The great Roman poet Horace once wrote that “a picture is a poem without words”.
Sitting in the milky half-light of an expiring Tuesday afternoon surrounded by countless volumes of this wordless poetry, I can feel the tectonic plates of my affected soul move under its immense, magical gravity. For no man can enter the mystical depths of an art studio and remain unchanged, and what lay ahead is not an interview, but an “adventure of [the] soul”, to paraphrase W. Somerset Maugham.
My guide on this adventure is Juanita Gous, artist and phenomenally talented proprietor of Blazoned Boon, the art studio in which I currently find myself. And it is in this safe, sacred space that Juanita will be taking people of all ages and from all backgrounds on their own journeys of discovery and self-exploration through the medium of art, bringing together her love for what Michelangelo called “a shadow of the divine perfection”, and her passion for teaching.
Who is Juanita Gous?
“I’ve always been interested in art,” says Juanita of her motivation for choosing this path for herself. “In school, I was the kid who everybody asked to do their drawings for them [in class]…the biology drawings, the geography drawings. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I couldn’t do maths [laughs]”.
Juanita cites her brother, who studied fine arts, as one of the main reasons for her deciding to pursue a career in art.
“I couldn’t believe that you could actually do that for a living! So I said to myself, hey, this sounds like a lot of fun. That’s what I’ll do”.
Determined to make art her full-time job, Juanita enrolled in the Tshwane University of Technology’s fine arts programme, and describes her time at the institution as “bohemian” and “exactly as lovely as [she] had imagined”.
“The lecturers had such a fantastic understanding for their students and, obviously, you’ve got your rules and deadlines but a big part of it was sitting under trees and exchanging philosophies with other students [laughs]”.
After a brief sabbatical, Juanita received her Diploma in Fine Arts and spent the time directly following graduation doing various freelance creative jobs, including creating backdrops for musical concerts and working as an au pair.
While art has always been Juanita’s first love, she professes a deep appreciation for the intricate workings of the human mind, an interest which eventually led the young artist to seek a qualification in the field of psychology.
“I’ve always been interested in psychology as well, [but] I could just never see myself doing it because, I was never a very good student, and I knew that path would entail a lot of studying. But something inside me changed. I was asking myself why not go for it. I eventually realised that I could actually see myself going in that direction and so I started studying Educational Psychology, and I enjoyed it so much learning about child development and, you know, the inner workings of the heart and mind.”
Despite facing a variety of challenges in her personal life, Juanita obtained her teaching qualification and worked as an educator in the Pretoria suburb of Laudium, where she was exposed to the harsh reality of poverty and poor living conditions amongst some of her students.
“It was very challenging to work with kids who have such an immense need for love and support because of their difficult circumstances. I learned a lot from that. And from myself.”
“It was emotionally too draining, being a sensitive, artistic kind of person. I left to start my own art studio. But I decided to enrol for a Pilates Instruction course instead, because I had some financial concerns”.
What made you decide to focus on art full-time?
For Juanita, the writing was on the wall and, after an ankle injury cut her Pilate’s career short, she decided to make her passion her life’s work and carve a path that would involve art on a full-time basis.
“Everybody said to me for years that this is what I was supposed to be doing [with my life]. Why is this not something that I am pursuing full-time? And one of my concerns was that starting up a business is something that takes a long time – to get a business on its feet and become financially secure. It’s a very big risk to take as some people may consider art to be a ‘nice-to-have’. Everyone wants their kids to take part in sport and school and take extra classes in maths, but people don’t realise how important doing art is”.
Juanita hastens to dispel any misconceptions that art is reserved solely for the “artistic” types, so to speak.
“Art has nothing to do with whether or not you’re an artist. It’s all in the process. I’ve seen it with myself ever since I started creating art again, it’s like I’ve come alive!”
As if to illustrate this point, Juanita’s eyes light up as she explains the cathartic nature of art.
“Obviously it’s not always happy emotionally. But, you know, when you feel uncomfortable it means that your heart has decided to throw something out there for you to deal with, which is a fantastic process. Creating art aids in dealing with strong emotions. Art heals.
