SUNDAY TIMES - Cape Town's homeless artists find creativity in adversity
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Sunday Times Lifestyle By Lin Sampson, 2017-03-12 00:00:00.0

Cape Town's homeless artists find creativity in adversity

Homeless artist Yeltsin's work sell out quickly, so if you want to buy one, you have to be quick.
Image: Jorge Rubia

It's not always in galleries that you'll find a city's best art - sometimes you need look no further than the street, writes Lin Sampson

It started on Facebook. A friend wrote that he had encountered the "sculptor/woodcarver" at the corner in Vredehoek where he hangs out. I answered, perhaps provocatively, "I think calling him a sculptor/woodcarver is a step too far, even for a lefty."

This man, who I had often seen and thought crazy, as he chopped at wood with a blunt kitchen knife, turned out to have admirers.

I was thrown some major shade by the prickly and pretentious. "What would you prefer to call him, Lin?" was one response. "When was sanity a prerequisite for creative work?"

And then the voice of sanity did indeed surface. Margie Blake: "I've bought his work a few times. He is psychologically ill, but works persistently to support himself and express his creativity. His work is wonderful - it just sells so fast you have to be in the right place at the right time to buy it. I've had conversations with him and found him lovable..."

I decide to investigate. He is a familiar sight as he diligently chops wood; his cascade of braids shaking like a mop. He is always attached to a trolley piled high with pieces of scrap, old wood, metal offcuts, a broken watering can and Hello! magazines that he uses as reference.

It is true he is lovable and friendly and even trendy, dressed in cast-off Gap items. He says his name is Yeltsin, "Russian, Russian." He arranges and rearranges the white stones that mark his spot as if he is flumping up the cushions in his sitting room. He writes his name in my book in impeccable print.

A speech impediment makes him difficult to understand. It is as if he has been hurt into making art. He laughs often, throwing his head about. Once a large moth flew from his cascade of locks.

Corporate Goths lean out of cars with velvety upholstery and shout, "Hullo Michael/John/Peter." He is a man of many monikers.

He speaks in triplicate.

"Free State, Free State, Free State," he says when asked where he comes from. He has his latest bit of sculpture, not yet finished. It might be a bird or maybe an aeroplane. "Bird," he says, "bird, bird." Each word he pronounces as if it has an exclamation mark.

He does not talk about money but asked the price of a piece, he says, "Seven, seven, seven."

Sometimes people steal his work which he leaves on the side of the road when he sleeps on the verge wrapped in plastic. Once the wings of his prized eagle got torn by the wind.

Homeless artist Peter is bolshie and is fond of hats. Image: Jorge Rubia

Peter in Kloof Street is also trying his hand at painting. Peter is a more roughly hewn character than Yeltsin, who has a gentle soul.

I have seen him so many times in the street, like a bull, kicking up dust, rude and destructive, a smashed-up spliff lying on the ground.

He is bolshie and fond of hats; on wintry days he dons a knitted cap with ears. Sober or drunk, he is someone who can't be ignored and his apocalyptic presence often causes the street to erupt.

"When there's a police car in the street," says a stroller, "I know it is Peter." Before he stopped drinking he kept a store of wine in a manhole and there were petitions by residents to have him removed. Now he keeps on the sunny side of the law.

He has been on the streets for more than five years and can be as direct as the midday sun. "I have lived like a donkey," he says. "People do not know the badness of this animal life."

Homelessness requires thinking on your feet. "You see this cardboard box," he indicates, "this can be a bed, a stool, it is for use. I sleep on stones. One old cardboard box for me is alles, everything."

Peter, who until recently was a member of the pre-criminal classes, has cleaned up his act. The word has spread on Upper Kloof that "Peter no longer drinks". It is a miracle.

"When I find painting I no longer want to drink," he says. He prefers to draw small figures, most of them on skateboards. "It is what I see in the street. They are buzzing along, buzzing, like bees, some electric."

He has a new-found respect from the other homeless who live across the road, which acts as a boundary. "The man makes work," one said. "He is an artist."

So from bare beginnings, gold thread is spun from straw, with apologies to Marianne Moore.