Stretch, Prime, Sand, Create – Life as an Artist 
with Caelyn Robertson

Aug 1, 2020

Interviews & inspiration | Shankar Puri

Load shedding: A term coined by the South African government, where the country’s electricity is turned off for a certain time every day to save power consumption. My interview with Caelyn happened to be at a time during loadshedding and it caused delays. Traffic lights were out and cars were in long, arduous queues.

Stretch, Prime, Sand, Repeat – Life as an Artist 
with Caelyn Robertson
Image Credit to: Caelyn Robertson

I dropped Caelyn a voice note to tell her that I was running late. I hid my frustration at the traffic and the heat as best as I could. She replied, she’s also stuck in traffic and running late. Except her voice note is layered with laughter, had a relaxed and playful melody to it and immediately I got the sense that this is an artist who takes life in her stride.

We met outside the Art@Africa Gallery, the gallery she had recently signed to, in Cape Town’s famous V & A Waterfront. It’s March, nearing the end of the Summer season but the heat is still cruel. The abundance of tourists enjoying ice-creams and snapping up holiday pictures is a reflection of just how popular this part of Cape Town is.

We took at our seats at the restaurant opposite the gallery. Caelyn Robertson, 29 years of age and from Cape Town, holding a smoothie she had bought beforehand, ordered hot water and lemon. “I’m in that awkward place where I’m full from this smoothie but because it’s morning, I should be ordering a hot drink.” She’s ebullient, content and self-assured in a non-threatening way.

I started by sharing an anecdote about how my Indian mum drinks hot water and lemon for digestion and this immediately opens up our discussion about her travels to India, in 2011, at the tender age of 21. Why India, I asked her? “Third world travel intrigued me more than heading to Europe. I didn’t want a city life. I wanted something tropical, beaches, rough jungle, rural living. I started off in Kochi, then Tamil Nadu and then did all the South.”

Being Indian myself and having traveled there often, I was overcome with morbid curiosity and asked a question, desperately wanting a more positive answer. “My boyfriend at the time met me there. The two of us together, it was like we were celebrities. We would be on the beach [people would ask], can I have a picture with you, which was fine at first but then there was the gawking, looking at you, everyone wanting to make money off of you…it was very draining.”

“When I was there by myself, the night [my boyfriend] left, the next night in fact, both guys who owned the backpackers that we stayed in, took me on their tuktuk, took me to a quiet place, tried to touch me. I managed to get out of it but the next night, the other guy, who had a girlfriend, took me up to the rooftop and tried to kiss me, do things.” Hearing this a drastic thought screamed out in my mind: this happens to more women and girls then we get to know about. Why are these incidences swallowed up by the mundanity of every day? How can we give a voice to every female affected, a voice that we all truly listen to and believe?

I tried to detect a kind of hatred towards the people based on her experience, but I did not find it. Instead, her voice as she spoke, was one of understanding. “I think, in their mind, they think European people are free like this and this is what they do. Indian men told me that other Indian men don’t know what happens outside of India. What they know is what they see in movies, so they think this is what European women do.” This is Caelyn trying to find meaning in her experience to give the local people that abused her the benefit of the doubt.

But these were guys she trusted, guys who had met her boyfriend, understood that she was with someone and yet they still tried to take advantage of her. One of them even had a girlfriend. “I lost trust. I completely lost all trust in all men. [I remember thinking] I don’t feel comfortable here. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.”

But there was hope: A friend that she had made at another backpackers, a man, reached out to her as he so regularly did during her stay in India, to find out if everything was OK. He invited her for dinner only to hear her resist. After much persuading, she met him and, in her words, he was her “saving grace”, letting her stay at his backpackers, empathising with her situation and rebuilding her trust in people.

How does a 21-year-old decide to travel India? It’s a country crammed with unknowns, the sheer volume of people making it hard to find moments of clarity. To navigate that world, alone, without the guidance of parental wisdom was something I profoundly respected. “Israel is where it started,” continued Caelyn. “In 2009, I was 19 years old. [It was the] first time of leaving my parents’ roof, leaving school, leaving my job, me, by myself experiencing what life was really. I volunteered at a Kibbutz and I met all kinds of different people from different strokes.”

To fund her trip to Israel, Caelyn took a job at an advertising and marketing agency and earned a good amount of money. They offered her a long term position but she was “so stuck on traveling” that she turned it down. “I’m definitely going,” she said of this defining moment in her life. “This is what I have been working towards, this is what I want to do. My life would have turned out differently had I [taken the job]. It was hard for my family. They were like, look at this opportunity that you are turning down. It’s a mad opportunity!”

