#MyJoburg with Cathy Gatland, founder of Urban Sketchers Johannesburg

20 Feb 2024
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city. 

Cathy Gatland is the founder of Urban Sketchers Johannesburg, the Joburg chapter of a larger international community of people who draw on location in cities, towns, and villages. Ever since discovering urban sketching 12 years ago, she’s been drawing Joburg's people and places, something she says has not only become a passionate interest but has opened her eyes and heart to the city.

What brought you to Joburg or makes you stay here?
I followed my then-art director as a young studio assistant in an ad agency to gain some work experience. I intended to stay for a year or two, which has somehow turned into 47 years!

"I hardly knew Joburg before I started sketching it, ensconced as I was behind high walls and inside my car."

What made you start Urban Sketchers Johannesburg?
In 2009 I discovered the newly established Urban Sketchers online community and blog, with people around the world sending in sketches and stories of their towns and cities. At the time no one was representing Africa or South Africa, so I submitted some sketches and was, amazingly, invited to be the Johannesburg 'correspondent'. I wanted company and moral support as I looked for places and stories to sketch that I could post on the Urban Sketchers blog. A young artist, John Philip, found me via my blog and we started as Joburg Sketchers. First [it was] just two or three of us, eventually others joined, and we became Urban Sketchers Johannesburg in 2016 when we were recognised as an official chapter of the international group.

What is the most satisfying part? The art or the people?
Really, all of it. It’s wonderful to meet up, sketch together, and share tips and art materials with people of all ages, stages, and walks of life, who often become good friends. It’s fascinating and enlightening to have passing conversations and exchanges with strangers whom you would otherwise never have crossed paths with, and it’s wonderful to look back on sketchbooks full of experiences and memories.
Cathy Gatland's sketch produced in the Braamfontein Cemetery. Photo: Supplied.

Your hidden Joburg – what are the places you have uncovered through a love of sketching?
So many. I hardly knew Joburg before I started sketching it, ensconced as I was behind high walls and inside my car. I’d often driven past intriguing-looking places wondering what was going on in and around them. Newtown and its silos were a mystery until we started sketching there, unwittingly recording changes from disused silos to student accommodation and the building of Newtown Junction. It was often a hive of activity with artists from the local studios, school tours, graffiti artists, and film crews and actors using the space under the M1 highway.

Fordsburg, which we’ve recently returned to after a long break, is such a lively, action-filled place, interesting and varied in its people, activities, traditions, buildings, markets, restaurants, and bakeries. The dereliction that first strikes you when driving through fades into insignificance when you’re sitting out on the street and you have time and opportunity to witness camaraderie and kindness, as well as the odd bumper bashing and choice language flying around! Someone almost always stops for a chat.

What's the most interesting place you've sketched in Joburg?
I think the Braamfontein and Brixton cemeteries. I had heard of and read bits of Johannesburg’s history, but sitting under the big, old trees, both spaces ironically come to life. With some familiar names scattered around, and some new to me, the individual stories recorded on many of the tombstones and memorials are engrossing; it’s hard to tear yourself away and sketch. When you do, the dappled light coming through the trees, tombstones, and sculptures makes it a challenging and infinitely fascinating subject.

"The individual stories recorded on many of the Braamfontein and Brixton cemetery tombstones are engrossing; it’s hard to tear yourself away and sketch."

Is there one place you would still love to sketch?
I would love to sketch the less touristy areas of Soweto or Alexandra, where the locals hang out. I’ve often wished I could be invisible so people don’t get self-conscious or suspicious if they notice me, but once I show and explain what I’m doing, they’re usually fine or even happy about it.

What spot do travellers to Joburg most enjoy sketching?
Travelling sketchers, in my experience, love places like Maboneng and Newtown, and the jacarandas! We haven’t had many overseas visitors but the ones who have joined us always look forward to returning.
Sketching Hermann Wald's Impala Stampede in Joburg's Main Street Precinct. Photo: Mark Straw

The work you do captures the heritage of Joburg. What are some of the places members of Urban Sketchers Johannesburg have captured that no longer exist?
Some have shut down or changed. It’s been sad to see the Johannesburg City Library closed and run down. We sketched there in 2012 just after extensive renovations and it was looking polished and promising. Liliesleaf Farm has closed, 1 Eloff Street, aka Joziburg Lane, which for a while housed restaurants, art studios, and music events is no longer operating. The Sheds at 1Fox Precinctwhich held a market on weekends, and the Ellis Park food gardens are gone. The market outside the Market Theatre, Moyo at Zoo Lake, lots of Melville shops... so many when you look back! I regret not sketching many more places that are no longer around or changed completely.

What have you learnt about Joburg through sketching it?
It’s a complex, multifaceted city, and what you see is not necessarily what you get – it’s so much more interesting, layered, warm, and welcoming than you might think, and there are hundreds of activities, projects, and initiatives at work in and around its streets. That taxi drivers are often your friends! Also to be alert and streetwise and that there are certain places to avoid or move swiftly through.

"[Joburg] is a complex, multifaceted city, and what you see is not necessarily what you get – it’s so much more interesting, layered, warm, and welcoming than you might think."

What was the City of Gold event you hosted last year?
The international Urban Sketchers awards events grants every year to regional branches – or 'chapters' as they call them – to promote the urban sketching ethos around the world. Last year, one of our members, Margaret De Bree, won a grant of $2,000 for the Johannesburg chapter. We formed a committee and decided on a weekend event called City of Gold in two different venues representing the Old (Fox and Main Streets in Marshalltown on the Saturday) and the New (Rosebank on the Sunday).

