Barbara Adair – Researcher and Writer

My Book of Life – A Memoir for Stefanie Hassall

by on Oct.17, 2016, under Legacy Project


The house is filled with paintings; landscapes, clouds, an assortment of the ‘okes’, many of Ganesh. Also people, are they her children, her friends, the friends that she has made in her solitariness?

They are beautiful these paintings, the colours are soft, there does not appear to be anything harsh in them. Have you always been an artist, or is this something new?

I love art, all art; I have always loved it, particularly the more classical. I am not that keen on the modernists. I know and understand that they are attempting to tell me something but I am never certain what it exactly is. Yes, they talk, but not necessarily to me, and we all have to listen to our own voices. But to answer the question, no, I only started painting after I had the strokes.

Do you go to class, how does it work? I know that there is a skill in painting, you, and me, both know that there is the creative understanding, but then a person must hone their skills in order to put their creativity to use.

I go to an art teacher, Leslie Berger. She is fantastic; she has really helped me to get a grip on the actuality of painting. Yes, I agree, it is one thing to have the inspiration, the awareness as to what beauty is, or rather what it means to me, to you, as a person, which may, of course, in fact probably always be different to another’s understanding, ah, back to the psychology dissertation ideas. So my teacher, I attend classes alone with her, there are no others to interfere with our movements; she is fantastic in that sense. I have an idea, she gives me the skills.

How do you paint?

I like to think that I paint like Chagall, ethereal, but things that are understandable, perceivable, not abstract work. I paint with acrylic paints, on canvas. The canvas is stretched taut, and then I mix the colours and paint. Look at this one. I painted it the other morning, there, that is you, surrounded by books. I don’t believe in an intrinsic symbolism, the symbols will arise in the mind of the looker and the looked at, and obviously me, the artist, but this may not be the same. You and I will not ask the same questions; I will not ask you what it is you see in the painting for the value in it is what I see. This is how I paint, the idea that the heart, my heart, dwells in the invisible, that’s a poem by Rumi.

The softness of the colours, the subtlety of the books, me, Barbara, I look angelic, a reader, how I perceive myself.

I paint from memory, no copies, my view is, and I share this with Degas, put myself up there I do, that it is easy to copy what one sees. Anyone, once you have learnt the required skills can do it, but my art is different to drawing what is in front of you, it is in some ways painting from memory. This art is a transformation in which ingenuity toils together with memory. I think that an artist reproduces nothing that does not, in some form or another, make an impression on him or her, therefore that which makes an impression is necessary, a necessary component of their life, but also it is necessary to make it into art. So in my painting my memories are freed from the tyranny of what is, the tyranny of the real.

Look here, this is a landscape, but I have not looked at the land and painted it. It is a place that I went to once when I was younger, I was there at an impressionable age but also at a time when something important was happening in my life, what this was I can’t remember. But what I can remember is the landscape, the gentle waves in the ocean, the shape of the clouds, they were flying, literally flying above my head, the lonely seagull, gulls you know are almost always found with other gulls, but this one, it was alone. It is a soft and lonely memory. And so my recall, the necessity of the place, the importance of it has remained. What the cause of my anguish, or was it happiness, was, I think it must have been anguish as look, it is not a happy painting, the clouds are almost overwhelming the seagull, they are menacing in the way that they fly, and the sea, while it is gentle there is a hint that soon it may boil. I think it was somewhere in Cape Town, possible down the beach from my flat in Camps Bay, but at the same time I can’t be sure of where, just that the land and the sea and the sky made an impression on me and that is what has stayed in my memory. And so I painted it.

The real can be oppressive, I read somewhere, I can remember who said it, I think that it may have been Peter Beard, ‘people will kill you over time, they kill your dreams with tiny harmless phrases like be realistic’. Yes I like the idea that you do not paint the real, or you do paint it sometimes, but it is not copied from the real, it is copied from the pictures in your memory. Do you find painting, art, to be therapeutic?

