A Steenbok is a small antelope found in Southern Africa. And a pan is a pan. (A small body of seasonal water.) The name of our village was Steenbokpan and we were the proud owners of the first Post Box in Steenbokpan. Mailing a letter to us would be addressed to: P O Box 1, Steenbokpan. We had only 80 children in the school and went to school barefoot growing up. This was the real bushveld with all its colorful people. My great grandmother was the first white lady to settle in that part of the world. My Grandfather had a model T-Ford and it took them 2 days to ride to Pretoria on small dirt roads.
We had 16 km of border on the Limpopo river. It was a huge farm! And this was our playground growing up. What a privilege!
I grew up here and this is where I settled after my studies. Yes, I still want to write about my studies but that will come after this reminiscence.
My house was a mere 300 meters from the border of South Africa in the wild bushveld where leopards still roamed. After my disastrous first attempts to build kilns, I sat down with my books again and read up on how to build a proper kiln. Remember that I am 350 km from my nearest ceramic suppliers and this time I endeavored to get proper heat resistant bricks. I had a book by Frederik K Olsen called the Kiln book. And this was my kiln reference. I was now so scared of collapsing roofs that I decided to build a Catenary arch kiln. This is how the principle works. You take a long chain. Place it against a large board by hanging it upside down. Then you spraypaint the chain and ‘voila’ you have this pretty curve against the wood. Cut out the curve and build your kiln roof in that shape. The weight will go towards the spot where your two chain ends were and that is now the base of each wall. Just make sure that the wall is well supported at the base I was told. Simple!
Can you believe it, it actually worked? We built our walls from lightweight bricks by shaping each brick to interlock with the next one on the arch. This took forever. Once the roof is built you drop your arch one inch and now the roof has to be self-supportive. This was a scary moment. What if the roof collapses in the end, I asked. Then all our shaping of every brick would have been for naught. But it worked. I then covered the bricks with a layer of ceramic wool and fine chicken wire and then rendered all of this with cement. I now had a properly insulated kiln. I then needed a good chimney for a proper draft of hot air through the kiln. This is a science in itself that I will not bore you with.
My Dad still supported me, bless his soul. He kept on supporting me until I got married. That is another story worth telling. My Dad gave me R500 (about $30) a month. I paid two workers with that money and bought my kiln fuel and groceries with that money. I never had any money but never lacked. My Dad also became my best customer. I had to just let them know when we were unpacking the kiln. Obviously he had the best collection of Gerdus Bronn pots. I wanted to make pots that reflected my heritage and so I painted birds and animals on the pots. I experimented with ash from different woods added to my glazes to make earthy glazes. They did not always work but I kept on experimenting with a few basic materials. I always liked big and bold and finally ended up with pots that measured over 1 meter wide and tall. This was the largest pots I was able to make that would fit into my kiln. To me big was always better.
We contacted someone who knew a producer of art programs for a program on the South African Broadcasting Commission called Uit en Tuis. (Outside and in the House). His name is Laurens Barnard. He drove out to the farm to make a program about my pots and that was the launch of my notoriety. A week after the program was aired I was contacted by galleries and shopkeepers who wanted Gerdus Bronn pots. Those were the better old days. It was still damn hard work, blood sweat, and tears. We were still 350 km from our market and that lead to us moving right up to the metropolis where we were on the doorstep of our market. I keep that story for our next blog.
Please tell me about your struggles as an upcoming artist.