2011 | Out on a Limb | 1800 x 980 x 230 | Carl Roberts Home Gallery, South Africa
Tags: Bone, Carl Roberts, Human, Male, Sculpture, Tree
Tags: Abstract, Carl Roberts, Figure, Male, Sculpture, Wood
Tags: Animal, Octopus, Sculpture, sea, Wood
Tags: Carl Roberts, May 2011, Newsletter, Sculpture
The average person believes he or she has an above average intelligence. Yep! I know it is an idiotic concept but it is true. The social scientists have done the research. If you are still not sure perhaps you should ask yourself where you fit in. I am sure you will have the same answer as I had.
I think this phenomenon is more pronounced in the art crowd, I am sure you have seen the works that are trying to be clever – they are those that are incomprehensible. Fortunately there is a protocol on such occasions. You hear key words to unlock the enigmatic work whispered by those who appear more informed than you but who have merely preceded you. Once overheard it is your turn to appear knowledgeable and whisper the phrases to the less informed.
There is a hierarchy of cleverness. The academically trained are at the top. Generally, they do not have a saleable product and are beyond comprehension to the “ignorant and uncultured” public. At the bottom are the professional artists who are liked and understood but merely talented. The perception is that talent is innate and has nothing to do with intellect, experience or hard work. These artists are more likely to take the advice of Groucho Marx who said “most of us must compensate for our low intelligence with hard work”. He was no fool.
The history of education in the arts has a lot to do with the end result. In the distant past artists trained apprentices who started their careers by grinding and mixing paints. Later the teaching of artists moved to the academies and art schools. Here, copying the masters was a common practice and paint came in tubes. More recently art education moved into universities. It is not surprising then that the art produced has been influenced by the ivory tower and become more theoretical in nature.
Traditional painting, sculpture and the manual labour that they entail has been thrown out in favour of conceptual art. Artists have become art directors who orchestrate assistants, technicians and engineers and make things like installations. The projects are often large and impressive but surely the credit should go to the engineer and assistants. It reminds me of a quote by A H Weiler “Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself”. It is even easier for the artist if his work is funded by the public purse.
It seems then that there are two kinds of art and artists. There are the paint pushers, mud muckers and sawdust suckers who, like me, enjoy playing in the dirt and the cerebral artists who do not expect to get their hands dirty. They appear to have more advantages because being academically trained they have the paper credits and gain employment. Then, while comfortably employed, are able to apply for grants. This enables them to study, publish or exhibit and travel overseas and make works of art. All of which is good for the C.V. and obtaining more grants. Sales are unnecessary and even regarded with suspicion. Their measure of success is the amount of controversy they stir up. Not surprisingly they are envied by the career artist but ignored by a disinterested public.
In contrast, the professional artist must make a product and sell it in order to live. He or she needs to be technically skilled and hard working. Usually they are a one man band counting on commercial galleries and depending on the public for support. Ironically, if they are successful, it is often regarded as proof that they have compromised their principles for financial gain.
It would seem that the academic artists are winning this game hands down except for their relationship with the public. Now, with the recession, their position is less comfortable. Where countries have had to cut budgets they have chosen the arts as an easy target. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Britain has slashed 20% off its arts budget. I imagine within those budgets they will try and retain jobs and as a result it will be the grants that are most affected.
Cleverness comes in many forms, some are more in fashion than others; it is when it is coupled with hard work that it is most fertile. Mixing colours turns out not to be so simple. It requires talent. I know, as I have a wife who does it everyday mending ceramics and she is particularly good at it. She has clients from three different continents that have great respect for her ability and she is not feeling the recession. Since she is my spouse I must use the word talent instead of intellect. It relegates her job to one of manual labour and helps me to retain a semblance of control.
Tags: Carl Roberts, March 2011, Newsletter, Sculpture
My son, Jack, is an unenthusiastic football player and in his first year of playing he kicked his mates more than he kicked the ball. In one particular game he was the only player near the ball and despite the frantic shouting from his parents and the team he let the ball and the game pass him by. His hands were clasped as if in prayer and he was contemplative. When players rushing by nearly knocked him off his feet he awoke and ran towards us grinning, saying “I caught a frog”.
There is something about this image, a frog in a football match, which rings true of my own life. I failed matric and should have been forced to flip hamburgers for the rest of my life. However with luck and bluff I manage to skip that career and get into Rhodes University. I went on to lecture and eventually took that leap of faith to become an artist. As an artist I have always done well and have not had to make compromises. I have not had to work in a pub as I expected nor have I been forced to take on students or any other jobs to make ends meet. I have survived by sculpting alone. Not many artists can say that but what was difficult has been aggravated by the recession. To quote an article in Art Times “the game has changed”. It has been tough for everyone in the arts. Many galleries, including three that I have used, have closed their doors. Artists, I know, have been crushed and forced to take “real jobs”.
Art is the first thing off the shopping list when things are difficult and we have felt this recession. We have had to make do, recycle, reuse and use up. We were already well into the swing of things when it came to the holidays. We had been eating up our store of baked beans and the other weevil riddled extras stored over many years in our pantry. We did not go on holiday the previous year. This year, despite a poor bank balance, my wife was determined to go on holiday and when I hesitated she became more belligerent than usual. I was forced to negotiate. The compromise we came to was to go to Kenton for a short time and on a budget. That meant no flights, no Landcruiser, no kitchen sink, and no big fishing rods. We would travel in the Yaris which is economical but it has a very, very small boot. The holiday became know as “Survivor Kenton”.
Now, I get the feeling that the recession is slowly abating. Confidence is creeping back into the market. Perhaps it is because of the rally in the stock market and the record prices reached on the art auctions held recently. It is reflected in the number of options on works that are still unfinished in my studio. This recession has also been a time that art has proved its worth as an alternative investment. Most reassuring was that the only asset of Lehman Brothers that held its value when it was auctioned off in the “fire sale” was their art collection. The recession has taught me many valuable lessons. Among these are the value of established galleries, the benefit of being diversified and the need for a reservoir of cash.
My wife, the organiser of Survivor Kenton, only allowed us to take one pair of socks, one pair of underpants, one pair of jeans and a couple of tee shirts and what we were wearing on the day. Of course, all of that does not apply to the organiser who has a separate suitcase just for her make up. All the abstemiousness suits me because I like living in my costume and an old tee shirt. The fact it smells like bait is, well, according to me, just natural. What caused anxiety was that there was no room for my big fishing rods and I began to wonder if the holiday was going to be a holiday at all.
In the end, like the fortunate frog who hopped into the caring hands of a little boy, Survivor Kenton was the right thing to do. The weather was great, my wife managed without the kitchen sink, I manage to squeeze in a tiny rod that can be disassembled and even caught a few fish. Granny bought Jack the smallest, cheapest rod and reel in the shop and that was all that he needed. Lily and Joanna were happy to play in the pools and to catch a tan. We had a great time, we got the rest and respite we required after a difficult year and there was no own goal as far as the finances were concerned. In fact when we got home I learned that I had sold several works. The saying goes that there is no gain without pain. The recession was stressful and difficult and as a result I have learnt many useful things that will serve me well in the future. By contrast the hurt I felt in Kenton was inflicted by my son and will not serve me in any way. It was as cruel as the frog in a liquidiser joke. (What is green and goes red at the flick of a switch?)
While I pranced around with my superior equipment, years of experience and finely honed skills, he and that token rod caught more and bigger fish than I. Perhaps I should console myself with the thought that sometimes, like the frog on the football field, you are just lucky.
Tags: Animal, Cow, Sculpture, Wood
Tags: Animal, Bird, Heron, Sculpture, Wood
Tags: Abstract, Figure, Human, Sculpture, sea, Wood
Tags: Animal, Cat, Sculpture, Wood
Tags: Carl Roberts, January 2011, Newsletter, Sculpture
Last year I received an invitation to “Frequency, Lumens, Place” an installation. This invitation was even less pictorial than the previous one received which had a photograph of floor boards as its ‘best foot forward’, image. The card only had the words and the flat background colour to give you any idea of what to expect. The words were, presumably, carefully considered so as not to need an image. I was left clueless until I was given more information in a separate communiqué (also without an image) which described something that made me think of a discothèque. Since I am now too old for discos I did not go to the opening. However the invitation itself got me thinking about the visual arts and if it has less to say than before.
In time-honoured image making “a picture is worth a thousand words”. It conveys many things that can be assimilated at once but are not easily talked or written about. It is or was one of the reasons why we make images and it follows naturally that we put the best of those on our invitations. However, there are many new forms like words, movement, sound, and lighting which have made inroads into the visual art space. This invitation is a “back to the future” moment in art when on the one had we seem to be leaving behind the traditional part of art and on the other there is renewed interest in it.
William Bouguereau and Vladimir Tretchikoff are artists who have painted in an orthodox manner. They were the antitheses of all we have held dear and progressive in art for many years. William Bouguereau was the top of the pops at the Academie when Monet exhibited the first impressionist work ‘Soleil Levant’ (Sunrise), at the Salon de Refuses. Subsequently, Monet has been acclaimed whilst Bouguereau was discredited and disregarded. However, I recently received two emails that seem to indicate a change of heart. In one letter the person wept at seeing Bouguereau’s work and raved about the artists ability to create “luminous flesh colours”. The other confirmed this new found merit as it was about a recently published book on the man. Similarly, Tretchikoff has been given some respectability. Previously his work epitomised kitsch and was untouchable for many but lately his work has been auctioned off for millions. Also, I believe that he has been accepted into our National Gallery. Despite the rumour it would only be over the previous directors’ dead body.
Resurrections in art are a regular occurrence. We rediscover ourselves and find those values which have always been there but need to be reasserted. The Lascaux cave paintings can be considered an installation as can Bernini’s work in the Cornaro chapel (1645-52) . What we think is new in art is usually not, rather it is something that has risen from the ashes of the past. How can an artist like Bouguereau be respected, then discredited, and then valued once again? Perhaps, it is about what we choose to see.
I did meet Tretchi in Garlicks many years ago and have recently read his book “Pigeon’s Luck” but I am not a great fan. I prefer more painterly and expressive works like that of Euan Macleod featured in the November 29 issue of Time magazine. His works talk to me about things that are best described as sensual, mysterious and having pathos. The article speaks about the “forgotten years of painting” and Macleod himself speaks of “when painting was incredibly uncool” and “seen as a real anachronism”. This was when installations became popular and when art works became more conceptual. Now his kind of work is being reconsidered and it seems painting is cool again.
Tom Wolf, in his novel “The Painted Word” (1975) predicted that in the future we would see, in the Museum of Modern Art, large boards of text (eight and a half feet by eleven) written by the critics as the art works whilst on the side there would be small reproductions to illustrate those texts. He was right, at least in the sense that words would become an important part of the visual arts. The homes of my friends’ support this fact. Above their mantel pieces and behind their sofas are words of art, like “LOVE” or “JOY”. Like Trechi’s art works once were, these masterpieces are now readily available from your local retailer. Presumably you can get it in red, green or white and with tinsel on it to match your festive decorations.
My wish for 2011 and the next few years is that artists will brave the stigma of being conventional and paint with oil on canvas. I am tired of the old: of pathetic installations, the trite words in art, the easily achieved display of bin bags, the self indulgent men prancing around in tutus or women showing off their tits. These kinds of works have been around for nearly thirty years now and I think of them as conventional and boring. It is time for artists to move on. If my wish is granted the painters will paint with their hearts, they would tackle less but communicate more.
Have a wonderful 2011.
Tags: Bone, Figure, Human, Sculpture
Tags: Bone, Figure, Sculpture, Tree
Tags: Animal, Sculpture, Snake, Wood
Tags: Bone, Human, Male, Sculpture
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, October 2010, Sculpture
There is a line from Monty Python which went goes; “Isn’t nature wonderful! Listen to the sound of a cockroach sneezing. Aachoo!” The send up reminds me of my weekend in the Berg and just for the record I do not hate nature. In fact there are very few things I enjoy more than walking in the bush, hiking on a mountain or exploring a cave, albeit I fear heights and expect the overhanging rocks to fall down at any moment. My ignorance of things “natural” was brought into sharp focus when our family spent a night in the Sleeping Beauty cave.
We went with gang of healthy, herby types and I have to admit I was a little intimidated as they all looked rather robust. Especially the women who carried on their backs provisions and bedding for their entire families. They looked like Tensing Norgay carrying Hillary’s camping gear on their ascent of Everest. Fortunately with my considerably lighter pack I, like Hillary, was able to stride out ahead. It also helped me put some distance between me and the two herby doctors as my ability to communicate with the veggie types was limited. My experiences with natural products and natural healers have been unfortunate and now I doubt the potions and lotions they peddle. I might as well have been hiking with a posse of witchdoctors.
Whatever I think matters little as my wife always brings home the expensive, herby, healthy stuff. I think she sees it as insurance. No matter how unlikely, you should take it just in case it is good for you. In case you wonder, I think that inside every woman is a hex who wants to deliver a potion. The brew always seems to be something recycled or made from materials readily available and every month there is a new a new miracle cure for a problem I didn’t think I had. We have been through many; Spirilina, Echinaforce, Propolis Kid, charcoal pills, molasses, flax oil and a host of others whose names I have forgotten. Now, I see her eyeing out those bangles with the holograms which I am convinced is as significant as the cockroach’s sneeze. To say the least, I am sceptical. Bran used to be pig food. I first ate molasses on my grandfathers’ farm as it was used as supplement for cows. Spiro Giro is something that grows most happily in dams on a sewerage farm. I am always a little disbelieving when a cheap and freely available thing becomes expensive and is a cure for almost everything. To my mind it is just another kind of snake oil.
