In Conversation with Hylton Nel

During the winter of 2003 Hylton Nel and Michael Stevenson had long conversations which were collated into this text.

Michael Stevenson: Let's start with an obvious question - when did the realisation dawn that you would grow up to be an artist?

Hylton Nel: At ten I was sent for a year to my father's old school in Beaufort West. For six months a same-age cousin and I boarded with my grandmother, a widow by then, living in the town. One day she asked each of us to draw a house and she would say which was the best. My cousin drew a very neat linear house and I drew a scribbly kind of house. My grandmother chose my cousin's as the best and I burst into tears. She tried to comfort me by saying, 'Never mind, you were not meant to be an artist'. This was no comfort because I thought I was meant to be an artist. So I just cried. Sending me away, I suppose, was meant to straighten me out, make me more bearable and reasonable ... and more manly.

Then at the age of about twelve I became friendly with a boy, Nicki Wessels, who lived nearby. He brought his elder sister's English poetry book from which we read with rapture. Using sheets for costumes we did plays improvising the words as we went along. By the side of an irrigation canal we built, in low-walled outline, palaces from mud inserting sherds of figured crockery for furniture. He said that in olden times slaves used to be built into the walls of palaces so we used the 'mad ants' that in summer run all over. We spoke about art and about being artists. By and by my parents decided his visits were too frequent and instructed me to see less of him. But we were not to be stopped, so we met in a strip of undisturbed bush at the edge of the cultivated land and continued our games of fantasy. Knowing him was important to me. At thirteen I was sent to boarding school. He ran away about a year after, anglicised, became a Roman Catholic and never never returned to that place.

And your parents' farmhouse, was that Karoo?

Not Karoo, no, both my parents came from the Karoo, but it was northern Cape, it was like Bethulie, deep in the interior. It was actually a very harsh landscape. Avenues of poplars which used to form a tunnel, a green tunnel - those trees were eventually cut down because they took too much water, so the crops in the adjacent fields would be poor because of these trees having taken so much water - so the trees got chopped down. It's a very harsh flat landscape between two low ranges, hills on one side, plateau on the other.

Did they farm sheep there?

My father farmed with cattle but that was on the plateau - so we lived in two places really. Cattle ranching - that was very romantic and very nice, sort of black earth and acacia Karoo I suppose - I don't know the names of the bushes - and nice rocks and things. Down in the valley it was red soil and wheat, peanuts, fruit.

And your parents' farm, and their farmhouse, what was in it that...

I'd say that in terms of something visual, it was my paternal grandmother who had some style, she always made gardens, and put flowers in the house, and had pictures and things like that - that would have been a real inspiration. She also made desert jelly from the joints of the autumn-slaughtered ox, which she flavoured with citrus and white wine. I have never known another woman to do that. Whereas my Ouma, who was a very dear person, but I don't know, I can't say how, but didn't have the style. My paternal grandmother, at the age of 90 (she was always a very slim woman) brought me a cup of tea in bed once, and she had a nice silk dressing gown, and she crossed her legs and you know I'd never thought of her legs and suddenly her legs were exposed, and I thought 'she's old but she still has legs'. But she had just a certain style, I think that was an inspiration.

And when you said you wanted to go to University to study art?

I think it was a shock for my father because when I was very little I'd always said I wanted to be a doctor, and of that the parents approved. But when it came to it, I realised that I hadn't actually communicated with them for years, because in Matric when they asked 'so what do you want to do', I said that, and I could see that my father was shocked, but he steadied himself and said 'Well, I won't stand in your way, but you must do all the applications, and if you fail, that's it', which I accepted.

Well that's very fair, quite supportive.

Very fair, my father was a very fair sort of person. From the age of about six until we sort of reconciled, I had from him harsh disapproval. He actually told me once he thought art was shit, an opinion, I am sure shared by many. We had years of very difficult relationship, but somewhere in my 40s we found some sort of reconciliation and some peace. We shared an interest in particular books, and it was nice to have that contact in a sense.

Your parents - were they well read and well travelled?

My father read - he went to North Africa and Italy during the Second World War, and he read. When he was a young person he read cowboy books and hunting books, but later on he didn't read fiction at all. One writer that interested us both was Wilfred Thesiger - I introduced my father to his writing, which he really liked.

And your fascination with literature?

I can't say where it comes from. My grandfather was an educated person, he started school at Bishops and finished school in Geneva and then studied law in Germany. Jan Smuts, I think, effected a reconciliation after the Boer War and then people came back to South Africa. One side of the family on my father's side went sheep farming in Argentina and never returned. On my mother's side I think it was much more … Several of my mother's brothers were doctors, but my Ouma, as we called her - I had an Ouma and a Granny - she was much more sort of rural, a simple country kind of person.

