The locals in my town have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather in George, just wait ten minutes.”
Nestled between a mountain range and the south Atlantic Ocean, the city’s weather mirrors the mercurial nature and migration patterns of the denizens of the Garden Route. That’s why I did not hesitate to grab my camera in search of subjects for this Friday’s Photo Essay installment, even though a heavy gloom blanketed the sky and the tips of the jacaranda trees bowed in obedience to the whipping winds. As expected, the conditions changed as I scuttled between one location to the next. What I did not anticipate was that the story I had intended to share with you would be altered completely; but like the sun peeking through a dense fog, I’m glad to see it did.
George is an industrial city with a hippie heart. I like to think of it as a place where people have tried their hand at adulting and failed; And so, while we have all of the trappings of a big city (we are the second largest city in the Western Cape province), we have not lost our soul. Amongst the concrete car dealerships, rusting railroad tracks and bourgeoning urban decay, there is evidence of that beating heart pumping art throughout corners of the city. You just have to keep an eye out for it.
I started this photo essay thinking I would talk about the ways in which nameless, faceless artists beautify our cityscapes and public spaces in imaginative ways, but Fate saw fit to not only provide me with a name of one such artist, but to also give me the opportunity to have coffee with him. His name is Phillip Denn.
If you to head east down York Street, you will pass a collection of old Dutch-style buildings and dying oaks and eventually come upon one of the most recognizable murals in the city. The visage of a brooding man with perfectly coifed hair and a captivating stare is the perfect advertisement for both the barber shop and classic car showroom that he straddles. This is what I told Phillip when we met today.
“Your work just fits in with the environment where its placed. It’s not intrusive or out of place.”
His slate blue eyes lit up. “Thank you! That’s what I’m going for whenever I do any work. I want it to fit in – to merge with the ecosystem. It should feel like it is a part of it, like it belongs.”
Yesterday, Phillip sent me a list of some of the locations where his work is featured all over the city. He has completed commissioned pieces all over the Garden Route, as far as Port Elizabeth. In fact, it was in P.E. during lock down that he became an “overnight success” after 26 years in the visual arts game (more on that later). Some works like The Brooding Man (my name for the work, not his) are out in the open. Some are in more intimate spaces, ranging in size from miniscule and unmissable to so large that you don’t even realize it’s there. I asked him about his process. How does he manage to capture the spirit of the ecosystem in every piece? How is it that he swings and never seems to miss?
“I do a lot of listening – and observing. I talk to my clients, I pick up cues from the space(s) they’ve created for themselves. And I dream about the art. For example, one of my clients loves Turkey. That was what informed the mural I did at Kafe Serefe.”
“I got my start in the army. I had already done my national service and was going to do the army for the mandatory minimum of two years. And you know, two years in the army is not the same as in regular day-to-day life. It’s like an eternity! And they were about to send me to the border. I said, ‘hell no…’
But I kept running into these fellows who were signing up voluntarily for four year stints. So finally I asked, ‘Why would you choose to do this for four years?!’ They told me that if you opt in for four years, YOU get to choose your posting. So I went into the art department in the army. We went all over the country doing exhibitions. That’s where I got my start.”
Phillip has been involved in art in various capacities for 43 years. Between 1990-95 he taught graphic design, figure and perspective drawing and technique at the Joburg Art Foundation.
He admits that he was “crap at school”, but was fortunate to get enrolled into a visual arts program for standard 9 and 10. I shared that my daughter also struggles with academics and is a fantastic artist as well.
“Or at least I think she is,” I stress. “But I’m mom, so I think everything she does is brilliant.”
Phillip laughs at this and recounts something that his professor said on the first day of class: “In order to be a true artist, you cant just be good: You have to be damn good…at everything. And remember, your mom doesn’t know the first thing about art!”
(Phillips mother is actually an incredible artist herself and provided him with a strong foundation for his craft.)
Eventually, our conversation turned to notoriety. He shared how his life has changed in the last year.
“You know, I’ve lived between George, Cape Town and Wilderness over the years, but had never been to P.E. (Port Elizabeth). I’ve been talking about going for years. Eventually a buddy of mine told me just to get on with it…so I did. I was only supposed to be there for a few weeks. I took my brushes, canvas and paint with me, and thank goodness I did! That’s what sustained me.
I met a guy who has been wanting to do a rock star series – Jagger and the like – and every time I would complete a portrait, he would drop money into my account. When the series is done, he wants to put on an exhibition of my work.”
That relationship generated a snowball effect. Whereas Phillip had spent the last 26 years as the proverbial starving artist, he is now inundated with work – much of it exciting and meaningful. Among his many upcoming projects is a mural restoration in a swanky Fancourt home and a huge installation in PE.
I wanted to know about vanity. A number of his murals only survive in photographs, due to demolition, a change in management/branding or a company going out of business. How did that make him feel, to see his art disappear?
“I see it as opportunity,” he smiled.
There is a lesson in that: About the fleeting nature of beauty. About releasing the old and making space for the future. About not being so beholden to your successes in the past that you cannot give yourself room to grow into new potential.
I was not expecting this reply. Artists are usually so precious about their work, obsessed with its longevity and constancy. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own creative philosophy.
Our hour soon came to an end and I parted refreshed by Phillip’s company and buoyed by his optimism. I hope this essay inspires in you the same enthusiasm that Phillip Denn and the other unnamed artists’ works wakes in me.