My scepticism was sharpened after I had paid R400 for the magic Blue Myron bottle which I was told was essential for Spirulina. I later discovered that the refill came in the not so magic plastic packet. Personally I have a lot more faith in sleep, food and sex. (It is not an accident that exercise is missing from this list.) All of which were in short supply on this trip and that is when I am most likely to be like one of Sleeping Beautys’ gnomes, Grumpy. In my crabby state I tried to figure out why the cave is called Sleeping Beauty cave. I wondered if it was because we left like the dwarfs Happy and Doc and returned like Grumpy, Dopey, Sneezy and Sleepy. Or. By the time we returned were as smelly, sweaty and dirty as dwarves returning from the mines. At least one witch offered me an apple and naturally there were plenty of potions around.
I must have turned down the apple as I did not sleep a wink. The wind howled, the dust poured into my every orifice and the ground was cold and uncomfortable. I cowered into my sleeping bag and prayed for a fairy godmother to whisk me away but on this occasion there was no pumpkin, no prince and no happy ending. The cure for all my ailments was to found at home where this ogre has gone to considerable lengths to keep nature at bay. There my Sleeping Beauty and this happy dwarf snuggled merrily into a warm, soft bed and slept for what felt like a 100 years.
Perhaps that was the happily ever after.
Tags: Abstract, Sculpture, sea, Seaweed, Wood
Tags: Head, Human, Sculpture, Wood
Tags: Bone, Figure, Human, Sculpture
Tags: August 2010, Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Pity Andries Botha www.andriesbotha.net as ‘they’ are unhappy with his sculptures and have prevented the commissioned works from being delivered into the public arena. And not just one or two but, when I last spoke to him, three of his commissions were in limbo. I know he is frustrated and I wonder after this experience if he will be, like me, another artist who simply does not do commissions.
Andries is among the most respected sculptors and, more than that, the sculptures would have been subjected to a process designed to control the quality, deal with objections and enable them to stand up to criticism. Usually, the artist submits a drawing or a maquette for approval to a committee. They select the best proposal and may make suggestions or request changes. Later, the full size plaster or clay or original work would be sanctioned. This is before the artwork is cast into bronze when changes are more easily done and before it is placed in the public domain.
My resolve to steer clear is currently being tested by the recession. The large price tags attached to and the accompanying prestige makes them just too juicy to ignore. However, I am aware that things are not always as they appear and I am all too familiar with the trauma of commissions. The subject is imposed and is never a subject an artist would naturally do. Then you work for weeks to submit a maquette which is, more often than not, rejected and not paid for. On a few occasions the assured commission just shrivelled up and vanished. Then if you are unlucky enough to get the commission you find your have to deal with a lot of expensive materials, labour and services. I have always underestimated the amounts and ended up with the short end of the stick. Finally when you have done all the hard work and paid all the bills there is that infuriating unhappiness that seems inevitable with commissions. It is an unhappy occupation.
It seems people like the idea of artistic freedom but not the artist’s ideas. Perhaps Andries should have been given carte blanche, then we may have seen one of this artists’ large, reclining, tyre ladies or a herd of Leadwood elephants gracing our airport. It could have been done on a grand scale and apart from being a uniquely African work I think it would have been more beautiful, more lyrical and more sculptural. It would differ from the usual politically charged, morally dubious and dull bronze monuments. It could have made our new, big, and rather boring airport, exceptional and vital.
Monuments are usually imbued with the mythology of the ruling elite and contain the symbols and values of that society. So who is Shaka Zulu, what does he symbolise and what values does he underwrite? Shaka is most often remembered for defeating Lord Chelmsford and the British army but as I understand it, he slaughtered a lot more Zulus than British soldiers. On one occasion 7000 Zulus, who on the death of his mother were deemed to be insufficiently grief stricken, were killed. This behaviour is more like a Stalin than a Gandhi or a Mandela. I understand the defeat of the British to be a powerful symbol but I do not think we should forget the Zulu people murdered. If we do then I think it will be safe to presume that it is also okay to erect a Verwoerd in Soweto, a Hitler in Auschwitz and an Osama Bin Laden in Ground Zero, New York. I am not sure that Shaka was a good choice but I am sure Andries was trying to show his merits. So I am amazed to hear that one of the objections to his work was that Shaka should have been made to look more aggressive.
There is a recession, money is tight and things are tough but unless I am starving I simply will not do a commission. I have burnt my fingers and I find it easier, less stressful, more honest, more satisfying, more interesting and exciting to simply do my own thing. The system has failed Andries all because of the shameful meddling of a powerful few. I hope Andries is not as easily put off as I was. If good artists no longer want to participate in public works we will be poorer for it. Apart from the financial multiplier effects, the social benefits and art as a civilising force our airports and cities could be very tedious places. Perhaps it is not so much as pity Andries as pity us.
Tags: Animal, Bone, Lion, Sculpture
Tags: Abstract, Animal, Baboon, Sculpture, Tree
Tags: Boat, Oars, Paddle, Sculpture, sea, Whale, Whaling, Wood
Tags: Carl Roberts, June 2010, Newsletter, Sculpture
I am not sure what it is like to be real artist, I only know what it is like to be me. It seems real artists starve and commit suicide like Van Gogh or alternatively they have their paths paved with gold like Picasso. The world I live in is a lot less extreme but never boring.
My life is peppered with unexpected things which are sometimes favourable and sometimes unpleasant. My friend, John Smith has had the owners of two galleries, stocked with his work, have heart attacks and die. I imagine similar disasters are par for the course and being an artist is like being in business. You have to be brave, wary and adapt to circumstances. On the one hand there is always someone who will try to con you or steal from you and on the other there are always opportunities.
On the positive side, Stephanie Hoppen of Stephanie Hoppen gallery in London phoned and would like “represent” me. This sounded very posh but it came out of the blue and I did not know who she was or if the gallery was a tea room in a dodgy suburb. However, when I mentioned this to my friends, Mike and Margaret, they knew of the gallery and their response was positive and encouraging. I also Google it and got this result: This smart gallery on Walton Street features top notch contemporary artists and photographers from around the world. Stephanie is also the author of some books on interior decoration. I am delighted and I am busy packing works to send to her.
In the past there seem to have been more opportunities to exhibit on big shows. I participated in the Cape Town Triennial twice but failed to submit for the Bret Kebble shows and I am now too old for the ABSA Atelier and too established for the Sasol New Signatures. In any case I am not motivated to make pieces for these kinds of events as I hate to feel pressurised. Participation usually depends upon if I have something suitable at the time. As a result I am pleased that my work Banana Boy has been selected for Kwa Zulu Natals’ most prestigious exhibition, Jabulisa.
My premier gallery, Gallery on the Square, is also on the move. It has migrated to the “art strip” at 140 Jan Smuts Ave, Parkwood. (Tel +27 11 447 0155) The upgrade includes a change of name as it is now called Gallery 2.
This past month I have made several small works. Seeking Penny and Push Up are made from the same kind of bone, giraffe vertebrae. It is always difficult to think of something that will fit into the shape and suit the size of the bone. However to make each new work, from the same kind of bone, different, is a double challenge and one I have enjoyed.
Black Bird is made from a piece of driftwood in which I have set pieces of bone from a bird’s wing for the whites of the eyes. For me, it is a slightly ominous subject and makes me think of scenes from the play Macbeth. By contrast the polish and grain of the wood is beautiful and the textures and shapes playful and entertaining.
Blue, Buck Jack is made from a giraffe scapula and is Picassoesque in that it simultaneously has two different views. A frontal and a profile view. Joanna, my wife, likes the two views which she says it is like having two identities and a quality which she identifies with. I suppose it is a bit like the girl with a curl who when she was good was very good and when she was bad was horrid. Despite my protestations about being broke, this work is not for sale as she has decided to keep it.
One of the not so nice things is that From the navel to the nest was stolen from the Mirror Gallery in Cape Town. Then, to add insult to injury, the owners have decided to close the gallery. Sadly, I think that the work will end up as firewood as it will not be easy to resell it. I am upset but I am not going to starve or commit suicide. On the contrary! I am excited as perhaps London will bring me fame and fortune and make me a real artist.
Tags: Abstract, Head, Human, Sculpture, Wood
Tags: Abstract, Head, Human, Sculpture, Wings, Wood
Tags: Carl Roberts, March 2010, Newsletter, Sculpture
Forty years ago this letter would have served to remind you that you had forgotten to put ten rand in an envelope with a birthday card for me. However, ten rand does not buy what it used to and that was before the Post Office started confiscating any money sent in the post. Besides, now that I am a grown up, it seems, regrettably, that I am restricted to socks and underpants as acceptable presents.
If it were not for its continued monopoly and a few rand still in my Post Office Bank account I imagine the Post Office would cease to exist. I write emails and I imagine almost everyone else does even if they, like the snail mail, are not always delivered. Some things never change. Julius Malema reminds me of P.W. Botha waving his finger and telling the press how to behave. The tyre burning and police shooting at those who riot are indistinguishable from the images that I saw in the press in the Apartheid era. Perhaps, the more things change the more they remain the same.
Shoot the Messenger made in wild plum wood could have been an Apartheid era subject. In 1980’s, when I went to Rhodes and P.W. Botha was in power, I preferred not to read newspapers. However, my journalist friends made me aware of their frustrations and the press’s prescriptions and limitations. They were disabled and could not give the full story. This work is pertinent to threats to a free press and does have something of the horror and angst of that apartheid era. Specifically, the photographs of “terrorists” shot in the head that I was shown at that time. Those images are now part of the arsenal of this artist who conveys the concerns of this new era, or as some like to call it “the new regime”.
Ghost is part of my new regime which is much the same as the old one. Except mine has taken to heart all the lessons learnt from all I have done since the eighties. It has been made with more knowledge, more skill, and more determination than before. I think that this work achieves many things I strive to attain. It is a composition that is both organic and structured, a sort of ordered chaos. It has an exciting texture, surface, line and form. I don’t know the name of this wood but I have previously worked with it and know it as “good wood” with an unusual colour and fantastic grain. The shape of this work and its striations reminds me of Roy Lichtenstein’s “brushstroke” works, some of which he made in the bad old eighties.
There are a few things from bad old days I would like to re-instate like the ten rand that my granny used to send on my birthdays. I think it should be enough to buy me one of those big black Wilson’s toffees which would be better than socks or underpants. There are a lot of things that make me happy in our brave new world. I love email as you do not have to wait two weeks for a reply. The web is great for research and if you are looking for a different opinion you can read a newspaper from almost anywhere in the world. The spelling and grammar checks on my computer are great for writing as I can neither spell nor read my own hand writing.
As if to illustrate the benefits of our new world I have recently sold a work that is going to a gallery in China and had an email from a gallery in London interested in my work. In the bad old days sending work to China would have been consorting with the communist enemy and, being poor, I would have had to give it to them. In those days Maggie Thatcher’s London was capitalist and it was a time of economic ascendance for the British. Now, the Chinese are our financially well off, almost capitalist, friends, whilst our poor, almost communist, friends in London have been hard hit by the recession and are concerned about the prices of my work.
It is not that I am a supporter of either Maggie or Mao but at least in those days I still had friends and my birthday was remembered. This year I only received one birthday card which was from my Mum. I had to remind my wife and children of the important event and by then it was too late for the usual socks and underpants and even if you sent it, there was no ten rand in the post.
Tags: Carl Roberts, February 2010, Newsletter, Sculpture
I think my place in society should be like that of a termite in an ant hill. My thoughts are not because they carve wood, nor because they are sometimes destructive little pests, but because I like the image of a humble worker steadily building.
The ant may be insignificant but he makes a fantastic structure by carrying grains of sand and wood one at a time (from your house to his). We, like the ants, should participate in some small way to constructing a better world. Perhaps it is self serving but I would like to live in and leave behind a kinder, happier and culturally richer domain.
Much of my white ant soul has been with the African Art Centre, a development agency. It was initially set up by the Race Relations Institute more than 50 years ago with the aim of promoting art and providing work, financial independence and dignity through art. In the distant past I have exhibited and sold work through the Centre. I have served on the board of directors for more than ten years and recently I was elected as Chairman of the Board.
I am delighted and a little nervous. At the time of my election I had the thought that the board had elected a Mr Bean. This was because I am aware of my own failings, intimidated by the wealth of talent on the board and admire the dedicated and hard working staff. However, I realise that what is required is a team effort as that will ensure the continuation of the good work already done.
The ant is not an image I have used often although they have appeared in some of the trees I have made. Trees and the wild life therein are a symbol of community for me. My recent work Fight or Flight is an example. When I was full of optimism for our rainbow nation my trees were filled with insects, animals and birds, happily coexisting. However since then the fauna in the trees has diminished and they usually have a predator amongst them. In this bone work the threat is a leopard, an animal that I associate with stealth and cunning. I have occasionally carved a lion, like the Iron Lion, a new work carved from lump of ironstone that I found in Howick. However, the lion is an image I associate with power and leadership and differs from the leopard.
I have sculpted a few works in stone, stones like serpentine, limestone, sandstone and granite, but the ironstone is by far the hardest. I started using this material because I liked the organic shapes which made them suitable for my mounts and even though the work was minimal, the stone required diamond tipped tools in order to dress them. Now, having acquired those tools, I am presented with an opportunity to sculpt something a little different.
