On the Eastern Cape of South Africa, stained glass artist Anika Van Der Merwe grew up visiting her family’s farm in the Karoo. Watching her Dutch grandmother craft wool into beautiful artistic weaves on a loom, inspired a lifelong appreciation for traditional crafts, particularly the dying arts. Now, from her Cape Town studio Silver Stain, Van Der Merwe works on a combination of projects that include both restorations and original works, many of which set social networks afire with interest and enthusiasm upon their publication.
With a passion for painting, Van Der Merwe enrolled in fine arts study in 1999 at Port Elizabeth Technikon, where she participated in a stained glass course that forever altered her trajectory. Unfortunately, glass painting was not part of the program and upon completion of her certificate, the young artist traveled to London with nothing but a one-way ticket and 50 pounds in her pocket. Work at four different UK studios provided experience and practice in both glass painting and restoration.
In 2008, Van Der Merwe returned to South Africa and established Silver Stain Glass Studio, where she navigated many challenges, including sourcing materials and equipment. Exploration has been key to the artist’s evolution and growth. Restoration work on windows from Argentina led to her discovery of Prodesco enamels, a product of Spain. She says: “I find the amber enamels more predictable, and they can be mixed with other colors. I’ve pushed the paints quite a bit and the results amaze me.”
Notable Van Der Merwe restorations include Argentinian Glass restored for On Site Gallery including a dome for a private residence and the entrance to the main seating area of the Short Market Club, both in Cape Town; thirty-four windows at the Church of Transfiguration in Kensal Rise, London (for which the council allowed no power tools on the site. It was mandated that the entire restoration, including carpentry and masonry, be carried out by hand); and Saint Mary the Virgin, Harefield, UK, 2007.
In 2014, an opportunity to create a Saint Francis window for Bishops, an historic catholic chapel at a Cape Town boy’s school, presented itself. Restrained by the fact that the surrounding windows were Mayer of Munich, Van Der Merwe designed and fabricated a companion window, but knew it would be her last non-original work.
She said: “Although I really enjoy painting in the Mayer style, I couldn’t help but feel I should be making my own windows by now. I’ve painted so many windows in the styles of others for such a long time. That’s not what I envisioned stained glass to be for me. I’ve admired artists like Judith Schaechter and Sylvia Laks, and many others. I wanted to be an artist in my own right.”
During the St. Francis project, Van Der Merwe designed and fabricated the first of three autonomous panels featuring graceful and flowing koi fish, based on her early design sketch for an Asian restaurant commission. “I didn’t really give it any thought or planning. It was one of those pieces I let take me places. I played and experimented, applied techniques I learned from restorations, pushed the paint to get certain results, and it came out great.” The second and third koi panels in the triptych were created in 2016 and 2017 respectively, the second appearing on the cover of the Stained Glass Quarterly in 2019, along with a feature article.
Overwhelming positive response on social media and from the stained glass world at large has encouraged Van Der Merwe to take on more complex and challenging projects, such as her recent collaboration, The Honeybear. Based on Ree Treweek’s illustrations from her book Postcards of Molitia, the panel afforded Van Der Merwe and Treweek the perfect opportunity to marry illustration and stained glass in a detailed, magical and fantastical panel featuring a character from Treweek’s fantasy world.
Van Der Merwe says: “It was a great project, some of which Ree even painted herself. We went to this magical cottage in the mountains of the southern most point of Africa to paint some of the imagery in the window.” The two artists are currently working on an accompanying panel alive with botanicals for Treweek’s home. Also now in progress is a stained glass dome created by Van Der Merwe for a local residential client.
Throughout her career, Van Der Merwe has actively avoided the “fine art” world. Stained glass provided the means to be an artist, make a living and avoid navigating intimidating art critics. Though South Africa doesn’t currently recognize stained glass as an art form, the popularity and success of Van Der Merwe’s work is expanding the understanding and appreciation of the craft, not only in her homeland, but worldwide.