It’s just another day for Mervyn Dowman, carrying a leather bag he made with his own hands, with a laptop inside, to show potential clients his work.
”I’m not very shy; I just let my work speak for me.”
Those are the words of Cape Town-born Dowman, a mosaic artist from the day he discovered magic in his hands.
The long-haired, green-eyed Dowman, who speaks fast and soft, strangling his syllables, walks me through the streets of Maboneng lighting one cigarette after another.
Maboneng is the art precinct east of the Johannesburg city centre. It’s far from where Dowman learned to use his hands.
As a young boy, he had to rake the double plot they lived in with his grandparents for pocket money; he also had to make compost from chicken manure. Dowman knew too well the idea of working for money.
He got his first casual job at the age of 13 as a packer at a Shoprite supermarket on weekends.
In his teenage years, Dowman met new friends who had a messy, but arty room with fishing nets and footprints going up to the ceiling. It awakened the artist in him.
Dowman moved around the Western Cape province as a boy and often went camping with friends. His childhood wasn’t rough but he didn’t finish high school because he got bored, he says.
“Then I applied for three kinds of apprenticeships; I [spent] a year at home and my friend’s brother was telling me it’s time to get out,” he says.
He got a plumbing apprenticeship for five years; at the end of the first year, his boss told him he was ready. He was given a box of tools and felt like a pro. Fixing roof leaks was his speciality.
Dowman loved the neatness of the plumbing trade but was determined to become a teenage entrepreneur.
”I was bored of plumbing, I’ve done it, I know it. And I had a love for leather work. At 14, I had made my first girlfriend a purse,” he says.
His aunt’s father-in-law was a shoemaker; he showed him how to make a purse and Dowman went on to make boots for hippies. It was very fashionable at the time, he says.
“Then I asked the girls at school for old earring studs, I used that to make patterns on the leather.”
Between the apprenticeship and entrepreneurship, Dowman received back pay from his first year worth R109 ($7.50) and bought tools to make belts and purses and sold them to neighbors.
Colleagues started ordering belts and purses for their wives and daughters as well.
At the age of 21, he resigned. He left plumbing and moved to Johannesburg. He had a stand at the Market Theatre Flea Market – the first of its kind in Johannesburg – selling tripod leather stools, bags and belts.
He made a tidy profit; selling about 10 stools a week. Out of one skin he’d make eight stools; the skin cost him about R100 ($7) and he sold each stool for around R30 ($2), he says.
“When you make something, you must make it like a jewel, put effort into it, because we can see, people are not stupid, we can see that effort is put into that.”
He made enough money to move into a commune, that’s where he made new friends who were set builders in the movie industry. Dowman thought he could try his hand at this and got a job backstage making props, like life-size dinosaurs made of fibreglass.
He moved back to Cape Town where films are a big thing. He was so good that he started doing sets for adverts in the United States.
“We took a 1976 Cadillac and cut it up, stretched it, put a pool in it; it was like a fantasy drive with kids in bikinis,” he says.
Dowman was a specialist in the set building industry and made good money. One morning, he decided to drop everything, move back to Johannesburg and try something different.
“One day, I switched on the TV with the intention to watch sport and up comes this doccie, in Italian, with subtitles saying ‘a large family still doing mosaics’. Like a eureka, a boom, a lightbulb in my head, this is my new job,” he laughs.
He found a contact and experimented making mirror frames from mosaics. With a friend he started a mosaic company in a factory in Bezuidenhout Valley, near the center of Johannesburg.
They had enough money to employ 30 people, whom Dowman trained. He believes this company changed the lives of the people they employed, out of the 30, 17 were women focusing on mosaics while the men made tables and chairs from metal.
The company went to Decorex, a lifestyle, design and décor viewing event, where they won an award for the best stand in 2001.
The company was doing well but clients didn’t want to go to Bezuidenhout Valley because it was seen as a crime-ridden area. The business moved to Newtown and that’s when he left the company.
“I was a partner but nothing was signed on the bottom line. Verbal things never really work,” he says.
Dowman soldiered on with mosaics.
He worked from his garage flat with four youngsters who learned the trade. They later moved to a bigger space in Houghton. By then, Dowman was known as the ‘Mosaic Guy’ in Johannesburg; his name was on everyone’s lip.
Today, Dowman is a solo artist with numerous works around the Maboneng Precinct, among other areas in South Africa. He works from a studio not far from Hartbeespoort Dam in the North West province.
His company is called Just Mosaic. The magic in his hands means his work is seen in clubs, bars, offices and graves.
He is an ever-growing solo artist with no debts, willing to explore anything that he can turn his magic hands to.