I want people to come and experience what it feels like to leave your feelings on a piece of canvas”.
Blazoned Boon Art Studio
Juanita found the inspiration for the name of her art studio from a “dictionary” written by fantasy fiction author and creator of the timeless Lord of the Rings series of books, J.R.R. Tolkien.
“The name, Blazoned Boon, is all about what this studio is supposed to do for people, and when I sat down and I wrote down my vision and my mission, it all had to do with connection: connection with yourself, connection with your creative side.
“It’s also about connecting with people, because sometimes you feel so isolated that you have no idea what to do with all of your feelings and your ideas and maybe there’s something that you’ve always wanted to draw or paint but you have no idea how to do it. You might not even know why you should do it. It’s just something that you’ve been thinking about…and then you hear about this place, and there’s a safe space to do this”.
Juanita emphasises that, while she will be teaching Blazoned Boon Art Studio students the techniques needed to bring their ideas to life, it’s ultimately about the experience of connecting with that creative process.
“I was looking for a name for the studio and I absolutely love language and words, and I just started reading and browsing and I found this very, sort of, quirky dictionary by J.R.R. Tolkien and I was looking through these interesting words that are Old English and that are not used so frequently nowadays and I found blazoned, which means ‘inscribed’ or ‘painted’. And then boon means a ‘favour’ or a ‘gift’.
“When you put it together it’s painted favour, and it’s about that feeling you get when you’ve done something beautiful and you want to share it with someone. You want to gift it to someone. So, it’s about the physical work that you’re going to produce, but it’s also about having a gift; that gift of being able to produce something beautiful that you can make someone else happy with”.
What exactly does the studio offer?
According to Juanita, the studio represents a space where she will be presenting art classes to both children and adults, and helping her students to develop the skills and techniques to create their own works of art.
Juanita highlights the importance of equipping burgeoning artists with a sound theoretical framework – the why as well as the how of art – so that they are able to create with confidence and understanding.
In broad (brush)strokes, Juanita will be providing guidance on the following themes and topics:
- The colour wheel and colour relationships
- Concepts and choosing subject matter
- Value pattern
- The correct use of shadow and light (“This is paramount to the ambience in an artwork”, Juanita is quick to point out)
- Proportion and perspective
To demonstrate the concept of value pattern, which has to do with the flow of one’s eye “through” a piece of art, Juanita excitedly makes her way to one of the windows which opens onto a scene of perfect summer twilight, with rumours of a coming storm in the gathering clouds and the stifling, electric humidity. She uses her hand to guide my eye through this sublime suburban still life, and I am spellbound.
The creative process
My favourite part about interviewing creative individuals is learning about their own unique journey and process as it opens up, albeit only for a short while, a window into that divine garden that is the artistic spirit.
“It depends on what specific work I’m busy with, obviously”, says Juanita of her communion with the muses “but personality adds to whatever you do, to the whole process, to the way you do it. When I start with a painting, I must feel some kind of connection to the subject matter. Personally, it’s all about relating to what you’re looking at”.
Juanita flips to a page in one of the coffee table books that she’s brought with her to this interview, and points to an illustration of a busy marketplace.
“[This photograph] appeals to me. There’s a happy atmosphere, and it looks cosy and it looks like fun, it looks like family time. I interpret it as something that I would want to do and somewhere that I would like to be, so I could easily take this photograph and create something from this.
“Sometimes you look at something and it’s just really beautiful, and you can’t stop looking at it, and you feel like you need to create it. You just have to. And that’s how you know that you’ve found something that you should make, because it will probably be a success”.
Juanita describes her own unique style as distinctly “non-conventionalist”, and quotes her brother, Marthinus Venter, in explaining this concept:
“Non-conventionalism focuses on the feeling or emotion that arises from art and exposes the true nature of creation. The evaluation is based on the idea that the observer of such a work should personally relate to it, thus raising the level of appreciation to an experience of something unique rather than an appreciation for workmanship.”
