comes with a fascinating story. She recounts how seven of the paintings feature abandoned train stations and platforms in Italy based on photographs taken through a train window. “Two months later, there was complete lock down, so it was almost prophetic.”
One painting, featuring a deserted train station, had its own closely guarded secret. “In one of the reflections through the train window, there was a silhouette of a man. I took the photo and I didn’t see it. I only realised it was there when I did the sketch and started painting.”
Surprisingly, even though many of the paintings in the exhibition were landscapes, this is not Laurie’s favourite medium. Like her portraits, she tackles them because they challenge her.
I do find that it is nice having a balance of the botanicals to run back to. Landscapes and portraits take a lot out of you. Botanicals have always been my favourites just because I love nature. I just love flowers, plants, their structure. I also enjoy the botany behind it – looking and observing and studying.”
Laurie’s career has certainly been a fascinating one and she is the first to explain that, despite a fair amount of “job hopping”, her paintbrushes have never been far away.
She remembers how, as a little girl she was always drawing. She won her first art competition at the age of three and her mother still has the picture of the porcupine.
By the time she got to high school, she was questioning whether to do graphic design or fine art. “I could easily have slotted into the graphic design role. But, as a matric, when I walked into the fine art studio (at the then Natal Technikon), I knew I had found a home. It was a bit messy. I could smell the paint.”
She met her husband Reuben during her studies and the two married just two weeks after finishing their course.
As a newly-wed who needed to earn a living, Laurie took the first job that came her way – painting murals. She spent the next two years shinnying up and down scaffolding decorating the walls of stately homes.
From there, she took up a position as a graphic artist at a kids clothing company in Mobeni. Having never worked on a computer before, it was a steep learning curve.
Then, out of the blue, just two years later, she spotted an advertisement for a textile designer. She got what she describes as a dream job working as part of a team of 12 textile designers in an old Victorian House in Florida Road for David Whiteheads.
Most of her designs were done by hand and she still has a portfolio of work done there. She also remembers visits to the textile mill in Tongaat.
But change wasn’t far away. “An opportunity came up to do some part time work and launch my own range, so I grabbed it. That bridged the gap between leaving a full time job and opening my own freelance design studio in 2001.”
But it was unbelievably hard work. She went from driving to Durban to deliver work to a children’s clothing company in the morning to taking on photographic or even paint technique work in the afternoons. She drove as far as farming communities in Richmond to complete murals or decorate furniture.
By the time her son Ethan was born in 2004, however, she was focusing on working closer to home. But, because few of the larger retailers had design studios of their own in those days, she found herself inundated with both work and tight deadlines.
By the time her second son, Ben, arrived, she could no longer juggle motherhood and the pressures of running a very high pressured design studio and became very ill. During the two years spent between doctors and hospitals, she admits that she was still dabbling in painting whenever she could.
Ironically, during this bleak time, she ended up building up a large body or of work. When she approached her former head of department at the Natal Tech for a crit, he suggested a solo exhibition which took place at artSPACE Durban in July 2010 in the middle of the Soccer World Cup.
But the pull from design work remained, she admits. But she continued painting and also started teaching with long waiting lists gathering at the then Fat Tuesday Gallery above Bellevue Café in Kloof.
Then, out of the blue, a chat with another school Mom led to the launch of a stationery design range and Lauriana Designs was born.
They started out with their first range, called Postcards from Parys, which featured proteas.
Their first order came during a visit to Cape Town from a little shop at Kirstenbosch Gardens.
Shortly after signing up this first client, she remembers stopping at a coffee shop in Wynberg.
“We were so excited. We had our samples up on the table and were discussing orders when this man sitting on other side of restaurant came over. He told us that he just had to have our bags in his three shops at the waterfront. It was so exciting,” she remembers.
But the income was small and all profits were invested back into the business. Needing a higher income, Laurie agreed to take on a locum position at Sheet Street. Six months later, she agreed to stay on.
But health issues soon raised their head again and Laurie decided it was time to study teaching formally in order to work at a school closer to home. After unexpectedly landing a position to teach high school art at the nearby Curro School, she quickly got absorbed by creating yet another, completely different yet extremely challenging career for herself.
By the start of her third year in the classroom, she realised that she was again facing burn out. “It was too intense, too heavy a load. I was teaching around the clock. I was giving and giving. I felt that by teaching people art, I would be fulfilled. But I soon realised I was missing painting. It was quite a revelation for me. I had always seen my art as a self-indulgence. Without it, I was becoming grumpy. For my own sanity and that of my family, I had to paint,” she smiles.
But disentangling herself from teaching took time and it was only in 2019 that Laurie was able to call herself a full time artist.
Laurie admits that she has learnt a lot during her extremely diverse career and puts this down to what she calls “rookie smarts”.
Because you don’t know something is difficult, you try it. When I think about design work, I know that, at last, I have got it out of my system. It’s the same with teaching. I had to find out what I didn’t want to do to find out what I did want to do. When I left Tech as a 20 year-old, I wasn’t ready to be a full time artist. I wanted a title. I guess I felt it was important to know I was a graphic artist or a textile designer.
“Eventually I accepted that I am an artist and I owned it. Whilst I am aware of and like to keep abreast of trends, I am no longer a slave to them. That’s so freeing and so empowering. Although I still take on commissions, I also realise that there were times when I need to set aside the person who’s going to buy the work and focus on doing work that comes from within. When I was working on that exhibition in 2010, no-one was watching me. I was working for the audience of one. That turned out to be so meaningful for me. It was healing and I have, at last, gotten back to that place,” she says.