With an international career spanning two decades, South African artist and sculptor Dylan Lewis’s works are beloved, acclaimed and highly collectable because of the magnificence with which his sculptures capture the form of wild animals, towering mythological figures and fragmented beings. His art grapples with a deep biological and psychological connection to the wild and strives to drive home the point that the concepts of wildness and wilderness are not vague social constructs ‘out there’ somewhere, but a raw and untamed connectivity that resides in each of us. ‘Our disconnection from our inner wildness as a species, has rendered us psychologically lonely and fragmented,’ says Dylan. ‘As a direct consequence, our wilderness areas and wildlife have suffered too.’
Dylan’s interest in the Jungian notion of ‘the wilderness within’ is explored and expressed most eloquently at his seven-hectare private garden in Paradyskloof, just outside Stellenbosch. Here more than 60 sculptures that chart the trajectory of his career are placed along 4,5km of pathway that lead visitors on a journey from the gloriously cultivated to the unashamedly wild. Dylan stumbled upon the idea to create the garden almost ten years ago, when he and his wife Karen were living in a cottage on the farm with their three children. ‘I’d had no intention of creating a garden,’ he laughs. ‘I’d hired a digger to clear a level play area behind the house but when I saw what the machine could do, it kicked off a process in me that I couldn’t ignore.’
The garden took shape organically over an eight-year period, with Dylan transforming what was originally a flat piece of disused farm land into a place of abundant shapes and contours. ‘It was extraordinary to realise that the earth could be shaped, much like the surface of a sculpture,’ he recalls. But then shaping natural spaces has long been a passion for Dylan. As a child, he would spend hours making paths and clearings in a wild area behind his grandmother’s house, and in later years when he studied taxidermy and museum display at Cape Town’s Rondevlei Nature Reserve, his most fulfilling task was the creation of new path systems.
As a cultivated natural space, the garden is largely indigenous and waterwise and while planted to give colour all-year round, it does tend to peak in July, August and September when many of the Buchu and Erica varieties are in flower. Other indigenous plants include Restios, Proteas, Pelargoniums, Jasmine and the clipped Pambati tree. Dylan kept some of the property’s original exotic trees such as historic oaks, Pepper trees, Planes and Poplars but then added wild olives, wild pear, river bush willow and the Paperbark thorn. Indigenous ground cover and hedging have also been used extensively.
Although Dylan’s sculptures were initially placed in the garden without any preconceived plan, with time certain groupings have naturally formed. A low-lying area below the dam is potentially masculine while the lawn and the poplar grove are feminine. The back of the garden has become a space dedicated to Dylan’s more animal based works. Distinct areas to visit include his sculptures of birds, African animals, cats (leopard, lion and cheetah), early female figures, shamanic female figures, shamanic male figures, male torsos, female torsos and then his monumental abstracted human and animal fragments.
In addition to the garden there is Dylan’s original foundry, a magnificent circular stone building where Dylan can be persuaded to perform demonstration castings on occasion amid plaster originals, body casts from the animals he has skinned and drawings from specific points in his career. It’s a hugely inspiring space filled with paintings by his mother and grandmother, who were both artists to pieces by his father who was also a sculptor. Along with a treasure trove of found objects, be it a chunk of rose quartz or a tumbleweed. There’s also a steel pavilion on the property that regularly hosts exhibitions of other artists, related to themes in the garden.
And yet despite the enormous energy and love that has been put into this garden, when asked what he hopes the garden’s legacy will be, he remains singularly unattached: ‘It’s an impossible attempt to create a perfect world and ultimately it’s futile, because if left to its own devices, the garden would change into something else. So no, there is no real legacy or idea of permanence built into this garden, that may happen – but I don’t plan for it.’