UNESCO x Radmer Lenasch

Q: Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Durban, South Africa at 11:00am on the 6th of August 1976, 2 weeks after the Soweto Riots began. Needless to say, my mother as a single parent of 2 kids had a tough time bringing up her boys, never mind that it was a very volatile political climate. South Africa was under the influence of apartheid throughout my youth. There was very little encouragement for the arts in school. Like many, I was pressured into becoming the conventional, strong, Rugby playing, alpha white male archetype. While I could play the sports well, my first love, my first real connection was with the ocean and surfing. Seen as an outsider kind of sport back then, surfing became a way for me to be expressive and separate myself from a system I didn’t believe in. My real schooling was done in nature. It was only once I turned 22, when I left South Africa for England, that I discovered that every bone in my body was creative and that my life, my religion, my self-worth, and my identity was for me to determine if I chose to do so.

For years I traveled, doing all sorts of jobs throughout Europe and Asia. As a surfer, it was not easy to be away from the ocean for very long. I missed the water terribly and I tried to distract myself. I remember being landlocked in a town called Romsey, Southern England in 1999 when I picked up a pencil and started drawing properly for the first time. I was 22. The drawing was a little more than a doodle, but it felt like a profound breakthrough — like remembering that I could speak a whole other language I had forgotten about.

So, with pencil and paper and a little watercolor set, I traveled, taught English, surfed, and painted for many years. Different cultures and countries influenced my work, but with travel you don’t always have the space to create. It was only when I started painting with oil on canvas, years later that I realized I would have to slow down and create my own space. By then drawing and painting had become my way of storytelling. I also wrote a lot creatively during this time, and when I was not satisfied with how words worked, I moved on to the easel.

The stories I was telling in my paintings were reflections of my life experiences set with the back drop of some natural weaves or patterns. Over time I noticed how I was most interested in the movement in a piece, and how everything in a painting came together like the flow as I witnessed in nature. The content became whatever I was experiencing subconsciously in a moment at the canvas, but most of my attention was on movement and energy. I found and still find painting water, specifically waves, is my greatest passion. I have harvested the study of my life’s connection to the ocean to give me my brush strokes.

In 2002 I moved to Wonju City in South Korea to teach English. It was my first experience of a culture with a strong sense of national pride and unity. It was in stark contrast to South Africa. At this point I began my inner journey in Ernst. I used paint, pencil, creative writing, and music to help me understand a lot of those big early questions in my life. My artistry blossomed in Korea. I was deeply hungry to delve deeper.

Q: During your time in Korea, you say that you discovered further your ‘awakening’ for art. Can you explain in more detail about what happened/your thoughts/lessons learned and emotions at the time?

Radmer: When I first moved to Korea, the most notable observation I had was witnessing a culture with a strong sense of social identity for the first time. The Korean people had gone through a lot together and there was no doubt about what defined them as a culture. Nowhere else had I experienced such unity among people with regard to what they ate, and how they behaved, and even dressed. Coming from South Africa, you could imagine the shock was quiet intense. I did not see many other foreigners in those first experiences of Korea. So I guess I did stick out and that was challenging for all my life I had avoided attention. There was no way I wouldn’t be noticed in Korea with my blond hair and blue eyes, I would walk down the street and heads turned. This was a first for me. Yes, many Koreans had had the opportunity for interaction with foreigners, but it was usually only with US soldiers. There I was, 24, teaching English in Wonju Si, Gangwondo, 2002, the year S.Korea and Japan jointly hosted the Soccer World Cup. That year, I was asked to wear the traditional ‘Hanbok’ which I came to love. I had a grey and blue one and a brown one which I alternated for a solid working year, everyday. So everything changed, everything was new to me. It was a 100 % culturally immersive experience and I think feeling like an outsider gave me passport to start asking myself who was I creating. There was freedom because I didn’t have to try fit in. I knew I would never fit in and that acceptance made room for me to become more honest with myself.

Painting on Durban Beach — 2017

Q: How did your time in Korea influence yourself and your work?

So I guess I would say that I learned a little more respect for humanity watching how Koreans behaved. Yes, there was culture shock, but it made me want to learn more about the culture and maybe understand what it was to belong to something. I was hungry to leave my youth behind and Korea felt like an old teacher to me, coming back into my life. In solitary walks in the mountains, I started delving deeper and very quickly after the uncovering the first few layers of my identity as an outsider, I discovered there my true core urge was to create, to paint, or sing or write. It had to be. It was obvious that I spent a lot of time in Korea healing which eventually led to an opening of my heart. Inside, through my first delving into meditation, I found a wellspring of creative energy that took over from there. I started looking at art more and because I was in Korea, it was the paintings on temples, the glazing on pottery, the metallurgy of giant ancient bells, the groomed gardens and the up most respect around food, that made me want to be more. The mastery I saw in Korean woodwork and embroidery suggested that there were thousands of hours behind the work yes, but also thousands of years of teachers passing on well oiled knowledge, skill, and tradition. I saw my situation in contrast and it felt clear that I needed to start somewhere. I felt an urgency to find myself. Then Korea showed me that mastery is an offering given with your attention over many years, and I started to relax into it and take on my life with more integrity.

On my walks I often came across older woman painting with water colors. On closer inspection I saw them using a stone like pallet to grind another stone into sediment, to make black pigment. I was fascinated by this stuff and its scent was divine. I soon bought the tools to paint with what I came to know as ‘Moh’. Most of the Watercolor paintings I did in those times were black and white doodles, but I did start looking deeper into the natural world with black and white, I found it to be a challenging and very absolute means of reflecting nature’s patterns. I feel this gave me a foundation for what came next when I started to think about colour.

