An artist’s spiritual quest
Local artist, Mollie Townsend, who turns 97 in October, is exhibiting a collection of paintings and sketches spanning a career of 70 years at the St James Retirement Hotel until Tuesday 28 August. The exhibition is called Kalahari to Cape Town and the paintings are brief glimpses of people she has met and places she has been.
“I started painting seriously in Cape Town in about 1970. My art is influenced by the British painter JMW Turner, contemporarily known as William Turner, an English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist, known for his expressive colourisation, born in 1789,” Townsend says.
“The exhibition is also a spiritual quest through the medium of painting. A seascape is not just the physical aspect of water, sky, sand and objects. It holds also the meditations of the artist about the secret life of the sea, the unknown beyond the horizon, the hidden thoughts of people once in this place, now gone, the inexorable passage of time and weather.”
Through the years she has held about 20 one-man exhibitions and participated in many group exhibitions. In Grania Ogilvie’s Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors, Townsend’s history is tabled.
Her first exhibition was held in Redhouse in 1949. She was born in Smithfield in the Free State in 1921 and on the retirement of her father went to live in Cape Town. She attended Wynberg Girls’ High School and in her matric year in 1939 had a few lessons after school from Florence Zerffi in her studio. World War II made art study overseas impossible to her and she joined the SA Nursing Service as a voluntary Red Cross nurse. She married during the war and when her husband returned in 1945 they settled in Cape Town.
They lived in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and then moved to Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) and by 1960 she was the mother of six children.
She had many requests to teach art and was invited to design the country stamps for Botswana for 1965 and 1968 and also wrote a biography about her great-grandfather, James Stewart, Royal Scottish Academician (1968, printed by the Government Printer).
On their return to South Africa in 1971 she attended Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT as a mature student, and obtained a BA (Fine Art) degree in 1975, majoring in sculpture.
Since then she has exhibited in solo and group shows locally and in Europe. In 1980 she was awarded a medal by the Federation Internationale Culturelle Feminin in Ancona, Italy, for an etching. In 2005 her book Light in False Bay was launched with an exhibition of the paintings at the Irma Stern Museum. In her book she explores the False Bay coastal region, painting and researching some elements of its history.
“I work as an impressionist and it takes about three hours for each painting and I am entirely dependent on the light. I have copied ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ in the Louvre in Paris and was given permission and monitored by Louvre authorities in 1984. I have their stamp on the back of the painting,” (which Stephen, her son, has).
“I was influenced by my study of the impressionists, their style and technique, and the trend of ‘Conceptual Art’ in the 1980s took me into the realm of symbolism.”
On her bucket list is her wish to publish her stories for children with illustrations of etchings and screen prints.
“I have travelled Europe and England to look at art and lived for two months at the Cite Internationale in Paris in 1984 in the apartment belonging to the South African Association of Arts. I have been around for a long time,” Townsend says.
Her passion outside art is her family. She has six children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She loves wine and often goes on outings to various estates to sample their wares.
Supposedly “retired” at The St James, Townsend continues to paint and create.
“The exhibition is to be an ‘ONO’ – Or Nearest Offer – exhibition. I would like the works I currently have in my storeroom to be seen, shared and enjoyed and so I am opting to consider offers from anyone who would like to own one of my works. The exhibition runs at the St James Retirement Hotel, 66 Main Road. Entry is preferably by prior appointment and I or a knowledgeable assistant will walk you through the exhibition. Alternatively enquire at the St James reception if you are in the area and we will try to accommodate you,” she says.