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Engaging through art

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It is Thursday January 15, just another morning in the busy life of Somerset West cartoonist, Frans Groenewald. We are sitting in his studio on Lourensford Wine Estate – and since the sign on the front intones “Open”, you can be sure that a steady trickle of visitors will wander in to observe the master at work, hopefully buy one of his exquisite pieces of art, an original or print, and probably ask the artist to sign it.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris set the world on its head, and I’m dying to ask Frans, as a cartoonist, his opinion of what occurred. “Do you think what happened in Paris, will have an impact on free

speech?” I ask him. He pauses for a moment, reflects, and then says “Sure it will.” And it is said with certainty, forthrightness, which as our time together unfolds, I note is a hallmark of the way he interacts with the world around him. “My own view is that I would emphasise responsibility over rights.

I would try to be responsible in what I do, by considering other people,” he says. But Frans is no stranger to controversy, since on two previous occasions cartoons, which he drew for another local publication, raised the ire of some readers. “Some time ago one of my cartoons was of a dog on a beach, and I used the word ‘bitch’ in a play on words, and one reader wrote an angry letter to the paper. I didn’t mean any disrespect to women, it was simply a play on words.

“On another occasion,” he says, “a cartoon I drew around Easter time, included Jesus and my commentary was ‘Jesus wasn’t raised to hunt Easter eggs’. Once more, I wasn’t making a point of being proor anti-anything, it was just wordplay, but somebody took offence and wrote to the paper.” “I think if satire is aimed at the individual, that’s fine, but if it is aimed at somebody’s God that is something else. There is a bit of a distinction,” he says with his trademark gentle smile. Interestingly, Frans is no stranger to Islam, having attended mosque in years gone by in Stellenbosch.

cn_rh_frans1“It was during a time in my life when I questioned what I’d been brought up to believe, searching for the truth, like so many of us do.  I ended up back at the Bible,” says Frans. “I enjoy how we human beings think, how we put a value to  everything. Don Marquis said, ‘if you make people think they are thinking, they’ll love you; but if you make them really think, they’ll hate you.’ Sometimes cartoons really make people think,” he says. “We all worship something. If not God, then a career, or family, or a sport, or fitness, perhaps even your looks. Challenging that, or threatening or questioning it tends to invoke anger and retaliation,” he says.

As our conversation wends its way through the intricacies of his life, I begin to build a picture of how he arrived at this point: a cartoonist who has mastered the art of absolute synergy with his brilliant wordplay coupled with his beguiling artwork.

The genesis of his art he owes to Sharmian Plummer, his art teacher in his matric year at Hottentots Holland High. “Mrs Plummer asked me to be leader of an art group. Up to standard nine, I’d wanted to be an accountant, even though I was already drawing cartoons for a local paper.

They weren’t that good, but Mrs Plummer felt that they were quite imaginative. I discovered that with humour, you can get away with murder,” he says with a smile. And so, his interest in art was kindled, and he went on to study fine art at Stellenbosch University and a postgraduate degree in photography. In 1993, he served one year in the South African Defence Force.

“It was the last national service intake, and I spent a year at the Cape Town Castle, as a photographer in the Intelligence  Corps,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. As a photographer, he was often present during meetings with groups of people from all shades of the political spectrum, and he got to hear a wide range of opinions in the social, economic and political sphere.

“It opened up a whole new  spectrum for me as an artist wanting to see and hear and take in as much as possible.” After his military service, he was fortunate enough to join the start-up team of Vertigo Clothing on Greenmarket Square.

“I lived in Woodstock at the time, and that really opened my eyes to the reality of South Africa. University does tend to isolate you, but working on Greenmarket Square, and living in Woodstock, I was exposed to many different cultures and languages and particularly to the humour,” he explains. “I enjoy that kind of diversity,

I feed off it. It helped me with relevance, and an understanding of branding and communication. If you are attempting to position something, or draw something and it’s not understood, it is a waste of time.
“What I create can’t be self-serving. My work is in the public sphere and if it’s not understood it’s a waste of time. The stuff I do must resonate with people. I’m unashamedly commercial but in a positive way,” he says with a chuckle.

“I don’t measure my success in terms of sales, I measure my success in the reaction of people to my work.” It’s working though, because his work is in constant demand. Frans then partnered with Anton Gerischer at G2 Design, and a few years later, he decided to make a go of it on his own. “I’d just read a book titled Stop making excuses, and realised that the time was right.” One of the first things he did was stage an exhibition of his photography and painting – watercolours both serious and tongue-in-cheek – and the reaction was particularly good.

“The words I used with those illustrations were in the form of titles, but somebody who visited the exhibition said ‘the words are so clever you should put them into the painting’. “You listen to the public and you get shaped,” he says, alluding to his inclination to constantly

engage with the world at large. And so the convergence of his brilliant wordplay and captivating cartoons achieved that very rare thing: absolute synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

“The words on their own in the form of the title, were as impactful as was the illustration, but putting the words into the illustration took my work to the next level,” he says, and the rest as they say, is

history. Which comes first, the words or the image? “Sometimes both, but mostly the words. I see a word or phrase that catches my attention and I write it down. If I’m driving I’ll write it on my hand, and develop it later,” he says with a grin.

“A mental athlete gets fit by engaging in lateral thinking and exercising the mind. That’s what mI do all the time. Wordplay is an immensely important part of what I do. At the dinner table at home with the family during meals we’re constantly playing with words and phrases. Chance favours the prepared mind,” he says with a smile, quoting Louis Pasteur, and it is that mental agility, coupled with his creative flare, which is reflected in his remarkable capacity for making substance of that old adage ‘a picture paints a 1 000 words’, particularly if it’s aided by a skilfully conjured phrase.

“The work I do is relational, in that it is a reflection of the people I meet. “People energise me and I engage with them happily. The purpose of my work, is to engage with you, and to put a smile into your heart and your mind,” he says, and if the smiles on the faces of the steady stream of visitors who wander into the studio, and inevitably depart with some of his work, are anything to go by, then he is succeeding admirably.

Written by Norman McFarlane You are reading Engaging through art articles

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