AGR in Jeju

Question: did you ever miss home?

Between contracts I would take small trips back to South Africa to see my family. A lot had changed in the country in my time away. Mandela had come and gone and there was general awakening to the horrors of the past. In 2007 I bought a small house on the coast that I loved, and it was there that I first experimented with bigger canvases. I started painting seriously from then on.

After many paintings I was becoming more and more certain that the visual arts were where I wanted to dedicate all my attention. Not because of the paintings I was producing, but rather the creative act itself made me feel like I was using my time in the most meaningful way. Being in my creative process has become a source of energy for me, I feel more vital when I am painting.

Now I realize that each art work is a journey where we get to harvest the most profound phenomena and perspectives of our existence. Art makes me excited to be alive and I became curious about how other artists thought and felt from their creative acts.

AGR Durban, First Day in the Studio

Q: How did you start your Art Go Round project?

In 2014 while still teaching full-time and painting part-time, I had a strong urge to collaborate with other artists. I wanted the canvas to work harder than just for one man or woman. I began studying the creative process of individuals and encouraged collaborative painting where ever I could. I discovered, just like in the improvisation that happens in Jazz, painting together, side by side on one canvas, artists have to respond to each other. In doing so, they have to work out of their normal creative process as individuals, put that aside and still be creative. It was like a new creative energy was unveiled for me while conceptualizing, composing, and painting with other artists. It was an energy that my wife, Tatum Robinson and I began to call a Collective Creative Consciousness. We used this awareness to start a project called Art-Go-Round (AGR) in 2014 on the island of Jeju Do, South Korea.

Q: Can you tell us a favorite or cherished memory from Art Go Round?

I once watched a fellow artist come out of a dormant period and grow with vitality right in front of my eyes, while we painted together and shared our creative energy. I watched art take a man who had nothing and give him all the power in the world by just putting a brush in his hand. Through Public Canvases, painting with hundreds, I have seen many people react with pure wonder and joy, with sadness and insecurity, with curiosity and resolve. Often times there is disbelief when told that anyone can paint and that it was free to participate. I see that as a highlight or great achievement of AGR. And yes every time we sell a public canvas there is a nod given in the direction of collaborative art. That is a big thing for me, it is an endorsement for more people opening up, and waking up creatively.

My wife and I once put on an Art-Go-Round event and exhibition in a small sea-side town of Varkala, India. We were on vacation and knew nobody in the middle of the monsoon period. But we decided to do some painting and put on an AGR event, and we did it with style, from start to finish. From sourcing and meeting local artists, to hunting down canvas and art supplies, painting our own contributions to the event and still planning and promoting it. We did it well, being creative with language barriers as well. We eventually exhibited 30 paintings of 5 local artists including my wife and I. As well as the exhibition, we did a live painting event with 5 artists rotating on 5 canvases in a yoga hall. The local community turned it into a big event. We had T.V. crews doing interviews and artists painting in front of an audience.

It was a simple but heartfelt event, well received in a beautiful rural part of Southern India. I sat thinking at the after party, surrounded by all those smiling faces, that the whole experience happened over the very short period of 2 months. 2 months before that, I would meet all of them for the first time. Neither my wife nor I imagined we would produce 6 original pieces of our own art and we would have a life changing time doing it.

Q: That sounds amazing! What lessons stuck with you from this experience?

It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short period of time. The connections made. The journeys within the journey. I sold two paintings at the exhibition, not for very much money, but they covered the expenses for most of the event. It made me realize the alchemy of all things.

Subsequently over the years while still producing my own art, AGR has explored creative collaboration everywhere it could from South Korea to India, and then back home to Durban, South Africa. Alongside working with professional artists, we started working with the general public and doing what is now known as our Public Canvas Project. AGR simply puts professional artists and a large pop-up canvas into a public space and encourages anyone to paint. We have done festivals and events where we have had hundreds of public participants painting alongside professional artists. Currently we are developing a Community Canvas Project where we do the same thing but with smaller groups, all overseen by our AGR team of local artists.

Living back in South Africa, I have come to see how my creative process is a way of helping to shape the country that I want to live in. I’ve noticed how I enjoy collaboration because I get to see how art unlocks and unites people. And in our current times we need more examples of ways for humanity to interact in a non-consumerist context. I believe we are all artists waking up to the fact that creativity is our true power, and we need to live in a world where there is more awareness given to it because it benefits us on all levels that cannot be measured just materially.

Radmer and his wife, Tatum — 2016

Q: What impact/responsibility does creativity have in our societies?

When I see true art, I am moved for many reasons. Paintings always drew my attention because they often made me question who I was. Art has this common effect on humans. Either way, whatever makes us look at our world more can only be seen as a positive effect in my opinion. Looking through the layers of paint on canvas has inspired me to walk my own path with more respect and integrity. I feel I must encourage others to create so they may also benefit. And what, you might ask, is the biggest benefit?

Well walking in a forest, or swimming in the ocean or even walking down the street, every time I see something that moves me, I see a chance to acknowledge the wonder of all the variables in their free dance called existence. For me this is the greatest gift of the visual arts: They make us more present in our lives by opening our hearts, minds, and eyes.

Danu, 2016

Q: Thank you very much for sharing your story with us.

Peace be your journey.

Thank you very much Ladmer for sharing your personal story with us.

You can see more of Ladmer’s work here.