As I gaze across magnificent fynbos to rugged mountains, I’m reminded of how beautiful – and wild – the Cape Winelands are. Well-tended vineyards, orchards and elegant country homes push up against mountain wilderness where eagles soar and leopards still roam.
It’s the week of the Stellenbosch Woordfees and Dylan Lewis, widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost sculptors of the animal form, is taking small groups on a tour of his sculpture garden on the flank of the Stellenbosch Mountain. With visits only by appointment, the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden remains somewhat concealed.
We walk through a garden gate, the remaining tribute to the cottage in which the artist originally lived on the farm. Flanked by two camellias (Camellia japonica), and with towering oaks, a plane tree and a wild gardenia, it has the feel of an old cottage garden.
The first section of the garden, with its pruned hedges and manicured lawns rolling down to the lake, is formal, explains Dylan as we stop on the main lawn. “It contrasts with the rugged mountain wilderness of the backdrop. The primary inspiration for the garden comes from these mountains.” And natural forces have played a part in its evolution.We see how many of the trees are bent and sculpted by the wind into interesting forms.
Growing up in a creative but religious fundamentalist family (his mother and grandmother were painters, his father a sculptor), Dylan became fascinated with wilderness and the path of non-judgement. “Plants, rocks, clouds, birds, animals and oceans, unlike humans, have no opinion of me. They are indifferent to whether I live or die.” That freedom drives him, and all his work is associated with nature, a place he says connects him to his authentic, untamed self.
His largest sculpture
This garden, sandwiched between the tamed suburbs and the wild mountain, could be considered his largest sculpture to date. Ten years ago it was derelict farmland, flat and infested with aliens, he tells us. “I brought in an earth-moving machine and was gripped by the creative potential of the excavator, how it could transform the landscape. It moulded the flat canvas into a convoluted shape and form as I would a sculpture, creating hills, valleys and water features. The garden emerged and, ever since, I have been trying to make sense of the image in a poetic way.”
More than 60 sculptures carefully sited along four kilometres of paths are a comprehensive record of his artistic development. But the placement was trial and error. “Each sculpture is now carefully placed in relation to its surroundings,” says Dylan, stopping us in front of a towering female figure with the wings and claws of a Black Eagle.
The sculpture draws our gaze to the vertical cliffs behind it, and aspects of the mountain are incorporated into the figure both in its physical form and metaphorically. She is paradoxical, like nature. Her femininity contrasts with the harshness represented by the talons of the eagle and the craggy peaks over which eagles soar. Duality, paradox and the search for truth and authenticity are recurring themes of the tour.
“Plants speak to me”
From here we look over the heart of the garden – the lake, with its little island and, on the other side, a grassy hillock topped by the massive, russet torso of a female figure. Mixing iron oxide into the acrylic plaster that forms the exterior of the sculpture gives it a rusty appearance, like that of the weathered mountains beyond.
“The garden was created as a sculptural form, a dynamic form that I understood intuitively,” Dylan emphasises when I ask about the botanical development of the garden. “Plants speak to me, but I don’t have an understanding of how high they grow or what they need.”
In that regard he has collaborated with Franchesca Watson, the garden designer who worked with Dylan at the beginning of the project, and Fiona Powrie, a fynbos expert and indigenous-plant consultant.
“Working with Dylan has been interesting,” says Fiona. “He found the garden a challenge, as he was trying to see the finished product immediately. In the same way that he sculpted the landscape, he wanted to paint it. We were told how big the plants must be and what colour. For instance, Dylan would want a slope filled with restios, and a swathe a blue in another area, He also wanted a pink hill so we planted a load of pink ericas, confetti bushes and pelargoniums.
Fiona says the challenge was how to put it together. “We had to find plants to fit the palette, and ensure year-round colour.” Most of the plants are indigenous and include a wide variety of unusual species, particularly fynbos, sourced from Kirstenbosch where Fiona was formerly employed as nursery manager.
“We don’t want to be normal and conventional, so the plants are not run-of-the-mill,” she says. Along the south-western edge of the lake, for example, is every available cultivar of bright-pink, leggy Erica verticillata, a highly localised and narrow-endemic species now extinct in the wild. The original plants came from botanical gardens as widespread as Pretoria, Kew and Vienna, as cuttings, often from a single surviving plant.
