Bill Ainslie


Bill Ainslie was born in Bedford in the Eastern Cape, in the year 1934. The family farmed there on farm called Spring Grove, since their arrival from Scotland in 1820. Some of his family are still there today. It is said to be the most beautiful in the country: "A paradise of hills and rivers and woods and pasture lands, glittering with butterflies, with the great Cape mountains circling the valley". Bill's father chose to move from there to the Karroo, and this is where Bill spent most of his early childhood. In these hot, barren conditions he saw how difficult it is for all living things to survive under such desperate conditions with no help, and this could have perhaps influenced his humanitarian approach to life. But beyond this, as David Koloane (Bill's student, friend and fellow painter) wrote, "Bill's upbringing in the vast and arid space of the Karroo is potently evoked in the scale and broad colour areas of his later works which are activated by the shrubby, textural quality".2 Because of drought his family was forced to abandon their farm and move. His father died when he was eight years old.

Bill went to King Edward School in Johannesburg. This is where he spent ten years of his school life. Here he was head boy and captain of rugby, cricket and cadets, a born leader. He went to the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg in 1953, where he thought he would study agriculture. But after doing an aptitude test he found that his strengths lay more in the humanities than in the sciences. His mother suggested that he do a BA whilst deciding what direction he should follow. He studied philosophy, theology and psychology and at first felt that he wanted to become a priest. After talking to Calvin Cook (a priest who married him and Fieka, and later buried him) and meeting Selby Mvusi (a fine artist who was later banned from South Africa), Bill turned to art and dedicated his life to making it accessible to all. He studied under Professor Heath and during his six years at the University of Natal, he obtained a BA (Fine Arts). He was president of the SRC in his final year; he was also a fine sportsman and an able student.

Bill went on to teach at Michael House, a school in Natal. Whilst teaching there he was a member of the Liberal Party. At one stage he helped the workers from the rubber factory, who came to him and asked if he could help them to get a raise in salary and improve their working conditions. He also assisted the farm labourers, who lived in appalling conditions and never saw their families during daylight. He organised meetings between the farm labourers and owners and helped improve certain aspects, such as better working hours. This earned him much unpopularity with the farm owners and the capitalists.

In 1960 Bill married Sophia Jansen-Schottell (known as Fieka). Fieke felt that Michael House wasn't the ideal place for him to be working and so, when he received an invitation to go and revive the art school at Cyrene Mission in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), they left South Africa for two years. Bill became involved in the student council here. This was during a time of student uprisings and he helped them, by doing things such as obtaining students' releases when they were picked up by the police.

Later Bill returned to his old school, King Edward, where he taught for two years. He taught everything from English to theology and also served as a substitute teacher. "It was a big change for him from teaching black children, who were eager to learn and eager for knowledge, and then at King Edward's, the children didn't want to learn, they only wanted to cause mischief, and he couldn't stand it. He painted his way through his stay there," says Fieka. He had an exhibition at the Adler Fielding gallery in 1964.

The Adler Fielding Gallery offered Bill a retainer. This meant that they would pay for his rent and food if he would have an exhibition at their gallery after a year. He accepted this offer. During this year he changed to abstract art, before this he had been a figurative painter. He painted and drew massive pictures of subjects like African women, mother and child, farm labourers and the happenings in the country at the time. They were documents of that era.

Bill Ainslie's sudden leap to abstraction was as a result of seeing some paintings by Douglas Portway. This had a huge impact on his life. It also influenced him to explore the less obvious functions of form and colour. When the time came for his exhibition, the gallery told him they didn't want to exhibit his abstract paintings. He replied that he wouldn't have an exhibition if these weren't included, so they were - and the three abstract paintings were the first to sell (everything else sold as well).

In 1965 Bill won an award from Art SA Today. Then in 1966 he exhibited work at the Festival Exhibition in Pretoria. In 1967 he won another award from Art SA Today and in 1968 he had an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Bill started teaching privately from home. He wanted to be able to teach who and how he chose: art schools did not allow black students. He taught in a couple of rented houses. They started with a number of black artists/students (some of whom are now famous, like David Koloane and Dumile Feni). They had Saturday classes where they sculpted, drew, painted, etc. (This was not allowed in the "dark 60's", because of Apartheid, but he did so anyway). Some white students joined these classes, which became racially and culturally mixed. This also helped in terms of funds. The size of the classes grew and they were now held four days a week instead of just one.

Bill and Fieka were often interrogated by the police's special branch because of their open involvement with black people. Many of their black students were living with them because of the difficulty they had moving around South Africa at the time (under the "dompas" system). The police tried in many ways to intimidate them and make their lives as difficult as possible, but Fieka would bring them a cup of tea and a biscuit at 10:00 every morning as they stood outside People would say to her, "But that's your enemy". She would respond, "Yes, but I want to know the face of my enemy, and I also want to face them".

In 1969, Bill and his family left South Africa for two years. First they went to St Ives for a year, where Bill worked near Douglas Portway, his mentor. Here he had an exhibition at the Penwith Society Gallery. The Penwith Society was a gathering of artists from all over Britain who lived in St Ives at the time. They exhibited once a year and collectors from London would come and buy their artwork. Bill got excellent reviews, they called his work lyrical. He then moved on to doing minimal paintings.

They also lived in the Netherlands for a year. Here Bill had an exhibition in the Sfinx Gallery in Amsterdam, where he sold out. In the Netherlands at that time, the government often offered patronage to artists, whether or not they were from the Netherlands. Bill was offered patronage, but he decided not to accept. This they could not believe; they told him they had found out about him and knew that his situation in South Africa was difficult, that he could be picked up by the police when he returned. He replied that he had a role to play and needed to work in the cracks (of Apartheid).

In 1971, they returned to South Africa and Bill continued teaching. The Ainslie Studio's was founded. More and more students joined and other teachers were brought in. In 1976, after staying in several rented houses (they always lived in the building they worked) they moved to 6 Eastwold Way, Saxonwold, the current premises of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, as it was known after 1981. The school was a non-profit organisation, funds came from the few paying students, money that Bill and Fieka already had and paintings that were sold. It became a full-time programme.

"Together Bill and Fieka made a great force as Fieka was instinctive, physical and business-like and Bill diplomatic and visionary. And so they began the Johannesburg Art Foundation which was a great opposition to the racist government." 1

On 26 August 1989 Bill was killed instantly in a car accident on his way home from the Pachipamwe workshop at Cyrene Mission. At his funeral, many people heard our new national anthem, "Nkosi Sikele" sung for the first time. There were people from far and near, a racially mixed crowd came together to send Bill off and mourn his death. He lay in a plain pine coffin which was showered with a collage of lilies and wild blue flowers, that dripped down and carpeted the floor around him. There was jazz and dancing, a celebration that only a great African king would be honoured with.

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