The artist Bill Ainslie was well-known as a teacher, who influenced scores of young artists in his time.
In the mid-1980s he travelled to New York to attend the Triangle Workshops, where artists were exploring abstract expressionism. What was Abstract Expressionism? It was largely an American art movement, whose followers believed that paintings should not be about depicting things in the world, but rather that they be only about the paint and the canvas themselves. So, for example, in one important form of Abstract Expressionism, the act of putting the paint on the canvas became the primary issue. The paint would be poured, splashed, dripped, thrown, or swept with huge brushes – onto enormous canvases that were stretched out on the floor instead of on easels. As the art critic Harold Rosen said: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear … as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Bill Ainslie had what was for him a life-changing experience at the Triangle Workshops. He became convinced that abstraction was the purest form of artistic expression: he believed it had a kind of purity because it was only about the demands of the painted canvas itself, not about mimicking the superficial appearance of things in the world.
Ainslie felt that many artists in his own country were “trapped” (as he now saw it) in a very literal, “story-telling” style. He passionately believed that abstraction would release and transform their artistic expression. So, he, with David Koloane, Dumisani Mabaso, and others, set up the Thupelo Workshops in South Africa in 1985. This became a regular space where, over a few weeks each year, artists were invited to spend all their hours experimenting with abstraction. Materials were provided in abundant supply, especially acrylic paints and paint extenders, together with large canvases and lots of physical space. The environment was liberating. It allowed artists to use large, free gestures in their painting, working together in a mutually supportive environment. For many it changed the course of their careers.