We hired venues as a base in each area (Fox Street Events and PhotoZA). We asked some of our experienced sketchers to prepare workshops, designed a logo, set up a website and Quicket booking site, printed T-shirts, and [put together] goodie bags, stamps, and brochures. On the event weekend, we met up for coffee each morning and participants then joined the tutors they had been pre-allocated, who walked each group to their chosen locations in the area. Workshops were presented with talks and demos, then the sketchers were guided and encouraged through exercises and a final sketch. A food truck was arranged at Fox Street, and in Rosebank sketchers met up for lunch with new friends in restaurants. The afternoons were set aside for free sketching and there were closing drinks and snacks at PhotoZA. It was a massive success due to everyone involved!
Sketchers come together for the City of Gold event held in 2023. Photo: Mark Straw.

Are you planning any other events for 2024?
We’re not planning any more similarly ambitious events for 2024 without the generous sponsorship we received last year, but our monthly sketch dates have since attracted a lot more people who are interested in sketching together at every level. We used to be very happy to get an attendance of 10 or 12, but our first sketch day this year saw 45 old and new enthusiasts sketch the Old Lake Market in Parkview!

How do people join?
People can join Urban Sketchers Johannesburg on Facebook or Instagram and ask to be added to the WhatsApp group if they’d like more regular communications.

Home is...
Joburg’s red-brown soil, vibrant street life, jacarandas, thunderstorms, and winter sunshine are reminiscent of a happy early childhood, and sketching has made it feel more like home. Our children and granddaughter are here, and friends, old and new – although too many others have left for less 'interesting’ pastures.
Joburg Sketchers gather at the Old Lake Market in Parkview for the first sketch of 2024. Photo: Supplied.

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
I love Emmarentia, the suburb we’ve lived in for nearly 30 years, for the tree-lined streets, the nearby botanical gardens, and surely the best-utilised little series of dams in South Africa. You can watch (and sketch) dogs and their walkers, cyclists, canoeists, yachtsmen, yoga, miniature boat sailors, divers, fishermen, ducks, and more any day or evening of the week, and you can listen to live concerts from your verandah, albeit with sound distortions. Sometimes it’s fabulous – Elton John and Mango Groove – and sometimes headache-inducing, depending on your taste in music. Checkers is just up my street, as well as excellent bakeries and Eastern Temptations for wonderful spices and nuts. Linden with its many fabulous restaurants and coffee, art, fabric, book, and thrift shops (and my granddaughter) is close by, as well as other old, characterful suburbs, and the city.

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
Constitution Hill, preferably including a tour of its art collection. The Wilds for views of the city, beautiful walks (both wild and more tamed with indigenous gardens), animal sculptures, waterfalls, and mosaics. Emmarentia Botanical Gardens, especially on a weekend when the Linden Market or a good live music concert is on.

The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
I’m lucky to have a husband who enjoys cooking, and does it brilliantly so that the occasional restaurant meal doesn’t always measure up, but just recently after sketching with friends in Fordsburg we stopped at World of Samoosas in the Oriental Plaza for lunch. The cashew-sauced lamb curry with naan bread I had was completely delicious and one I’ll remember and hope to repeat.

If you could buy one Joburg building which would it be?
The Johannesburg City Library. Obviously if I could afford to buy it, money would be no object so I’d restore and restock it and make sure all its treasures were secure but available for current and future generations.
The Johannesburg City Library sadly remains closed. Photo: Louise Whitworth.

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
I’d be a terrible mayor but if I could summon some superpowers I’d restore the derelict municipal buildings in the city and make all the streets safe and clean to walk and sit in.

Favourite Joburg label, and why?
I’m not a big shopper besides art materials and books, but because I can usually find things my son will wear at T-shirt Terrorist, I'd have to say there. I like Tsonga shoes but I wear everything until it falls apart so I don't shop very often.

What makes someone a Joburger?
Someone who loves and defends it despite its obvious shortfalls; who’s open and excited about new ideas, people, and experiences, and who can make a plan.

One Joburg personality whom you would honour with the city's freedom if you could, and why? 
You know her well: Heather Mason, an American who fully throws herself into whatever Joburg has to offer, top to bottom, East to West, and inside out. She's an inspiration to any Joburger to get out and experience the place and its people. She started her 2Summers blog around the time I started sketching Joburg and I’ve often referred to it to find new sketching venues and the courage to go there. To be honest, I think she already has the freedom of the city!
If she could, Cathy Gatland would honour Heather Mason with the freedom of the city. Photo: Thorsten Deckler.

What do you love most about Joburg?
The weather, the way people emerge from houses and workplaces whenever the sun is out, with bright umbrellas to form sociable groups on the pavements. The great diversity of people and communities and how there's always something interesting happening somewhere.

What do you least like about Joburg?
The rampant crime and fear that something could go badly haywire at any moment. The desperate poverty at every turn with settlements on every unguarded patch of land, along rivers and spruits, and under every available shelter.

Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Be friendly and open to receive friendliness. Contact the Johannesburg Urban Sketchers if you even remotely like to draw – there's no judgement and you'll have a deeply immersive experience and lasting memory of at least one aspect of the city or suburbs.

The perfect weekend in Joburg includes...
A breakfast out somewhere, a walk at Emmarentia Dam, a sketching meet-up with coffee or lunch and chats about pens, paper, and paints, some hours in my studio, an afternoon read and nap, a braai and a swim with family with the Music Guru (aka Sean Brokensha) on the radio.

Three words that describe this city.
Extreme, enthralling, infuriating.

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Ufrieda Ho, author and journalist
#MyJoburg with Sarah Barret of Joburg 360 Tours
#MyJoburg with artist Thabang Lehobye

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