TEACHING ART HAS the power to shape lives. University of South Africa art academic and practicing artist Koos van der Watt was fiercely creative on so many different levels. Working with everything from printmaking and performance, filmmaking to music, he took his capacity to grow young artists seriously, but infused everything he did with a sense of humour. He died on April 28, 2019, from leukaemia. He was 75.
A teacher to his core, van der Watt started his professional life studying education in Pretoria, where he obtained a diploma in art teaching. But he felt very strongly about forbidding his students to become “photocopies” of himself, and he insisted that they follow their own ideas, and push vehemently beyond their boundaries and comfort zones, but above all, to be honest with themselves. And in criticising student work he was always careful to make it clear that the comments were never personal, but were about the work itself. In being sometimes hated and sometimes cherished, van der Watt was a bracingly honest teacher who always got the best from his students.
Coming of a large Pretorian family, van der Watt was one of seven children. Born on April 20 1944, he was the oldest boy, and the middle child. He completed his master of arts degree in Fine Arts in the mid-1970s at the University of South Africa, where he was exposed to the wiles and possibilities of painting, sculpture and printmaking and all the different experimental possibilities which were rife in South Africa at that stage. And throughout his career as an artist and a teacher of art, van der Watt was relentless in amusing himself with the creative possibilities of many different types of approaches. From glass painting to manipulating the pieces of collage, making silicon moulds to creating performance art, van der Watt was “always going for something new,” as his wife of 50 years, Runa remembers, pointing out that he even designed the Pretoria house in which the family lived for many years.
He transitioned to teach at the university, and touched the lives of literally thousands of young people, several of which went on to become prominent artists in their own capacities, such as Paula Louw, Frikkie Eksteen, Elfriede Dreyer and Jan van der Merwe to name a few.
An ardent fisherman who considered the fish kraals at Cosi Bay his “happy place”, van der Watt filled every moment of his life with the things and people that he loved. He became bored easily and was unprecious in changing tack in his projects, but he was always very passionate about the things that mattered; he always had an energy and a thirst to do more. He retired from Unisa at the age of 65, and continued feeding his creative fires. After he developed macular degeneration which compromised his ability to make visual art, van der Watt took to writing poetry and stories in Afrikaans, primarily for his grandchildren, but also to sate that creative energy in his soul.
Koos van der Watt is survived by his wife, Runa, who was his highschool sweetheart at Alberton High School, his daughters Diedre and Sanet and his grandchildren, Victor, Talitha, Nicola and Andrea, hundreds of colleagues and literally thousands of former students.