I attended the opening of artist Janet Botes's exhibition Organism at the State of the Art Gallery on April's first Thursday. Her work has an underlying familiarity that relates our own physical form and experiences to other organisms, reminding us that even though we speak as if we are removed from nature, we are actually intimately connected. I first met Janet at the Greenpop Reforest (Friends) Weekend (read more about that here) where we planted a couple of dozen trees together. She is involved with multiple exciting projects that you can check out if creating art in the landscape interests you. Check out Site Specific Land Art (or their Facebook page) for workshops and events, as well as her own Facebook page. All the artworks featured in this post can be seen at State of the Art Gallery at 61 Shortmarket Street in Cape Town until 23 April. You can see a variety of her work on her website, and visit her creative collective project called art.love.nature for a more collaborative experience. We met up for a glass of wine and a conversation about her work, her life and how she manages to produce quality work amidst a world that is comprised of distractions.
Your current exhibition, Organism, showing at the State of the Art Gallery in Shortmarket Street, is about connection - and subsequently healing the scars that separation brings. Where did that idea originate?
That's a very good question. I suppose for the past few years, I've said that my art is about inspiring people to appreciate nature more so that we can focus on fighting the destruction that we're currently wreaking on the earth. That led me to read and to think about the cause of our apathy. That's where the separation thing came in - that we're always between these four walls and that people don't spend time in nature anymore. I know people who actually don't enjoy being outside. They worry that the wind is going to mess up their hair, and don't enjoy the feeling of soil under their feet. They prefer to be in a mall, or in front of a TV instead of being in nature, even though we are nature. So I think that's where it started: looking at why, and then seeing that it's because of separation.
What was the first artwork that you created for this exhibition?
It's actually one of the small little pieces that's digitally composed. It's called Organism. There is Organism 1, 2 and 3, so there's three in a series.
That's where the idea came from: I've been so inspired by insects, I just love them! And we so easily overlook them or squash them instead of really looking how amazing they are, and how adaptable. We can learn so much from them! And if you look at the metamorphoses and cycles that insects go through. We all have cycles, but we tend to fight against them.
Your projects are intrinsically linked to the landscape and environment. How do your surroundings influence your own sense of identity and belonging, and how is it different from places you've lived before?
[Laughing] That is so relevant, because we just moved! My husband said the other day (and it completely reflects how I feel) that since we moved into a place with a garden we both feel so much more relaxed again. We were in an apartment before, and when you have all these people around you, and the walls and the pillars, we felt so far from the actual earth, especially living on the second floor. The interesting thing is we had a huge garden at the place where we lived in Somerset West, but I was so unhappy because the space was too big. The responsibility was too big, which always kept me away from just being and just creating because I was always trying to fill space, organise and control the space. In a smaller space you can really just let go and it organically shifts as it needs to.
That's very interesting, because I think that idea of having more is always better is so prevalent. And it's true for money, it's true for space, it's true for things, but it's actually the opposite. The less you have - out of choice - the happier you can be because you can comfortably orchestrate everything around you.
There's a whole movement towards simple living, towards simplifying and going smaller. More and more people are doing it - it's the new trend.
And how about the bigger landscape? I know you lived in Gauteng before?
Oh yes, the best thing I could have done was move to Cape Town! The mountain, the sea, there's just such an energy and powerful inspiration behind it. When I lived in Gauteng, it felt like I almost had to go and search for a place to be outside. There's not so much access. I always went to Faerie Glen Nature Reserve in Pretoria, because that was free, you only had to sign in at the gate. But that's Pretoria, Jo'burg is a whole different story. There's not so much opportunity.
And workwise, do you find that if you don't go out into the landscape often enough, your inspiration..?
Oh, it dries up, completely! And I actually become depressed. I become so caught up in my little issues and I start creating my own problems in my life and in my work, and then I just have all these excuses not to work. Nature pulls it out of you. Especially going to the beach. When I'm emotional, whether I'm sad or frustrated or whatever, if I go to the beach, I come back calmer. It's like I can take on the world again.
Why do you think that is? Why the beach?
I think the water, definitely, and the way that the waves are so persistent. It's even better when I go into the water. I once went in fully clothed and it was such a feeling of elation, of just child-like joy.
More food related: you're a vegan. How did that start and why was it a decision that made sense to you?
