Visual Arts in Focus

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Jul 24, 2020
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Visual Arts in Focus

Meet the formidable and passionate team responsible for building and developing our
incredible Visual Arts Department, Gabrielle Richards and Juli-Anne Norton.

Tell us about your background in art?

Gabrielle: I come from a very ‘art orientated’ family. Both my parents are academics within the art world, in fact, they met at Rhodes University
in the 70s. This is partially why I decided to relocate from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown. I studied several different mediums as part of my qualifications from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Ranging from stained glass, fused glass, printmaking, ceramics, painting and drawing. My work is predominately
inspired by my love for people and their personal narratives. I am passionate about South Africa and the lesser-known, untold stories of our beautiful and rich country’s past and present.

Juli-Anne Norton: From age five I knew I wanted to study art. Some of my earliest memories are of me drawing and painting for fun, and this passion never stopped. I sadly was not privileged to attend a school that offered visual art as a subject, and I think it is for this reason, among many others, that I ended up in high school art education. After school I completed my Fine Art Degree at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. I studied several different mediums as part of my qualification from NMU, namely, stained glass, painting, drawing, sculpture and a little ceramic and print making. After this, I taught art for a year and
then studied full time at Rhodes University and obtained my Post Graduate Certificate in Education with majors in the FET subjects, visual arts and design. My own work is predominately inspired by my love for South Africa and its diverse people and places. My work is often colourful and could be described as kitsch, but I view my use of colour as a nostalgic reminder and celebration of the people, landscapes and abandoned buildings that encompass our environment in a multicultural society. My favourite mediums are painting, drawing and mixed media.

What makes Gabrielle and Juli-Anne a good team?

Gabrielle: I first met Juli-Anne Norton on the ‘stoep’ outside Port Elizabeth Technikon’s Faculty of Fine Arts when I was 17. She was wearing a paint covered overall and she had long dark hair hanging down her back. She was loud and outspoken with an infectious laugh and I knew then that she and I would be life-long friends. We have worked together for many years. We built the Woodridge Art Department before I came across to St Andrew’s College in 2014. Two years later, Juli-Anne followed me to Grahamstown, and we have been teaching together ever since. Juli-Anne is practical and organised, and she has a great aptitude for teaching drawing and painting. I live with my head in the clouds, I bounce from one idea to another like a floating balloon and Juli-Anne grounds me.
Our mutual respect and friendship have been our winning formula and have served as assets in the development of both the art departments we have built together.

Juli-Anne Norton: I first met Gabrielle outside the NMU Faculty of Fine Arts when I was 19 and she was 17. I remember noticing her confidence in the way she spoke about art and as a first year, this completely different to everyone else. Right away she impressed me – she was unapologetically herself and humorous, because of these two reasons alone, I knew I had to be friends with her. We have been friends for 21 years now. We studied fine art together and have worked together for many years. We share many common values which include a mutual understanding of work ethic and responsibility to the pupils we teach. Our understanding and respect for each other is such that we may not always agree, but the fact that we can disagree in healthy debate and discussion is one of our strengths, which I treasure the most. Laughter has also kept us going over our years working together. We can tease and laugh at ourselves and at each other
and often reflect on hanging exhibitions for school kids till the wee hours of the morning on many a night, making it through with hysterical and exhausted laughter.

What inspires your ideas?

Gabrielle: I was fortunate to grow up around my two grandmothers who had both seen it as their duty to collect, understand and re-tell their family history. I was always fascinated by their stories and so I would like to think that whatever I am creating at the time, even if it is just trying to capture the beauty of an Eastern Cape flower, pays tribute to the strong female-narrative that runs on both sides of my family. In addition to this, I have studied the etymology and development of Medieval iconography and symbolism extensively. I love history and learning about different cultures and their mythologies, and thus this influence is often embodied and recognisable in my work. The concept of spirituality is different for everyone, but as an artist I have noticed that there are visual tools one can borrow from our past, which can be used to engender a sense of spirituality among a diverse audience. This idea fascinates me – I enjoy experimenting with these ‘visual tools’ as much as possible.

Juli-Anne Norton: I am fascinated by the mundane small things which hold so much beauty. I am very inspired by memory, time and place. Desolate spaces, landscapes and homes have always intrigued me. I believe these spaces have hidden memories and, in a sense, have a spiritual nostalgic presence of all the people that have occupied the given time and place. For example, I often wonder what the family was like who lived in the old rundown farmhouse. I love open farm landscapes which suggest the presence of people that are now long gone. A broken windmill, and an old fallen farm fence, everything has a story to tell.

Tell us what visual art entails?

Gabrielle: In Grade 8, 9 and part of Grade 10, tasks are geared towards developing drawing skills and using a range of different mediums. From July in Grade 10 onwards, pupils can explore and specialise in any medium of their choice. For example, we have a lot of pupils who end up creating videos, animation and even performance art. Visual Arts does not have to be centred around the development of ‘traditional’ two-dimensional media.

Doing art practicals online during school shutdown, must have been incredibly difficult and quite an adjustment, how did you manage?

Gabrielle: Access to materials was probably our biggest challenge. As a result, we started looking at some ‘alternative’ projects. The Grade 10 teabag illustrations emerged from this, as well as the Grade 9 coffee drawings. However, this said, Mrs Norton and I are usually quite experimental when it comes to art-making media. Art materials and equipment tend to be so expensive and we both believe this to be unnecessary. You only need to look at a great artist like Dumile Feni, for example, to know that if you are inspired enough you can make art from very limited resources.