I, like most artists, am regularly tithed. This has nothing to do with my religious beliefs. The tithe or tax is collected by charities that regularly ask artists for donations. I like to participate, even when it is more than I can afford. In the past month I have donated works to Every One Counts and will be participating in the Wildlands Art for Conservation to be held at the Spier Estate in April, 2010. These charitable events are a great way for collectors to do a good deed, acquire works cheaply and in some cases you may even be able to put the amount spent against your income tax.
I will not tell the wildlife people that as a small boy and a destructive little pest, I used to catch large, shiny, black safari ants, make them bite the hem of my shorts and break off their bodies. The aim was to have a row of gleaming ant heads decorating my shorts.
The ants have taken their revenge. They have steadily been eating and undermining my home. Then some time ago, at three in the morning, my doorbell started ringing. At first I reasoned it was a mistake, but when it persisted I thought it might be the police. Eventually, seething with anger, I roared up the drive to the gate only to find no one there. It left me in a confused rage. The following day the doorbell was rung again but this time I could see that no one was at the gate. I unscrewed the intercom to investigate and as I opened it ants poured out to defend their nest.
The incident has made me think. Our communities do not need the self-serving, parading and clowning of a Mr Bean that we see all too often. What it desperately needs are those people with the self sacrificing and workmanlike mindset of the ant that quietly gets on with the job.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Sensuality interests me! I enjoy touching and being touched. I need a full lipped French kiss, the warmth of a body, the curves, the feeling of skin, and to quote one of my favourite films ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ “a little bit of massage and steam”.
It is part of me, part of art and part of my work.
I think that artists put their sensuality on display. I am sure many are unaware of doing so but it is unavoidable. It comes through the artists’ preferences and the choices which are sometimes not conscious decisions. Things like the materials and colours they choose to work in, textures they make, the way they use line and so on. It is something that is difficult to pin down but it is, when the artist is not trying too hard, easily spotted.
A work I often think about is ‘Plum Cream’ by Penny Siopis, now in the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg. It is a painting of a cake but it is a cake that feels to me to have the ingredients of labia and pudenda rather than flour and eggs. Perhaps it should have been banned as obscene but I love it. I much prefer this to her history paintings which I find are over intellectualised and pander to the academics. ‘Plum Cream’ has that sensual content, the real soul of the woman, and that is something to get excited about.
At university I used to take an intense interest in the works put on the wall for the monthly critiques. Not only because I could learn something about the composition of works but also because I could learn about the people who made them. Coincidently, they were mostly women. I like to think it was a balanced life as my social education was then at least as good as my academic efforts.
The making sculpture is often a sensual activity. Perhaps this is more obvious in modelling wet clay than carving dry rock. It is felt, fingered, and caressed into shape by the artists’ hands. Painting, by contrast, is generally prodded onto canvas with some hairs on the end of a stick and viewed from a distance. Admirers of sculpture often feel the work and it is a medium more easily appreciated by blind people.
Of course my own sensuality or frigidity is out there for all to see. I try and embrace it as I think of it as worthwhile content. Each of new works In a Tangle, and Reef Ranger (sold) display that part of me. ‘In a Tangle’ has the warmth of the wood, the curvilinear lines, and the intimate subject. ‘Reef Ranger’ is a satisfying subject that I have tackled several times. Because of its amorphous form an octopus can be “bent” to take almost any shape and becomes a vehicle for expression of a sensual self. I am not alone in my choice of this subject and am aware of Hokusai’s erotic octopus which some may read as lewd. However, for me, it so explicitly expresses what many have felt; the desire to consume your lovers’ body.
Naturally I would like to think I am deeply sensual. It is the kind of accolade that would suit my artists’ identity and add to my sense of being a good lover. However, as I am not in the habit of fondling myself, I am in a poor position to judge. Perhaps it would be best to ask my wife. Then again don’t, as you might feel obliged to burst my bubble.
I think, as a New Years’ resolution, I will heed those lines from my favourite film “give yourself over to absolute pleasure”. That for me will be falling in love with and getting steamy with my bits of wood and bone.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I don’t believe in luck or at least in not waiting around for a lucky break. It is not that I don’t get lucky or have bad luck; in fact I think that I have had more than my fair share of both. I believe in trying hard, making sure and putting aside for the inevitable rainy day.
I make sure that I do the important things like squirrel away any spare cash and I try my very best with everything else. Perhaps the least important things in my new sculptures, Ironstone Head, Jump and Hullabaloo, are the pins, hangers and the undersides of the bases on which the sculptures stand. In all my mounted works I use stainless steel pins to connect sculpture to the base and felt underneath them to prevent them from scratching the floor or desk. On my wall mounted works I always put in twice as many screws into the hangers as are necessary, the screws are solid brass and the hanging plates made of stainless steel. I know it is excessive and perhaps I am insecure but I do not want them fall down, scratch a surface or develop rust marks. I try hard to make sure that there will never be a problem.
Professor Robert Brooks once remarked that I was a bottom feeder. At the time I had no idea what he was talking about. I have come to understand that what he meant is the opposite of a high flyer, someone who likes to secure his foothold and not to leave anything to chance. However, I should know better as fate always has some say in the way things turn out.
This year we were robbed of a car, used our reserves to buy a new one and then the recession hit us with no sales for 3 months. This famine and feast cycle is not unusual for us. However, this time, without our savings I became very anxious.
To avoid destitution I imposed measures to mitigate the situation. The geyser was turned off until needed and we took shorter showers which were sometimes cold because we had forgotten to turn the geyser on. The groceries were pared down to the bare essentials. We always seemed to be eating cabbage and I missed the chops and chocolate. The dogs were put on diet and the kids supplemented their rations with the peanuts from their allocations of pet rat food.
I think it was Gary Player who said that “the harder I practice, the luckier I get” and that sums it up for me. There is an element of chance in anything you do. There are ups and there are downs but with hard work and careful planning I think one can weather the storms and improve the odds of success. My over reaction does have its advantages as we have pruned our expenses and implemented some good habits. Our stolen car was a bit of bad luck but, as fate would have it, there has been some good luck.
Happily, I have been nominated for a fellowship at Yale. I realise that it is still only a remote possibility because out of the 750 nominations, they will only choose a dozen or so. However a nomination to a fellowship at Yale is fortunate and exciting even if it remains but a nomination and if it succeeds, this lucky bottom feeder will be a high flyer.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
We acquired our chickens shortly after we arrived in Hillcrest in 2000. They were initially justified as they were to be a source of eggs. It fitted our notion of a relaxed and natural farm lifestyle that we hoped to live. Hillcrest was, at that time, a rustic place as we had horses and paddocks across the road and cane fields further along. We did, in those first few months, enjoy the fresh free range eggs, marvelling at the proud and bright orange yolks. However, in recent years our village, along with our rates, and our notion of free range has exploded and we are now part of the busy metropolis that is Durban. The lifestyle we had hoped for has, like the cane fields, gone up in smoke. The paddocks have been replaced by gated estates and the quiet life substituted with shopping malls and traffic. We still have our chickens, although we are a lot wiser about them.
Chickens (and roosters) were part of my imagery long before we got them, because as a subject the chicken has a lot to offer. The images made can assume a wide variety of interpretations and anything from arrogance to timidity is possible. Often there is some measure of stupidity intended, which makes it a fitting metaphor for human beings. It is a colourful subject, has interesting lines and its compact form lends itself to a visually exciting image. As a free range and cocky student I made a linocut print titled “Cocks”. The subject has been repeated many times, but in different forms and imbued with different meanings. Recently, I have made the “Bohemian Bird” which, like all of my previous chicken sculptures, is slightly different in form and content.
The form and content of this work is linked to another new work, “Sensual Soul”, done at about the same time. It is about the poignancy of life: Sensual and beautiful but decaying; powerful but helpless; contented but sad – which all says something about the wonder and futility of life. Perhaps this work has to do with some introspection and looking back on the part of this happy artist whose hair is falling out and whose teeth are missing. One who has begun to think about the pathos of life.
The chickens are no longer a food source for us. They have become our pets and perhaps a mirror of our slightly dysfunctional world. They, like us, have traffic jams and like our ex Chief of Police have some undesirable associates. Recently, I removed a 1.3 m Mozambican Spitting Cobra from the chicken run who lived up to its name and spat at me and in the eye of my dog. Poison was our first option too when dealing with mites on the chickens. A natural alternative was not even contemplated. The traffic jams occur ever day at rush hour which is when I feed them. Each day our flock rushes ahead into the cage and when, on seeing that I am not there yet, they rush out again and into those still heading into the cage. This causes a snarl-up and exacts a lot of foul language as they get under my feet.
Our Arcadian dream is a distant memory. It was worn away by the building boom, undermined by the snakes and the mites, but the most serious damage was done by the chickens. They imploded our pastoral aspirations when my wife saw them dining on dog poop. No matter how natural you might consider this, it is not for us and we have stuck to Pick n Pay’s whole grain eggs ever since.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
The DVD is, for our house, a relatively new technology and a great relief for me, as my wife and I have spent most of our married life watching videos in fast forward. My wife, being master of the house, was in charge of the remote and therefore the video machine. She would tape programmes which were intended to be watched later. However, hour upon hour and night after night, we would scroll through videos in fast forward trying to find the wretched programmes. My wife’s insistence that the programme existed and her determination to find it were exhaustive. It was a scene that belongs to Monty Python and absurdist theatre.
Now that we have a DVD player, my world has changed and I have recently watched How Art made the World. It is a BBC production that looks at the “big picture” of art’s role in society. It was one which I enjoyed and recommend (not least because I actually got to see it). It is rare that art is seen as important, a maker of our world, and not just as a bit of ornamentation. In addition the presenter, Dr Michael Spivey, in one of the post scripts bravely states that art is “representation” and “a common human activity”. This reinforces my own ideas about art.
I think that the artist should “paint” his or her experiences, the world around them. That way the art works will be of that person, of that time, of that society and of that place, and therefore be a representation. My recent works, “False Fish” (made from blue gum bark and currently at home) and “Diver” (made from wild olive wood and now at the Strydom Gallery in George), are examples of my “painting” my world.
They have something of the impending Christmas holiday about them, but fishing and diving are more than just a holiday sport or a seaside meal. They are things I have done since childhood, part of my life, and they have, in the past, been a refuge in emotionally turbulent times. These kinds of images I associate with freedom and happiness. I have enjoyed making them as I have played with the forms. Some abstraction and distortion have made them expressive and perhaps they begin to show what I feel and the kind of person I really am.
The reason (in part) why I write these letters, which I hope gives some insight into my slightly absurd life, is to point out the grounds for why I make what I do. However, you do not have to live a ludicrous life to be an artist. I believe, like Dr Spivey, that all people have a creative ability. I have met and admired some highly creative accountants and lawyers – perhaps you could describe them as artists in their own fields. And of course this list of creative people must include my wife.
We never found those missing programmes and only after several years of watching the same old programmes in fast forward was it decided that the video machine was broken. I like to think of this as my wife’s artistic endeavour and it is representative of some peoples’ lives. If it was frustrating, it was also entertaining. So much so that it had me laughing until the tears rolled down my cheeks.
PS. Greg and Kate of Stepping Stones have opened a new gallery in Cape Town and have some of my work on display. It is at No 9 Jarvis Street, which is directly behind the new Cape Quarter Centre (tel: 083 781 8170). If you are in the area pop in and take a look.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I am currently reading about Ned Kelly. He is an Australian folk hero, and the equivalent of the Englishman Robin Hood or the American Jesse James. Most societies have this kind of peoples’ hero. Since there are aspects to the story that remind me of South Africa, like the unrelenting poverty and the corrupt police, it has made me wonder who our folk hero is.
The reason I initially took an interest in Ned Kelly is because I enjoy the paintings of Sidney Nolan. He seems to have had great fun painting a diverse range of subjects that at first appear unreal. However, the work is usually rooted in real people, places and events. He has also managed to explore and express that which is beyond the tangible in his paintings. Kelly and his gang is often the subject of his work, but he was especially interested in Ned’s helmeted head as it delivers content on many levels.
Like many artists I feel compelled to make a “head” every now and again. I have heard some say that a head is a head is a head, and if they mean it is boring or has no content, I disagree. For me it is a vehicle to express oneself and if it is a known and limited form, it is also unlimited in the possible variations of that form. Familiar and yet open to interpretation and invention.
My new images, “Exhale” and “Wild Man of the Woods” (now at the Gallery on the Square) are different from one another and for now they have fulfilled that compulsion.
Perhaps it is the wrong time for me to be reading Kelly’s story, as the person who stole my car is making it difficult for me to recognise Ned’s good points and any reason for him to be a champion of the people. At present, my heroes are likely to be bounty hunters and those who impose Shariah law. I am lacking in sympathy and am tired of the redistribution of my pittance. I find myself wanting the same swift “justice” meted out to Ned Kelly for my thief. His head in a noose!
Forgive me for my bloody thoughts, but this is the 6th car that I have had stolen.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
If you thought that the economic recession is a time for an artist to be subjugated and cowed into silence, you would be wrong. I am thriving. In fact I, as always, have too much on my plate and am far too busy. I would like to blame my marriage for my situation – it’s always been a convenient excuse – but that would be a lie. Apart from my addiction to work, which remains a bone of contention, my relationship has been good and getting better for many years. The truth is that I am a workaholic.
