The symmetry of traditional Moroccan ceramics, the elegant patterns of Persian art and the deep blue florals of Portuguese azulejos provide irresistible inspiration for Garden Route artisans. South discovered two successful studios dedicated to producing authentic hand-painted tiles for the international and local market.

WORDS Clare van Rensburg PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré

Free-spirited entrepreneur Kirsty Hayward pours over her colourful, hand-painted tiles as she works in her mother Verity Orford’s parlour at Nokwanda in Rheenendal. She is surrounded by an eclectic assortment of dried flowers, ceramic tools, pots of coloured glaze and heavy texts on Iranian art. An intricate Persian tile mural is laid out before her, featuring geometric patterns around an elaborate peacock. Kirsty paints the ornate designs with a fine brush and a steady hand.

The bohemian artist says she discovered her product by accident; “I wanted tiles for a splash-back behind my stove and I couldn’t find the exact mismatched assortment of tiles I needed, so I decided to paint my own. Later, I posted photographs on the website Etsy and the orders came flooding in.”

Kirsty’s fledgling business, Terethsheba, sums up her feelings about a hobby that grew into a thriving cottage industry. The word is loosely translated from the Hebrew, meaning “sanctuary of peace”.

She describes her tile painting as “therapeutic accomplishment” and loves the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a tile and sending it to some far flung destination – which is exactly what Etsy has done for her business. “It has opened up a worldwide market for my product. The Internet has given me an incredible income for something I love doing.” Etsy describes itself as “the world’s most vibrant handmade marketplace”.

Her intricately painted tiles are ordered for bar mitzvah and wedding table markers, coasters and party favours as well as traditional wall tiles and stair-risers. She marvels at the fact that her products, decorated in Rheenendal outside Knysna, are shipped to Israel, New York, Hollywood and Alaska. The bulk of Terethsheba’s orders originate in the United States, England and Australia.

Kirsty is a gregarious and unconventional businesswoman. Her background is based on studies in drama and experience in chicken farming, growing lavender and selling antiques. She worked as a paramedic before she discovered her talent for painting. “I wouldn’t describe myself as artistic, but creative,” she says. “I’ve always loved scrapbooking, making my own clothes and crafting.” About six years ago Kirsty decided she wanted to draw and discovered a hidden talent for reproducing intricate design. Having wandered into her current profession by chance, she says her success still takes her by surprise; “I’m shocked that people love my tiles. It still confuses me that people are prepared to pay for them.”

Not only are her customers prepared to pay up to US$8 per tile, they often request immediate airmail shipping across the globe. A recent order required over 700 tiles to be mailed to Portugal. It is one of several orders Terethsheba is currently processing. The business, founded in 2013, now employs three part-time artists and relies on her mother’s sharp eye for quality control. “Mom has no qualms about throwing faulty product out.”

Kirsty has realised a winning formula – she buys bisque 10cm by 10cm tiles from the Knysna Pottery House and paints on the intricate underglaze in one of her stock designs, often well into the night. The tiles are then glazed and fired in a kiln at the Pottery House before she ships them to-order, packaged in wads of polystyrene and bubble wrap. However, Kirsty remains humble about her accomplishments, admitting that founding a unique enterprise and contributing to her family’s coffers by doing something she loves pales in comparison to the pride she enjoys at being able to pay her son’s college tuition fees.

A taste of Portugal
Portuguese chef Mize and her South African husband Deon van Rooyen fell in love with Calitzdorp in 2006. The Klein Karoo town reminded the dynamic couple of Mize’s hometown of Alentejo in Portugal. “The picturesque village, the olive trees, the friendly people, the beauty of the mountains; all resemble a Portuguese village. We felt safe here and wanted to create a life for ourselves,” Mize says.

The couple quit their wanderings to lay a foundation in the town, initially founding self-catering accommodation, Casa Liefling, and later branching out into ceramics and opening the Porto Deli and Restaurant in 2013. “We wanted to bring authentic Portuguese culture to Calitzdorp, to sit alongside the local port and wine cultivars.”

“In the Karoo, you have to be a Jack of all trades to make a living,” says Deon of their unconventional life. The couple pour their creative energy into their Portuguese-inspired restaurant six days a week, they bake bread and paint tiles in their quiet moments.

The Porto Deli and Restaurant is a true taste of the Mediterranean, nestled in the heart of the Klein Karoo. Painted a striking sky blue, the restaurant transports you to the edge of the ocean. Indigo and white hand-painted tiles line the walls. Portuguese music plays softly as the aromas of bay leaf, garlic and peri-peri prawns waft from Mize’s kitchen. Platters of grilled sardines, quartered chickens and rump steak espetada are on the menu. Voted one of the top 500 restaurants in South Africa, the little eatery resembles an art museum, with Mize’s tiles and Deon’s etchings and photographs lining the walls.

The couple is a creative tag team; talking over one another, finishing each other’s sentences with a smile or wink. “We are a collaboration of talent, we work together.” Their passion for good food is equal to their passion for art. Over a plate of delicious Pasteis de Nata, Mize’s famous Mediterranean custard tartlets, the duo describe how their tile business began. Wanting to design and paint a tile mural for the home they fondly call Liefling (darling), the couple was inspired by the distinctive blue and white tiles, or azulejos, for which the Mediterranean is famous. They set about buying a kiln and putting it to work. The tiles are handmade from clay on the couple’s dining room table. They are rolled, measured, biscuit fired, painted and glazed according to the interlocking geometric and floral motifs of Mediterranean ceramics. “No two tiles are exactly identical. They are rustic, imperfect and original,” says Mize.

She refers to the 15cm by 15cm square tiles as her “therapy”. They bear the delicate impression of her fingerprints on the edges, where the tiles were dragged through the glaze. There is honesty in their craftsmanship. Deon applies his artistic skill to painting a range of beautiful murals on the tiles. “Each panel tells a story,” he explains, pointing to a mural of the fishermen of the Cape Verde Islands and another depicting the life of Christ, from the manger to the cross.

Clearly the couple has found a formula for success; despite trying to adorn every wall of the Porto Deli with their unique hand painted tiles, they are snapped up by locals and tourists alike, as fast as they are crafted. Meanwhile, they dream of their idyllic retirement, making tiles full-time, taking long walks in the veld and focusing on their artistic endeavours.

The Porto Deli and Restaurant
7 Calitz Street, Route 62, Calitzdorp
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday in low season.
044 213 3007

Kirsty Hayward
Terethsheba Hand-painted Tiles
081 345 6067

Knysna Pottery House
Classes in ceramic decoration
3 Bokmakierie Street, Lower Old Place, Knysna
044 382 0259