By Lorelle Bell
CONDE NAST House&Garden SA, August 2011
It is a rare South African collaboration between business and art that allows the space for arts and enterprise that is Union House in Commercial Street, Cape Town. Behind the closed-off facade of the three-story canary yellow heritage listed building, the doors to Union House open to reveal an air of enviable creative industry on the part of resident artists and artisans.
For this is home to the Spier Arts Academy and Spier Architectural Arts incorporating Spier Mosaic Arts and The Ceramic Studio. The academy offers a three year course in architectural mosaic under the guidance of Irene Rizzin, a masters graduate of the Scoula Mosaicisti del Fruili in Spilimbergo Italy, to talented artists from under-resourced backgrounds. Prospective students undergo a rigorous assessment before being admitted and, if successful, are awarded a “living salary” while being given education and training in the arts with a focus on mosaic, as well as extensive business skills to equip them to be future arts entrepreneurs. The architectural arts programme secures major commercial commissions, then enables collaborations between established artists who design the work with senior students from the academy and artisans in the mosaic and ceramic studios, who execute it.
At the head of the Architectural Arts Programme is artist and corporate arts consultant Jeanetta Blignaut. Her ability to bridge the corporate and arts worlds and her passion for collaborations between established and emerging artists means she is well placed to manage the substantial local and international commissions garnered through Spier’s extensive arts and business networks.
One just completed commission is an 18 metre by 3 metre  public mosaic piece installed outside Kings Cross Station in London. The work Coming to the City was designed by Clive van den Berg and executed by senior students.
On a walk through Union House a piece designated for the music department on the campus of the University of the Free State was receiving the finishing touches. Designed by Pat Mautloa, the visual meaning of the work is invested with musical references in the different mosaic styles used to communicate various styles of music. “So the classical section is rendered in formalised, technical, “classic” mosaic techniques, while contemporary music is reflected in a looser, bolder style to communicate the “chaos” of the orchestra, for example,” explains Jeanetta.
In a demonstration of Jeanetta’s passion for development and collaboration, the resident Qubeka (meaning “continuing”)Bead Studio owned and run by four founding members who received training and a start in Jeanetta’s former home-based Qalo (“beginning”) studio, are working on an exciting new commission. This commission has seen studio members learn paper mache skills to create paper circles that will be “tiled” on columns in the headquarters of a popular South African food chain.
The cooperative, collaborative work is at the root of Jeanetta’s vision and is what drives the work on commissions. Her dreams for the academy are driven by the possibility of future collaborations. Ethopian artist Julie Mehretu is one who Jeanetta is pursuing for a joint mosaic art on the wall of a corporation in Johannesburg. “The beauty of this commission is that the building is still on plan. This means it can still be adjusted to accommodated the artist’s designs,” she says. Mehretu’s works are vivid abstracts; bold, textured and layered. “I can picture the diagonal shapes that feature in her work being integrated into the building to create a real architectural art pieces,” Jeanetta enthuses.
Synergy and collaboration feature as heavily in Union House as it does in conversation with Jeanetta. Funding for the arts enterprises comes partly from Spier’s Creative Block range of wines which takes its name from a Spier initiative now also based at Union House. The Creative Block incorporates small format artworks from recognised and emerging artists whose works are showcased and promoted. This initiative encourages a broader acquisition through access to affordable pieces , while giving artists a marketing platform.
In another exciting venture a Creative Block shop has opened to retail Creative Block art and wines  in Juta Street, Johannesburg.
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