Recently there have been more excuses than usual to be working, as I have hosted a Nancy Crow tour, undertaken to re-jig my website and found my favourite charity, the African Art Centre, in need of some extra help.
Nancy Crow is America’s best known quilt artist and runs tours to various parts of the world, including South Africa. The tour’s emphasis is on art and artists and I was privileged to be one of those visited. Working hard and working weekends, I made a lot of new pieces. I also recalled some works from various galleries and, together with our collection, mounted an exhibition at home. However, our distinguished guests made me feel that my works were not enough. In order to give the exhibition variety, my wife displayed her collections (ceramics, tea cosies and embroidery) and we showed some of our children’s artworks.
Helped by our friends, Mike and Margaret and Kathryn, the day was a success. Although the real pleasure for me was to see my family function as a team. My wife took charge of the sales and had arranged a fantastic tea, my daughter successfully sold my books and my six-year-old son acted as a tour guide. He made sure that the visitors he collared had seen all there was to see and had heard the story behind each work. Too boot, my orchids were blooming and it left me with little to do but pose for photographs and admire the people I love.
In his recent book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell (who also wrote The Tipping Point) points out that successful people put in the work hours and have had support from the kinds of people that can make the difference. In my experience these have always been family and friends.
My previous website was initiated, designed and run by my friend Kai, but I could not persist with that favour for ever. It was time to thank him and change friends. (I know that sounds fickle!) Since I am singularly ignorant about anything to do with the web, I needed someone else to help me. Fortunately, I have another friend in the IT business. The new website has been redesigned by my friend Garth and his compatriots at Umlungu to bring you a fuller, bigger picture. As a technophobe I can only admire, be grateful and curry favour.
It is not surprising then that I feel the need to give back a little. Of course there is a catch, as the give-back is not to the people who helped me, but perhaps things that go around, come around. I serve at the African Art Centre. It is a non-profit, public benefit, developmental organisation that was started 50 years ago. It teaches individuals art and crafts and provides an outlet – and in so doing, helps around 2000 people earn a living. I’m not sure why I am on the board, let alone elected Vice Chair, as I have neither legal, financial nor managerial skills. However, it serves my needs, as I feel as if I am doing something useful and giving something back to the community.
I keep hoping that the busyness will come to an end and that I will have nothing to do with my time, except to go fishing. In that respect, the future looks bleak. I have already lined up a trip to Johannesburg and a part in the “Book launch and Authors day” at the Hillcrest Aids Centre. If the first wave of Americans was not pressure enough, in a few weeks’ time I have a second tour visiting my house. This time it will be the Pasadena Art Alliance.
The busyness is making me dizzy and things are not as they should be. The tea cosies were a hit and my children’s works seemed to me to be more interesting. Perhaps the rush is an illusion, one caused by age and decrepitude, but it does seem to me that as the years go by I get busier and have to work harder.
I’m sure I would feel better if I could just blame my wife.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
A friend gave me a book voucher for my birthday and although I was excited by it, it turned out to be the kind of gift that caused pain and should be avoided. The voucher was generous but the art books I bought were large, nearly 500 pages each, and expensive. To boot, I was unable to choose between two books and in the end justified the purchase of both with the argument that it would ensure that I would be up to date with current trends. The price I paid was hurtful not only because the books cost three times the value of the voucher but also because my self esteem took a beating as these books made me feel like a has-been.
I have yet to finish reading the second book but I think I have the gist of them now. There are several common genres but not much overlap in the works of art chosen for inclusion. It is significant that both authors selected works by Wim Delvoye. (‘Cloaca’ and ‘Cloaca Turbo” and you can see a similar variation of the work on the web here (that means click there!). They are representative and symbolic of the works contained in these two volumes as Delvoye has made a sculpture in which you deposit a meal at one end, the machine replicates the digestive system and voila! You get a stinking pile of crap at the other end.
I have reread the authors’ arguments several times and like so much of academia it is seamless. The authors show the historical lineage which runs from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Mary Kelly’s soiled nappies to Piero Manzoni’s canned artist shit to this work. Pooh, it seems, is a regular medium that is used to debunk mastery and medium. In addition, the writers point out the benefits of this pooh art to society, “It makes you aware of your bodily functions”, which, of course, is true. I think it shows that you can justify just about anything.
However, this work, like all works has mastery, medium and content. One has only to look at the machine to realize that it is sophisticated, though I suspect that Delvoye’s real skill was to find the funding and person who could make it. His medium is not new nor is it without an aesthetic even if that is one of shock and horror. This is a conceptual work, a genre which places the emphasis on the idea but I have still to discover its’ intellectual merit. In the end Delvoye’s work is no different from any other artist’s work but I have no interest in this subject, nor am I fascinated by the medium and it is not the kind of art I would like in my dining room.
It did make me think that I should place a pile of choice prunes on a plate as an artwork at my next showing. I feel certain it could be next big thing in the scatological genre. It would have the same historical linage and seamless academic argument but this time there would be the added dimension of audience participation. The thought was fleeting, desperate and occurred moments before I sunk into a depression and began to think that I am not an artist.
I have, however, recovered, and have subsequently found some benefit to my expensive and demoralising present as it has helped me define my parameters.
My historical perspective is that I align myself with pre-Duchampian movements and that ‘Cloaca Turbo’ and its’ kind is an art I reject and react against. Reacting against a work or a movement has as much precedence and merit as a developing one and this negation or affirmation is the swing of the pendulum and the way in which art moves forward. The art illustrated in the two publications I bought is, I hope, the height or outer limit of conceptual art and it has made me think about and value the merits of the much maligned “precious object” that is visually exciting. It makes me appreciate the merits of well composed works, craftsmanship and enduring and exciting mediums. It makes me believe in a creative process that is hands on as opposed to one that is predetermined by concept or directed from a distance.
For a while I had been intimidated by the authority of the written word, the size of the books and the academic’s ability to rationalise. Coincidentally, through a chance meeting with the salesman for one of the books, the artworks have been put into perspective. I learned that there was only one of these books for sale in Kwa-Zulu Natal and that I had bought it. Suddenly, the king had no clothes on as it seems this kind of art has a very small following. If my friend’s gift caused some pain and bruised my self respect I still have to thank him for I have been forced to think and define myself and in a roundabout way they have shored up my self esteem.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Men from KwaZulu-Natal are sometimes referred to as a Banana Boys. The flora that is most often seen and commonly mistaken for bananas is in fact the Strelitzia Nicolai plant. However the name, Strelitzia Boy, would not have the impact that Banana Boy has, as it does not have the connection with our local rugby team nor does it suggest virility in the way a banana does.
Name changes are big part of our national debate. The change by our local rugby team from Banana Boys to Sharks has been one that moves from that of virility and potency to one that suggests predatory aggression and perhaps that is what was required. Some of our national teams changed their name and emblem from Springboks to Proteas. That seems to me to have taken the balls out of the buck and replaced the spring with a pirouette. This, I imagine, is good for the women’s teams even if the protea along with the strelitzia are the dykes of the flower world. Perhaps it is all part of a gender equality programme but it is not exactly the kind of name that will drive fear into the heart of an opponent on a rugby field unless you are allergic to pollen or fear being hit with a posy.
Names in art are important as the title of a work is a key to unlocking the meaning or meanings contained therein. It can provide a perspective and directs one’s understanding of the work. It is a point of departure from which the work of art will either build on or deconstruct its significance. It is also one of my weaknesses. Perhaps I am too close to and caught up with the making of the sculpture as all too often I neglect spending enough time thinking about and titling my work appropriately. In haste I sometimes give a working title that is poorly thought out and then occasionally, to my dismay, the title sticks.
The title ‘Banana Boy’ has been more carefully thought out. Perhaps this is because I have been working on it since we returned from our holiday in Australia a year ago and so I have had the time to think about it. The name is appropriate in part because the work is made from Strelitzia leaves, but also because I have become a Banana Boy. The title suggests that the subject is about a person living in KwaZulu-Natal and hints at the virility of this person. However the tripped/balanced composition of the figure and the boat itself suggest that there are some anxieties about living in and or leaving this place. It also puts the virility of the man in doubt.
Fortunately for sculptures that have been poorly titled their names sometimes have a life of their own. Buyers of work sometimes impose their own names, whilst galleries have changed titles as they think it will improve sales and even artists rename their works. An example of an artwork that has had its title changed is the ‘Night Watch’ by Rembrandt. It was first called ‘The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch’ and no matter how instructive and informative the original title was, it is a bit of a mouthful.
I have not always been a Banana Boy as I have lived in many places. Before I moved to Durban, I was a Boet, or should that be a Swaer, from the Eastern Cape. Since I was born in England I may at one time be considered a Soutie, Limey or Pommy but I realised that was false when I sat next to a black man on the Tube in London who spoke with a Cockney accent. It was then that I understood that he was English and despite my pale complexion I was African.
I think that along the way I have learnt something about the fluctuating nature of identity especially as prior to an adoption by my third father, Mr Roberts, I was a Rautenbach. By the same token I am aware “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Whilst there is an inherent quality to the “rose” it is often the title that can make us think about associations and inferences that make for a richer comprehension.
I like being a Banana Boy. It lacks the rustic Arcadianness of the swaer from the Eastern Cape and the gender neutrality of a strelitzia but for a man of my age it has, what is needed, the insinuation of virility.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I have never understood why some people have no regrets as I have lived a life full of regrets. That is not to say I am unhappy or dissatisfied with my current lot, but we all make mistakes. In fact, I like to think that is how I have learned a few things that have enabled me to find happiness.
In my last letter I referred to Toledo Worm when in fact it should have been Toredo Worm. I apologise for my mistake and if you want more and accurate information click on the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipworm.
I was reminded of some of my past mistakes by an email received from Moiré, a girlfriend from my university days. The email was titled “Blast from the Past” and indeed it was. It elicited a multitude of emotions and a bagful of sorrows that had been buried by time.
The memories resulted in a sculpture, ‘Travels to the Interior’, as I was taken back both in time and into myself. The sculpture consists of a boat containing figures and animals made from various wood collected from the beach. Boats are an image I like to use as they were part of my youth and express many things that I feel about life. In my experience, life, like a boat, has an uncertain path and is vulnerable to the many storms that might sink it or set it on a new course. Also life for me, like ships that pass in the night, is a brief, intense and fragile few moments in time.
The name and the shape of this boat remind me of the early explorers. The title is from early Afrikaner literature and the boat reminds me of the ships in which Van Riebeeck sailed to the Cape. The vessel is a natural form that suggests both the boat and the waves upon which it rides. Here and there the waves boil out of the form and express something of the emotional maelstrom that I felt.
Aboard the boat are figures and animals each representing either persons involved or symbolising the surrounding events. The owl is a symbol of death and or wisdom and it lords over all. The dog is symbolic of domesticity and or infidelity and the swan represents sex and sensuality.
What happened? That is, of course, none of your beeswax and any case I can only tell a part of it and my version of that story. Suffice to say that mistakes were made and I feel remorse for mine. To subvert that other cliché associated with regrets: Had I my time all over again, I would do it all differently. Hopefully, I would do it better.
Milton, who penned his Areopagitica in defence of the freedom of the press in 1644, wrote “That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary”. I am not saying that I am now pure although I may be a little less black hearted than I was. Milton’s point is that in order to understand good you need to know about evil. (He does not say you have to do evil.) What I am saying is I have learnt a little from my mistakes and being wiser I am a happier man.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
A drought makes my wife happy as it gives her a reason to stick a brick in the cistern, to insist that we only flush the toilet when absolutely necessary and to recycle the bath water. She will snap at anyone who lets a tap drip and beware of her sharp tongue if you do not put the plug in the sink. All her efforts to save water are noble and good in a country that has a shortage of water but in Durban it has rained non stop for 3 months.
Rain drumming down on my roof puts a toothy grin on my face. It is not because I like to spite my wife or because my wife and I spent a long time in that dry part of the world, Grahamstown, but because I am hoping for a deluge. If that sounds as odd as my wife saving water when it is raining there is a reason. The power of a flood is exciting and productive. It jerks me out my humdrum existence, reminds me of just how small and powerless I am and the river brings me wood in abundance.
My new works are all made of wood that have washed onto the beach with the recent summer rains.
‘From the Navel to the Nest’ (now at The Art Room) is made from a piece of wood that I found at Port Shepstone. It has been eaten by shipworm, also known as Toledo worm or gribble. The holes create a random organic texture that is different and complimentary to the natural dark stained cracks and adds to the variety of marks on the surfaces. The darkness, mattness and shapes of the cracks and holes contrast with the polished surface and rich colour of the wood. Its form is loosely based on a bird and one of Henry Moore’s sculptures. (‘Animal Head’, 1951.) Like Moore’s work the emphasis is on the internal dynamics of the sculpture or as he said “Form for its own sake and a truth to materials”.
‘Wolf’ (sold) is a piece of Wild Plum. Where the wood is revealed it is satin smooth and a beautiful rich red colour that contrasts with the dark corroded exterior. As is so often the case, the wood that survives these rivers is special. This piece is a part in a tree that moved while it was growing and as result the grain has been compressed into ‘ripples’. When the compression marks are polished they appear as darker and lighter bands of colour. The work is an interesting combination of contrasts and complimentary elements of colour, texture, line and form which make the work visually exciting.