To make such a pivotal decision at the tender age of 19, when it seemed as though her parents desired something different, is the first piece of the puzzle that is Caelyn Robertson and a major one at that. As a painter and as a person, she is in control. When she stands in front of the canvas, paintbrush in hand, it is clear that she makes the decisions. “I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve had many discussions with my friends because they are not in the struggle I am in now. What if I took that job?”

But she didn’t. And she flew to Israel to volunteer at a Kibbutz. “I worked in a kitchen there, which is what got me into cooking now. Cooking is a thing! If my art was to ever fail I might think about doing that [cooking]. I was [with a team of other volunteers] feeding 800 people.” I asked her about the kinds of things she had to help prepare. “Ox tongue! Tongues were brought out, whole tongues. [We] had to peel the skin off the tongue. Tongues have taste buds and some have blisters so when you would peel the skin off they would pop all over the place.” After wincing at the thought, I asked her if she felt stress in these situations. “I don’t think you can feel stress at 19.”

We were interrupted here by the waiter needing to take our drinks order. We kept it simple, another coffee for me and more water for her. Then we talked about the immortality we feel as youngsters. We can live in the present a lot easier at a young age, handling the speed at which it comes towards us because we ourselves are full of energy. Caelyn at school, consumed junk food without a second thought, bunked off, missed class, smoked cigarettes - all things I did as well. All because the future was just something you’d hear about on TV or read about in books.

“I hated school. I was never really there. I did art and design but I was always bunking and didn’t take my art seriously. My teacher got annoyed at me because I was really talented. My mum reminded me of this the other day that when I was leaving school my art teacher said that this [art] is something you actually have to do. So, school was just Caelyn good at art. I didn’t know what I was going to do after school. I was going to figure it afterwards but I knew I wanted to travel. My plan was to always have one gap year and then I’m going to come home and figure out what to do. That was genuine. I really did think that was going to happen but then, I kept traveling.”

Upon reflection, it is hard for youngsters to see beyond what is immediately in front of them. The malleable mind is present, consuming life at a rapid pace. “I’m scared of most things these days though! You get more fearful the older you get.” She laughed her signature laugh, “like dark water! I realised this the other day.” But not at 19. Fear for Caelyn seemed more of a motivator. The unknown for some would have scared them away but for Caelyn, it beckoned her.

She taught me more about her time in the Kibbutz and her encounters with the Israeli people: “People were amazing. Loved the people. Women, extremely sexy. Walking around with a gun, all hardcore and tomboyish but very lovely, down to earth people. Initially, you could find them rude, brash and in your face, to the point where I would think ‘what am I doing with these people!’ But that is just how they are, gregarious people. I would notice people going out of their way to help me.” The knowledge I gained from hearing Caelyn speak was that this was a person with spherical vision who can see the world’s many truths, who can learn from it and who can empathise to welcome new people instead of closing them off with misconceptions.

And that all falls into place when you’re staring up at a one metre by one metre Caelyn portrait, (“It’s always been people, that’s always been a thing”) seeing truth in the subject’s eyes, a timeline of emotions felt in each brushstroke that paints the nose, the cheeks, the lips and the look. It’s all there for the admirer to see in the faces she paints because she herself has seen it. “Portraits are tough but, I like it that way! And I can’t help it, as it is something that I want to do.” And I understood why. Her encounters aboard triggered an intrigue. In one of her ‘Artist’s Inspiration’ summary about her series ‘The Paradox of Hue’, portraits of women, Caelyn wrote: ‘We as human beings are all made up of contradictory combinations of appearance and qualities, strengths and weakness, emotion and intellect.’

Stretch, Prime, Sand, Repeat – Life as an Artist 
with Caelyn Robertson
Image Credit to: Caelyn Robertson

When Caelyn returned from Israel, she recalls her first taste of being an artist. “My sister also does portraits. She does charcoal drawings and a commission was given to her but she just never followed through with it. She didn’t know what to do or was scared of having to start a blank canvas and then having to finish it. When I came back [from traveling], the canvas was still here, so I told her that I am going to use it because I had just gotten back and now didn’t know what to do. So, I saw a picture I liked and I started painting. It was through that picture that I got the exhibition. I did 8 paintings and I sold all of them. And that is what made me think, I can do this thing!”

Those 8 paintings, Caelyn admitted, sold for a lot less then what they should have. “But, obviously, me not understanding what I was doing, sold them for next to nothing. At the time, I wasn’t thinking that because for me, it was still a lot of money and I thought, this is amazing. So I started off backwards. I feel that if I started off with the struggle, I might not have done this but it gave me a huge boost just to keep going. Through that, I got commissions and I was selling pieces.”

Caelyn was honest, credited her entry into the art world off the back of the instant success with her early works and admitted that it could have turned out differently had they not sold. We agreed that to paint well is to have a very personal connection with the canvas, so you leave a lot of yourself as person for all to see. Your vulnerability has permanence the minute the paint dries and should you not sell anything, you take it as personally as what you have just painted.

