Fine art juxtaposed with unbridled wilderness, the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden is a celebration of freedom and instinct, predator and prey, life, death and rebirth. REBEKAH FUNK discovers more about these concepts in conversation with the sculptor himself.
‘Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.”
The cautionary words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sit amid carefully selected indigenous plants, contoured hills and the ethereal sculptures of South African artist Dylan Lewis. Is it a comment from the artist to himself or to those who visit?
The Johannesburg-born sculptor should have no misgivings. He is, after all, internationally revered for exorcising breathtaking animal and human figures from a foundry of molten bronze; for casting out best thing after best thing, and with no sign of slowing down.
His latest triumph? A 7ha sculpture garden on a farm in the foothills of the Stellenbosch Mountain.
Although this farm has been home to his studio for more than two decades, an ambitious project such as this had never occurred to Dylan. Then, in 2009, he hired an excavator to create a play area for his kids and subsequently realised the potential to alter his personal landscape.
Now, with nearly 4km of snaking pathways, the garden showcases more than 60 of Dylan’s sculptures, both early and more recent works. Among them are depictions of African rhinos, buffaloes and dynamic big cats, shamanic figures and abstract fragments, as well as Rodinesque nudes.
“All the works are about exploring man’s connection to nature and inner nature. It’s about the wilderness within the psyche that’s explored within the various human figure sculptures,” says Dylan.
Open to visits by appointment, the garden acts as both an ode to Dylan’s long and successful career and a muse to spur him forward. Perhaps most striking about his sculptures is what one could call ‘deliberate imperfection’ – each piece retains his unique handprint. The same can be said of his garden, as well as his outlook on humanity.
“Aesthetically, there’s something incredibly beautiful about the broken form,” he explains. “But also metaphorically, there’s something beautiful about brokenness. The gift that we bring to life lies in the wound. There’s some connection between the hardest spaces of our lives, our childhoods, that plays out in the choices we make in life.
“Man as a species has colonised all the wild places. We’ve cut down the forests, shot the lions and tigers, and fenced the wild lands. In doing so, we’ve made the world a safe space for ourselves and in many ways that has contributed to our advancement. But there is a significant consequence to that action of claiming: ecological destruction and psychological alienation, as we become further and further removed from the wild nature in which we’ve evolved. I’m particularly interested in that metaphor as it plays out in the psyche. We are born wild, in my view. A young, healthy child is born instinctual and intuitive, with a capacity to live in the moment. It’s almost an animal energy, which gets tamed out of us so that we can survive the family environment. Then during the whole of life thereafter, we attempt to regain or rediscover or re-imagine what has been lost. It’s a powerful tension in life, one that I explore in almost every aspect of my art.”
In attempting to recreate the wildness in his own backyard, Dylan selected indigenous plant species such as buchus and ericas (including Erica verticillata, which has gone extinct in the wild) to elicit feelings of transience, imperfection and wilderness. To ensure that the sculptures are exhibited in harmony with their natural setting, he pays careful attention to surrounding each one with shapes, colours, tones, textures and even floral scents.
This attention to detail and artistry could perhaps be attributed to genetics (Dylan’s father was the celebrated bird sculptor, Robin Lewis), yet his first-year fine arts professors at the Cape Technikon in 1982 may not have agreed as he failed the subject. However, four years as a taxidermist and an illustrator of field guides at Rondevlei Nature Reserve were pivotal in shaping Dylan’s art: like a modern Leonardo da Vinci, he learnt the importance of saper vedere, or knowing how to see.
Da Vinci once wrote, “A good painter has two chief objects to paint: man and the intention of his soul. The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movement of the limbs.” Dylan’s works are evidence that he has captured this intention of the soul. “I sketch continuously, sometimes for weeks, until an understanding of form and movement emerges,” he says. “Then I sculpt small compositional studies, followed by the final sculpture. Under the surface often lie fully sculpted skeleton and muscle studies.
“For me the search for wilderness, in both cat and human figures, has something to do with trying to find that reconnection with authentic wild space within. When I’m alone in nature, there is, for me, a sense of incredible freedom. Whether I live or die, or however I express myself, is of no interest to the animal or plant next to me. That’s an unsettling thought, but it’s also an incredibly freeing and liberating thought.”
When it comes to rediscovering his own inner wilderness, Dylan says he often now finds himself at Cape Point in Table Mountain National Park. “The southern tip of the Cape Peninsula is a very powerful, almost archetypal landscape. But any wilderness space evokes strong emotions and feelings in me.”
Although no longer the primary subject of his art, Dylan’s iconic cats have garnered him the most international acclaim. In 2011, his solo show with Christie’s in London was a sell-out and in keeping with his deep love for nature, Dylan donated 10% of the proceeds to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s conservation projects around the globe. His works are owned by private collectors throughout Africa, Europe (including the United Kingdom), the United States and Australia, as well as by members of the British royal family and the late Nelson Mandela. V
BOOK A VISIT
Visits to the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden are offered by appointment between 9am and 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday.To book a visit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 021 880 0054. There is an entrance fee of R140 per person, which goes towards sustaining the garden.
Dylan’s original studio and bronze foundry (formerly the farm’s apple packing shed) has been renovated and now functions as a gallery housing a collection of sculptures and sketches, works in progress, Lewis family paintings and self-made furniture.
In stark contrast to these old studio buildings, a modern steel pavilion by award-winning architect Enrico Daffonchio serves as an exhibi-
tion space. It is made all the more stunning by views that take in Table Mountain, Cape Point and False Bay from its upper terraces.