“It has been an intriguing horticultural exercise,” says Fiona, “because we were working with a formerly used site, and were never quite sure what we were going to get when we started planting.” She describes the challenge of planting acid-loving fynbos in areas that often consisted of concrete and lime, which meant that a tremendous amount of additional feeding was necessary.
He sometimes gets overzealous
Wayne Tinline, the estate manager, describes how they plant, and Dylan responds to the planting. “Dylan’s a perfectionist. Once we build something, he’ll look at it and if he’s not happy he’ll rework it. And he’s very impatient. It must happen immediately.”
Dylan admits that the evolution of the botanical garden was a very different timeline to what he is used to. “Paintings and sculptures I can create in days, weeks or, at most, months.”
Fiona says they encourage Dylan to clip the hedges in the formal part of the garden himself. “That produces quick results. Wayne and his team give him roughly pruned ‘sausages’ of pambati,(Anastrabe integerrima) that he can tame, shape and control into appropriate forms, such as the curvaceous, billowy hedges you’ll see around the shamanic female figure on the main lawn.”
And it appears that clipping at weekends when no one else is around, is one of Dylan’s favourite pastimes. “He sometimes gets overzealous,” says Wayne with a smile. “I’ll come in on Monday and immediately see that he’s been in the garden.”
The trees and rocks Dylan positions himself, and each bend and contour of the path network, as well as the visual backdrop, is very carefully considered. From the studio pond, one of the lowest points in the garden, we study Male Trans-Figure I, a massive, bent-over figure on a hillock sculpted from earth removed during the reshaping of the lake. The hill was then planted with ericas, buchus, pelargoniums and silky puffs.
“The tormented poses of the sculptures express the vital internal battle between wildness and tameness,” Dylan explains. He is fascinated by these conflicting themes and the Jungian notion of ‘the wilderness within’. “In our modern life we humans have tamed the wilderness, taken out the dangers, made the world a safe space in which to live and grow,” he says.
“The shadow is environmental destruction and psychological alienation. We have so rapidly separated ourselves from the natural world that we are struggling to understand it and what we’re moving towards.
Nature is a key part of his creative process
Getting out into nature is a key part of his creative process. On every working day he moves between nature reserves, where he surfs or hikes, and his working studio. Weather-sculpted rock formations and natural galleries around his workplace, his home and at the back of the sculpture garden have a strong influence on his work.
As we wander through the different parts of the garden with Dylan, we begin to understand his journey towards self-acceptance and non-judgement. Each animal represents a different energy and phase of his life. There are his famous cats, including his totem animal, the powerful leopard, that were the focus of much of his early career. There are birds, symbols of freedom as he subconsciously sought refuge from an emotionally inhibiting upbringing, and a range of African animals.
We see buffalo surrounded by orange pincushions (Leucospermum cordifolium) on the eastern side of the lake and, in the natural wetland, baboons and samango monkeys. Most surprising for visitors is to round a bend and encounter a white rhino in the reeds.
Dylan spends a great deal of the tour talking about his fragmented torsos, some of which are massive and twisted, and interpreting his male and female shamanic figures. Removing, poorly defining or covering the head of his subject with a mask draws focus to the work, he explains. “The ritualistic, animal-skull masks both conceal and reveal a wild self while hinting at the psychological death awaiting us if we can’t find ways to express our wild, intuitive, authentic nature.”
Our final stop is at a field of sculptural sketches mounted on poles, some of them erotic. Dylan is animated and intense about his current project, a further exploration of the untamed in his psyche. “The installation explores the agony and ecstasy of the human journey,” he explains. Suddenly a small white dog arrives, demanding Dylan’s attention. We laugh.
“Charlie has an uncanny knack of interrupting me when I get too serious,” he says with a smile.
Time to smell the flowers
As we walk quietly back to the studio, I notice birds and exquisite clusters of purple flowers. The tour has been fascinating but overwhelming. I’ve been too absorbed by Dylan and his masterpieces to really take in the flora and fauna of the garden.
Over coffee we study the map and then go exploring, slowly following the self-guided route suggested. It’s time to smell the flowers.