Little Girl With a Brave Heart: Part I

Shankar Puri was recently in Cape Town to interview artist Leonie Edna Brown, who talked to him about art, religion, love and the everlasting trauma of a difficult childhood.

Leonie Edna Brown’s studio is not far from the idyllic Durbanville Hills and the drive gives me a moment to ponder on something she wrote on her website. “Art creates a moment in time for silence and contemplation. It stops me in my tracts (sic) and for that one little moment, nothing else matters but that small breath of peace”. The word ‘peace’, echoes in my thoughts as I traverse the road that dissects Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs. The gorgeous green wine farms that marry the natural contours of the landscape in splendour deserve artistic appreciation, and there is certainly a moment in time here, minutes away from my destination, that evokes a sort of inner peace.

There are more of these insights on her personal blog, about the curative nature of art and the symbiotic relationship it has with healing. Art can help “seek out the light and push away the darkness”, Leonie writes, saying that she wants to “create something that can bring light and change.” As I turn my gaze between the road ahead and the intrepid mountain bikers slicing through the wine farms on the dirt tracks, I wonder about the darkness that exists within this abstract South African painter and where did it all come from?

“I always say that I grew up as an orphan in a family of orphans,” Leonie starts, as we take our seats in her studio, an oblong-shaped hall that forms part of the 1st Durbanville Scout Hall. Every inch of it is splattered with paint, some accidental spills from the strokes of a paintbrush, others purely intentional by the artist herself, on canvas and in an array of colour and emotion. Her two beautiful Swiss Shepherds find comfort by her feet and I sip the coffee she’s made me from a metal, paint-stained cup.

“My dad, he didn’t really have parents really, he discovered his mother dead on the ground when he was 10 and was sent off to his grandmother, so he grew up without a father. And my mother grew up in a really poor family in Parow. Big families those days were very, very poor. She was seven years old standing on a chair cooking rice on a hot stove, for example.

It begins as a story of asperity from poverty, for children from two separate families that would eventually become Leonie’s parents. Childlike innocence swept away by a harsh Dickens-esque narrative. “When they got married and I came along four years later, my dad was already an alcoholic. And my mum grew up with a lot of fear as she came from an abusive background, so she was overtly aggressive towards me as well. So I grew up with no protection, actually no parenting. I was looked after, fed, probably loved but they didn’t know how to express it.” I follow her lead in sipping coffee, feeling the neglect in my heart as she speaks.

“If the parents are not there to protect the children, then the children are open to all kinds of abuse. So from a very young age, I was sexually abused by family members. My dad was working for a Government Institution at the time, so from people within the Institution as well.” I feel my heart sink but I feel strangely at ease with everything because I already got the impression, when we shook hands and greeted that I was in the presence of a very strong woman.

“Alcoholism has a massive impact on children in any case and abuse teaches you not to trust authority,” Leonie continues telling me. “You cannot trust anybody and it affects your whole life. I had my first boyfriend when I was fifteen and I was date raped. This guy was obsessed with me and I couldn’t get rid of him. I was basically, for two years, raped three times a week and I had no control over it. I didn’t trust my parents so I couldn’t go to them.”

In the corner of my eye, there’s a painting that I later learned is entitled “Out of the Storm, Into the Light.” Strokes of rust brown, crimson red and mould green combine in terrifying swirls. So much of Leonie’s pain immortalized by the hardening of clay and acrylic paints on canvas.

“Throughout my early life, I ended up with abusive men. Either psychologically abusive, or physically abusive. I was with a guy from when I was about 15 to 18 and he used to beat me, he tried to throttle me a few times, even tried to kill me. I eventually fell pregnant. Not by choice. My mum didn’t take it very well. My mum rejected me. The baby was born at 7 months, dead. I believe the child died because, I, at that point (being a child myself), hated the child. I cursed that child.”

The coffee in my cup has gone cold, but the heat emanating from my hands is enough to trick my mind into thinking that it’s still hot enough to drink. It’s the sheer intensity of the story that causes my palms to feel hot and sweaty. Leonie continues at a pace that leaves me no time to come to terms with her thinking that she was to blame for the death of her stillborn.

“I managed to make matric, I managed to get away from this guy, finally. But even through Varsity (University), it was the same pattern,” Leonie puts her cup down. “Psychologically, your brain is amazing. You just shut down. I just decided that this didn’t happen to me. But your soul, your spirit. It’s all there. It’s like a big storm inside of you. So I did really well at Art in Varsity, but nobody knew what to do with me, because I was unteachable. I didn’t trust anybody. I mean how? Especially me. How do you trust a man?” I nod in agreement, hoping that it comes across in an empathetic way, rather than sympathetic – not in my entire lifetime could I ever feel what she felt.

Leonie made it through the 4 years and received a degree and a diploma in art and teaching. She attributes her success at Varisty to the “risk” she took in studying teaching with art as a second subject to get a bursary, as in her second year she changed her course to only focus on art, something that is strictly forbidden now. She was good at art, she tells me, even has a painting from when she was 15 years old that was so good, her school called up her mother to tell them to stop doing her homework for her. But she never saw herself as an artist or someone who could have a career in art because her mother’s voice hit the notes of self-doubt.

After Varisty, Leonie tells me how nothing brought her any peace, and despite making New Year’s resolutions to change, to rid the pain from her upbringing, she ended up “building a bigger and bigger wall” and hiding behind those towering, defensive walls was a very lonely girl. But the sheer amicable resilience of her character meant she didn’t give up trying to find hope.

“When I found religion, when I decided to give my life to God, it was the beginning of a change. When I did that, I stopped painting for 10 years. When I look back, I did that because I needed to change. Inside.” She points to her heart. “I left everything, left Pretoria, left my family and everyone and I came to Cape Town. I didn’t have a job and I was alone with my dog. I took the first job I could find, in graphics and started again.” This is the point in the interview where I learn the meaning of the name Leonie: Little girl with a brave heart. She fought off the currents and swam upstream and found herself able to rebuild.

Through the vicissitudes of the ten years, Leonie felt the continual pull back to art. She worked in the corporate world doing graphic design, but despite it teaching her business skills, she said it “was limiting” and she missed the unpredictability of painting an abstract piece. “After the second year of work, it started to become repetitive. It’s Valentine’s Day, it’s this day and this day, you just have to come up with a new design and you already know how to do it but with paintings, you never know what you are going to get! But working was a good learning experience as it taught me valuable business skills.”

But possibly the most momentous lesson learnt, as she was trying to find herself “through a thick forest” of pain was that of trust, which partly came in the form of a female boss. “She didn’t believe in what people said about me but looked at me as a person and as an individual. She taught me that there are people in authority that I can trust.” The building blocks were there with religion and a positive authority figure in the form of her female boss and so Leonie was learning to trust all over again. But she still lacked that person to walk beside her.

Read part II now!

Written by Shankar Puri

Images Courtesy of Leonie Edna Brown

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