Rhodes School of Fine Art. First year, third term, first day. Slouching behind my easel, I heard a blunt-edged ‘60s London accented voice say “...and if anyone minds the word ‘shit!’ or ‘fuck!’ clear off now!’ I peered over. The voice belonged to a hook-nosed little man with charcoal-stained brick layer’s hands and a manic, aluminium sheen to his eyes. George, our first-year art lecturer had arrived. Grabbing a piece of charcoal pencil from Carol, he slashed, in Zorro-like strokes, the word “SHIT” on the nearest drawing. “This is all fucking crap!” he rasped and glared round the room at the easels we were cowering behind. “I know you’re all constipated from Matric art class - but for God’s fucking sake!”. We stared on dumbly, mouths agape, trying not to be noticed or singled out, by this raving, spitting force of nature that’d burst in amongst us like a Catherine wheel in a church service.
We drew harder, strained our concentration toward a crisper focus, generally tried more to rise to his exhortations, and George and us established an uneasy peace. We were always on-edge, for despite days of relative calm, he could always flare up like flaming magnesium at any second.
Underneath it All
George had a heart of gold. I learned more from him in a year than all my other lecturers that were to come. “Sorry I’m late” said a rather overwrought Lee to him one Monday morning “It’s just that I tried acid for the first time this weekend, and it was a lot stronger than I expected”. “Shame, dear” answered George, as he led her to a chair “Don’t move. Let me make you a cup of tea.” He was like that with all of us, at one time or another.
Roll on to October. Grahamstown in summer. The roads baked, the tar sticky underfoot. Drowsy swooning hot. The sashe windows of the art studio were wide open, but not a stir of a breeze. Stewed in a torpid funk, first-year art class dragged their pencils listlessly across canvases, slow as lichen. Most just wanly ground their pencils in the canvass; a desultory salad of doodles all the fruit of hours of soporific effort. The afternoon grinded on long and slow as the last day of school. “Okay. Stop.” sighed George.”I’m knackered, and you lot are just pathetic in this heat. Bring a costume and towel to class tomorrow morning”. Heads abruptly popped up over easels like a gaggle of prairie dogs.
We all arrived early the next morning - wittering with curiosity - to see a Rhodes minibus parked outside the stone gates of the art school. George was humming, fussing and loading hampers into the boot. We all piled in to the van (we were a small class) and drove off for parts unknown. Dirt road, braking for tortoises. Parts turned out to be a stretch on the Kudu river, in a nearby game reserve. We piled out, and George and a some able-handed types fished cases or beer and hampers out of the van. George had kidnapped us all away for a stolen day. We were cutting class, with teacher. A wonderful, burnished day followed. Anthony sat like a kikoi-draped satyr on a nearby rock and played lazy guitar. Crazed on wine, beer and sunshine, the class skinny dipped in the river, till a curious hippo scared us all out, sprinting back to the shore, our bare bottoms winking in the sun. At sunset we drive home from the one-day holiday reluctantly, the memory of sun and river water on our skin, home to the humdrum of res food dinners and essays to be procrastinated about.
Rhodes First Year Art Class. Banks of the Kudu River (1990)