The distinctiveness of the wood reminds me of a story I was told by an engineer whom I met when I lectured at University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. He had worked on one of the bridges over the Umgeni River. Part of the process of the construction required core samples from the riverbed to be sent to Japan for testing and dating. Out of one of the cores came a piece of wood which the engineer washed and placed in his office. He told me that the next morning he could smell that the wood was tamboti and when the core was tested it was dated at ten thousand years old.
I have made a number of works with wood that has spent a long time in the mud, akin to what the engineer found and similar to bogwood. They are dark, sometimes throughout and sometimes revealing their original colour when deeply cut, and sometimes the wood is carbonised and charcoal like.
Three small works ‘Sleeping Bird’, ‘Feeling of Floating’ and ‘Cloaked Angel’ are from the “bog” and illustrate these attributes. These works are sketches as they are quickly done to pursue an idea, explore the material or to exploit the natural forms. They, to use Moore’s maxim, are “guided by the spirit of the material”. I consider these pieces of wood, like the bones I use, to be uniquely African materials but there are links with the Europeans. Bog wood and bones have been used for sculpture since man lived in the caves and more recently Henry Moore used bones as a starting point for many of his works.
I used to get a few of these pieces of wood by wading thigh deep into the water on the mud flats and feeling for them with my toes. The same floods that bring me my wood have brought less desirable things like polystyrene, plastic bottles, carcasses of animals, e-coli and flesh eating bacteria. However, of all those undesirable things the most feared has, like me, a toothy grin and like the snapper at home loves water and even though I have not seen it, I will respect it. The sign on the bank of my favourite river says: “Beware of the Crocodile” and now in order to get my bits of wood I, like my wife, look forward to a drought.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I miss pie, gravy and chips. It is now a distant and delicious memory from my childhood. I know that change is not only necessary but also desirable and so things move on. Perhaps this is easier to see in art and fashion than in politics but all need to be reinvigorated from time to time by new people and new ideas. The new regime, (as SA government is so often called) when it is elected in April, will hopefully be able to fulfil their election promises and artfully redirect South Africa to more noble and fertile grounds and bring a better life to all. Perhaps that way I will get some of the gravy.
My new work ‘Stand Up’ in cast bronze (Now at Strydom Gallery, George) is a socio-political work and as such is a fairly rare thing for me. I am not inclined to works of art that make such obvious statements, perhaps because I have very limited understanding of politics and even less understanding of politicians. However, every now and again I get swept up with the excitement and the possibility of political and social change and consequently make a work that is related. This work is inspired by the new optimism in America, the recent political events and the possibility of change in the looming election at home.
‘Stand Up’ owes something to the painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delacroix and contemplates an earlier revolution, a moment of hope and action in history, which was the civil uprising by the French in July 1830. The work of Eugène Delacroix inspired many subsequent works of art such as the ‘Statue of Liberty’ by the architect Frederic Bartholdi, (‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ – its official name). Sentiments surrounding these works may be romantic but they are also noble, patriotic and a call to action. If you, like I, have a suffrage and have somehow missed the gravy, stand up and vote!
Change has also come to my sense of haute couture. I have not been on the cutting edge of fashion for nearly 20 years. However, in 1992 fashion embraced me. Washed out and torn jeans and baggy jerseys became stylish and popular. I was, for once, ahead of my time as that was my mode. This style, known as Grunge, suited my student pocket more than my aesthetic values. Professor Robert Brooks, my mentor, friend and fellow grunger encapsulated much of our fashion sensibilities when he commented on an art work put up for a critique at Rhodes University by saying that it, a shoe sole print on white paper, was “the presence of an absence of a presence”.
This comment may have had educational value in that it got the students thinking, but like so many statements made by the politicians, it also demonstrated to us that you can justify just about anything, including bad art. Generally, I am in the camp of voters who think that people who want to become politicians should be banned from public office as that is evidence enough that they are unfit to hold office. I am not thinking about the politicians’ justifications and I am not expecting them to fulfil their promises. I merely hope that a stronger opposition will be a motivating force for the general good.
Although I will be not be at the opening I will have a presence at the Strydom Gallery in George from 5-30 April in the Nothing New Exhibition which is designed to run in tandem with the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (Klein Karoo National Arts Festival).
The title of the exhibition makes me think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps for politics this is the case, but not so for my style as fashion has once again adopted me. On the weekends, at least, you will see me wearing my favourite brand of designer clothing. This has little to do with my wife’s ambition to change me. She was trained as a clothing designer and does have a sense of fashion and may have seen her role in our marriage as a style redeemer and me as a suitable candidate for her Pol Pot type of fashion re-education programme.
That re-education plan failed as I get my clothes from my cupboard and get dressed in the dark. The fashion for the day depends on which T-shirt is on the top of the pile. It tends to be the day before yesterday’s one as that was washed and put back on top of the pile. Occasionally someone else’s clothes have turned up in my pile and I have worn my daughter’s T-shirt and my wife’s panties. I would not have noticed except that they were both most uncomfortable.
Change has been foisted upon me by a combination of my wife throwing away the likes of my prized twenty year old Hendrix T-shirt and generous donations from my mate who works for the trendy clothing line, Volcom. The new clothing regime is a victory for my wife and she reminds me of how happy my grandmother was when she persuaded me to wear a safari suit. She told me that I looked very smart which like the politicians promise was a lie as I looked ridiculous. Part of that shopping excursion was a treat at the café where I chose pie, gravy and chips. Like that distant and delicious memory the new apparel gets my vote as it is a change I like.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
My wife, like my dogs, is a loyal, faithful and dear companion but unlike my dogs she does not have the capacity for a cuddle, the ability to forgive when I neglect her and does not respond to any of my commands.
Bingo, our small SPCA special, almost terrier type of dog, is slavishly devoted and lavishly affectionate and generally obeys my commands. She is happiest when close to me. She hops on to the chair wherever I sit and tucks in behind or next to me. Even when I go to the toilet she follows and waits patiently outside the door. She is jealous of my children, their pet rats or anyone to whom I might show some attention. She is only too willing to shower me with kisses at every opportunity and whilst I enjoy most of this attention, I do try and dodge the septic breath kisses.
Bingo was named before he was found at SPCA and then he turned out to be a she. This was the start of a process that was corruptive and one which was egged on by Bingo’s own lack of personal hygiene and her penchant for chicken poop. Her name was eroded from Bingo to Bingarella and then corroded to the Really Smelly Relly and now she is known as the Smellish Relish. Notwithstanding all the issues of name, sexual identity and personal hygiene, the Smellish Relish, like my wife, has a heart of gold.
Perhaps I should not compare my wife to our little bitch but she started this by the remark that the dog was a wife substitute. I prefer to think of my wife as a porcupine. She appears sweet and docile but a good distance is required so that one is not speared by her barbs. Her breath, however, is a lot sweeter than Bingo’s but I rarely get a kiss from her. When I do, for my own safety, I kiss with one eye open, lips pursed and puckered to ensure as much distance as is possible and a course of retreat carefully preplanned.
The conversation we had has resulted in a new sculpture, the ‘Wife Substitute’, which celebrates my relationship with the dog and is symbolic of our marriage. Historically, a dog in art is often used as images of domesticity and sometimes used to convey attributes of men or women. I began to make dog sculptures shortly after I met my wife and the progression is revealing. Perhaps most telling was a work I made at the time of our marriage which was titled ‘Marriage: Is This An Old Duck Or A Chick On My Back’ and which conveys a certain ambivalence.
The ‘Sub Prime Shark’ is also a new and an unusual work. In some way this is a fun work made from a piece of wood that I found whilst on holiday at Shelly Beach. Its exaggerated features bring about a cartoon like quality that is playful. It recalls the shark I caught fishing and has the fluid movement of the fish. However at the same time it is a political and social work as it reflects the predatory, voracious and anxious aspects of the financial and social crises that are affecting our world.
I would be less concerned with the world affairs if I could find that sensual, sweet breathed and safe kiss. Then again, so would most of the politicians and at least I am not that ugly and I don’t have to lie for a living. Perhaps before I turn to alcohol and the kiss of the Tsar’s hop to drown my sorrows I must count my blessing. After all, I have a wife and two dogs that are loyal, faithful and dear to me.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
We decided not to go away on holiday this Christmas as we had a very expensive one to Australia last year, spent our money and needed to make up for our excesses. At least that was the thinking before the Christmas torture and the SWAT team arrived, but as the advert goes “We bin having it!” and in our case that was a bit of everything, the good, the bad and the ugly.
We bin having Christmas since mid November. It started when a tree was cut from our garden by our overenthusiastic six year old son, Jack. He adorned it with decorations he made at school, recycled old toys as presents and when the first tree withered a second “real” Christmas tree was bought. In order to create the right ambience during this extended Christmas period, the curtains were drawn, the Christmas lights displayed and Boney M’s Christmas songs were played, at full volume, ad nauseam.
If I felt sick, my children felt worse as they bin having the mumps. I would have argued that the best place for them to be was in the tranquil security of home, but that was to prove false.
Hillcrest is usually a quiet and safe suburb, although the sound of shooting is not unusual. I am more suspicious now but usually think that this is someone trying to scare away the monkeys and I take no more notice of it than I do of a car alarm. Even when the shots were followed by my dogs barking I did not expect trouble, I expected to find an animal like the monkeys or our resident porcupine to be the problem and set forth to investigate. The monkeys turned out to be human and were leaping with primate agility over my electric fence. The dogs and I gave chase until he pointed something at them and, fearing the worst, I called them off and ran to tell my wife to alert the police.
I am not sure what my wife said to the police, but the response was magnificent. Within minutes, a military style helicopter was circling my property, it landed and out strode four men in camouflage uniforms, all of whom looked like the Terminator. They were armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and pistols and had all the gear of a SWAT team. This, however, was just the beginning as they were followed by detectives, then the dog unit and later still a second blue police helicopter. It is not the kind of response I have had in the past and we were shocked and frightened. We locked ourselves in our house for fear of being caught in the middle of the showdown that was imminent.
There was a lot of marching up and down in my garden by the armed men for most of the day, but we did not see the police arrest anyone. Eventually, after a long and stressful day, everyone went home quietly. The last to leave was Bruce. No one knew who he was or what he was doing there, but he was parading up and down my property with a hunting rifle and a shot gun, flattening whatever foliage was left standing by the police. By the time Bruce left, we had had it. We were too fraught to go to our friends for their New Year’s Eve party and we needed a break.
We bin having a holiday at Shelly Beach on the South Coast. It was short but sweet and just what was needed. We trawled through the book shops, galleries and orchid nurseries. I managed to catch and release a large shark and the kids and I managed to catch four crayfish that were delicious and my wife caught a tan.
My new work ‘Arno’ is not intended to be the Terminator, Arnold Schwartzenegger, or any of the policemen, nor was it intentionally a portrait of my friend, Arno. However it does look like my friend, who is a blond, blue eyed, surfer boy. It is inevitable that artists work with visual material that is familiar to them. In the past the habit of depicting familiar bodies in my work has not always been to my advantage as I have occasionally sculpted an old girlfriend and thereby offended the new one. In this work I was focussed on the graphic marks and interrelationship between the flat surfaces and the three dimensional spaces. I had been thinking about Picasso and his folded paper cut-outs. I nevertheless hope that my depiction of my friend is a little kinder than Picasso’s portrayal of his women.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Wishing you every happiness this Holiday Season and prosperity in the New Year. Thank you for reading my sometimes arduous and rambling newsletters!
I am getting ready for the festive season onslaught and so my next newsletter will be after the holidays.
All the best to you and your family.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I am delighted to have sold my work ‘Directions’ to the Oliewenhuis Gallery in Bloemfontein. The value of this transaction is more than just being able to pay the rent. A public collection is a sample of our cultural heritage, an important part of tourism and has an important educational function. This is where works are most likely to be seen, provoke debate and exert an influence. It is also a wonderful feeling that my work is being taken seriously by the cognoscenti of Bloemfontein.
The purchase of ‘Directions’ is a more poignant success if you understand that the past several years have been difficult times for any public gallery in South Africa, as many have not had a purchasing budget. Their valiant efforts have relied on the ‘Friends’, tea rooms, donations and fundraisers for their pittances and are therefore sometimes priced out of the market. By contrast the city councils always seem to be able to afford a party. This underinvestment has seen many of our best works sold to foreign and private collections. At least 50% of my work goes abroad. In addition, there is the cultural and educational loss and now the lack of purchasing power will mean that the public sectors’ 2010 displays will be just that much less exciting.
It is thrilling that I have been approached to take part in the soccer world cup, but no, I am not a soccer player or even a great fan of football – though I once broke my arm playing the beautiful game. There will be an art component to this grand spectacle, and rightly so, and I will be participating. 2010 will be an opportunity for South Africans to show off and market all that this country has to offer, which will include its art. Generally, I think that our art could play a greater role in our tourism industry, especially if you consider that France’s 88 million annual visitors go there primarily for their art. Hopefully, a sincere effort will be made so that art is not seen as alternative entertainment for the soccer widows or as an option for the rainy and no match today days, but as it should be seen: an exciting, dynamic and integral part of South Africa.
My new work ‘Backflip’ (Now at Strydom Gallery) is about being caught unaware and thrown off guard. It is a sand cast bronze on which I have used a patina I have not previously tried. Although the medium of bronze has an authority, the works can be dull and boring, but I am pleased with this work as it is an interesting form with an exciting patina. A good patina is difficult to achieve and I usually have to rework the initial attempt in order to obtain a satisfactory result. I prefer this traditional method of finishing a bronze to the alternatives offered. In this work the overall colour is a purplish brown that has a green and blue lustre to it, something I would not be able to achieve with paint.
