Cape Town artist Andrew van der Merwe carves out beach calligraphy niche
Upbeat and cheerful, scholarly and artistic Van der Merwe is the world’s only beach calligrapher, writes Thelma Mort
Andrew van der Merwe earns a living as a calligrapher, but he has also taken his passion to the beach. He is suntanned and ruddy from working outdoors.
He is upbeat and cheerful, scholarly and artistic. He has gone from gold stars for his grade 1 writing to international acclaim. Van der Merwe is the world’s only beach calligrapher.
He works in Cape Town, has a large international Instagram following, has won several awards and is invited abroad frequently.
Van der Merwe found himself "just intoxicated with writing" from his first writing lessons. He loved the sound and feel of pencil on paper.
"I also had a beautiful teacher. She had long brown hair that used to fall on me as she leaned over the desk. She gave me gold stars for my writing," he says, laughing merrily.
Van der Merwe grew up in Port Alfred and East London and became interested in mark making on excursions to the beach. "Most people will just scratch in the sand with a stick," he says. "But for me the quality of the mark, whether it’s a beautiful mark or not, is the important thing.
So I thought if I went to Kommetjie, on the Long Beach, side, it would be a little more sheltered even though the tide was high. But there was a bush fire raging!
"As a child I would play with interesting ways of shaping the points of sticks. Feathers and shells also make lovely marks." He developed a spear-shaped tool with a bit of flattened wire for a tip.
Used at speed, it threw up the sand leaving a neat V-cut reminiscent of calligraphy carved in stone. He made a type of trowel to cleanly scoop out the sand.
Van der Merwe is secretive about his tools and refuses to explain how he leaves no footprints behind in his beach calligraphy. He loves being out in the elements on beautiful beaches, but does not only work in favourable conditions.
Van der Merwe describes a commission on Scarborough beach working during "a massive storm. Some of the biggest swell we’d had for years. I couldn’t do it because even though I was 50m up on the beach, the work would get washed away from the surge of the swell and there was gale-force wind. I couldn’t control my tools.
"So I thought if I went to Kommetjie, on the Long Beach, side, it would be a little more sheltered even though the tide was high. But there was a bush fire raging!"
He found a spot where he was not choked by the smoke and managed to do the work.
"The wind was blowing on the writing, and the swell was coming and circling up behind me into a puddle. That puddle was being blown uphill into my lettering and it was blowing ash from the fire into it.
"That is one of the reasons why I do the beach calligraphy because it is elemental and ephemeral," he says. Van der Merwe’s calligraphy has captured the romantic market and he is commissioned often to write bridal couples’ names in the sand as a wedding gift.
He loved working in Zeebrugge, Belgium, in 2008 "because they had a vast beach; the tide goes out for over a kilometre". This was a collaboration between Belgian and South African calligraphers that raised about R700,000 for charity. He was also invited to one of the world’s biggest calligraphy events, the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, in 2010 and 2016 and performed in Abu Dhabi in 2011.
In 2016 he was in Perth writing on Fremantle beach. He has been invited to tour the US in 2019. There is a strong international interest in beach calligraphy as a new art form. Van der Merwe has an Instagram following of several thousand people. He says calligraphy is much more popular in Arabic and eastern countries.
"In the West, calligraphy almost died out [due] to technology. It was resuscitated in the late 1800s by a craft movement," he says.
The art has recently been given some impetus by young people, particularly graffiti artists in Europe who are producing monumental works that define neighbourhoods.
Asemic calligraphy is Van der Merwe’s favourite way to relax on the beach. Asemic writing references known writing systems but is made up. This is his work that generates the most interest.
He is fascinated by the history of writing systems. "Asemic writing has a long and fascinating history going back quite a few hundred years — which I knew nothing of when I began doing asemic calligraphy. I hadn’t even heard the word!
"Anyone curious could begin by looking up the Voynich manuscript, the Codex Seraphinianus and the work of calligrapher Zhang Xu.
"I like to play with African writing systems. Tifinagh has been a favourite. [It is the writing system of the Berber of North Africa and is quite remarkable in how it shows Greek and even Phoenician influence and has resisted the Arabic influence all these centuries."
The land artists he particularly admires are Anni Snyman, Strijdom van der Merwe, Kim Soonim, Simon Beck and Andy Goldsworthy. But he says "most of my land art is nothing like anything these artists produce".