REVIEW: The Mind’s Eye

We remember acclaimed artist Judith Mason who passed away a year ago with GREGORY KERR’s review of The Mind’s EyeMason’s book about art and the creative process.

The Mind's Eye by Judith Mason

In the late 1960s I was a student of Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. I was not a good student; I tended to take the lecturers for granted or to get into conflict with them. I was a difficult student. I think I wasted some splendid opportunities to improve myself. I was a lazy student. It was not their fault I was indolent, but some of the indolence came from a refusal to buy into the current fashions, which were flat, hardedge, and to me, sterile and pointless. I was a cocksure little bastard, for sure, and deserved everything I didn’t get from the brilliant academics who ran the show.

However, there was at least one person on the teaching staff for whom I had nothing but the utmost respect and affection, and that was the astonishing Judith Mason. Judy was teaching senior students in the department, but no one objected if there were gatecrashers at her crit sessions and though very callow and junior, I was a gatecrasher of note. She stuck in the brain like a special kind of revelatory sage, speaking with the tongues of angels and art students. She was not puffed up; she got to the nitty-gritties of the everyday existential crises of being an imaginative painter (and thus a demonstrably frivolous and irrelevant person) in a world of conscientious pragmatism. She took it for granted that we all wanted to slay the beast of painting, to find the path and the truth and the way and the light. She was a shining example of the artist, the ham-fisted wrestler with the craft and sullen business of finding, but she was also something else, something so rare that it intoxicated. She could find the words and the images and the poetics to speak directly to the acolyte. She made sense that was not the elegant sense of the art historians and design lecturers, but the thew-and-sinew sense of the maker.

Reading The Mind’s Eye was to be taken back 45 years into that studio in the John Moffat Building, listening to the dark-haired young woman with the strangely plat accent and the twinkle – the inevitable twinkle – of anti-earnestness sweetening the stern seriousness beneath the monologue. In this publication –  a wonderful companion to art-making –  Mason allows herself the freedom to write as she speaks, from the hip, from the heart and (you’d better believe it) from the head. She addresses all the departments – the neuroses, the need for discipline, the compulsion to form. How does one tackle the metaphysics of the human face, the living anatomy, the stagnant psyche that refuses to paint? What is beautiful? (The answer will surprise you, but you must first draw or paint shrouded things, shadowed things, moving things, harsh, gross and edible things.)

Since I left Wits and her diverse influences, I have been making a living as a teacher of art – theory, education, drawing, painting, even history – and have developed strategies that address a range of issues: conceptual, perceptual, technical, historical, philosophical and psychological.  I am quite proud of the strategies. I didn’t know until I read Mason’s book how very much my well-worn ideas, theories and methodology must have been shaped by her. I kept saying, “But I say that!” and I do, but so does she and so well, and she probably said if first. I shall be setting her text as prescribed reading for my professional students because she says things that absolutely are required drumming-into-the-head stuff for anyone faced with the prospect of making art. She is gung-ho on looking very hard at things and choosing things that do not immediately declare themselves to be lovely. She is stern with base matters like techniques and (contra mode) believes passionately in the dark and numinous power of the creative imagination expressed in a stern and controlled emotion – what Yeats called “the rag and bone shop of the human heart”.

Anyone who knows the history of Judith Mason, as I do –  the clot-fisted schoolboy acolyte who saw her drawings in the 101 Gallery in 1967 (and had a damascene experience right there and then) and who has followed this straight-talking mystic over 50 years of poetics, romance, religion, Africa and her place in it, who has learned from her what it is like to stand aghast and amused at the demented business of making paintings, despite all kinds of logic and reason – will recognise in this pearl of a book much of the commentary that has accompanied her artwork over the years; what she herself has described (if my memory serves) as “the fragments that shore up our ruins”.

From the rich soil of a fabulously informed and intrepid imagination, Mason has grown a history of dark metaphors for our singular place in the evolution of Africa. Her book, despite her disclaimer, “this is not a how-to book. It is a how-to-think-about-how-to book,” is the perfect concordance to that history.

Gregory Kerr is an artist and writer who has served as a professor of fine arts at the University of Stellenbosch. This review first appeared in Ceramics Southern Africa Magazine.

The Mind’s Eye is published by Books & Books Press and is available from Amazon as an ebook. Read our interview with Mason about her reading habits and favourite books here.

POEM: Mathematics

BY JEANNIE WALLACE MCKEOWN

My mathematics is functional.
It can balance a bank account
or divide a lemon meringue pie
into eight (almost) equal slices.

It can’t plot galaxies using radio waves,
or decipher an exploding star.
My maths could never be called telemetry.
It isn’t abstract.