In an example of life imitating art this work illustrates what I did when I burnt myself. Part of the process of making bronzes is that I make the equipment I need and so I have been engineering steel boxes for my sand casts. They are welded with a gas welder and although I am a competent welder, my glasses, which I wear under the welding glasses, sometimes steam up and not being able to see properly, I get clumsy. It was at a moment like this that I fumbled. The filler rod cartwheeled into my lap, the molten tip was like a javelin slicing through my pants, through my underpants and seared into my, um, well, err, John Thomas.
The involuntary reaction was a back flip, though it was a lot less controlled and less acrobatic than it appears in my sculpture. I am now a connoisseur of pain and derision. My wife, regardless of my hurt and disfigurement, giggled like a teenage girl and despite my protestation that there was nothing to gain from or humorous about the situation, has refused to take it or me seriously ever since.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I was alerted to a trapped rabbit’s plight by the dogs’ barking in our garden. However I was in a rush to fetch my daughter and was unable to rescue the bundle of fur. I felt guilty and had a mental picture of coming home to find rabbit fur strewn all over my driveway. When I returned there was, to my surprise, no rabbit fur and no wounded or dead rabbit but two mangled dogs. Brer Rabbit had beaten our two pooches, game, set and match. This bizarre event reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, One Hundred Years of Solitude because the realistic and fantastic coexist in his stories. It also reminds me of the Australian painter, Sidney Nolan, who painted a camel in a tree from a photograph of just such an event.
Similarly, I recall Professor Jos Nel’s story and photograph of himself holding up and pointing a seal on the Namibian coast. Jos’s seal and Nolan’s camel presumably suffered the same fate in that they died in the desert. The bodies bloated and then the skin dried and hardened in the hot desert sun. The result was that the skin retained its animal shape whilst the rest was eaten or rotted away. Jos had just to pick up the skin, shake out the bones, and point the seal.
Animals are often a metaphor, symbol or vehicle to explore an idea in art and literature. My new work ‘Whale’, made from a buffalo rib focuses on movement, balance and the sense of the animal floating. Perhaps, like Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, it is a metaphor for life. If so, it is a lot more serene than Melville’s interpretation of life. I think of whales as happy masses of blubber, shielded from predators by their sheer size and eating insignificant things. I realise that all of this is ignorance but the feeling counts and my image is one of a peaceful, contented and happy being. I have also completed another of my sand cast bronzes. ‘Linda’ is one of a few sculptures I have made where the body arches and touches earth with only the hands and the feet. I cannot help thinking of Nut the Egyptian goddess of the sky in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. However I think that this work has more to do with stretching oneself metaphorically.
Talking of stretching oneself, I gave a lecture at the Oliewenhuis Public Gallery in Bloemfontein which was titled “The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me”. Those who know Roald Dahl’s works will recognise the title and perhaps wonder what the connection between this child’s story and my lecture is, as you can be sure I am not lecturing on literature or animals. The lecture is about me, my work and makes some comparisons with Dahl’s work.
I would have thought that the contest between a rabbit and our two dogs at our home was unfair and had a forgone conclusion. Clearly, it was unfair but ended in the way I least expected it to. Our Labrador had so much blood in his mouth and face that I could not determine where he had been bitten and our terrier had a gaping hole below his eye and a cut nose that required nine stitches. Initially I refused to believe that a rabbit could inflict so much damage and went in search of a more malevolent beast, half expecting to find something like a leopard in our garden, but the rabbit was only animal I could find.
The wounds on our dogs made me think the rabbit was a mythical beast; a kung fu bunny or were rabbit. It was, of course, a rock rabbit or a dassie in Afrikaans. Like its distant cousin, the elephant, it has large teeth, is wild and is not found in the children’s nursery. However, I consider its behaviour docile when compared to the cruelty of our vet’s bill.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
My wife is away and contrary to the saying that the mice will play when the cat is away, it is all fetch, carry and cook for the children, to and from school, soccer, shopping and ballet. Whilst it is now obvious that I am going to appreciate her a lot more when she returns I am hoping that it will be the same for her. If, and when, she returns from her ceramics conservation courses somewhere in the Langkloof. I have learnt that we are engineered to sniff out a partner who is unlike oneself and thereby strengthening the gene pool. This rings true for our relationship and, like so many couples, we are as different as chalk is from cheese. I am not surprised that books on the subject have titles like ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’. I also understand that Afrikaans TV personality who called his female partner “Die Engelsman” (The Englishman). It illustrates the genetic joke played on our species. It seems that our partners are by design unlike us and therefore unlikely to be comprehensible to us nor are they likely to be comprehending of us. You could say they are from an entirely different culture and we are bewildered by one another.
In a cross pollination of culture this banana boy is going to Bloemfontein where I am to give a lecture and workshop and it has made me think of my connection with that part of the world. After my (original) father died we traveled from England to a farm called Langdraai, near Petrusberg which is half way between Bloemfontein and Kimberly. It was here that my (step) grandfather was a farmer, he provided a place for us to stay and the family was a support for my bereft mother. It was here that I uttered my first (Afrikaans) word which was “piesang” (banana). Later, after my second father’s demise, my mother returned to the ‘only had one shop’ village of Petrusberg and bought a house, where she intended to raise us. Fortunately, she managed to snare a new husband, they were married in Durban and he whisked us off to another remote village which was Tanga in Tanzania.
Perhaps the thought of going back to Bloemfontein has motivated me to make ‘Langdraai’ which is named after my Oupa’s farm. The name, which literally means long turn, also makes me think of the circuitous routes one travels only to return to ones roots. This work acknowledges a part of me that is connected to the platteland (flatlands or rural areas) a place so different from the hilly, forested and English speaking KwaZulu-Natal. I have a few memories of that place and those times. The images in my mind are of windmills, ice on the dam, chasing springbok in the veld, letting all the water out of the dam so that the fish were swimming between the carrots in the vegetable patch and the neighbours who had their coffin and death clothes permanently laid out on the dining room table, ready for the terminal day.
‘Langdraai’ and another small bronze or two have been cast in my back yard using a simple sand cast. These works are for me technically and aesthetically experimental. They are quickly carved in polystyrene, cast in sand moulds and then reworked. I am looking for an immediacy, expressive distortion, movement, texture and colour that is not often seen in bronze sculptures.
Strange as it may seem, part of my family has migrated from one culture to another. Not by marriage but by the deliberate cultivation of alien culture and as a result I have an Afrikaans cousin. We at the present time have a good historical perspective to understand this a rather strange thing to do. After all if I could, I would choose a culture where I would benefit from a host of cheap shares. Ironically it was easier for my Uncle as there was not an issue with pigmentation as he moved from a first class citizen to the ruling class and it primarily required learning a language. Thinking about it, those Sasol shares could have been a way to improve my Zulu, very quickly. It was however a bit of a cheek as this family came from English settler stock, went to English speaking schools and universities and to boot was also a family who (unsuccessfully) laid claim to the fortune left by the old Bonds of the Bond street in London.
A social advantage and the desire for money easily explain my family’s heritage hopping but do not explain the reason why genetically different people who cannot understand each other get together. My psychologist friends tell me that falling in love is a chemical trick your body plays on you in order to get you to breed. The chemistry must have worked as I remember our romance as intoxicating and I now have two children.
However, I think I am now past the chemical thing and am beginning to appreciate the intelligence of the genetic thing. Being different, my wife can do a lot which I can not. Her work is by its nature fastidious and painstaking whereas mine is creative and inventive. This separation has focused my mind on, and improved my appreciation for my wife, for the things she does differently and better than I do. Today, I will especially miss her editing my letters as I cannot spell, have no idea about punctuation, tenses and split infinitives, whatever they are. Whilst her editing is a painful ordeal my letters are infinitely better for her corrections and observations. It is perhaps a familiar refrain but in our unity and our diversity there is strength.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
It seems to me that I live by Murphy’s Law which states that if any thing can go wrong, it will. It started long before I could possibly be responsible for any of it. The dynasty of disaster probably goes all the way back to Cain but as I know it, it starts with my grandfather and his heart attack. A few years later my father crashed his jet and killed himself when I was three months old, then a second father followed who died of lung cancer within a few years. He was succeeded by father number three who was divorced and later died and then this sequence is nicely rounded off by father number four who was also attacked by his heart.
In the recent past it seems that Murphy’s Law is being implemented by the government. Apart from all the public issues they took five years to issue a permit which enables me to collect drift wood for my driftwoord art from a small area on the beach. The drift wood was the mainstay of my income at the time and one might have thought their intention was to render me unproductive and bankrupt. As a necessary alternative I focused on bone carving which flourished until recently, when those responsible for applying Murphy’s Law wanted to send out the armed forces to arrest me and my gallery for not having a permit for the bones. Eventually it transpired that no permit was needed for those particular bones and permits of this nature are supposed to be issued by the very people who gave me the bones in the first place, namely KZN Wildlife.
Life takes some unexpected turns and since I have returned from Australia I have been unsettled. On the positive side the inspirational pot has been stirred and I now want to try a few new things and revisit some old ones. I am making some bronze works, have started a work in strelitzia leaves and I have an idea involving Perspex car lenses. The work I have completed is a bone sculpture about migration called ‘Directions’ and I am sure I will have a few more works on this subject.
It is impossible to go to Australia and not think about migration. We were primed by many of our friends who asked if we were going for an LSD. Whilst I knew that Australia has some problems with drugs I was still mystified. The South African meaning of LSD in this context is an acronym for Look, See and Decide. That was not our intention. However what we saw impressed us and put the option of emigrating into the mix of things. There has been turmoil ever since.
This work depicts a number of directionless rowers, milling around on a fish boat. Fish are a symbol of happiness for me and the boat an image of the passage of life. I suppose this sculpture is about the decisions I need make to settle and find contentment.
I have come to the conclusion that no one emigrates at my age except those that are desperate. Why one would leave the country you are familiar with and love? Why leave lifelong friends and family? (Although many of them are now in Australia). I also realise that most of my business contacts are here and if I were to emigrate I would have to begin again and it may be years before I gain any reputation as an artist. In addition, and no matter how dispirited I feel about the South African situation, it seems that the Australian authorities regard anyone of my age and situation as decrepit, unemployable and probably undesirable. Perhaps they are right but exceptions are made for the hefty price of $750 000 Aus. Murphy’s Law as a disrupting force is active in my life not only in the big things, but also in the small things and on a daily basis.
Collecting the Perspex was easy as my friend Mark Robert owns Marmic, a vast scrap yard filled with crashed cars. However, Perspex is glued with chloroform and chloroform was recently deemed by the government as having schedule six status. I now need a prescription or a permit and, looking as I usually do in my tatty clothes like a tramp or drug addict, did not help. Then, after I had managed to persuade someone to sell it to me, I discovered it did not work in the way I had hoped it would.
Similarly, I have bones which need degreasing and I hoped to expedite the process by boiling them. It appeared an easy task, all I needed was a 44 gallon drum under which I would light a fire. However, the neighbour complained of the smoke, and since we live in a smokeless zone I had to put it out or face the fire brigade. Resolute in my purpose, I bought a gas ring but the gas proved insufficiently hot to boil the water and having gone to all this trouble I then found out that the drum was too small for the big bones.
I spend a lot of time doing nothing or at least doing something futile and having to redo it. Perhaps I should stick to my knitting and those areas where I have already sorted out the problems, but that is not as exciting. A way around the difficulties is eventually found. I need to weld two drums together, I have replaced the gas ring with a diesel burner, the Perspex can be welded with a soldering iron, and eventually I had two pharmacists who where willing sell me some chloroform.
A lot of what I do and enjoy about sculpture is finding the solutions to the problems. I am fortunate in that I remain positive and persevere with my projects as the only certainty is that things change and that change is often not to my advantage. It is important to see the difficulties as a challenge and to tackle them creatively. After all, life is tragic, difficult and unfair but it is also a privilege and opportunity.
I think I will be happy here, there or anywhere.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
There is nothing like travel or threat of death to give one a new perspective on life and art. My family and I have just returned from Australia and think it a fabulous place! It is safe, friendly and beautiful. Ironically I spoke more Afrikaans to complete strangers in Perth than I have ever spoken to anyone in Durban. As a South African in Australia, I knew the names of many places like Albany, Bathurst and Newcastle, whereas in South Africa I know the places but not the (new) names. I could be at home there, except that it is so clean, neat and well organised.
This was a holiday for me, my brother and our families and was everything it should be, but for few kids coughs and some psychosomatic suffering on my part.
Since I have been gadding about Down Under I have no new art works to show you. This time you are going to have to put up with the family holiday photographs. However, I can tell you about a few events in which I hope to participate. Christie’s London have sent me an invitation to consign works for an exhibition of South African modern and contemporary works. It has been suggested that I give a workshop in the Cayman Islands and the Bloemfontein City Gallery, Oliewenhuis, have asked me to give a lecture. In addition I now have my website link inserted into Nancy Crow’s website (www.nancycrow.com). She is a renowned American quilter and has organised a tour group which will be visiting my studio in 2009.
