IT ISN’T EVERY day that one hears of a South African artist who took their work to the ultimate in commercial possibility, without, on many levels, allowing it to lose its idiosyncratic flavour. With an oft-spoken injunction against ordinariness that punted being extraordinary with a bit of naughtiness tossed in on the side, South African artist Carrol Boyes lived her life in full. She succumbed to cancer on 14 August 2019. She was 65.
The legacy of her popular and world-renowned metallic works and décor creations became a brand on their own, rapidly and implacably. But the path was a scenic one for Boyes; taking her in a multitude of different directions before she mobilised her skills to become the maker of the work you think of when you hear her name.
Born on 21 November 1954 and raised on her parents’ farm in Tzaneen in the Limpopo Province, she had a creative yen from the start. She was educated in Fine Arts at the University of Pretoria where she majored in sculpture. As a young professional, she took up the cudgels of teaching English and art in Hout Bay, in the Western Cape.
In 1989, she was 35 and made the bold decision to cast regular paid employment aside and give her dreams to make art, full throttle. From her studio in her home basement, to the world, her objects turned into jewellery and functional objects; her art initiative became a business and a brand, in the days before ‘branding’ was a trend.
Shifting from clay as a medium, she started to experiment with copper to create pieces which were unique and compelling and different to anything else available at the time, yet functional. Boyes was working in an African rubric before it was fashionable to do so, on a commercial scale. She started to sell her work at the Greenmarket Square in Cape Town, and the rest became marketing and high-end functional objects’ history.
As she worked, so she developed, moving to experiment with cutlery designs, taking inspiration from Victorian styled cutlery from her childhood, among other sources. Like an alchemist turning base materials into gold, Boyes would turn ordinary and mundane cutlery into beautiful and witty functioning artworks cherished globally. Her cutlery experiments led to forays with stainless steel as a medium, in the interests of pragmatics and dish washers, and the die was cast for her iconic work.
But it was never that simple, really. From the age of nine, Boyes was an unrelenting experimenter with her talent and her ambition for perfection. As she grew into a maker of objects, she was unstoppable. With an urge “not to look back”, she did things like melt family jewellery in a bid to create something new. In her latter years, working with a production and marketing staff, she would design her objects in plasticine, fine-tune them in silicone and fibreglass, and see them cast in resin, before they saw light of day in shop windows or online.
In 1992, just three years after going solo, Boyes opened the first Carrol Boyes factory and manufacturing facility on her parents’ Limpopo farm; not long after, she opened a second factory in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town.
Boyes left a true mark on the South African art and décor industry, which continues to give back to her legacy and her family. Today there are 45 South African stores specialising in Boyes pieces, which are also sold at some 51 outlets all over the world. In 2004, she was acknowledged by the Alumni board of Pretoria University as a Phenomenal Woman, and in 2008, she was deemed by Rapport and City Press as SA’s most influential woman in Arts and Culture. In 2020, the Carrol Boyes brand won the Home and Garden Awards UK for Best Homeware and Gift Retailer.
Both of Boyes’s step-daughters, Kim Jackson-Meltzer and Martine Jackson-Klotz, remain involved in the Carrol Boyes brand – and in that of their own mother, the late Barbara Jackson, the co-founder of Monkeybiz, who was Boyes’s life partner, and who passed away in 2010.
Boyes leaves her younger brothers John and Charles, her step-daughters, their husbands and children, Ella, Bailey and Kane – as well as countless owners and celebrants of her unique aesthetic.
Erin Venter, in 2021, was a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She took part in VIT-101, a course which focused on arts writing, given by Robyn Sassen.