By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Artist Riette Gouws grew up in a very small town in South Africa with one school, one post office, one church and ranch families who made it a point to take care of each other. It was not uncommon in Herold to just pop in unannounced and sit for a cup of tea. “It is probably the smallest town that you will ever encounter. I loved living there,” said Gouws. After grade school, Gouws attended Oudtshoorn High School, then the University of the Orange Free State, earning a Bachelor of Science degree with dual majors in computer science and applied math. After graduation, she went backpacking in Europe for a year. That trip shifted her perspective and prepared her for one day moving to the United States on her own at the age of 26. After accepting a job with an insurance company in South Africa as a computer programmer, a position came up in Chicago and Gouws said yes, sight unseen. It was meant to be a one year commitment, but it grew into much more over the next 20 years. Gouws ended up moving to New Jersey for a new job with CyberShift, working as a project manager implementing large IT systems for 16 years. At CyberShift, Gouws met her husband Warren Gouws, who is ironically also from South Africa. In 2002, Riette Gouws went back to South Africa on sabbatical for a year to complete her MBA from the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Riette and Warren married in 2004 and have one son, Jason, 16. The family moved to Ponte Vedra Beach in 2015, looking for warmer weather. Gouws stopped working to raise Jason and soon found herself drawn to yoga, becoming a certified instructor with a special focus on meditation. In this mindset, she next decided to start painting. She took an oil painting class in 2017 at the First Coast Cultural Center, feeling intimidated at first. She then tried an abstract painting class. “I loved it, and that kind of sparked it,” she said. She has been painting, mostly Florida landscapes, ever since and plans to remain a student of the field forever. She had her first exhibition last year at the Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Library and has an upcoming exhibit at the First Coast Cultural Center in November for winning its Juried Artist Member Exhibit (JAME).
Q: You attended two art courses in England, one at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation in London and one at the Newlyn School of Art in Cornwall. What did you enjoy the most about these opportunities?
A: It is nice to have a community of artists. I like having that group of people that I know. You are not strangers for long because you have art in common. As an artist, you do a lot of your work on your own. I like the community aspect of the classes.
Q: When you are painting, how do you feel?
A: It makes me feel happy and at peace — it is definitely meditative. And it keeps me curious to keep learning and growing and challenging myself. It feels like it is exactly what I should be doing.
Q: What caused you to become certified in yoga and meditation?
A: I think it was because in business I was most of the time working with men. It was a very logical place for a long time. I think when I became a mom, I realized that there are a lot of softer things that I have really not paid attention to. When I had that wonderful feeling of being in meditation in Shavasana at the end of class, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I am breathing, and it feels so good.”
Q: Describe your part-time job with Brit Rose.
A: It is a boutique in Highland Park, Dallas. All their proceeds go toward their Brit Rose Foundation, which is a registered not-for-profit in honor of the owner’s daughter, Brittany Rose. The foundation advocates for mental health and anti-bullying. I do their website and online store, plus some social media, graphic design and email marketing.
Q: What is your life philosophy?
A: I like to challenge myself in things. I always have a little something that I want to either overcome or a new skill that I would like to learn. Maybe it is cliché, but I believe in being authentic. I feel that is the biggest place of freedom to be exactly who you are. There is no need for pretending.
[Author’s note: Riette Gouws’ opening night at the First Coast Cultural Center will be on Nov. 3.]
Photo courtesy Riette Gouws