The Western Australian landscape is beautiful (take a look at www.outbackpix.com ) and it looked strangely familiar to me as I was reminded of parts of the Eastern and Western Cape. The combination of Mediterranean scrub (fynbos) and Port Jackson willow made me think of many places between Grahamstown and Cape Town. The difference was in Australia they do not have to be concerned about the willow, wattle or gums being ‘aggressive alien invaders’. Although I know they have a few of their own invaders, some of which came from South Africa, I am well acquainted with some of their fish, their mullaway is our cob, their muellies are our sardines and their taylor is our shad. I can understand the differences in names since we in South Africa cannot agree to the names of things and places. Is a shad, a shad or is it an elf? Is a leervis that or is it a garrick? And is a sardine just that or is it a pilchard? If you add the Australian names to the list it just gets more confusing. For me the nomenclature is not the most important issue, after all a sardine by any other name would smell as sweet, and here or in Australia it is still a very fine bait.
In Australia, whatever the place was called or however remote it was, we never felt the need to lock the car, house or ever worry about any aspect of our security or safety. Naturally, we as a family began to relax, unwind and enjoy each others’ company. It impressed me to see young women jogging alone, on remote beaches or in the parks. I admired the way the tomatoes and lemons were sold by honour boxes. It struck me as so normal and right that kids were free to play in a wooded stream without parental supervision, without fear of being attacked or robbed, and without fear of pollution or sewerage being present in the water.
Everyone here will tell you that Australia has its share of problems and perhaps they do. While we were there and on the only occasion I did watch the news, the second item splashed all over the television was a story about a burst water main. The visuals showed children riding boogie boards on the up-welling in the street. I am not sure if I was expect to greet this news with shock and horror or delight. Perhaps it is my South African perspective but it did seem to me that they were a little short of exciting news. I thought I had a more interesting story as I managed to catch an Australian bait thief and then with the little bait the thief left me I caught an eight kilogram cob (mullaway).
A pain in my chest in the middle of the night seemed out of place during this relaxed time. I have always eaten copious amounts of butter, cream and cheese along with all the other bad-for-you things and have never really exercised, but then I always suffered from low cholesterol and low blood pressure. At least that was the case until recently. Among the family photographs and relics passed back and forth was an article about my grandfather who died of a heart attack, aged fifty one. On reading the article my view on life began to change, I now regretted my diet and lack of exercise and began to panic. Fifty one! I am fifty one!
A week later as I lay awake at home, a pain in my chest, worried about my family’s future and planning a speech to be given from the operating table, I remembered that my brother and I, stuck in the outback, had lifted a loaded trailer to turn it around in a narrow dirt road. One can never be sure, but I think this time my doctor and my wife will agree, perhaps I may have pulled a muscle in my chest and the rest was the reasoning of a hypochondriac.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Flying, the way I feel about it, is for the birds. I am convinced that the engines will fall off, the wings will snap or the plane will be bombed. In any event I am certain it will fall out of the sky. I am afraid of flying and by the time you read this letter I will have winged my way to Australia.
I understand the scientific explanation for how an aeroplane gets into the sky and whilst that may be logical, rational and reasonable, I feel that it is impossible. Modern aeroplanes are heavy and I have heard the figure of 160 tons and more mentioned. I refuse to believe that such a large and heavy thing can be airborne and think it should be moored alongside the quay with seagulls flying around it.
Perhaps my fears of flight or my admiration for birds have prompted my recent images of ‘Bird in Flight’ (sold) and ‘Swoop’ (now at the Gallery on the Square). I never make animal sculptures or bird sculptures from an ornithological or zoological point of view. I do not attend to the anatomical details enough for that, I am more concerned with the formal construction and even make distortions for my own sculptural ends. My birds, being made of dense heavy wood, will most certainly plummet to earth if they were propelled into the air. However, I hope my birds give the feeling of lightness, movement, flow of air, featheredness and all that make you think that they could flit, fly, swoop and stoop. ‘Urban Gorilla’ is rooted in the fears and disappointments of living in South Africa: Fat cat criminals, mismanagement of parastatals, violent xenophobic behaviour, and other torments. I am generally a positive person with faith in South Africa but sometimes the bad news just comes too thick and fast and then I too have my doubts. This work reminds me of the film ‘Once were Warriors’ about an alcoholic and dysfunctional Maori family. The title of the film could have been another title for this work.
However there is a comic side to it as the figure is short, fat, clumsy, distorted, beady eyed and is overexerting himself. I guess it focuses on the misguided and idiotic behaviour and pompous self importance of people who have made a mess of things and the almost invariable and inevitable portliness of government officials and crooks that are so often one and the same thing.
This sculpture is made from the azalea bush root system. They are perhaps the closest I can get to the expressiveness of the thick impasto painting by the likes of the painters William de Koning and Leon Kossoff. I love the medium, not only does it have a fine dense wood but more importantly, there is a randomness and complexity of root forms, contrasts of light wood and dark spaces and linearity of roots that draw a sort of fake anatomy and give the feeling of a flayed body to the figure.
This, for me, expresses something of the rawness, fragmentation and confusion of feelings I have living in South Africa. Fear and hope, excitement and despair, opportunity and desperation are a few of those feelings that I experience on a regular basis. This work is a Yeti of Gauteng, an Abominable Hillcrest man or a Wild man of the bush futilely brandishing himself in defence against the intolerable unseen forces which are everywhere and nowhere.
In that respect I am going to enjoy Australia as it will be a change and a respite from the onslaught of bad news. I will leave behind the electricity saboteurs, third force xenophobes, still active agents of apartheid and all those that took responsibility for the various problems or crimes and resigned. Of course, Australia has its own share of problems. Although I am not well informed, I hear that the kangaroos are on the Australian mafia hit list and the gulls are bait thieves! Whatever their problems are I will view them from a distance and at least it will be a change.
I now only have to deal with the stress of flying there. If I could have sailed my sea sickness would only have lasted for about a week and I could have admired the seagulls flying overhead along the way. The nightmares about flying have been with me for three weeks, I have died a dozen times and I have yet to make the trip. However, I do have to make that flight as I have serious business to do in Australia and I do not have the time to sail there.
In case you were thinking it, I am not emigrating, I am going to see my brother and provided the gulls leave me some bait the important business I will be doing, is fishing with him.
Tags: BoneCarl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Professor Nel once said to me that he was an artist who was a frustrated farmer but had he been a farmer he would have been a frustrated artist. He was my mentor at university and is my friend. He has been retired for a number of years but I have seen no evidence of his farming aspirations in the form of a pristine garden nor a vegetable patch lovingly tended.
Apart from an occasional slash and burn retaliation against the advancing jungle, his garden and house are usually overrun and it reminds me of the way the South American jungle swallowed the Mayan temples. The alien invaders are numerous and persistent, but the most onerous must be the frogs and toads.
The slimy green and warty hordes have long ago outmanoeuvred Jos and colonised his swimming pool. He, frustrated by the croaking and spawning masses, has abandoned the chlorine chemical warfare and yielding to their onslaught, retreated to the safety of his bedroom, where if there was a Sun God to worship, it emanated from the TV set.
Jos now feels that sculpture is too strenuous for him and gave me the elephant bone from which I made ‘Balance’. It is my largest bone sculpture to date and, I think, one of my best. This work articulates many different things. There is some formal exploration as I have used a variety of mediums and I am always trying to create a new exciting composition using the line, form, texture and colours that are available in the medium.
A railway ‘block’, the thing on which the railway track is mounted, makes for a very successful mount but is conceptually interesting as it reminds the viewer of my time spent on the railways. A twisted organic ‘pole’ that signifies growth emanates from the block and ends in the sculpture itself which balances on the pole by one foot.
The bone itself has some elements of purity and death and I have used contortions in the figure as a metaphor for emotions and in this instance they are all in balance. The bone is not the only debt I owe the professor as much of what I do is rooted in his and the Rhodes Art School’s legacy.
If you have seen some of Jos’s sculpture you will understand where I come from. If I was diligent and studious in my lectures I could have learnt more and been happier if I had paid more attention to Jos’s laissez-faire approach to life. It seems to me that more time should be spent on collecting mushrooms, visiting game reserves and fishing as I did as a student with Jos. It was a necessity for me at the time and I would have been a thinner student without the fish and mushrooms.
He, I presume, still has aspirations of being a farmer as he has bought a house in Bedford and I imagine he plans an orchard or veggie patch there. I do have a vegetable garden but it is primarily tended by my five year old son who digs a big hole and puts an entire packet of seeds in it and I, unlike Jos, do not want to be a farmer.
Perhaps I am an artist who is a frustrated fisherman but if I had been a fisherman…
Fishing for a living the way I do it would be a serious challenge as the amount of fish I catch these days could not even pay for the the tackle, let alone the petrol. I was better at it when I was a student, I was hungry and more driven.
Then if I could not catch the fish I could at least eat the bait. Now I am a lot more fussy and even if I can endure the smelly sardines I know my wife will not.
I must apologise for the photographs of this work. I use a black cloth as a background which sometimes works but in this case the pole and the foot of the sculpture do not show well. My photographs are often taken in haste and despite having done it for many years I have not mastered that art.
It seems I should have paid more attention to Obie Oberholser who lectured in photography when I was at Rhodes university. I see he is exhibiting at the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown and says he does not take photographs but makes them. The sentiment is typical of the Rhodes Art School when I was there. I think it puts the emphasis on the visual success of art works and on the artist as the craftsman. ‘Balance’ was spotted in my studio by a collector of my work and paid for when it was still being roughed out.
Since times are tough, I am delighted with the sale. Perhaps this is a case of there being not so many fish in the sea and a cabbage in the hand is worth two in Jos’s garden!
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I have had some disastrous birthdays and am now happy to keep them a low key affair. I would ignore them completely but for my kids who get so excited about that day, the 4th of April. This year my enthusiastic five year old son, Jack, wrapped up everything he could lay his hands on as birthday presents.
I got a lot of the old books and toys he no longer plays with. Lily, my nine year old daughter, presented me with a bar of chocolate which is about the nicest thing I could hope for. My wife’s presents were a book, socks and underpants that were sorely needed. Both children were disappointed that I did not have a party. It all says something about my age and, despite the let down children, I considered the day a great success. At least I did not crash the car, land up in jail, or the like, as I did when I was an angry young man in wilder bygone days.
There is in this work a hankering after that idealistic and impetuous age when young men (or women) fight against their constraints. The work also reflects on my fear of flying and of heights. This presumable all comes from my father, who, before I was one year old, had stalled and crashed his RAF jet, killing himself. I acknowledge a debt to Michael Ayrton whose exhibition travelled this country and which I saw in Grahamstown as a student.
Ayrton was fascinated with the Minotaur myth and focused on making images of Icarus, Daedalus and the Minotaur at various stages of his life. Ayrton interprets Icarus’s actions as a poetic act that had fatal consequences. I have made several images in the Icarus vein; ‘Icarus’ made from wood and now in the Pretoria Art Museum, another ‘Icarus’ made in bronze and the ‘Aviator’, made from bone, and ‘Waxen Wings’ carved in yellowwood, both now in London.
Of course I am not a young man anymore nor the stud I used to be, or at least, thought I was, and of course this bull is tamed as he now wears a ring (through his nose).
Perhaps Ayrton’s minotaur or one of the Picasso bulls are an obvious image for a man of my age. However it is not the brute strength or virility but the loss thereof that inspires the new bone sculpture ‘Bull’. This work contrasts with the Icarus images but remains linked in that they both look back and yearn for things past. Perhaps two sides of the same coin in much the same way as Icarus and the Minotaur are linked in the myth.
The images and thoughts surrounding the recent works makes me think of Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night’ and the words from that poem “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” If this quote makes you think I am about to die, I am not. Not if I can help it, I am only 51. I am hoping for a few more socks, underpants, recycled toys, perhaps a chocolate or two, and am optimistic I will be able to party for a bit longer.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
Travelling in my truck on the trail for new material is torture enough, but the recent return trip from Pont Drift was to be a true test of an artist’s commitment to his cause. I went to Johannesburg to drop off some new works at the Gallery on the Square and then the next day to pick up some bones on a farm near Pont Drift, which is 100 kilometres west of Messina on the border of Botswana.
The birds, landscape and the places from Polokwane through Alldays and further up North were wonderful. The road is the Mapungubwe route, there are many game farms along the way and Ratho Farm itself has some 9 000 crocodiles, a restaurant for vultures and is visited by elephants.
My adventure, apart from all the usual discomforts in that it was long, hot, noisy and expensive, proceeded well but a few kilometres into my return I discovered that I had no brakes and was unable to stop. There was no cellular signal and no traffic to flag down, so the only option I had was to simply drive on and find help. Obviously I had to proceed carefully, using my gears and trying to pre-empt anything that might happen. Fortunately the roads there are flat and there was little traffic, but it was still a rather scary endeavour as it was only 150 kilometres on, in Mogwadi, that I managed to locate a mechanic.
Being desperate, I would have agreed to any price and the price I paid was indeed dear! The repair was quickly done and I opened my wallet with some apprehension, but the mechanic refused any money and insisted that the price was for me to have a beer with him. It was to be a deal with the devil…
Mogwadi is hot and one beer was easily, if surreptitiously, replaced by another. Food was issued in and hungrily eaten but as the food and the beers were his, his generosity began to mitigate against my early departure. When a visit to the shebeen was mooted I believed I could buy my way out, but it was not to be. We went to the shebeen in his car and the few chores he needed to do cut off my escape. En route to fetch his brother, the good man ran over and collected 4 guinea fowl “for breakfast”. When brother Ben was collected, we checked up on the man who had been spat in the eye by a rinkhals earlier that day. We measured a farmer’s gatepost for the fabrication of a gate. Then with the beers, dry wors that we had bought, a blaring car radio, the three of us had a party in middle of nowhere!