I actually wish I started earlier! I've only been a vegan for a year, but I've been an on and off vegetarian for years and years. I think the first time I became a vegetarian I was in high school, which of course to my mom was a bit of a frustration because it's extra food that she had to make. But it always made sense. With visits on the farm, I was usually around when they caught the sheep that were meant for slaughter, and I could never look at them. I felt so guilty. The one time I also spoke to them and said to them: 'I'm so sorry, I have no control over this. I can't help you. I'm so sorry that this is the way that life is treating you and we are treating you.'
So I think that over the years it's just gotten so much more important to me because I couldn't just hide it away and push the feelings down. If I think about how long I've spoken about the energy and the fear that the animals have at the end of their lives and we are ingesting that fear. I've spoken about it so many times, while still eating meat! So in the end it was just a natural metamorphosis.
And other animal products, like eggs and milk and cheese?
It was actually easy for me to cut them out because I developed a milk allergy before I turned vegan, so that showed me how easy it was to do without. But my decision to not eat eggs is very much based on the battery farms - how animals are treated for eggs, milk, cheese... I've also visited a dairy, and the same thing applies. It was a small farm, and usually the animals roam free, but then they were all stuck in this small space with these heavy metal clamps stuck on their udders. It was terrible, I couldn't look, I felt so appalled. And that's a very humane farm I'm speaking of, I'm not even speaking of one of the huge commercial farms.
So tell me about your journey becoming an artist. How did your environment influence that decision and was there a moment that you realised: this is what I want to do?
I don't think there was a specific moment. It's always been something that I enjoy doing, and has always been something that I find important as well. So many people say we don't need art because it's not something that you're going to eat or that is going to keep you warm, but it makes life worth living. So we might not need it to survive, but it definitely makes life better.
And also, art's been a part of human existence from the very beginning!
Absolutely, and there are so many different reasons for it! It could be for documentation, or propaganda. It could be something that expands your soul, or inspires you or moves you and creates an experience.
And that's what's so amazing about land art, for me: it's even more experiential than any other kind of art because you can move through it and it changes all the time depending on the day and time that you see it.
And you're allowed to touch it! It's not just something on a wall. And it's interesting that you mention the time of the day, because it changes. It changes with time and the light. It changes every moment, like everything else, where a painting on the wall is meant to capture only one moment. Land art is more timeless, even though it's temporary.
Speaking of time: How has you own priorities changed over the past five years, and why?
I always move from a space where I'm not creating enough work to a space where I'm allowing myself to create more art. And creating more art could be anything. It could be taking more photo's, it could be doing more land art, it could just be sitting and scribbling while I'm watching a movie. So I'm always moving away from prioritising money making - which is usually not selling artworks. My artworks sell, but not as well as more commercial artists. So I always do graphic design on the side, or a little bit of this on the side, a bit of consulting... Just to be able to buy materials and food and things. My husband's been amazingly patient with me! But moving to a place where I can say, you know, I've got my bases covered, now I can just create.
And where are you now in that process?
Well, now with my exhibition that is on the go, I'm actually feeling like I'm in a space where I want to create a new way to work. Instead of being spread out all over the place, I actually want to start saying no to projects. So I've started evaluating every project with two questions: is it going to give me money? I do many free projects, a lot of free work, so I have to ask: is it going to give me money, and if not, is it going to help me enough in my own goals? And if it doesn't, then I have to say no. Because either it has to bring me an income, or it has to bring me closer to what I actually want to do.
How does sharing your work with others make you feel? Is it easy or hard to do?
With the opening of the exhibition on Thursday night, there was one very specific moment that it hit me square in the face: There are a number of people looking at my art, right now, and they're talking about it! And that made me realise that I have distanced myself from it - that my art is on the wall and strangers are looking at it. So I have a mechanism in place, and I think originally it was very subconscious. Now I'm conscious of it, I know I do it, and it's not just with people looking at my art. It's also with family and missing my folks. I cut if off. I have little walls that I put up, so it's actually very unreal for me when people look at my work. It becomes real when someone buys it, when I know I'm not going to see that artwork anymore. If it is a piece that I really like, then there is definitely a feeling of loss.
But at the same time, if someone actually enjoys your work enough to want to put it in their homes, forever, that must be an amazing feeling!
Someone actually once stole one of my pieces when I was still in school! And the interesting thing is, I was actually very flattered that someone liked my work so much. But I find a lot of joy when someone enjoys my land art, because it was something that was almost done more as a personal ritual out of sheer enjoyment and love. It's not because I want to make money from it. A lot of artworks that are on the wall are things I made because it might sell, so there's a very specific goal with it. With the land art, it's not made as a piece to sell.
Do you ever make money out of land art?