“I consider myself to be non-conventionalist and my conceptual and contemporary work is created out of this open-minded perspective. These works are created without trying to fit them into a specific framework.”
With regards to creating abstract art, Juanita describes it as a much “rawer” process.
“I’ve got a very visual mind, and I connect colours and textures to what I’m feeling. [So] it’s usually a piece of art that will just come to life within the space of a couple of hours.
“My abstract paintings are very personal and are created with great spontaneity. Raw emotion is captured in the expressionistic marks I use. It is never meant to represent something realistic, but is created with great honesty driven by my own emotions. These images can be described as an impulsive, subconscious visualisation. Although all the pieces have my personal emotions embedded in every brush stroke, space created and colour used, they are completely open for interpretation by the observer. Because of this, none of my abstract paintings have titles.”
“I draw inspiration from beauty and emotion. Love and loss. Life. My art is always an expression of what I’m feeling – usually something that I’ve experienced. A place, a conversation, a person”.
“You will find that in each of my works there are noticeable contrasts in colour and texture. This is also true of the process of creation. My works are never planned beforehand. Still, during the process I may sometimes consciously decide to do something specific, for instance, use very intricate stencil patterns or very fine marks over something that might seem like a chaotic space. This contrast in both medium and technique has established the central theme in my abstract work. Just as I am a singular and unique person, but with conflicting emotions, so it is reflected in my work.”
Like most artists, Juanita has her own special recipe for overcoming creative blocks and getting the juices flowing again.
“I overcome creative blocks by browsing art on the Internet and I love spending time broadening my vocabulary by looking up new words and their meanings. I associate colour, shapes and textures to words and I love the way it makes me feel”
What piece of art are you most proud of, if you had to choose just one?
“I love the still life I did for my mom a couple of years ago. I felt that I succeeded in creating a tranquil work that’s pleasing to look at. I loved the tones and elements I used and the vintage feel of it.
“My favourite abstract is a space which could be under water or in the sky. I loved the colour and the way the light shines through the darkness”.
What is your greatest achievement?
Over the course of the past two hours or so, I’ve gotten to know a person who has lived many lives and who has tackled every new chapter of her incredible story with such vigour and enthusiasm that one can’t help but feel inspired.
However, I wanted to know from Juanita what she considers her single greatest accomplishment in life. I fully acknowledge the ambiguity of this question but, just as I expected, she delivers the goods.
“Are you referring to my art? If so – In my second year in art school one of my prints, a copper etch, was chosen for a TUT third year exhibition at Open Window [a renowned design school in Pretoria]. At the end of my third year some of my paintings were selected to be exhibited at the Mind’s Eye Gallery in Brooklyn. I was proud of completing my National Diploma with a distinction in the subject of Painting.
“Personally, my greatest achievement is being a single mom to my six year old son. He is absolutely incredible and I am so proud of him”.
While it is certainly true that Juanita will be equipping Blazoned Boon Art Studio students with theoretical knowledge, skills and techniques for creating works of art, she emphasises that, to her, it’s all about having fun and channelling one’s creativity in a safe, judgement-free environment.
“Children have very little inhibitions about creating art. Most of the little artists I’ve met have a gift of fearlessness when it comes to a blank canvas. I will always aim to keep it that way. I believe in searching for and helping develop your child’s own personal style. I aim to help them “sculpt” into and out of their canvas and connect with what they feel and help them to capture that impression. Having fun while gaining knowledge is what it’s all about. Your child will always be encouraged to stay positive about their creations. Making mistakes is how we learn and in this process of learning confidence is built”.
I have to return to my introductory statement about how no man can leave an art studio unchanged. And, having sat at the feet of a true master for the past two hours or so, it takes me a while to orientate myself towards my surroundings. It feels as though I have just awoken from an incredible, extremely vivid dream.
I can think of no better person to lead others on “adventures of the soul” than Juanita Gous, artist, teacher, and explorer of the magical realms of creativity.
Contact her at Juanita.firstname.lastname@example.org, and prepare for a journey unlike any other. Also be sure to check out Blazoned Boon’s Facebook page for a taste of the magic that awaits at this very special place.