From this point the events begin to resemble a bad LSD trip. At one point he sailed past the “Stop! Go!” controls and attendants into the oncoming traffic at 140 km/h, missing the oncoming cars by driving on the newly laid wet tar. He laughed uproariously whilst I sunk into the seat with my sweaty fingers gripping the seat in fear. Later he was unable to manage a cigarette and cell phones while simultaneously driving, he ran the car off the verge into the bush several times.
Fortunately the cigarette and cell phone were too important to put down, so I was given the helm to steer us home!
By now it was late and I willingly agreed to spend the night. I declined any further offers of alcohol and collapsed into a heaven sent bed. However, the fates were still conspiring against me and I was woken at 1.30am in the morning by a thunderstorm. Then at 2.30am, the mechanic needed to go to Vereeniging and I was turned out of the house and sent on my way back to Durban. Even for this seasoned ex truck driver the journey home was a long and difficult one.
Journeys have often been depicted by artists, perhaps for their unpredictability, perhaps because they test the travelers, perhaps as metaphors for life and for other reasons. There are examples of travel works from the earliest civilisations, including the Greeks who depicted scenes from the Odyssey and all the way through history to modern South African Art. ‘The Passage of Time’ is a work I delivered to Gallery on the Square. It depicts figures of various ages in a boat on a journey through time. A second work is the ‘Journey to the Unknown’ which is at the Strydom Gallery in George. Whilst it is also a boat with figures in it, it is different and is about a family’s journey together.
I am privileged to be opening the Fibre Artist Exhibition at The Complete Picture in Lillies Quarter Centre in Hillcrest on the 2nd of April 2008. All will be welcomed. You can look at some Fibre Art Works or speak to Sue, the gallery owner, on 083 673 7975. I will be speaking about Cinderella and her ugly step sister.
I guess that will be a trip of a different kind.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
I was asked to make jewellery for a designer living in Italy. He specifically wanted something unique in bone, but left the designs up to me. I take the view that jewellery is miniature sculpture and have enjoyed making a few necklaces.
They are a combination of bone and a contrasting dark coral. In the past I have used coral for the eyes in some works and have made one small sculpture from an unusually large piece of coral. It is an octopus and can be seen at Abalone gallery in Hermanus.
The experimentation, in this case with the jewellery and with the new material, is a way I keep my art alive, exciting and challenging. I like to find the material and it is particularly satisfying if it is detritus, discarded or dumped. The coral and whale bone were picked up on walks along the beaches whilst holiday at Kenton-on-Sea.
The necklaces have been fun and perhaps a piece will end up on the catwalks of Milan. (Milano International Design and Furniture week from April 16th to 21st.)
My new work ‘Land Ho!’ is as much about landscape as it is about women and their hair. I was thinking about an earlier work on a maritime theme ‘The Harpooner’s Wife’. They are both made from whale bone. Art works are usually more than what is on the surface. (Pardon the pun.) Similarly in writing, novels and poems are crafted words that have theme and meaning. In these sculptures there are thoughts and links between whales, sea, land and (wo)men. The ideas I have explored have been investigated in books like Moby Dick whilst landscape and women is a well know combination in painting. How well it has been explored in sculpture I am not sure, but I it is a subject I enjoy and revisit from time to time.
I was asked to do an interview on SAFM Radio. It was on those indolent days between Christmas and New Year when nothing happens and the levels of toxins in your system are higher than usual. I had not checked my emails and missed the first opportunity. Then, when given a second chance at short notice, was unprepared for the long interview.
Towards the end of the conversation I was asked about my other interest of which I have several, including fishing, orchids and bird watching. Since I was grateful for the exposure, I thought I should give back a little so began to talk of my stock market interest and the radio program Moneyweb.
My wife deftly destroyed any sense smugness and self satisfaction I was wallowing in. I thought I had acquitted my self well until she pointed out that Moneyweb is on Radio 2000 and not on SAFM ! Radio is radio and I cannot correct the blunder, but I will be drinking water and eating lettuce leaves until I have detoxified and restored some clear thinking to my brain.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
My sculptures travel all over the world. I am often amazed at where they end up. Whilst the galleries keep their clients a secret, they sometimes tell me the where the works go. I am aware of works in at least 14 countries. I have many in places like England, America, Germany and Australia, but also have in some unexpected places such as Columbia and Thailand.
When I was told one of my works may be sold to a visitor from Angola I was surprised, a little skeptical and began to speculate about the buyer. I got to thinking about Angola’s diamonds and the film ‘Blood Diamond’. Then my suspicions were focused in a different direction by the sale being complicated. Apparently there are no credit cards and electronic transfers are difficult in Angola. I started to think about the notorious 419 scam. I began to imagine I was going to be asked to pay into an untraceable account, or submit my pin number along with my bank account, to make this sale happen. In the end I have been paid and now have a work in a collection in a new country, Angola. The only suspect thing remaining is my rather exposed prejudices.
We have just spent a week at Kenton-on-Sea. The trip was to gather material to make my wood sculptures, stone sculptures and bone sculptures. We also used the opportunity to visit a few of our friends, and of course I will use any excuse to do a little fishing. Every evening I would fish with a sort of religious passion. Like a monk doing penance I battled the waves, weather, rocks and smelly bait. Much of my time was spent bent over my fishing rod in fervent prayer, hoping for divine intervention. This ascetic patiently waited for hours. At each moment I was ready, coiled like a spring, braced to strike should my call come. Then, cold from the wind, I decided to put on a jacket. The rod was held with my knee against a rock whilst one hand pulled the jacket and the other was pushed half way through a reluctant sleeve. I am not sure if this is Murphy’s Law, a divine comedy or cosmic joke, but this was the moment the fish struck!
‘Dawn’ is a recently completed work. It now belongs to a hairdresser from England who cuts, amongst others, Victoria Beckham’s hair. A hairdresser is a sculptor in his or her own right and judging by her client must be a good one. She was an eager client who bought the work when it was still unfinished.
I am always pleased to get a sale, it helps pay the bills. A quick sale is a bonus and a quick sale during the festive season is just heaven sent. It puts those few extra rand in my pocket which my wife desperately needs.
This sale pleased me because a hairdresser is just the right kind of person to own this work.
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, November 2007, Sculpture
One of the works, ‘Two Girls’ I made this month has been kept as part of the family collection. My wife says “so that our children will have something of the magic of their father”. The ‘Two Girls’ are my wife and daughter and a sculpture about children who always want to stand between your legs and on your feet.
We often keep a work every year for sentimental reasons, not only because we enjoy the works, but they have turned out to be a good investment. This is ironic, as at one time I dismissed the idea of art as an investment. Now it is hard to imagine that they once sold for less than a thousand rand and have since performed better than our Old Mutual investments.
Film director Nico Roos and some of the Slim Films crew paid me a visit. Regrettably, I am not going to be the next Charlize. I am far too old and ugly and when I do act, which is usually when I pretend to be interested in something my wife says, I fail to convince!
Nico, Laurette and Wandile came to see a sculpture studio and tools. In a subsequent conversation it appears that they are considering using my studio as a set for a film and some of my sculptures and tools as props. If the film happens it will provide an exciting distraction for a couple of days and then at least my studio will be famous!
Since many of you may go on holiday I would like to remind you that I have works in the following galleries:
- The Gallery on the Square, Sandton
- The Art Room, Umhlanga, Durban
- Kizo, Gateway, Durban
- Abalone Art Gallery, Hermanus
- Strydom Gallery, George
- Bonisa Gallery in Kloof, Durban
If you are near to Hillcrest you are welcome to have a cup of tea and look at what is brewing in the studio, but please drop me an email before you arrive so that I can make myself respectable (if possible!).
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, October 2007, Sculpture
A recent sculpture I made of a dog called “Valiant” was seen by an art gallery The Art Room, booked and bought which is a very nice deal for me. It is, however, still for sale at The Art Room in Umhlanga, South Africa. Confused? I usually am! This situation comes about when a gallery buys a work outright instead of taking it on the usual consignment system. This is a great vote of confidence as they are sure the work will sell quickly.
For further enquires about this sculpture you are welcome to contact Margaret at +27 31 561 6762 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or their website www.theartroom.co.za
I have made a few dog sculptures in my time and although they are an image of domesticity, each has its own character and meaning. Among the first of my sculptures of dogs that I made was one depicting a chicken on its back and the dog with his foot up trying to scratch it. This is interesting as I made it around the time I got married.
The title is even more revealing: “Marriage: Is this an old duck or a chick on my back?”
You do not need to be a psychologist to work out that I was a little nervous about going to the altar! However, judging by “Valiant”, my latest work, things have worked out well; the dog is a faithful and obedient servant answering to the call of his master.
If this dog could talk I am sure it would be saying “Yes Dear”.
I may have strayed from the point I was trying to make. However, I have been assured by Margaret that “Valiant” will only go to a “good” home. No one with fleas will be considered!
The “Pothole Python” is a happy, fat, urban snake sculpture full of sensual colour, texture and form. Snakes are images garnered from my childhood as I used to collect snakes as a hobby. I am not sure that I should get involved in a conversation about phallic symbols or Jungian psychology with this work. Perhaps I should just say it speaks of my marital bliss!
Tags: Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture, September 2007
I have taken some of my work to the Kizo Art Gallery so that I could support the Heritage Arts Festival. Kizo is a huge space in the Gateway shopping centre in Umhlanga that can take lots of work and display my big works easily.
The festival is unusual in that it has visual arts as the primary focus and I think it is just what Durban and us artists needed in the region. It kicked off with a Gala launch Party last night at the Kizo gallery, but it is much more than a one night event, with a number of exhibitions and events happening.
I am hoping that the Kizo festival will grow like the National Festival of the Arts did in Grahamstown. The Grahamstown festival grew from a local Shakespeare festival into an international event and I am hopeful that our Durban festival will follow the same way.
The latest work is ‘Phoenix Rising’. It is made from a piece of wild plum wood that I found at the Kei River mouth whilst on holiday in the Eastern Cape. The work is loosely based on a bird of paradise and I am most pleased with the firelike qualities it has.
My son, Jack, and 23 five year old classmates of the school’s Red Group provided a delightful array of little people, birds and Ladybirds with which to decorate the tree that I had made for the school fundraiser. I have called it ‘The Faraway Tree’. (Thanks to Enid Blyton for the title.) The tree looks like something from a Harry Potter film with its knotted, gnarled and dark features. The children have provided the bright, the light and joyous aspects in their glazed clay additions. They make a lovely contrast and it is a delightful object.
Thinking about it, there must have been some divine intervention as it was a pleasure to make and not the pain or the disaster I was expecting. Now that this little adventure is over I will have to go back to being grumpy Big Ears!
Tags: August 2007, Carl Roberts, Newsletter, Sculpture
The month has past in an absolute blur!
Neil Wright’s book ‘Meeting Carl Roberts’ has won a Bronze award at the SAPPI book awards. I think it is richly deserved as Neil has worked hard and spared no expense to make a fantastic book. He hired a first class book designer, Durban’s best proof reader and used SAPPI’s best paper to get the results he wanted. The award is a stamp of approval by the cognoscenti and I am delighted and feel privileged to have a book of this quality about my work and my life.
I have recently been invited to consign works for an auction by Christies New York. I was initially surprised as it seemed to come out of nowhere, but of course I have exhibited at Christies London and they are a worldwide organisation. They have obviously forwarded my name and address to New York.
However, prior to this invitation I had agreed to take part in an exhibition for the delegates of G20 and the Heritage Arts Festival that will be held at Gateway in Durban, and of course I am committed to my word. Needless to say, I am working as hard as I can to try and take full advantage of all these opportunities. It does mean that I have a bit too much on my plate and am not sure if I will manage it all.
Talking of commitments, I still have to finish that work for my son, Jack, and his school (you know, the project with the 24, five year old assistants). Help! Send divine intervention.
At last my exemption which allows me to go onto the beach with a 4×4 vehicle to collect wood has been renewed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. Hurrah! This time for they have made it for two years. An even bigger hurrah! It is vitally important for me as the beach has always been principle source of wood, and wood of a quality not available anywhere else.
The flat piece of wood I mentioned in my previous letter has turned into a beautiful work. It is now called ‘The Passage of Time’ and is made from syringa wood which was partially burnt. (Have a look at my website or my book). It has similarities with an ‘Icarus’ that ended up in the Pretoria Art Museum.
Got to get back to grinding, like Jack’s Giant I grind bones to make my bread.
Tags: Carl Roberts, July 2007, Newsletter, Sculpture
After an exhibition I am forced to step back and look at previous work to reconsider and look at existing work with a fresh eye to be able to forge ahead on new projects. I have needed time to restock galleries that I have been neglecting in order to have the exhibition, time to complete works already begun and to start on some new ideas. For once my nose is away from the grindstone and it is a good time to revitalize creativity and as we all know, time is in short supply!
Since the exhibition I have sent works to the Abalone Gallery in Hermanus and The Art Room in Umhlanga. I have finished two works in the last month which are now at The Art Room.
I have started some new works in wood, one of which is a flat wall wooden sculpture. I have not made one of these for a few years, simply because I have not found the right piece of wood. These wood pieces have been some of my most exciting and successful in the past years. The other is a collaboration between myself and twenty-four 4 to 5 year old pre-school scholars. This is a fund-raising project for my son Jack’s pre-primary school.
Needless to say I am terrified!