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South African artist John van der Veen doesn’t see junk like the average person; he’s creating stunning visual pieces out of whatever pieces of scrap he can lay his hands on. Although the process started out of necessity – at one stage in his life, this was the only material he could afford – he’s grown his project into one that’s captured the hearts and minds of people from across the country.
Van der Veen currently lives and works in the sleepy seaside town of Jeffery’s Bay, on the fringes of South Africa’s famed Garden Route. The town is better known for its incredible surf break than its thriving creative scene, but after running out of funds to complete his studies at the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town, van der Veen realised he could make some income with wire art.
For more than 10 years he created wire art for a woman from New York, while at the same time experimenting with scrap to create some amazing artworks. The decision to use scrap, however, was less about sheer creativity and more about necessity.
‘Having no money at a certain period in my life, using scrap and [pieces of wood] gave me the opportunity to keep painting and being creative,’ he says.
He made a promise to his dad – an electrician by trade, but an artist at heart – that he would keep creating. Even though times were hard, he turned to the scrap objects he sourced from the junkyard next door, and slowly started creating captivating artworks from them.
‘Painting a canvas is much easier,’ says van der Veen. ‘You start spontaneously from a white surface and you create. When you use scrap, you need to search and put pieces together. Some of the pieces of art take months to finish, as you need to find the right elements.’
As he’s worked through the process of building artwork from discarded scrap items, van der Veen has also realised that he has the ability to shift people’s perspectives of everyday objects.
‘The thing I want to achieve by using scrap is try to let people change the way they look at it. Scrap is often left unnoticed, but there is so much beauty in all those pieces. I try to impress people with junk.’
According to van der Veen, just because an item can no longer serve its initial purpose, that doesn’t mean it should be permanently forgotten. ‘It still has a lot of value,’ he says, ‘and can be used for something else; you just need to see and look for the opportunity.’
The process of finding and using other people’s junk forms a big part of his daily rituals, too. ‘I live next to the scrapyard,’ he says. ‘Daily, I have my walk around, picking up things that inspire me at that moment. I also collect a lot of stuff on the beach; my eyes are always looking for stuff… I have a quirky attraction towards scrap; I feel comfortable in these surroundings.’
In spite of the pleasure that the process clearly brings to the artist, it’s not been easy generating a following and additional income from the artwork he creates. ‘As an artist, I think that the hard part is getting noticed and getting true appreciation. As for a lot of artists. We don’t have business minds, so I, as many others, struggle.’
Yet, in spite of the struggle for recognition and appreciation, it appears as if more and more people are scooping up his work. You’ll find his artwork all over his hometown of Jeffery’s Bay, in restaurants, guesthouses, breweries and private back gardens. His wire work, illustrations, surfboard art and other custom projects are also on display throughout the country.
For van der Veen, though, his dedication seems to be more about passion for art, particularly with the younger audiences.
‘The financial reward is very small,’ he says. ‘Personally, it’s more about the love for art and creativity. I want people to enjoy art, I like inspiring children, youngsters – they often appreciate my work more than grown-ups. I also want to stay authentic – I don’t want to make specific things just to make money, like I did my first 10 years [as an artist]. I feel my art is still growing.’