Obituary: Joyce Leonard

Joyce Leonard, artist and teacher: born Johannesburg 29 June 1909; married 1942 David Davis (died 1981; one son); died Johannesburg 24 June 1993.

JOYCE LEONARD was the mentor of several generations of South African artists. Her ability to inspire and encourage creativity in others was an art-form in itself; ex-students and artist friends, now spread all over the world, still carry her influence.

Among her former students are Cecil Skotness, known for his woodcut prints with strong African imagery, Eduardo Villa, the abstract sculptor, and Deanna Petherbridge, an artist now based in London. Geoffrey Armstrong, the prolific abstract and figurative artist, now spends half his life in Britain and works on mural commissions. Paul Stopforth, one of the most political of Joyce Leonard's students, did work on the Biko inquest, and now lives in Boston, dealing with similar issues from the personal psychological point of view.

Leonard was born in Johannesburg, but trained in London, at the Royal College of Art, and returned for a period of painting during the late 1940s when she exhibited with the London Group. (Can it be true, as I remember her telling, that she had contrived to be locked into the Victoria and Albert Museum when she had nowhere to sleep?)

Joyce Leonard was a strong and stylish presence in an admittedly small but vigorous artistic community. The character of the Transvaal where she lived is harsher and more confrontational, in terms of art as much as politics, than the other areas of South Africa. Political tensions became an inspiration and a focus for South African artists of the past few decades, even more than they were a hindrance and source of limitation. Politics, particularly in the Transvaal, has energised art, theatre, literature, journalism.

This sort of energy sparked around the luncheon parties Joyce Leonard was famous for: at first in her beautiful farmhouse outside Johannesburg, an oasis in the midst of dust and aloes; later, when suburbia encroached and a highway bisected the farm, in a tiny bungalow on the edge of a steep cliff. The claustrophobia of a small cultural centre isolated from its neighbours in Africa and ostracised by most of the rest of the world created a pressure-cooker situation which forced artists into closer contact with themselves, their work and each other. This generated a somewhat Chekhovian atmosphere - a small group of intense people arguing out their ideas while outside the circle the real dramas were grinding to a conclusion. Leonard, with her clear, unambiguous perceptions, was often like the rudder in a storm, an unofficial arbiter and leader of opinion.

Her creative energy was channelled into her teaching, which took place in private studio visits as well as art classes - she was endlessly generous and supportive to her many painter friends - and her position as adviser to the buying committee of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. She guided and prodded this otherwise recalcitrant group into acquiring works that she believed in. She herself stopped painting in the 1950s because in her view she 'wasn't good enough'. A discreet painting of hers of a vase of flowers used to hang in a corner of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, an embarrassment to the artist.

Her creativity as a teacher never stopped developing. She is remembered by a colleague in the Fine Art Department of the University of Witwatersrand, Cecily Sash, as 'astonishingly open-minded but critical. Both as a teacher and friend she was generous in praise but ruthless in her rejection of the mediocre and safe. She expected one to confront the new, take risks, forgo the comfortable so that truly creative ideas could germinate and grow.'

To encourage this, she incorporated music, touch, and aspects of science into her drawing classes. Instead of conventional art jargon she used vocabulary you might expect in a poetry or literature class. She enjoyed teaching people who were outside the sometimes predictable confines of academic fine art - architecture students, design students, people who had never drawn before. Joyce Leonard acted as a catalyst, connecting people with each other, stirring up ideas and opening up areas of creativity in the minds of her friends and those she taught.

(Photograph omitted)