A Conversation with Santie Cronje of The Storyteller Studio

Recently, while browsing in a local art gallery, I discovered the beautiful work of Santie Cronje and immediately knew that I wanted to meet this amazingly talented artist.

Santie agreed to have a chat with me so I very excitedly went to visit her in her home studio in the Waikato town of Cambridge, New Zealand, where she creates her symbolist acrylic paintings.

South African-born Santie did art at school before undertaking tertiary study at Pretoria University, South Africa, where she graduated in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Santie left South Africa in 1998 on a three month sailing journey bound for Gibraltar. Her travels then took her to the UK, where she met and fell in love with a man from New Zealand. After some time together they soon came to settle in New Zealand.

“Love has always taken me places in my life. It’s important to follow your heart,” says Santie.

“It took quite some time to feel settled here though, because all my family were back in South Africa and we moved around every few months due to my husband’s job as a helicopter pilot,” she adds.

Since having her children, Monique (13) and Hugh (10), Santie has felt a lot more settled.

“They’ve grounded me. They are from here and because of them, now a part of me is from here, so I do feel like I belong here now.”

Santie’s first exhibition was at Empire Gallery in Cambridge in 2008. The following year she held her second show at Inspirit Gallery. That show was a sell-out!

“In 2009 my husband and I split up so it was a brave leap that I took, to be the sole-breadwinner for my family. But I just had to trust the process and believe that my paintings were going to have a voice that would resonate with somebody.

So in 2010 I gave up my job as a part-time cook in a local cafe and seriously began working fulltime as an artist.

I used to believe my worth as an artist was in making sales – if I sold something it meant it was good, but that’s not a healthy way to operate. Nowadays it’s actually just enjoying the creative process; the energy in coming up with the idea and the execution of the idea. It is a lot easier to enjoy that process if I’m not concentrating on making sales. Once I’ve finished the painting I don’t worry about what is going to happen to it, I just trust that it will eventually find someone that will enjoy it, or it will stay with me, or I might give it away.”

Santie is enjoying working from home again, after some time working in an open gallery.

“My work and home life are intertwined and I don’t have to stop and start to travel backwards and forwards, so there are no disruptions. I have worked at different times in various rooms in the house, but I prefer working here in the lounge, in the midst of family life,” she tells me.  “The children can be in here reading or watching television and I can work here at the same time, so we are all together. I don’t feel isolated.”

“I’m an extremely tidy painter. I don’t get paint on my hands or on my clothes, so it’s fine for me to work here,” Santie assures me.  “I have my easel, a chair that I sit on and one that I have my paints on and that’s all that I need. I don’t need a lot of room.”

She shows me to a small area in the corner of the room where her easel is set up, currently displaying a painting entitled ‘My Serenity’, featuring a beautiful sailing boat and a hummingbird.

“The yacht that we sailed on was called ‘The Hummingbird’, so that is why I have painted a hummingbird there, flying close to the yacht, which represents my journey. The hummingbird is my past.”

I am surprised when Santie tells me it is the first time she has ever painted a hummingbird, as it is so perfectly done. She says she often includes birds in her paintings.

“Birds are about your higher self, so whenever you feel a bit down they can lift you up. I think we are ultimately looking to be at peace and harmony with ourselves,” says Santie.

The first birds Santie painted were the godwits. The attraction was because the godwits live in two countries.

“Like me, part of me here in New Zealand, part of me there in South Africa. They taught me that I didn’t have to choose. Then as I became more settled I painted oyster catchers. They make one place their home and don’t migrate to another country, just move around within the one country, which was like me as I was moving around so much.  As I got more homely I painted the birds around the house in my own environment.”

I notice that Santie has painted the sea and lighthouses in a lot of her paintings.

“I am often inspired by my memories. When I was young we used to go to my grandparents’ beach house at Hermanus. In my memory there are two mountains encircling the bay like protection, but with the channel in the middle so boats can travel away.

My mum came to visit us in New Zealand and we went to Cape Reinga and saw the lighthouse. After that visit lighthouses kept appearing in my paintings, so I looked up the meaning to try to understand why I felt so drawn to paint lighthouses.  I discovered the meaning was ‘guidance from afar’. That’s my mum!  There’s a sense that I am searching and finding my way so the light, the beacon, is a sign I will be looked after.”

As well as the symbolic images Santie uses in her paintings, her work is recognizable through the use of her chosen background colours.

Santie explains, “I always prep my canvases with a light blue, green or teal. I throw a bit of colour into my gesso because I find it too sterile to just work on white. Sometimes my daughter asks me when I am going to paint a different background colour. But I just love those colours and I’d rather play with themes than with colours. Something has to be the line that follows through and for me that is the colours, so even if the themes change because life changes, I am the person in my world. I get older and my surroundings change, and a few friends come and go and life experiences come and go, but I am the constant and with my work my colours are my constant.”

I ask Santie if she has a routine to her day.

“No. I am ‘routine-less’. Unless I have a deadline, like a show coming up. I aim for ten pieces to exhibit in a show.”

Santie was invited to participate in an exhibition called ‘Jokers Wild’ at The Quirky Fox, in Hawera, as one of twenty six internationally invited artists. Each artist was sent a set of oversized playing cards. Each set consisted of a single number but the whole suit of diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades. The artists had free range to create whatever they felt like using as many of the cards as they desired, but they were required to represent the initial letter of their surname in their work. Santie had the number 3, so chose to create a triptych of cards.

After Santie’s success with her ‘Owl and the Pussycat’ series, ‘a whimsical collection of pieces with the life of the owl and pussycat as a metaphor for life’s journeys, love and friendship’, she decided to continue with the cat theme for this exhibition. “I have created a link between the pieces, with the cats playing with a ball of wool, the yarn linking from one painting to the next,” Santie explains.

“I work in series. I think a lot of artists do that, one leads into another and then another and another and then I’m over it!

I draw my picture directly on my canvas, I don’t like to pre-sketch.  For me the creative process is that moment, when you’ve done it. I don’t want to do it again. I get bored.  I worry that I won’t get it right the second time.”

I am interested to know if Santie ever experiences a creative block.

“I don’t really stress about that. There’s always other things to do anyway…admin, prints, etc.

After an exhibition I don’t get straight back into it, it’s like writing a novel, you don’t just start straight away writing another. You become depleted. You can’t eat all the time, you have to digest the food and you can’t travel all the time, or nothing would be special any more. You need to rest in between. So you just do nothing and then creativity comes back again.

There are ways to spark some creativity. I’ve done this before…I write on bits of paper, symbols that I’ve used in the past; lighthouse, moon, trees, birds, a chair, etc. I will put them all in a box and pull four out and see what appears. I try to keep it simple and try to just stay being me.  I take inspiration from my surroundings and where I am at in my life.

Communication is helpful for inspiration too; talking to other people and also being the viewer of your own ideas and your own visions, or dreams at night. If you keep having the same things come to you then you begin to understand why these images are coming. For example, the image of a hot air balloon. I call them drifters. They are a thought, a daydream. You hop in a balloon and you just float, you’re the passenger.

Like me on the sailing boat, I didn’t make the decision of all the places we went on the way, the final destination yes, but the rest was just an adventure into the unknown. It’s important to just continue to have some adventures in our lives.”

To discover more about Santie Cronje go to her website www.santie.co.nz where you can view her portfolio, read her blog or discover a list of her stockists.  Click here to check out Santie’s Facebook page or head along to the Tamahere monthly market on the third Saturday of every month from 8.30 – 1 pm.