Earth Beings: Debs

Even if you’ve never heard of the Henry Brooks Adams saying that “Friends are born, not made,” you’ve probably experienced that moment of instant kinship with someone new. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that most aptly explains Debs and me. I met her in Cape Town, early 2004, and from that moment onwards, I do not remember when we weren’t friends. You, dear reader, met her briefly in my first post. Debs hails from a part of the world that’s warmly etched into my fondest childhood memories: Port Elizabeth. “P.E.,” as it is known by locals, is a sprawling, sunny South African seaside port town where the air always smells like sea salt, thatch, Sparletta Cream Soda and braais. It’s also home to some of South Africa’s great sport and creative talents.  Debs, being the latter, thrived in the city of her provenance, and enjoyed the freedom it gave this spirited, artistic eaglet, who grappled with reconciling her rebellious, ever-curious and wild side with a Catholic sensibility and deep love of her family. As Debs says, in her distinctive, 1820s English settler-flecked accent:

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“Spent a lot of my youth trawling junk stores for furniture, clothes and quirky bits of crap. I was diving head first into boxes of second-hand clothes in flea-infested shops in Main St. (P.E.) from the tender age of about 14. ‘Dead peoples clothes probably,’ sighed a friend of mine’s mum once.”

Debs’ uncanny eye for beautiful form and colour is matched by her ability to attract and inspire artistic friends. So as a young rock chick out on the town with her similarly feathered friends, she’s periodically flown through P.E.’s thrift and consignment shops to amass a collection of treasures.

“I obsessively started collecting hats at one point. I only have a few left as the moths got hold of them. Storage was often a problem as the collections grew larger. My retro crap was collected before it was even called retro. Old Soda Streams, coloured glass ashtrays and vases — people just didn’t want this stuff and I did.”

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In one loud P.E. club, she chanced upon a compelling objet d’ affection with a large warm heart on its sleeve, mop of blonde hair and a disarming twinkle in his eye. His name was Denis. After Debs came back from two years of exploring the world by herself, she married him. After a few years in P.E., Debs and Denis moved back down the coast to Cape Town in the early 1990s. They bought a “whaler’s cottage,” built in 1902, that was created with stone from the surrounding Cape mountains. Our eagle was ready to settle down on this unique rocky perch overlooking the False Bay of St. James/Muizenberg. She gave mixarella a tour of her stunning and homey nest.

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“In 1991, I swapped Denis’ much-loved faux leather couch (truly hideous) for six retro chairs, Scandinavian style. Denis was devastated but later, being the master of embellishment, he brags about ‘his bargain of the century.’ Then again, I spent an entire month’s salary on that Art Nouveau clock that’s pictured here on top of the kitchen cupboard and was made by my great uncle.”

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“My favourite pieces in my home are mostly the ones that have been made by an assortment of talented friends. Photographer Pippa Hetherington, potter Tessa Gawith of the Pot Spot, artist Jackie Jones (artworks on wall), sculptor and sometimes recluse, Dominique Rocco, artist and collaborator Arabella Caccia, and decor artist Janet Fryer. As well as the many cushion covers, throughout the house, by the prolific South African textile designer and illustrator, Heather Moore.”

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“I love old fashion mixed with a bit of now. I have a thing for Persian rugs and old wardrobes and, of course, old mirrors. The more time-beaten, the better. The mirror backsplash in my kitchen behind the basin was made by my very talented old school friend, Ms. Fryer.

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“Having children curbed the obsessive collecting phase, and I have been through a bit of a 10-year lull. However, I think the bug has bitten once again. This time it’s for collecting old South African pottery from the ’50s, Drostdy Ware, Lucia Ware, and the English and American versions of Vermont.”

“My Beswick ducks were found separately in three different junk stores in different cities. Each of them is a different size. Amazing, ey? Now I have a full set in the same style and colour.”

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“For the dining room wall, the fiercely creative Jen Mason roped me into painting it for an Earthcote shoot. Inspired by Paul Smith. maybe?”

The colours are also a nod to the famed Muizenberg brightly coloured changing huts that line the beach in front of her house where Debs swims each dawn. As she notes, “With all the grannies at the St. James tidal pool. This marks the start of my day and a coffee at a local coffee shop before I start work.”

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Her work is in photography, which is more a vocation than a labour. When she is not “working” at capturing people, places, lives and faces, she is visualizing and collaborating on art and further installments for exhibits. When Debs sets out each day, she is attired in her own offbeat expression of elegance with a hint of her past punk influences.

“My wardrobe still has a resemblance of junk store finds from my youth. My Nan (grandmother) made my mom’s clothes when she was younger. I still wear some of them (seen hanging on wardrobe door.)  I am trying to be grownup and add more neutral colours but cannot throw away my colourful past. My new (read: not second-hand) pieces are mostly from my good friend, designer Claire Kingan Jones, who recently moved to New Zealand.”

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Even at the end of the day, this bird likes to keep busy. Around the house, needles and wool are kept within stretching distance. “There is always a handmade blanket on the couch or bed in my house. My youngest, Jed (now 17), sometimes when he was little, would prefer to fall asleep to the soft clack of my needles rather than a story. I have great excuses for my knitting —my grey hair now and our little precious grandson, Luke (born to eldest son, Rip, below right, who lives in Johannesburg and is finishing medical school). Jed, below left, is an aspiring musician in a band called The Oxygen Thieves; their video, ‘Under the Sky,’ was filmed in his neighbourhood.”

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“Sun-downers” and weekends are spent on the expansive front deck, which feels almost cantilevered over the False Bay cocktail of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Below the deck is the garden, a seaside, rocky terrain strewn with an almost eccentric installation of flotsam and jetsam found by Denis, Debs and their boys, Rip and Jed, on the beaches all along the South African coast.

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“Those weird pieces of junk in the garden are Denis’ art collections. Flotsam from the beach. His collections of African heads keep a watchful eye on his collections of cacti. We always did have different taste … as you know.”

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I do know. Once, Debs and Denis called upon my critical eye to give an honest opinion about a new painting (above) that Denis had acquired. Debs and I struggled to contain our mirth, but once Denis explained how it made him think of surfing and being young and free and how the moon looks just like that when you’re on your board in the water, it became impossible not to fall in love with the acquisition. It’s always the response that gives art its meaning — just like Debs and Denis give to life. This sums up how I feel each time I am with them. Like her marvelous finds, they delight me and I want to keep them around forever.

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