My interest, and enthusiasm for portraiture, was kindled by a visit in 1956, (my final school year) to the painter Dorothy Kay in her studio in Port Elizabeth. On her easel was her portrait of ‘Cookie, Annie Mavata’ now in the Pretoria Art Museum. She spoke with such conviction about her approach, her drawing and the placing of her sitter that I was fired with ambition and resolved to attempt to carry on the tradition of portraiture. Also seen at this time were her self portraits that were painted with an assurance and style seldom seen to-day. Her daughter Joan Wright (senior lecturer at the Art School) was a central figure in my student years with the result that I was fortunate to see (1957-1960) much of the work of this remarkable lady (Dorothy Kay) and experience a little of her tantalising speech which seemed (to a student) to jump from one topic to another with alarming speed. I was also fortunate in having John Hooper ARCA as a sculpture lecturer who had a great enthusiasm for both the figure and the portrait.
With my portraits I have always tried to balance the likeness of the sitter with the plastic quality of the medium, with the overall sculptural silhouettes of the whole and with an attempt to express something of the inner character of the sitter. I have consistently avoided being bullied into making horribly smooth-skinned portraits that to my mind express only an empty superficial likeness. The impact of light on the surface of a sculpture is very important and can make or break a work. In portraiture, light on the surfaces gives life and movement to the forms. Smooth surfaces are very often needed to portray or imply a particular aspect of the character, but the forms have to be built up to smoothness, not smeared into smoothness.
Overall, it has never been my intention in portraiture to ‘challenge’ or ‘shock’ the viewer. Nor has it ever been my intention to produce superficial ‘picture’ portraits or portraits dictated by the expectations of the subject or a commissioning body. In this respect, I am probably something of a traditionalist. I have never wanted to produce the ‘heroic’ portrait or the ‘drenched in emotion’ portrait.
I think my portraits are more intimate, one on one works that need the support of an interior space or the corner of a garden room and are mostly life-size. ‘Big’ or over-life-size has never been better. Monumental needs a special vision and approach, a sculptural simplicity, to achieve a special presence otherwise an over life-size portrait remains small both visually and in spirit. With a few exceptions I have worked exclusively with clay, that is, the additive process to arrive at the final form. I enjoy finding and exploring the infinite variety found in the human facial structure and equally enjoy the plasticity of clay and the fun of developing profile upon profile to try and freeze a personal moment. The ‘fun’ of course goes hand in hand with intense concentration and unending searching. Portraits reflect a little bit of history. It has been a great privilege for me to have been able to work with many different people, mostly invited, some commissioned, mostly from life and some posthumously. All of them have touched our lives in some way, all were important in their positions at the time and many have been influential in the shaping of where we (South Africans), artists, academics, politicians, businessmen and families – are today.