Artist Trevor Coleman proves success can come at any age
Trevor Coleman has struggled all his life to get people to understand his art. There have been successes and rejections. Now, at 78, he might finally be getting his due, writes Oliver Roberts This is how you want an artist to live: Trevor Coleman's flat-slash-studio is in a 1930s Art Deco building off Louis Botha Avenue, Houghton. The elevator has one of those wood and frosted glass doors that you have to manually open when the elevator arrives. There must have been a time when a bellboy did that for you. The lift smells of floor cleaner and the scent of 80 or so years' worth of humans coming and going, and coming and going."There's Kitchener's HQ," Coleman says, pointing to a neighbouring building. "Gandhi lived down over there, and Mandela there, down the road."It's got one bedroom, a bathroom, a little kitchen, a lounge and then a narrowish passage along big windows. The part with the narrowish passage and the windows is what Coleman calls his studio.story_article_left1"Wonderful light," he says. "Here I work. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha1."But the whole apartment is really his studio. Paintings are stacked against every available wall. The bedroom is not a bedroom; the bedroom is a storage room for more than 50 years' work. Canvas after canvas after canvas laid against the shiny hard plaster walls, a table top piled with papers and loose canvasses2.Coleman is in the kitchen getting me an apple juice. There are hundreds of CDs stacked neatly against a sort of TV cabinet. Bach. Beethoven. Chopin. You can see there was an attempt to stack the CDs alphabetically but then it all got kind of muddled. Schubert. Mozart. Mahler.There's a coffee table, a couch and the plastic chair I'm sitting on. Against one of the walls is a single bed with a slightly sunken mattress. Coleman sleeps on this. The bottom strut of the wooden bed frame has a crack in it, just off centre. A thick book has been placed beneath it to stop the whole thing collapsing in the night. Blue slippers under the coffee table. The artist is 78."I get up around 7.30 or 8 and then I'm in the studio," Coleman says. "Most days, I work until one, go out, then come back and work until five. It's a full-time job. You know, to produce, you can't just say I'll do it tomorrow, or next week, because you can't, because it's like a full-time ... it's like architects, lawyers ... it's full-time."This is how you want an artist to look: medium-length grey hair slicked back. Bushy black eyebrows. Intense brown eyes. Strong hands and thick fingers. Flecks of coloured paint on his pants.This is how you want an artist's history to be: Coleman can recall the exact day he became an artist. He was four or five or six years old. His nursery school teacher took the class to the park, gave everyone paper and crayons and said, "Draw what you see." Coleman drew a peach tree."I could see the inflection of a slight shadow or change of colour. I could just see it. It wasn't laboured, I just drew it. I don't know if it was just natural for me, ha-ha-ha-ha. They were amazed that a four-year-old ..."He did art in matric and got 40%. They said he didn't follow the rules. But by then he was already getting a feeling for abstraction.Three-year graphics course at Joburg Tech3. Then he got married and, at 25, went to London. This was 1961."London in the '60s was unbelievable. The Beatles, Mary Quant, Carnaby Street - the whole scene burst open and I was right in the heart, meeting people. David Hockney4, Henry Moore, Joe Tilson. I was painting every day, building up ideas. Museums. Galleries. You know. I came back to South Africa in '66 for family reasons5."story_article_right2While he was still in London he did works for the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Colour Council.On his return to South Africa he met Linda Goodman and became the first local artist to exhibit in her new gallery. He was doing hard-edge abstraction, a movement he'd picked up in London. Frankly, hard-edge abstraction is still difficult for many to understand; in mid-'60s South Africa it was practically witchcraft. As well as successes with Goodman and other galleries, there was a lot of rejection.Coleman kept painting.This is what you want an artist to say: "I think what I love about hard-edge is the intellectual structure. I love Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. The structure of Bach is very . .. And when I listen to Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, I listen to their structure, not just the music. Why did he do that passage? Why didn't he do that passage? You know, analyse what they're doing and why ..."An artist has to stick to his integrity and his philosophy, otherwise he gets pulled ... 'Oh, do flowers' or 'Oh, do portraits.' You know, he disperses his energy and he's not true to himself, because of money or whatever, or fashion. So I've stuck ... whatever I believe in, I haven't digressed ... I said that's the path and I'm going there and bugger that. Mmm-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Maybe that's why I've been rejected by a lot of galleries, because the work is not commercial enough or people don't understand it6. But, ja, you survive ... I survive, you know, every day. And I'm quite happy. I haven't got millions, I haven't got thousands, you know. I live day-to-day and as long as I'm painting, who cares?"Asked if he ever sees paintings in dreams: "I do, but not to paint, because these [actual paintings] are dreams anyway, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha."Why do we paint? Why do we sing? It takes us beyond the animal stage, takes us ... as human beings we don't just survive, we've got to move up, move up, move up, you know? And I've always just been natural with that. A lot of people just drink beer, you know. That's their life."Paintings here, painting there."This is what you hope, for an artist who made it in London in the '60s, who's had successes and rejections since, who some say is "past it", even though he's still painting six or seven hours a day in his little apartment and sleeping on that cracked bed7: Coleman's dealer of three years, Tyrone Selmon, has been taking his works to London, and also selling them at Art Eye Gallery in Fourways."People are suddenly contacting me from all over the world about his works," Selmon says. "Prices are doubling up. A work sold at the Art Fair two years ago for R60,000. Two years ago, Bonham's in London sold a work for £5,000. He has a show coming up in London."And what you hope is that one day, people will be saying this: "There's Kitchener's HQ. Gandhi lived down over there, and Mandela there. And see that apartment building there? That's where Trevor Coleman lived."story_article_left31 This is actually how he laughs: phonetically. There are numerical variations on the ha-ha theme.2 Tyrone Selmon, his dealer and friend of three years, says that when he visits Coleman to buy pieces, Coleman will sometimes go fishing for old works and will sometimes end up tearing works and not be all that bothered. It drives Selmon crazy. "It's because he doesn't really care about the monetary value of a piece," he says, lovingly. "All he's interested in is whether you get what he's been trying to say all these years. That makes his heart happy." During our interview Coleman says, "I've got stuff [in these piles] which I haven't seen for 20 years. I just packed it away and covered it. One day I'll get there."3 Coleman designed, among other things, posters for Greatermans, and several fabrics in London. The Goodman Gallery logo? He designed that.4 Hockney offered to exchange paintings with Coleman.5 Details of the "family reasons" were undisclosed. However, he did tell me that when, in his late teens, he told his parents he wanted to be an artist, they took him to a psychiatrist. "I told the therapist, 'I've done what my mother wanted me to do; I've done what my father wanted me to do; now I want to do what I want to do.'" The therapist told his parents, "There's your answer." They looked at each other, shrugged and said, "All right." Soon they would become very proud of their son.6 Selmon: "If Trevor had stayed in London he would be world famous, because he was so ahead of his time back then and he still is today. Trevor does not want to be famous, it's not his goal. All he wants you to do is understand his story ... [and] engage with the work."7 And still travelling. Selmon says that last year, Coleman climbed on a plane to India with nothing but a backpack, a camera and a sketchbook. Remember, the guy is 78.