Yes it is, not therapeutic in that it is an orgy of repressed emotions coming to the fore, but therapeutic in that I am able to grasp and harness my memories, and then I paint them. And as I am able to probe, draw from what is hidden in my brain somewhere, so I am able to face things that were not necessarily faced in the past. Not that these things are, or even were, threatening, but rather that I have forgotten them, not forgotten, they are stored in my memory, but forgotten as there is so much happening in life, in the world. They, the forgotten memories that is, become a part of a morass deep in the folds of my mind. Painting helps me to access them, and so I become bigger, better, I expand.

Show me around.

This is Ganesh, you can have this painting, take it, as you love Ganesh.

And this one, this is the memory of America before the stroke, the buildings that are not buildings but rather building blocks; you would not say it was a city would you; and here the clouds and the ocean, the painting that I was talking about. I do paint nature, but not as I said from sitting there with it in front of me. Look, this flower, it grows in this garden somewhere, but I remember it from a walk that I once took in that park near Greenside, what is it called again? It was growing in the grass at the side of that laid out rose garden. I was walking, looking at the roses, thinking how well manicured it all was and then there was this flower. It was alone, it had not been planted, laid out, it was free in many senses, free to live and die, to grow and take hold of the air that we both breathe, not to line up like soldiers. Oh yes the rose garden was so military, beautiful yes, but so precise, and then there was this small wild flower, a seed blown in by the wind or dropped by a bird. And so I painted it.

I think it is called Emmerentia Gardens, think so, if this is the one that you mean.

And this one, this is the Archangel Michael, he comes to me sometimes and we talk. Yes people say, oh yes, as if I am talking junk, but he does, it is part of my spiritual belief, that all the spirits, angels, prophets, all of them can talk to me, teach me lessons that no human being can. Anyway it is the Archangel Michael, yes he is also painted from memory, the memory that I have of his voice, the words that he spoke to me. I have looked at all those fabulous Renaissance paintings, in the European churches and the like, but Michael, the angel Michael, is not copied from any of them, he is drawn from my memory.

You paint so much, gosh this room is filled with your art.

I like to think that it keeps me busy, not busy busy busy in the way that people like to be busy, busy because they want to keep doing something so that they do not need to be. It’s a strange view this being so busy that being me can wait until tomorrow. I am busy painting, and my business is creating me, I am busy making me today. My art is living and being busy, but it is not done to teach me how to live, but to make me want to live, to live differently, to find in myself and others and things and the ‘okes’, the possibility of life. Some will call it a waste of time, superfluous, I call it a passion.

My mother told me that you had an exhibition of your art once.

Yes, Mavis, oh yes she was your mother’s friend, set it up for me, well she made the introductions, the gallery was somewhere in Craighall Park. I painted some amazing things for that exhibition. But I don’t think that it would have happened unless the curator liked my art, it was all very well for my mother to connect us, yes, I do not have these kind of connections, but at the same time the curator was not going to tarnish the reputation of her gallery by showing shit.

Did you sell a lot of your works?

I did, not for huge amounts of money, look at this one, it did not sell, but it is priced at five thousand rand, not a lot really if you think how big it is and how much canvas is used and all of that, not to say the amount of time that it took me to paint it. But, even though I did have the exhibition, and I know that I want to be recognised for my art, we all do in some way, you do don’t you? So even though I did have the exhibition, I am always certain, and this is the conundrum, or maybe I should say that I always ask the question, is painting, my painting done to be put on show? I paint for myself, and for two or three living friends, you understand this, and for a few others that I have never met, and for those who may be dead. I don’t paint to make money or to be put on show.

You repeat a lot of the same themes, not so much the same actual things or motifs, but the same themes.

Repetition, yes, things happen only once but then they are repeated over and over again in memory. Let me paint you a picture of you, living, a picture from my picture of you.