Even artistic work is labour, a kind of grind. Over the past few months, Cape Town artist Marsi van de Heuvel has spent most of her waking time hunched over a desk in her fourth-floor flat on Kloof Street drawing flowers with fibre-tip pens in preparation for her show at Smith Studio.

Marsi van de Heuvel
Marsi van de Heuvel

When not drawing flowers from photographs, she fills in large sheets of imported Fabriano paper from Italy with one-directional inked lines, adding layers like painted brushstrokes until she achieves the desired optical zing with her colour-field compositions. Van de Heuvel describes the drudgery as “monotonous” and “meditative”.

I ask the 29-year-old artist how she avoids the physical stresses and strains
that accompany this kind of repetitive work. Her answer: clean living. “I have
been so strict,” says van de Heuvel, who has been drawing almost non-stop since her successful debut exhibition with dealers Candace Marshall-Smith and Amy Ellenbogen in June 2015. “I even stopped drinking for a few months. The only times I see friends are when I go to yoga or for a walk. I have no weekends.

I only go out on someone’s birthday.” Van de Heuvel is seated in her whitewashed lounge-cum-studio. Despite the foul winds raging just outside her window, which faces Table Mountain, the mood in her flat is tranquil. Yoga, she explains, is helpful in avoiding repetitive motion strain.

Van de Heuvel, who grew up grew in Kraaifontein, a peripheral suburb on
N1 towards Paarl and Stellenbosch, bends her hand back in demonstration.
Supple. The yoga routine, she elaborates, forms part of a regimen marked by
extraordinary asceticism.

After waking, usually between six and seven, van de Heuvel will do yoga
in her flat, have tea, and then draw until noon. When the canon on Signal Hill
sounds midday she will head off to a yoga class at Dunkley Square. After lunch
she draws right through to evening, takes dinner, walks, and then resumes 
drawing until 10pm, bedtime.

Van de Heuvel fills the solitude and silence with podcasts: On Being with Krista Tippett, This American Life, Radio Lab, TED Talks — she has ploughed through them all. There is a mathematical point to this elaboration of van de Heuvel’s work routine.

Unlike her debut exhibition at Smith, which was titled Entanglement and featured 14 drawings of black seascapes and abstract swathes of blue, as well as five paintings of volcanic clouds in various shades of indigo, her new exhibition, Ceremony, comprises only drawings. There are 36 in total.

A single large drawing takes about two weeks to complete. Van de Heuvel’s show is the product of a year-long devotion to the pen. “One of the reasons I like the pen, is that the labour is obvious. It makes the work more obvious, especially with the abstract pieces.” She pauses. “It is harder to see that in paintings sometimes.”

Being able to see the labour in an artwork is important to her, she adds.
Not that she’s dismissive of painting. Although currently betrothed to the pen,
van de Heuvel was trained as a painter at the Ruth Prowse School of Art. After
graduating, she briefly assisted expressionist painter Wayne Barker for a few
months in 2010. “I survived,” she laughs.

In 2012 she held a two-person show with Maya Marshak at a pop-up gallery on Long Street. Her ink landscapes sold well. “I can do this,” she thought. Following a two-month cycling holiday from Spain to France with photographer Stan Engelbrecht, she began work on a series of ink drawings of deep space. Using only black ink, van de Heuvel conjured porthole views of starry vistas. Her Dark Matter series also challenged the gender stereotypes attached to space, with sympathetic portraits of Sigourney “Alien” Weaver and Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut who became the first woman to travel in space in 1963.

“I was totally interested in space; I wanted to go to space,” says van de
Heuvel, whose austere yet engaging work recalls the photorealist paintings and
drawings of Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins. “I still want to go to space,
but I’m not nearly as consumed by it as I was then. I go through phases of things — now it’s flowers.” The vegetable world is not entirely unrelated to the void of deep space, she says. “There is something charming about the patterns we look for in flowers and stars.”

Flowers, though, can be touched, sniffed, taken home. Not so with space.
“I once described my love affair with space like unrequited love.” Her new
show is the product of a more happy state of being. “It is about warmth and
connections, and also compassion and celebration.”

Marsi van de Heuvel’s exhibition, Ceremony, opens at Smith Studio, 56 Church
Street, Cape Town on November 24, and runs until January 14. 021 422 0814

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