I’ve been living in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands for 6 months now and I am gradually settling in. Most of the boxes-to-unpack have been unpacked and the studio is up and running. I’m getting used to the rhythm of the days, waking to the sound of birds and going to sleep with the distant call of jackals doing their nightly rounds. The days are generally spent in my studio, preparing and giving online classes, and tinkering around with new ideas for future workshops. I have recently completed a new painting of a scene from Kruger and another of the Eastern Cape. I have a second Eastern Cape scene on the easel as I speak, and it feels strangely comforting to be remembering the landscape that has supported and inspired me for the past 23 years. The process of art-making is therapeutic,( not that different to meditation), and I go into a zone where I release all anxieties about the future and relax completely into the moment. Nothing else matters except this mark and hue, whether I should smudge a little more and whether I need to deepen or lighten the tone. I am at peace as I watch the scene unfold.
It is fortunate that I am in that rare situation where I have little to no responsibility beyond what I owe to my students, and I am enjoying the freedom to think, sit, play, walk and just ‘be’. It is a luxury that not many of us have and I am making the most of every moment. I am still in that liminal space, where what was, is gone and what is to come, has not yet fully revealed itself. I have a sense that something new is coming – something that will test my courage, tenacity and resolve, so in this brief pause after the hectic movement of the previous few months, I use this time to ask myself important questions about who I am now in this new environment and what I want going forward.
Before I came here, I wondered if I might find it lonely out here on the farm, but in truth, I have been too busy to consider aloneness as anything other than a friend. I enjoy my alone time and am not needy for companionship, but on the occasions when companions present themselves, I enjoy our interactions. I am lucky to have my eccentric bachelor brother living within calling distance and am glad that he hauls me out for regular walks across the conservancy, as not only do they keep me fit, they help to clear my head and gain perspective. They help me to feel part of the beautiful surroundings and engage more directly with the changing seasons, and to feel one with with this beautifully peaceful environment.
For sure, there are things that I miss about my previous life in Grahamstown, most particularly my friends, my garden, my beautiful art studio and the rugged open spaces of the E.Cape. But the spirit of all those special people and places are still within me, I can see them in my mind’s eye and hear them in my head. They are a part of my story and embedded in the immovably firm foundation from which I venture forward into the mystery of the unknown.
One month after I got here, I lost my sweet companion, Mia, a character-filled, opinionated little Scottie dog whose gentle, assured attitude and constant presence has been very much missed. I am, however, comforted by the fact that she now rests peacefully under the trees at the back of the house, amidst mossy rocks and ferns, watched over by the wild rabbit, Cape Robin and occasionally a couple of francolins, all of whom hang out up there. I am glad she is not alone and that her spirit still lingers in this place.
Whilst I no longer have Mia to keep me company in the studio, I have made another good friend… one who crept into my life quite unexpectedly.
A few months back, I was sitting quietly drawing at my studio table one morning, and was about to apply a blot of ink to my paper, when a brown, stripey lizard, otherwise known as a skink, came quizzically up to the edge of my page to see what I was doing. He (I’m told he is a ‘he’ because he’s bigger than the others), looked at me with bright alert eyes, his body shining in the morning light, and I, startled for a moment, paused mid stroke to watch him, watching me. It was a moment of mutually cautious engagement, where I dare not move for fear of frightening him away and he dare not move for fear of what I might do. I greeted the little fellow and gently raised my camera, which he obligingly allowed me to do. For the next fifteen minutes or so, we had a playful photo shoot, where he darted back and forth across my table, pausing to pose amongst my art materials, and constantly checking to make sure that I was still engaged. When I put down the camera to resume my drawing, he came closer, as if willing me to continue with the game. I was entranced, but had to get back to my work. Later that afternoon, I found him curled up in my ‘Inspiration” folder, snuggled in a plastic sleeve. I closed the cover gently, put out the light and left him to have a snooze. Later that evening, as I reflected on the encounter, I found myself looking forward to seeing him again. The next morning, I had scarcely opened the door, when he jumped off my diary, lying on the table and darted across the lid of my pastels. It was as if he was waiting for me and so the game began all over again…
For the next week or so, he was there every day, skidding across my table, rummaging through my sketchbooks, exploring my pencil case. Then one morning, I walked in and put a book on the table and was startled when he jumped into view, but I noticed he wasn’t his usual playful self and on closer observation, I discovered, to my absolute horror, that he had become trapped in a discarded piece of Sellotape. He was stuck fast and unable to move, so in my panic, I had no choice but to pick him up and attempt to pry the sticky tape from his squirming body. It was truly awful and my fear was that he might lose a toe or even a leg if I wasn’t careful. I have no idea how I managed the delicate operation, but with a combination of my effort and one quick flip of his squirming body, he was free, with only a minor loss of skin from the top of his head. I was quite shaken by the episode and was worried that he might disappear, but he seemed fine and kept me company for the rest of the day, while I continued with my drawing.
The following week he was gone, but so had all the other lizards that usually hang out on the warm rocks outside my studio door. It was then that I connected the disappearance with the drop in temperatures, for as we moved towards winter, the days had become cool and the nights were really cold. I reassured myself that his absence wasn’t due to my careless use of sticky tape. Still, I wasn’t completely sure and resigned myself to being alone once more. But then I made an unexpected discovery, when sorting through my fabric wall hangings, I found my lizard fast asleep between the folds of cloth and the next morning, when I entered the room, there he was sunning himself on the veranda of his winter house. Just seeing him there, basking in the sun, lifted my spirits. I noticed that his wound, though still visible, seemed to have healed, which was a relief. As the sun moved overhead and disappeared from the studio, so too did my friend. I presume he went back into the fold.
I have seen him once since then, basking in the sunshine on my studio mat, but I am hoping that with winter slipping behind us and the days becoming warmer, my battle scarred friend will keep me company in the studio once more. I have a feeling that this is not the end of our friendship and that once he has come out of hiding, this little guy has plans for us. I do know that for the past few years through lockdown and a pandemic, I’ve been in a creative drought, so I’m hoping, just hoping, that maybe I have been visited by a Muse.
Sal, what a great story! I have not the slightest doubt that Skink is there because you are and is already your Muse. Please give him my warmest (!) best wishes. H
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Harry Owen Poet &Writer