I can if I sell prints, but prints don't really sell unless you're well known, like Andy Goldsworthy and Strijdom van der Merwe, or if people really really like it. So I have sold some prints, but what I do find is if I take photos of my land art and I paint them, then people see it as something that they would like to own. But then it's the painting and the skill that goes with it that sells the work, it's not the actual land art.
You use a lot of different mediums, as can be seen at your exhibition. Do you have a favourite?
Yes, land art definitely! Just being outside, and just using what you find and the challenges that that gives you. You don't have a paper and a pen that's been given to you or that you bought. You have to find things around you that jumps out at you or has beautiful shapes or colours. It's so much fun, I can't even start to explain! And it's immediate. A lot of my other works take a long time - I have a lot of unfinished works at all stages, and some of them are completed and some of them become reworked into other works, so it's a bit chaotic. It always takes long and sometimes it frustrates me. In the landscape where it's immediate and you do it and it's done, and if you don't like it you can just throw all the rocks aside and no one even knows that you tried something; it's much more forgiving in a sense.
Do you have any permanent land art installations that people can go and see?
Yes, at Wildekrans Country House. It's right behind the Houwhoek Inn on the N2, but you have to make an appointment with the Country House. They have an amazing sculpture garden, and one of my permanent pieces is there in their sculpture garden. I also did work at Porcupine Hills that could possibly still be there, but I wouldn't put money on it.
What is your routine? How do you make it easier for yourself to focus and create in a world that is so full of distractions and demands so much attention?
It is an ongoing struggle, and I go through cycles! I go through stages where I'm very focused and I'm able to get up very early in the morning, and those tend to be my best days. Then I start in the garden, write in my journal and it just gets better from there, usually turning into an amazing studio day. But then other days I just feel so distracted, all over the place. It's then that I go look at emails and it pulls me in all different directions. When I'm working, usually I will switch my phone on silent to not be distracted every time someone calls.
Another thing would be to have a personal ritual when I get up, looking at spiritual guidance cards at the beginning of the day. So it's really just connecting with yourself and creating that bit of space for yourself.
It's another thing I've started doing because just like so many other people, I tend to think that being busy means being productive. There have been days where I find myself rushing from appointment to appointment because I pack my schedule so full, and I've now started to create space for myself within my work day. That means I can linger and talk to someone if I feel like it, really make a connection. The other thing that I've realised is that if I have the urge to do something, I must just do it now. If I feel like doing yoga now, I don't have to feel like it should rather be done in the morning, or I'll do it after I've finished something. If you feel the urge to create, and you have the energy, do it immediately. I don't work well with lists. If I make a list for myself for the day, it never gets done, because I rebel against myself. I don't like being told what to do, even if I'm the one doing it!
What I want to start doing again because it really is powerful is to start the day with exercise. If I just go for a short run or do some yoga, that immediately makes me more focused, and it also feels like I've already achieved something so then it just paves the way for an inspired day! I find that the days that I am very confident in myself, I don't get distracted easily. It's when you're not confident that you rely on other people to feel good.
It's interesting because again it's a question of looking after yourself first - you can't pour from an empty cup. It's not selfish to take that time.
That's right! You can't give anyone else anything, not properly. If I think of everything that I do for everyone else when I'm not focused... I say 'yes' too easily and then I end up resenting them and the work I produce isn't good. I know that it can be better, because it wasn't inspired work, it wasn't made from a space that is centered. That's really what it's about: trying to centre yourself every day, and it's a practice. Every day it's an ongoing struggle, because there will always be distractions and you will always get in your own way.
It's a theme that I come across more and more as I source stories for this blog: Finding your own true path and passion, and following it uncompromisingly is really the best way to produce authentic work that makes a genuine impact on people's lives. The beautiful side effect is that the practice starts to infiltrate every part of your being, and Janet's work is a striking example of that centredness she describes. The values, concepts and principles that she uses to describe her lifestyle and personal choices are as visible in her art and the way she describes her work: Centered. Connected.
Janet in her own words:
I am at my happiest when I...
Am playing with a cat!
If I didn't live on the tip of Africa, I would live...
Everywhere! I would be nomadic. I love traveling and exploring and finding new places.
My current food obsession is...
Easy vegan and gluten free desserts! Bananas, avocados, dates and cocoa are my best friends.
I feel closest to my environment when I...
Do land art and swim.
Three things I couldn't live without are...
Bananas, my hands and my eyes.
My dream for the future is...
A global awakening where everyone just decides to be at one with themselves and with everyone else and be at peace. So absolute peace and love and acceptance.
My six year old self is happiest when I...
The most important trait of humanity is...
Hope. Being able to see hope.