It’s easy to see why the landscape around Clarens has inspired so many artists. The streets leading off the Free State town’s grassy square seemingly head straight into the Maluti Mountains, which overlook the road to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Sandstone cliffs and formations tower above the park’s shimmering grasslands, and between March and June, two types of poplar add a splash of yellow to the misty valleys. The signature trees feature – alongside other classic Free State sights such as old barns beneath wide blue skies – in canvases hanging in Clarens’ many galleries.
Clarens is the best example of South African’s growing number of art towns – refined rural enclaves packed with galleries, offering the chance to see the surrounding scenery through artists’ eyes. There are some 20 galleries in Clarens, most found on the main street alongside arty boutiques and restaurants decorated with – naturally – local paintings. The Richard Remmie Gallery displays the Zimbabwe-born artist’s representational and abstract landscapes, all evoking the moods that sweep across the Free State’s great open spaces. ‘When I arrived 13 years ago there was one other gallery – now everywhere you look there’s a painting,’ says Remmie.
South of the Free State’s sunflower fields, the Western Cape’s mountains and valleys have long inspired creative endeavours from wine-making to watercolours. Today, the province has a healthy smattering of creative spots, and galleries are a common sight from Knysna and Prince Albert to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. While pinotage is the main event in the Winelands, art has a leading role in other areas; distinctive local styles are emerging, and the galleries are adding an element of sophistication to their sylvan settings. On the untouched west coast, the whitewashed village of Paternoster, with colourful fishing boats on its sandy beaches, is as picturesque as its kreef is tasty. A couple of galleries sell depictions of the breezy spot, and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants if you feel moved to spend a few days creating your own masterpiece.
On the other side of Cape Town, Kalk Bay was recently described as ‘an artist’s paradise on earth’ by the South African Art Times. The fishing village has built a reputation for its galleries, craft showrooms, junk shops, antique stores and performance venues, which form a seafront ‘culture mile’. With its cobbled alleys, turn-of-the-century buildings and fish market, it’s an attractive place to wander between boutiques such as Artvark, which specialises in curvy, patterned cutlery and metalwork.
Buying art, like travelling, feels better when you know it will benefit society – and many art towns do exactly that. In Montagu, the Joshua Tree and Desert Fish boutiques sell recycled wooden furniture, made by artisans from the nearby township of Zolani. Particularly wonderful are the picture frames, incorporating sections of old floorboards, skirtings, cornices and doors, with a vintage feel to the faded paint and bare wood.
Montagu has a strong reputation as a gastronomic destination – European tourists devour tasting plates and Karoo lamb beneath its thatched roofs – and it has launched an art trail with 15 stops. The trail includes the studio of the late François Krige, now functioning as a retrospective of his work – which ranges from still lives to Bushmen scenes, sketched on trips to Botswana and Namibia in the 1960s. It’s a cultural part of the world and nearby McGregor also has an art route, complementing its health food shops, masseurs and new-age appeal.
With its green hills, colourful rondavels and empty beaches, the Eastern Cape has long been an artist’s hideaway of choice. Nieu Bethesda typifies this – nestling beneath the Sneeuberg Mountains, the Karoo village has become an artists’ colony thanks to the Owl House. Helen Martins – an ‘outsider artist’ with no formal training, but a powerful vision – turned the house into a walk-in sculpture. Bright paint and crushed glass decorate the interior, and the yard is populated with owls, acrobats and other figures made of cement, broken bottles and wire. In Bethesda’s studios, galleries, art centre and co-operative, you can pick up sculptures, ceramics, and found-material figures to liven up your own yard.
Nearby, Graaff-Reinet, the ‘jewel of the Karoo’, is also beloved of culture vultures for its 200-plus national monuments, including Cape Dutch houses, Victorian villas and flat-roofed Karoo cottages. G-R’s architecture and surreal ambiance are the main draws, but there are a few worthwhile galleries; including the Pierneef Museum, displaying Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s harmonious, pastel highveld landscapes. Among the peaks of the Amathole Mountains, Hogsback’s lively art and craft scene is part of the village’s quirky charm, with pottery, handcrafted candles, an ecoshrine and a fairy meander on offer.
In the north of the country, Parys, Free State is following its French namesake’s lead with its galleries, antique and curio shops, and old-world charm. Another town within easy driving distance of Johannesburg is Muldersdrift, Gauteng, an arts and crafts hub offering various galleries and studios. Dullstroom, Mpumalanga is the prettiest arty getaway in the region, its clapboard houses surrounded by pine trees and rivers jumping with trout. Artists working in a variety of media derive inspiration from the rolling grasslands; you can view their work or learn their skills on courses covering subjects such as miniature painting. The town’s iCreate Studio keeps ‘fishing widows’ occupied making mosaics, sand art and fabric painting.
One of South Africa’s most fascinating art destinations is less a town than a collection of studios and associations along dusty red tracks. Limpopo’s Venda region is well known for its unique artwork, particularly woodcarving by artists such as Noria Mabasa, whose work adorns Pretoria’s Union Buildings; pottery decorated with ochre and graphite, and bright, stripy textiles and batiks. In this incredibly creative region, where myth and legend are as prevalent as the banana, lychee and mango plantations in the lush countryside, you might come across a ceremony taking place at a studio. Local guides offer tours, and there are Venda-decorated, Fair Trade-accredited lodges in Elim and the Soutpansberg Mountains.