FROM the depths of a blazing furnace Guido van Besouw magically transforms sand and fire into liquid glass to create stunning pieces of art that have earned him and his wife Coralie international recognition and the likes of presidents and royalty keen collectors of their work.
Out in the pastoral stillness of Summerveld, a furnace roars and burns bright yellow, fueled by re-used cooking oil the couple purchases on a weekly basis. Grey haired and wiry, Guido wields a lengthy rod into the depths of the furnace and scoops up a little of the liquid glass, forming a bubble at the tip of the rod. There’s a blast of heat as Coralie opens the furnace door. Some metres away, the heat from the open furnace forces us to take a step back, but Coralie and Guido seem unfazed by it. This is a carefully choreographed dance the husband-and-wife team have perfected. Words are barely necessary as Coralie reads her husband’s body language and anticipates when to open the furnace, turn up the heat and stand at the ready with a fierce looking blow torch in hand to keep the glass pliable as Guido spins and weaves it into the form he seeks.
It is extremely rare to find a glassblower these days, and even more rare to find a master craftsman like Guido, ably supported by Coralie (‘my glass apprenticeship must be the longest in history!’) and the young Western Cape apprentice Leroy Wenzel, whom he mentors.
Guido, a qualified civil engineer, entered the art world way back in 1977 when, at 26 years old, he grabbed at the opportunity to serve as an apprentice under Anton Voorveld, an established stained glass artist at the time. Three years later, Guido’s career as a glass artist took off when he created a set of windows and skylights for the Royal Hotel Grill Room in Durban. His name soon became synonymous with stained glass and he and Coralie list with pride the stained glass windows they have designed and made for local churches, schools, buildings of note and private residences nationally.
In fact, a quick peek into Guido’s workshop reveals that he is busy working on replacing six stained glass windows for St Thomas Church which were stolen by thieves who harvested the metal. “I made the original windows, so it’s fitting that I am tasked with replacing them,” he says with a smile.
With the demand for stained glass dwindling Guido’s interest began to extend beyond stained glass, inspired by the potential of the medium he has dedicated more than 35 years of his life to. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. They had to building everything from scratch. “Around 1996, Guido scoured scrapyards for the bits and pieces he needed to build the furnace and set ourselves up,” Coralie chuckles as she recounts those early years. “We taught ourselves through trial and error with Guido eventually developing his own glass recipe and the unique colours that make his work instantly recognisable.”
The furnace roars once more and Guido removes the rod. At the tip, the little bubble of glass has been manipulated and transformed into a stunning light fitting that Coralie explains has been commissioned. The colours change magically from dark oranges and browns to blues and greens, deepening in intensity as the light fitting takes shape and Guido spins the rod to keep the glass fluid, giving the end product the natural free flowing look that makes it instantly recognisable as a Guido van Besouw piece. Guido, Coralie and Leroy work quickly with a sense of frantic urgency, knowing that any wrong move or slight mistake will ruin the piece they are working on. Eventually, Guido is satisfied and the glass fitting is carefully snapped off the end of the rod and placed into a kiln where it undergoes the final process.
A large, airy room in their home serves as a small gallery, showcasing beautiful perfume bottles, glass paper weights, large vases, fan bowls, light fittings and more. Sunlight picks up the vibrant colours in an Ndebele inspired bowl while a shelf of gorgeous perfume bottles throw rainbows of light around the room. It is easy to see why these glass masterpieces are so sought after.
“Our glass has gone all around the world. We were commissioned by government to make a piece for Princess Charlene of Monaco’s wedding; we’ve made pieces for diplomatic gifts; interior decorators commission pieces for lodges across the country and the Saudi royal family are some of our best customers,” explains Coralie.
The couple, who met through polocrosse share a variety of interests. Their garden is a true labour of love and together they have transformed it into a lush, indigenous space. Winding our way past banks of blooming clivia, Coralie points out the natural indigenous forest of trees they planted from seeds they collected, to replace the acres of blue gums they removed. “We left one tall blue gum trunk for the resident eagle,” she says pointing to the distance where the giant trunk towers over the canopy of trees below.
In the forefront, two horses graze peacefully under the shade of a tree. Coralie calls out to them and they lift their heads in acknowledgement. A keen rider, Coralie is also a noted dressage judge and studies Parelli Natural Horsemanship . “I like working with horses. You have to be patient teaching them, especially the difficult ones,” she says, admitting that she still likes to ride whenever she can. Guido, on the other hand has swapped his horse saddle for a saddle of a different kind and is a keen cyclist, these days preferring mountain biking, although he has completed the Comrades and Duzi marathons. “He needs to keep fit and strong to be able to continue glass making,” explains Coralie.
Her life’s motto she says is inspired by a poem by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
Back at the workshop the furnace is roaring again as Guido and Leroy labour on their next project. During an interlude I ask if he has a life motto he lives by. He considers the question seriously for a moment then says shyly: “I’ve been given these gifts to be creative. I create to honour God and give glory to God.”
For more visit their website at http://www.guidovanbesouw.co.za/
You can find Guido’s work at Okha Furniture Design and Interiors Company in Cape Town; Gaze Gallery in Ramsgate, NSA Gallery in Durban, M&M Design in Ballito, Etchings Art Gallery in Durban North amongst others.