So in a strange way you are a combination of the ouma and the granny?

Ja. My Granny lived on a farm in the Karoo as well, but she had big gardens, all kinds of gardens, it was from her that I learned the names of plants. She would be up very early in the morning, and by the time you got up she would say 'you're only getting up now, I've been round the garden four times already', and then she'd say the names, you know : 'This is known as snapdragon but its proper name is antirrhinum'.

Then Grahamstown in 1961. Why Grahamstown? You could have gone to Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, or Wits in Johannesburg, or what were the options?

An art teacher of mine...

From Kimberley?

Ja - she had been to Grahamstown, and she was an inspiring person. And I had an uncle living in the Bedford district, which was convenient as I used to go there for short holidays, so I think that from my father's point of view, he would say that was the reason, because we had an uncle living in the district, you see. I discussed this with my father once - for me it was the fact that this art teacher that I had loved had studied at Grahamstown, and he insisted that the decision had been his and related to the fact of an uncle living conveniently near.

And when you got to Grahamstown - the whole sensibility of studio ceramics, had any of that filtered down to Grahamstown?

No. This art teacher had arranged for me to do evening classes on Monday evenings while I was at school, and those were very, very primitive and inadequate - strange sort of old lady affairs - but it just was an introduction. And then Grahamstown. There was a very nice man, Mr Hamburger, I think a German refugee, who'd come to South Africa probably in the mid-1930s. He made stuff, and provided buckets of glaze and things like that. A group of us used to experiment - we looked at Bernard Leach's potters book without actually understanding anything, because you know - the chemical component, we knew nothing about that, but we would read that and get fired up by it and then make mixes and put them on the things. Mr Hamburger wouldn't fire things if they looked funny, because he was scared they would damage the kiln, so we'd put stuff on, and then put a layer of his glaze that he'd provided over that, and in that way they'd get fired. We subsequently learned how to operate the kiln ourselves, and even used it for cooking food.

So, art education in Grahamstown in the early 60s was very much paintings, very sort of formalist - sketching, life classes, still-life studies, composition, perspective.

Our teacher, Brian Bradshaw, was a romantic and extremely passionate person, and this pushed one to some sort of edge, a more-or-less unbearable edge. It wasn't - it didn't feel tame in any way. The art school had a big cabinet with a very interesting collection of things - bits of Greek terracotta figures, and Chinese things - some American foundation I think had given money long ago - 1920s or something - for them to buy beautiful things for our art school. I don't know who bought these things, but they were there. There was a Tang dynasty horse, and a Song brushpot.

And did they teach with them, or was it just your own curiosity that led you to them?

No, it was just there, the cabinet was just there, and it was wonderfully open - the cabinet was there, the cabinet was not locked, so I used to take things home with me, and have them in my room and bring them back the next morning. The library also was similarly informal - you just took out books and used them and kept them for however long. Later on, as I think the student numbers increased, they had to get some better system going.

Was there sculpture, was that part of the curriculum?

When we first arrived, there were masses of casts of classic things which were object drawings for us and extremely tedious to draw. I think that fashions must have been changing, because after that these casts went down into the cellar, and we pretty well abused them. They're worth a fortune now, those sorts of things, but we despised them, except if we thought they were attractive we'd sometimes take some and put them in our rooms, the smaller ones. But sculpture, no, not in the sense that I understand sculpture.

And do you think your wonderful spontaneous line drawing comes from all these years sitting in the studio?

No, I don't think so. I've always found that if I try to be really serious I end up with a very boring result, so I think I've always been kind of frivolous in looking for the line of least resistance. I subsequently became aware of oriental attitudes, and there is a sort of concept of other power, of trying to get yourself into some concentrated state of mind, and letting this other power take over - I've used that.

You spent four years in Grahamstown. Did you have old-fashioned art history starting with the Greeks and finishing with Jackson Pollock?

Yes, very useful, starting actually with the cavemen - cave art - then the Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, all those people. Very, very useful, I found, because it gave one a background - stepping stones - which subsequently one could explore freely, as opposed to the more structured art history stuff that for me is a form of mind-fuck. I really can't stand it - it's very preconceived stuff that is quite specific and pumped at people and leaves one no freedom.

For imagination.

Ja. I really appreciated that old-fashioned background thing - the art history was as a support for the practical making of art.

And theory?

Yes. Professor Bradshaw used to give us a subject called Appreciation of Art, which I suppose was a sort of art theory, and the subjects that he dealt with would be whatever it was that currently interested him, because he was always looking into stuff. So we had this old-fashioned approach, from the caves to Pollock, on the one hand, and then on the other, he went into byways, but in a way that I found very stimulating.

And how contemporary - where did the art history stop? We joked about Pollock, but wa