Artist puts Heart into Knysna Community

Jan Raats, an artist living and working in Harbour Town, Thesen Islands, has travelled widely around the world, capturing his diverse experiences in oils on canvas, but in recent times he is becoming particularly known for his giant portraits of local Knysna characters. Firstly there’s Anton, a wheelchair-bound personality who sits outside Pick n Pay and whose forked beard has earned him a nickname, ‘The Pirate’; then there’s Donovan, recognisable to many Knysna residents as the car guard patrolling East Head Café; next is Joseph, another car guard who sees himself as a ‘jazz singer’, entertaining clients entering and leaving Nedbank. Near the Quays Waterfront, opposite Caltex Garage, is Simmi (aka Anton or Tony), who hangs out in an old cabin-style fishing boat on the shores of the Knysna Estuary.

No brushes, only fingers

Jan’s unique painting style? He wears latex surgical gloves and uses only his fingers (no brushes or palette knives, ever) to create vibrantly colourful impressionistic images, which has earned him a phalanx of international awards, especially where his portraits are concerned.

The Homeless of Knysna series of paintings (The Fisherman, Oupa, Pirate Anton, Donovan and Sinni) received Honourable Mentions from the London International Creative Competition (LICC), and again, on a separate occasion, his portraits of Sinni as well as a Zimbabwean named Earnest received Honourable Mentions from LICC.

The Light Space & Time online art gallery, based in Florida, USA, awarded an Honourable Mention to Jan’s portrait titled I’m William of yet another homeless man, and a Special Merit Award for art of outstanding quality for Joseph’s Jazz Singer portrait.

As a symbol of gratitude to these local characters for allowing him to take photographs and paint their portraits, Jan always has an A4-size canvas print made of each one, stretched over a wood frame, which he then presents as a gift to the person concerned. Jan stresses that only this print is ever made, as all his works are originals. The responses are varied and sometimes surprising. ‘Anton the Pirate was excited and visibly thrilled and moved to tears with his protrait,’ says Jan smiling. ‘Donovan, East Head’s car guard, got into the entrepreneurial spirit and had business cards made of his portrait, while Zimbabwean Earnest shipped his picture back home to his family. These people are touched that thay have been acknowledged as individuals — that someone has actually seen them, and not just looked past them’.

There was great bewilderment in young Siyolise, whom Jan met while experiencing the superb cuisine at Melvin Mene’s restaurant Shisanyama in Witlokasie. Melvin trained under Hell’s Kitchen chef, Gordon Ramsay, when he headed up the restaurant in Cape Town’s One & Only Hotel. Part of his Shisanyama dining experience is a singing and dancing routine delivered by young Xhosa girls in traditional beaded costumes; happy, laughing Siyolise was among them and her joy was soon captured in Jan’s next portrait. When he presented Siyolise with her picture, her reaction was: ‘Wha-a-a-t?! Is this really me?’ and the young girl wasn’t quite sure what to make of all the fuss.

For boat-resident Simmi, on the other hand, members of a local church group fostered much enthusiasm and pride at his portrait handover. It was the same for Oupa, who works on various building sites at The Heads. He was so animated, he invited his co-workers to Jan’s studio to see the original and witness his own picture handover, an occasion filled with much banter and photo-taking.

Many of the original portraits have gone to homes around the country. Simmi and Ernest hang in Johannesburg; Joseph the jazz singer, Siyolise, I’m William and Anton are in Knysna; Donovan hangs in Franschhoek; Oupa is far removed in Switzerland, ‘Life’s a Bitch’ is in China, while the ‘Fisherman’ hangs in France.

Visitors can watch Jan Raats at work in his studio, which has garnered mainly 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor as a Recommended Experience. Through a process of filming himself while painting by means of a series of 20-second time-lapse photographs, Jan later edits these into continuous-loop videos. This enables visitors to observe the artistic process from blank canvas to completion.

Find the studio Jandreart (the artist’s full name is Jandre) sandwiched between Dallis Smith and Katherine Wood galleries at Thesen Harbour Town,

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.