It plods in the everyday; raincoat on,
umbrella to hand, sturdy shoes.
It doesn’t dance or make art
or draw meaning from the night sky.

My maths is proletarian.
It knows its place:
small change and headcounts,
cake recipes and monthly bills.

My mathematics suspects
that other people’s maths is different.
A numbered brick in a prosaic wall,
it dreams of being a window.

POEMS by Tania J. Spencer

Three loves

I
You text me from
the foothills of the Himalayas
picturesque
remote
full of litter,
still.

II
Sometimes I still
feel the sweep of this
beacon. Not you, as much
as the love; not the cowrie
as much as the sea.

III
And you.
Your quietness turned
into children.

 

Things we keep

Walking in the dark,
between other people’s
houses once I heard
a puppy beaten softly,
to death. Its squeals
popped off
like buttons
and rolled
across the floor,
towards me.
Sometimes, I
still count them.

EXTRACT: Rapid Fire by John Maytham

In Rapid Fire, veteran broadcaster JOHN MAYTHAM has collected questions submitted by 567 CapeTalk listeners to test his remarkable general knowledge in the ever popular insert of the same name on his afternoon drive-time show. Here are a few of some the oddest, arcane and most surprising questions – and answers.

John Maytham

Are there animals that can live without water?

The North American kangaroo rat is most often cited in internet discussions of this topic. These rats do need water to survive, but they have evolved such that it is possible for them to go through their entire life cycle, between three and five years, without ever drinking water. They collect seeds during moist conditions, and live off the nutrition and moisture stored in those seeds.

Then there is an extraordinary water-wise amphibian, the Australian water-holding frog. It stores water in pockets of skin all over its body, but holds most of it in the bladder. It is able to store double its body weight in water, and can live for up to five years without needing to take a drink. Local Aboriginals, if they’re thirsty while out in the bush, will try to catch one of these frogs and squeeze the water directly from the frog’s bladder into their mouths.

Why are weddings rings traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand in many Western cultures?

This is based on a traditional (but incorrect) belief that there is a vein that runs directly from that finger to the heart. It was called the vena amoris, the “vein of love”.

What is the link between the musical works of Handel and Bach, and the one-rand coin?

The words Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory) appear on the one-rand coin. Those same words are also part of the dedication of many works by the likes of Bach and Handel.

Can a vegan eat a fig?

Hmmm, lots of nuance in the answer! It depends – on the fig and on the vegan. Some figs, like the Smyrna, are pollinated in such a way that the female wasp dies inside the fig. The body will be dissolved by acid activity, but strictly speaking,

there will be animal matter inside the fig. Some very strict vegans might see that as reason to avoid the fruit. Forgive me for being technical, but some fig species are parthenocarpic, which means they develop fruit-like structures that don’t require pollination. (Don’t worry, I don’t understand it either.) All vegans can eat these varieties with a clear conscience.

Bananas, on the other hand, are a different story. If they come from a field that has been sprayed with a pesticide like chitosan, then very strict vegans will look the other way because shrimp and crab shells are on chitosan’s list of ingredients. Did someone mention slippery slopes?

The first British astronomer at the Cape, Fearon Fallows, is buried in the grounds of the South African Astronomical Observatory in a suburb of Cape Town. His grave has one very unusual feature. What is it?

The grave is twelve feet deep. Fallows knew he was dying and, fearing that his burial site would be disturbed by grave robbers, he asked to be buried twelve feet down. As the observatory is on rocky ground, the digging must have been very hard work!

What was bought in the first-ever bitcoin purchase?

Don’t ask me to explain bitcoin – it’s dark matter as far as I’m concerned. All I can do is report the fact that on 22 May 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world bitcoin transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida, for 10 000 BTC. And the fact that, had he made himself a sandwich instead and held onto those bitcoin (bitcoins?), then at the time of writing this book those 10 000 BTC were worth $11 million. (I hope those pizzas were really good.) [Ed’s note: today those pizzas are now worth more than $105 million.]

Advertisements for watches usually feature a watch face set at a particular time. What is that time and why has it been chosen?

The time is ten past ten, because this position of the watch hands is seen as the best possible framing of the manufacturer’s logo and also creates the happy impression of a smiling face.

Why did George Dawson rise to fame in the US?

He learnt to read at the age of 98. Still described as ‘America’s poster child for literacy’, Dawson had a rough life, being the grandchild of slaves and first put to work at the age of four. He died at the age of 103, but enjoyed national attention in the five years between learning to read and passing away. Two universities conferred honorary degrees on him; television programmes were made about him; he appeared on Oprah, where he said, “It’s never too late to learn, I’m still learning now”; he had a school named after him; and he co-authored a biographical work, Life Is So Good, when he was 102.

Rapid Fire is published by Tafelberg.