A sculptor in White River puts his passion into the special shapes and textures of hard, weathered wood
Words: Sue Adams
Pictures: Sue Adams and Tony Fredriksson
In Tony Fredriksson’s garden there is a rhino behind the woodpile, an elephant crouched under the tree and bits of fur and claws lying in boxes. On his workbench an otter is emerging from under Tony’s skilful fingers.
“I used to work with offcuts from railway sleeper wood but then I discovered bush wood,” says Tony, a wood sculptor in White River, Mpumalanga. His fingers caress a piece of wood and his eyes light up as he spots a piece perfect for the eye of a frog. “I am like a kid in a sandpit,” he says with a huge grin. “I wake up every morning with so many ideas and I can’t wait to go outside and play.”
There is still some of the child in Tony. When he was young his favourite toy was Plasticine. He still can’t spell and falls asleep when he has to do anything with figures. But give him some bits of old wood and he’s in his element. “I believe in catnaps and daydreaming,” he says. “It’s the best way to recharge the brain.”
He will start with one piece that seems perfect for a particular sculpture and build from there. He uses hard, weathered bush wood, as well as water-eroded pieces he’s picked up from the edge of lakes and dams. He says water bugs and termites eat different patterns into the wood that give it special shapes and textures.
His work area is a vine-draped shed and veranda that most people would think looked like a junkyard. But for Tony it’s the hub of his creative life. And there is method in the chaos. Each piece is carefully labelled and stored so that when he needs a beak or a foot he can find it.
Tony was born in Zimbabwe, studied art in the United Kingdom and moved to South Africa to do missionary work. Although still involved in the church he is now a full-time artist. He began by mounting fish for anglers and making fibreglass casts of anglers’ special catches but soon moved on to creating his own sculptures out of resin and bronze.
Three years ago he took a new look at wood he picked up on a game farm and seems to have found his niche, judging by the reaction to his last few exhibitions. One of his fondest memories is creating a life-size whale skeleton for a hotel on Desroches Island in the Seychelles, using driftwood from the island’s beaches. There he could combine a passion for sculpture and for fishing, while working in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The sculptures are put together using copper wire that makes them flexible, as well as staples, screws, a dentist’s drill and special industrial glue. He weatherproofs them with an outdoor water-based sealer.
Tall and lanky, with a twinkle behind his glasses, Tony is quick to smile and joke and his enthusiasm is infectious. He darts from one place to another pulling out a special piece to stroke and show off and then rummages under the table for another. Used to all the buzz, his dogs loll lazily on the cool cement floor and only move when Tony wants to reach another drawer.
Artistic blood runs strongly in this family. His daughter, Wendy, is an art director and his son, Shaun, helps him with woodwork and makes the beautiful tables that are an integral part of some of Tony’s sculptures. “Thank goodness for my wife, Dalene,” he jokes. “She is my memory!”
His ideas book lies open on the table. He points out the Vespa scooter he plans to make because he found the perfect handlebars. And then there is the swan and the dragon. And don’t forget the fireplace with flames and the kettle. He roars with laughter as he tells the story of the life-size Masai warrior he made for a client that was shot when the security company thought it was an intruder.
“Termites are my friends,” he announces with a broad grin, as his fingers brush the sand from a gnarled piece of wood. “In South Africa we are made to think out of the box. We don’t think in the groove – we think in a different way.” That’s more than clear in his sculptures.