We go back to her childhood and it’s her mother to whom she recognised as the one who connected her to art and creativity at an early age. “My mum is a fine artist by trade. She sat with us day in and day out drawing. We still have all of our scrapbooks from how she would teach us to draw. We would just sit and draw with her.” And it is her family support that Caelyn acknowledged as her motivation to keep going in such a challenging industry. She was never pushed in a direction they wanted but rather guided as she took the path she felt was right. “I wanted to travel [after school] and the way I was going to do that was by doing commissions and making enough money to travel. I was choosing freedom as supposed to putting me into something that I wasn’t necessarily ready for.” It was through this guidance and space for self-exploration that Caelyn got the chance to travel, instead of being forced into some other job and some other career.

It’s an exploration into how important the twenties are for us, how confusing and overwhelming they can be. But for Caelyn, who was “headstrong” as told to her by her parents was “working towards the way I wanted my life to be” a life of travel and adventure and as a result, found herself, in the last year of her twenties, as a full-time artist. There was no desire to go to University or settle down into her first paid role. There was only travel. And in 2011, after selling those 8 paintings, there was India.

Caelyn’s experiences in India deserve an article dedicated to that and only that, they were so diverse and interesting but it was one anecdote that stood out the most: “I was running low on money but I wanted to keep moving, so I was this small girl with a backpack that was bigger than me and I didn’t even take a tuktuk, refusing to be cheated out of even one rand (which was 10 cents), so I walked myself broken. I stayed in some filthy joints because the further south you went the more expensive it was getting, which I couldn’t afford. Then my mum came out for my 21st birthday.

“When I fetched her from the airport, I had a friend who drove us and on the way back we were trying to find us a place to stay. Either I am not happy with the price or my mum is not happy with how dirty it is and I would argue, ‘Mum, stop being like this, things are a little dirtier in India. After the fifth place, I said, this is the place and so we stayed there but she was still disgusted by small things like dirty finger marks on the wall.

“My mum was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, so her coming to India was an eye opener. I was working at an orphanage for kids with aids as a volunteer at the time. We were invited to eat lunch at the orphanage by the lady who runs it. Now, this is my mum’s first experience at lunch outside of a restaurant. The lady comes out with the rice and dishes it up with her hands and then she dishes up the chicken, with her hands and my mum is sitting there saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ So I get up and quickly shove a piece of chicken in her face before running off to the bathroom. When I came back, my mum was eating the food and she was like ‘that chicken was pretty damn good!’

“I was telling her you can’t judge these people, this is how they live and this is how they do it, so just trust. She said to her friend when she got home that she saw Jesus in me. I was accepting of all these people because that is kind of how you have to be when you travel. That is the most special thing my mum has said about me. After she ate that chicken, then she really got into the swing of things.”

Part II of Shankar Puri's interview with Caelyn Robertson

Caelyn painted in India, having realised her potential back home in South Africa, selling the 8 pieces to fund the trip. Her most memorable being a huge mural she painted on the wall of one of the farms she volunteered at - an early experience of leaving her mark on the world. When she returned home from India, the need to travel didn’t stop. Her boyfriend at the time was from Sweden and so she visited the country on occasion, seeing the harsh contrasts between first and third world.

“It was amazing for me to watch. [There were] plug points on the train, free WiFi on the train. You could just buy your groceries [at the shop] and you don’t even have to deal with a cashier; you scan it yourself put it in your bag and leave. I was just blown away but then I was like ‘no human contact? Don’t like this at all.’ I want to go and buy a ticket to where I need to go and then talk to the person about it so I know that I am going to the right place. There were pros to it, it was very easy for example but I just felt very by myself there.”

This experience was amplified by the extremity of visiting India before Sweden, a country overrun with people, human contact and a friendliness that has the locals wanting to connect with you all the time. And we spoke of these moments in Caelyn’s life because it were these experiences that coarse through her as she paints. “Yes, I often see the people I have met when I am painting, even though I am painting subjects on a photograph.”

The other reason to this, which I picked up between the lines she spoke, to her feeling a degree of loneliness in Sweden, a first world country that seemingly promotes independence but can cause solitude was that Caelyn is a very social person. “I love to laugh! I laugh at silly things. My sister laughs more than me. I think we were just raised that way. My dad loves to laugh. My dad, sister and I have a silly sense of humour and so, laughter is very important. I laugh with everybody.” To love to laugh is to love to be in company. Because it is in company that we can share conversation and coax humour out of the spoken words, something Caelyn was obviously very good at.

