Selections from the Rorke’s Drift Collection

Prints by Karl Bethke

During a 1978-1979 sabbatical Karl worked at the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Arts and Craft Centre in Rorke’s Drift, Natal, South Africa. Two hundred twenty color slides, 247 color prints, and 434 black and white negatives he made to record that experience have provided the visual stimulus for his work ever since. The retrospective exhibition of an artist retired from a rich career as a teaching artist—though not retired as an artist—is an impetus to reflect on why, from a life full of conflict and incongruity, this very particular, relatively short experience defined Bethke’s art for more than half his career as an artist. Undoubtedly, his personal experience of apartheid was a powerful one.

His prints are powerfully layered—rich in narrative and symbolism, and aesthetically satisfying. But they reveal incongruity even at their foundation. The print process, as Karl uses it, allows him to add layer after layer of formal elements and to resolve the conflicts of narrative, meaning, and aesthetics as he builds each print. His approach to printmaking can be seen as in conflict with the medium. The numerous technical steps required to make a print can be stifling and distracting but for Karl they are stimulating—“a challenge of my intentions which keeps the idea under stress until the last proof is pulled.”