An artist’s life: Marlise Keith

Marlise Keith's Afrikaner Dogters Sukkel Suutjies 2007/8. Acrylic Ink and Gess on plywood. 1 x 1.50 m. Spier Collection.

THE first thing I notice about Marlise Keith, as she greets me warmly at the gate of her charming Victorian-styled Kalk Bay home and studio, is the cat that stands proudly and proprietarily at her side. As self-assured and satisfied as a doting mother, the multi-coloured tortoiseshell feline’s coat appears to have been painstakingly applied by an adoring paintbrush. Unusual and magnificent, she is surely the quintessential artist’s cat.

As if the courteous thing to do, Keith introduces us: “This is Ichabod. She took up residency here shortly after I moved in some years ago.”

With a flick of the tail, Ichabod turns and walks into the house. We follow her into the first of two rooms that serve as the 35-year-old artist’s studio. Both rooms are bursting with work in progress, materials and books. The cat leaps noisily onto a pile of bubble wrap. As if directed by our furry guide, Keith gestures in that direction, pointing to a large, unfinished charcoal self-portrait that includes an intriguingly intricate, lace-patterned cutout component.

It is a potential piece for the Association of Visual Art’s (AVA) forthcoming Candy I exhibition, where she will exhibit with Hannah Morris and Michael Taylor. The show will present an uninhibited investigation of candy – sweets, chocolate, toffees, mints and the like – and their multifarious meanings.

“When you really think about candy and what it can represent – it is used to seduce, mislead, substitute, flatter, comfort and say what you cannot – it is amazing how an innocent little treat can become so powerful,” muses Keith, giving me a glimpse of the brooding artist who, as the winner of the Sanlam Vuleka Art Competition in 2006 and a top ten finalist for the ABSA L’Atelier in 2007, is widely lauded for her ability to observe and interpret the alarming realities of the world by telling original and complex visual stories.

Her tales, told primarily in acrylic inks on paper, board and canvas, are colourful, convoluted and dreamlike. In her recent Afrikanerdogters Sukkel Suutjies (Afrikaner Daughters and Their Secret Struggle) exhibition at the Worldart Gallery in Johannesburg, Keith touched on the complexity of being what she has described as a “baster aster” (cross-bred chrysanthemum), that is “the daughter of a Scotsman and an Afrikaner woman who belongs to a breed of killer aunts”.

In 2007, Keith’s sell-out Kners (Afrikaans for grinding one’s teeth) exhibition – which was held at the AVA in Cape Town – investigated “the underlying beauty and terror of an ordinary existence and an internal narrative”. Arguably her strongest and darkest work to date, the series was inspired by recollections of a schoolgirl whose self-mutilation appeared to provide a sense of self-worth, a man who groomed himself of lice or fleas on the train, the beautiful round scull of a corpse upon which the artist stumbled, kelp that sinks or floats off Kalk Bay, and the smog over the ocean.

Although she’s firm in the belief that “happy paintings simply do not work for me”, it seems that at least part of Keith’s introspection might stem from the fact that her journey to artistic success was not an easy one. While clearly talented, a lack of schooling in art meant that the initial years of studying fine art at the University of Pretoria were very difficult – and only affordable after she’d toiled as a clerk at the then Transvaal Provincial Administration for 11 months: “Lack of funds has been a recurring nightmare in my life,” she explains, with a wry smile.

She completed her BA in Fine Art in 1995 and, following another stint of work – this time as the assistant to an interior decorator – completed a Masters in Fine Art at the University of Stellenbosch in 2002.

“The masters degree was one of the toughest things I have ever done,” she says. “During that time, I also worked at a gallery in Stellenbosch and, in my final year of postgraduate study, I taught at Rustenburg High School for Girls. I thoroughly enjoyed that – teaching your passion comes easily and I liked the fact that the more I taught, the more I learned.”

This was followed by another teaching job at a film and drama school, which lasted until 2006, when Keith decided to dedicate herself to creating art full time: “I feel so privileged. I am doing what I love, finding an emotional vehicle for my work and being creative. I am regularly surprised by the thought that people want to listen to me, to pay for my work,” she says, apparently amazed by the notion all over again.

And then, as if apologising for her joy, she waves towards an easel on which one of her student’s work rests and adds, “I do however, still offer private art lessons.”

Introspective, Keith certainly is, but despite the alarm, horror, rage, complexity, confusion, and brooding that clearly drive her, there is a playful wonderment about the young artist that is evident in her work but which is even more apparent in her person. She is smart, funny and unassuming. Too modest, in fact, by far – which might account for why cool cat Ichabod arrived and immediately assumed a management position in the studio.

(Originally published in Business Day Art in 2008.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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