In fact, this was the part that we laughed the most, as our conversation had led us further away from the art almost forgetting that Caelyn Robertson is actually an artist and we should be discussing that. She did exhibitions in Sweden and gained more confidence within herself as the art world began opening itself up to her. But a moment in 2012 proved to be pivotal and had Caelyn put down her paintbrush and almost pack up my studio. “I say almost because I didn’t throw anything away, so maybe in my mind I knew I was coming back and it ended up only being a few months off.”

It was a moment of rejection, of being told she would become ‘a Sunday painter at best’, a moment where not only was her work, her talent, her concept and her ability to story tell criticised but so was her mum’s. Caelyn was told by a gallery owner that a Fine Art School called Michaelis was the only place to go to study if she wanted to be a professional fine artist because places like Ruth Prowse had never produced anyone with real talent. By her side stood her mum, unbeknownst to the gallery owner, a Fine Artist graduate of Ruth Prowse.

Caelyn recalled the drive home and the emotions she felt that had her walk away from the canvas. To those reading this, the rejection might seem trivial and something that Caelyn should have easily overcome. However, I felt it when we spoke because Caelyn is a passionate painter, a self confessed perfectionist and someone whose emotions are clearly in every strand of the paint brush she holds. “I just walked into the gallery the other day to drop off the other ones and I said to Nadine (Art@Africa’s curator), ‘just feel free to take that painting off the wall’. I wanted her to give it back to me so I could paint over it. I don’t know if it’s because I looked at it for so long and I just got sick of looking at it or did I ever like it? Was I ever happy with it? But then I look at some and I love it.”

She admitted that the fine balance between starting over and walking away satisfied is one that has her toppling over most of the time, leaving her frustrated. But that frustration doesn’t defeat her. “My frustration can make me push through it and I can make it work and I will see the light.” Of course she has this ability to fight away the inner doubt. I cast my mind back to her anecdote of walking the streets of India, low on money and hungry but determined to keep going, to make the experience work, to see the light in the darkness that India had cast. A challenge, for Caelyn, satiates her creative soul. Painting water was an example of this.

“I came up with the water project because I was fascinated with water. I often find myself staring at water, catching the light. I got myself an underwater camera and I’ve seen artists paint water and I thought that was a mad thing to do so, it was me trying to challenge myself.” In her Artist’s Inspiration, Caelyn wrote: ‘Ebb and flow is a recurrent or rhythmical pattern of coming and going or decline and regrowth. This term can be applied to all parts of our lives. This phrase, to me, is life in itself, explained.’ To be able to speak of this relationship we have with water comes from her approach to the world around her. During her travels, her willingness to flow with the new cultures she was immersed in became integral to her own growth and gifted her with the ability to communicate that through her water series.

‘Through painting people, in this project, I hoped to capture what lies beneath the person’s physical vessel. The ebb and flow of one’s soul navigating their way through life. There are those in life who swim, those who float and those who drown.’ The water series was by far a favourite of mine - a combination of her drive to tackle a challenge and her malleable nature when surrounded by the unknown, flowing with the natural currents.

Caelyn signed with the Art@Africa gallery towards the end of last year and it was a decision she recalls as being one of the best she’s ever made. The team have welcomed her as if she were family and she lights up as she speaks of the individual attention she has been getting, in the form of solo exhibitions and artistic advice. This led me to ask her about the advice she would give others now that she was a full time artist and she started with joke: “Don’t do it!” We laughed but the joke was because it is an extremely tough industry. “It’s hard, but if you want to do it, just do it! And keep doing it also, as tough as it has been for men, I am happy that I have kept doing it because if I didn’t and I got another job then art was just going to be hobby that I do every now and again and I don’t want that for myself. I have met so many older people who have said, ‘Wow, I was an artist once but I gave it up because it didn’t pay.’ Which I do get but I am really happy I kept doing it and I am doing it.”

It’s clears she is an artist of little regrets but I asked her in that moment if she regretted not going to University to study art. “I don’t regret that I didn’t study at all. But I would say to others wanting to become an artist to do short workshops so that you can grow and you can learn from people. It also allows you to be open to criticism from the get go. But you have to be able to learn from someone. Do your own thing. If you have something to say, say it. If you don’t and you want to play around with paint or materials and you are just creative with your hands then do that. Go do courses and find out interesting ways to do that. Express yourself in as many ways possible.”

There was a point in the interview where we discussed the process of starting a painting. Caelyn talked of the first steps that are taken before you even put paintbrush to canvas. The first step is to stretch out the canvas material. Then, you get to work priming it, preparing it to be receptive to the paint. Then, when it dries, you sand it down to give it a smoothness that will help with your desired textures and materials. Finally, you create. In the car on the way home from the interview, I thought about that process and how it could be applied to her life. She stretched herself out over the world by travelling, primed it with her perceptions and experiences, sanded it down until it was something she could understand. Now, here she was. 29 years old. Signed with Art@Africa. A full time artist. Ready to create.