“I think the urge to create became apparent to me in primary school, where I was often asked to draw pictures for my classmates,” says South African artist Gerda Louw, as she sits chatting in her home studio in Melkbosstrand in the Cape. “For lack of having art materials, I used to cut out the sides of old cardboard boxes to sketch on.”
Her parents were creative too. Her mother used to be a teacher, but now dabbles in oil painting and her father used to be a surveyor who has always indulged in writing. Both parents still enjoy using their talents for their own pleasure. So it’s clear, it runs in the family.
Gerda grew up on a farm in the Waterberge outside Bella Bella in the Limpopo Province. She has lived in many places since, each having their own effect on her artistic side. In the Comores she did her first paintings, in watercolours. “It was the only paint I could afford. But once I started working in oils, there was no looking back.”
Gerda did a stint in the Middle East too, where she found the colours and aromas, and the vastness of the desert, a huge inspiration. “As a stay-at-home mom I had lots of time—in between home-schooling my children—to develop my photography skills and paint. I think my stay the Middle East greatly influenced my series of paintings of women with headscarves, and the bold colours—and certainly the gold—used in some of the paintings I made, following my return to Cape Town.”
Before becoming an artist Gerda studied languages, education and psychology at the University of Pretoria. She then carried on to get her BA Ed degree, with an honours degree in Afrikaans. “At the time I wanted to study art but was wrongly advised by a university counsellor that I could not study art because I did not have art as a subject at school.”
Chatting about her creative process she confesses that research is key. After an idea has been born she tries to photograph it (if it’s something she’s seen), research it and sometimes even do preliminary sketches. Then she gets straight to it, on canvas. “I draw with paint to get the basic layout. I am very aware of the meaning of colour and the play of light, shadow and form. I often make changes to my work, even at an advanced stage. I am led by the artwork itself so the result is sometimes not as I imagined or planned it at the beginning. And then of course you have to know when to stop.”
So what does Gerda do when inspiration runs low? “To be honest, that doesn’t happen often. I am almost always inspired to paint. But if I’ve worked on a piece for a very long time I usually need a break of a few days. It can be physically demanding, especially when I sometimes carry on for hours on end with little sleep. Being able to use different forms of art to express myself also of course helps to stay inspired.”
If you know Gerda’s work, you will have seen women are a major focus. Gerda says she feels having women as her subject helps her portray her feelings or communicate her message. The painting becomes an extension of the artist. “Perhaps that’s why when I paint men it is in the role of guide, protector or lover. It is always men in relation to a woman or a girl. On the other hand it might simply be because women make beautiful subjects.”
Gerda is quite outspoken, even when it comes to personal experiences, such as her divorce. “There is much to say for being able to live and create without fear, and everything I experienced with my divorce allowed me to come much closer to reaching this point. In my divorce I experienced how that which is private becomes public, and that the truth becomes relative. When you survive an experience like this, you find fear leaves you. It also forces you to question yourself and to learn to live more deliberately.”
Gerda keeps herself busy when she’s away from the easel. Spending time with her children, especially at the beach, is her favourite activity. It seems creativity has definitely been passed down to them too. Her oldest son studied film and television production and his brother is studying animation (both of them also sketch), while her two daughters are still in primary school. She also confesses a love of photography, especially interesting street and city scenes, landscapes and seascapes and the abstractions of objects. And she entertains her dangerous side through skydiving, which she says she hopes to do much more of.
Then there’s also time spent teaching art classes for adults and also art and dance classes for children with special needs.
Gerda’s come a long way from drawing pictures for her classmates. One senses her journey is going to take her even further.
To view more of Gerda' artworks go to www.gerdalouw.com.