“I have my hands and can make something out of nothing. Leave the world a better and prettier place than you found it.”
The subtext of Dreams, Schemes and Themes is “Here’s to the Maniacs, Visionaries and Wide-Eyed Dreamers” to pay tribute those amazing people marching to a different drumbeat than most of us whose stuck in the maze of the daily drudge. The late Jan Schoeman better known as plain “Outa Lappies” - The Philosopher of the Plains - as he’s described in “Karoo Keepsakes” needs a special mention.
I’m fascinated by graffitos, street artists and other creatives who make amazing stuff from cast off junk and found things. I’m fascinated by the early work of Jean-Michel Basquait, Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot garden in Tuscany, Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden in Philadelphia, Fanozi 'Chickenman' Mkhize road signs, The Owl House of Helen Martins in Nieu Bethesda, the photography and journals of Peter Beard and Dan Eldon. I recently stumbled on the pictorial record of the ongoing construction of The Chapel of Jimmy Ray, Andado McLauchlin’s gallery in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/anado/ . I’d love to visit this hodge-podge of colour one day. One more dream to add to my bucket-list.
I’m not enough of an art snob or critic to have an opinion whether Outsider Art constitutes real art or whether it’s rubbish. I like what I like because these creations speak to my unquiet soul.
This definition of Art Brut is about how I see it;
"Art Brut", or "outsider art", consists of works produced by people who for various reasons have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned. They are all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society. Working outside fine art "system" (schools, galleries, museums and so on), these people have produced, from the depths of their own personalities and for themselves and no one else, works of outstanding originality in concept, subject and techniques. They are works which owe nothing to tradition or fashion.
Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy world
The Prince of Orange and I, when road-tripping through the Karoo in December, planned to visit Outa Lappies Schoeman an outsider artist who retired in a tiny railway house at Prince Albert Road Station after wandering the Karoo for years pulling a hand-cart.
While overnighting in the nearby picturesque Price Albert we learnt that Outa Lappies passed away in July last year. His house was next to road we were travelling to Williston via Merweville and we decided to go there anyway.
Prince Albert Station is one of the many railway stations scattered through the Karoo and rural South Africa where the trains stopped running a long time ago. The Prince, who is a portfolio manager when he’s not a Symbol, told me that one of his role-models, Warren Buffett, is busy reviving the rail systems in the United States. Buffet recons this is the way to go with the rising fuel prices to cart freight over long distances. It makes a lot of sense. Large tracts of the South African heartland have become cut-off from the outside world when the rail services were discontinued.
A lot of the Karoo towns have no maniacal mini-bus taxi services or buses transporting passengers. This has a huge impact on job opportunities and the mobility of many of the citizens of the greater Karoo and regular train services will contribute a lot to resuscitate these almost forgotten little villages.
Prince Albert Station Road only consists of a few houses and it was easy to find Outa Lappies’s home. His famous hand-cart stood abandoned in the neglected overgrown yard. The house was locked but the front gate open with a number of his creations packed next to the cart. We wandered through to have a look and snap some photographs.
Soon after a next-door neighbour, one Frans appeared. Hans told us that Outa Lappies died of burn wounds after his Joseph’s coat of many colours caught fire in front of the house. Frans gave us a graphic account of how he helped dousing the flames. Only Outa’s shoes remained – the rest of his clothes were gone. He suffered bad burn wounds - the old man was taken to hospital where he passed on.
I was surprised that some of Outa Lappies’s creations and his cart were left so unprotected – open to the elements and vandals. Maybe it was my Jozi-psyche acting out – in the City of Gold you lock everything away otherwise its gone-baby-gone in a flash. Frans told us that there were plans afoot to turn the house into a museum. I’ve visited the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda a couple of years ago which has become a great tourist attraction in another little Karoo hamlet. I see no reason why this can’t happen in Prince Albert Road as well. It’s close to the N3 highway and not far from the town of Prince Albert.
When we left I noticed dusty charred A4 book among the rubbish in the overgrown front garden. Maybe it was scorched in the fire the caused the death of Outa Lappies. I picked it up and stuffed it into my camera bag.
Back in Jozi I did some research on the old man and found out some surprising facts about this character that featured large in the artistic history of the Karoo. He won the 2001 Western Cape Tourism Personality of the Year for instance. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him and used an article that appeared in the SA Art Times in 2006 titled “Legacy of a loner: Something out of nothing: Jan “Patchman” Schoeman also known as Outa Lappies” as a reference
Jan Schoeman was an obsessive traveling man who set himself the goal of covering “ten thousand miles” on foot. He pulled a hand-made rickshaw, which usually trailed a train of smaller wagons from somewhere to nowhere, wandering where the spirit took him. At night he’ll slept by the road-side and the cart was lit by candles. This resembled the lights of passing trains.
Along the road he collected discarded objects which he later turned into artworks – mostly lanterns – “lighuisies” – hands and animals assembled from crushed tins, shards of coloured glass, pokerwork, nails, sticks, feathers, whatever.
Outa Lappies chose to live as a true hermit, sleeping on a concrete floor surrounded by piles of scrap metal and fabric, even when he was home in Prince Albert Road. He created with an almost obsessive zeal, toiling by candlelight late into the night. He saw as his calling to make something out of nothing; creating beautiful and interesting pieces from found items.
The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife once Cherie Blair received a “lighuisie” as a personal gift. Outa made one for “Baas Tony Glair” (sic) and found somebody to deliver it to No. 10 Downing Street. Cherie Blair’s handwritten thank you note, on heavily embossed official stationery, was apparently somewhere in a pile of dusty papers in his small house.
Whenever he returned to Prince Albert he embroidered maps of his journeys, featuring highlights of his trips. These were known as his “Chapters” recounting his adventures throughout his long and unconventional life: his joys and his hardships while growing up and working on farms, and his nomadic life.
The “Chapters” feature rhyming verses in a misspelled Afrikaans/Dutch/English pidgin, accompanied by characters and landscapes with Outa as the main protagonist: a vibrant embroidered figure in multicoloured patchwork clothing. Although he embroidered some of the work himself, he employed local women to do most of the needlework after drawing his designs and verses on the cloth. He insisted that each craftswoman embroider her initial and surname on the chapter.
Nobody seems to know how many Chapters there are. Most of them he sold to foreign buyers which is a huge loss to South Africa. I cannot find a single image of these works on the internet using Google.
It doesn’t seem as if Outa Lappies was ever recognized as a bona-fide artist in this own country and although Gudrun and Bodo Toelstede, friends of Outa Lappies in Prince Albert, are planning a museum and gallery of his work. For the time being his cart remains standing in front of his little house.
I glanced through the charred book I picked up outside his house the other day. It’s mostly blank with a few pages covered in what must be the old man’s writing. Only one page is dated – 2 July 2011 and seems to be a sort of Last Will and Testament. Jan “Outa” Lappies Schoeman died in 7 July 2011, five days later. Coincidence, precognition? I don’t know. I phoned Bodo Toelstede who told me that they searched high and low for Outa’s books after his death. Maybe he burned it on the pyre which led to his death. But that is just my over-active imagination at work.
I have since e-mailed a scan of the page to Bodo Toelstede and I’ll pass the book on to him as it forms part of his legacy which will hopefully be safely preserved somewhere sooner than later.
I hope that the old man’s spirit is still wandering, pulling his cart beneath the star-studded sky of the majestic Karoo at night.