A New Year Facing Charred Beginnings

Picture of a burnt car on a maroon background taken by Ivan Ballack

This image entitled ‘Some of us have had enough’ (courtesy of Ivan Ballack) might depict exactly how you feel.

If the news headlines over these first weeks of 2015 are anything to go by, it’s been a year of charred beginnings for many. There have been those whose credibility have gone up in smoke (think Zelda La Grange and Sunette Bridges) while others were victims of arson, murder and theft (eg, what happened in Theunissen and what’s happening in Soweto). I too greeted my 2015 with that day-after-a-braai smell on my clothes (though I was nowhere near a braai). Instead of falling prey to crime or the temptation to broadcast my opinions on social media, my charred beginning was caused by dashed hopes and untimely goodbyes.

Picture of billowing orange smoke close to a concrete structure in Mpumalanga

This either reminds of outer space or of the state of your life – Mars One (Mpumalanga, South Africa) courtesy of Ivan Ballack

Maybe your beginning was more toasted than charred or maybe you’re one of those still reeling from the pain of seeing nothing more than ashes. Whatever category you find yourself in I wish to offer what I hope to be an encouraging perspective: that a story’s beginning is never the same as its ending. There’s just too much space in between for making magic and more often than not that charring scene happens just as the curtain opens for the act set to reveal our finest moment yet.

If thinking of it that way hardly helps, then perhaps reading a real-life account of a Phoenix rising will do the trick.

A few weeks before her debut, ceramicist Tanya Laing stood watching as her hopes and very livelihood went up in flames. She had been working around the clock to get her range of ceramics ready for the 2009 Design Indaba. Finally she was doing what she’d been dreaming of and working towards for so long. With her garage now converted into a studio and that second-hand kiln installed, she could now design and produce on a much bigger scale.

Things were going great and then it happened. A short circuit in the kiln caused a fire that burned down the studio and destroyed everything. What wasn’t damaged by the fire itself was laid to waste by attempts to stop the fire. The water left moulds and equipment drenched and unusable and the fire fighters bashed a hole through the kiln door with an axe! Tanya was devastated and spent the next three weeks in bed, thinking she might as well give up since there was nothing left to salvage.

Fortunately though, both her house (including the garage/studio) and her kiln were insured. Before long she was able to have the necessary restoration work done to her studio and kiln. By this time she had also purposed to start again, from scratch, and launch at the 2010 Design Indaba. However, this time it would be under a new name – sootcookie – a play on the Afrikaans word for ‘biscuit’. This new name would also reference the baking process that her products go through in a kiln and the black residue after a fire. This bit of dark humour Tanya associates with the name is also clearly present in her quirky and offbeat designs.

Tanya’s Balaclava Bear is a case in point. She created it in collaboration with a friend and it was given to me by a very dear friend – definitely one of my favourite things in my home. Being a word nerd I especially enjoyed the little story they created to accompany this design.

Some rhyming fun for Sootcookies (almost sinister, but fun) balaclava bear

I hope Tanya’s story has inspired enough hope to believe things will turn out fine. And if you don’t feel ready to hope yet, maybe try out a little dark humour of your own: consider some retail therapy in support one of SA’s design darlings and see how much fun you can have with the mischievous sootcookie creations.

Tanya Laing, an SA design darling (photo courtesy of Bridget Henderson of cowgirlblues.co.za)

Tanya Laing, an SA design darling (photo courtesy of Bridget Henderson of cowgirlblues.co.za)

Picture of a Sootcookie Balaclava Bear with earrings in the form of a gun and gold 'spoils' at his feet

Having some sinister fun of my own – my Balaclava Bear planning a getaway with his spoils

Picture of a Sootcookie Balaclava Bear about to kick a soccer ball

Poised for a penalty shoot out during the 2014 Soccer World Cup


    1. Dear Lee, I am indeed. I’m thankful for the effect of time and reflection. And I’ve found truth in this Chinese proverb: “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” I hope that time and reflection helps with the oddness of your start too. If not, let’s do tea when I’m next in CT? xx

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