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Sunday, July 26, 2009


(Pic: The cover of "Meeting Carl Roberts")

Publication focuses on the work and life of one of South Africa’s most innovative sculptors. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Written by Neil Wright and published in 2006 by Wright Publishing, Meeting Carl Roberts focuses on the work and life of one of South Africa’s most innovative sculptors who has received both national and international acclaim.

Working in wood or bone, Carl Roberts allows his material to dictate its future. “I seldom have preconceived ideas; the material suggests images,” he states in the book. “The image chosen depends upon what lies in the subconscious, elements of chance and the spirit of the times.”

In this interesting, well-laid-out and high quality soft-cover publication, Neil Wright draws on the professional relationship he has built up with Roberts over the years in which he and his wife Liesel have worked with him through their Bonisa Gallery in Kloof and their successful international arts business. Apart from offering fascinating details of various works, the book contains contributions from Liesel Wright and sculptor Jeanne Wright. The latter attended Rhodes University art school with Carl Roberts and offers a chapter on the academic side of the sculptor’s work.

Carl Roberts’ life makes for interesting reading, particularly the question and answer section at the end. Having been born in Bristol UK in 1957, he came to South Africa at the age of six months with his mother Jenny and sister Anya after his father was killed in a flying accident. In his early years, the family lived in various areas of Southern Africa as his mother remarried, lost her second husband to cancer and then married again several times.

From childhood Carl had modelled with clay, becoming more adventurous as he got older, creating items out of leather and then carving or painting pictures. After he finished school, he entered into a variety of occupations – fireman, assistant manager on a dairy farm and a truck driver driving 18-wheelers long distance for SA Railways & Harbours. With no matric, his application to enrol for a degree in journalism at Rhodes University was turned down but he challenged this so vigorously that he won through.

Rhodes and Grahamstown turned Carl Roberts’ life around. He changed from journalism to the arts, majoring in sculpture, and went on to acquire a Bachelor of Fine Arts and his Masters degrees. Receiving tuition from American potter Rod Mcoubrey who had set up a pottery school at Rhodes he made some significant pieces including large ceramic eggs made from Grahamstown clay. He owes much of his success to his mentor, Professor Jos Nell, then acting head of department. After leaving Rhodes, he moved to the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) and from then on, KwaZulu-Natal became his permanent home.

However, UDW was not to offer the new and better world Carl hoped for. He was very close to Professor Tom Matthews and his suicide affected him deeply. Turmoil at the university and death threats from a student he had failed, eventually made him take the plunge and become a fulltime artist. Two high successful exhibitions had already proved that his work was in demand - one sculpture going for R18,000 – and this is over 15 years ago!

Life as a full-time artist has been good for him – he married Joanna Bowker and they now have two children and live in Hillcrest. Their property also houses an enormous pile of indigenous wood, most of which he has collected as driftwood on the East Coast of KZN. There are also piles of giraffe, buffalo, rhino and whale bones which he uses as a medium for his sculptures. His work is acknowledged and respected worldwide and is in private collections around the world as well as national public collections in South Africa.

Carl Roberts is a forthright, no-nonsense person and the book reflects his personality. “Carl uses corruption of form to great effect,” writes Jeanne Wright. “Where wood has weathered unevenly or partially rotted, he capitalises on these patches to set up an atmospheric condition in the piece. Perfection and simulation for him, is banal.”

Looking through the gallery of Carl’s works, I was reminded of my days as a tv presenter/producer for KZN arts inserts in the days of Collage and Arts Unlimited. Filming Carl Roberts’s work was always a fascinating process and works such as Back to Water, Aviator, Little Fisherman and the charming Birds in a Nest Must Agree remain in my memory. When we were filming the days leading up to the opening of the Durban ICC, we had much fun with The Lion, his lifesize work in wild fig which is a permanent feature at the International Convention Centre.

New work since then includes the fascinating and ethereal Daphne or the spunky Janjaweed (both azalea root) as well as the beautifully-marked Olive Dog (wild olive). Then there’s the stunning Moon Flower (wild fig) while Eel represents a richly-coloured twisting eel (wild plum). Bone sculptures Hare in a Hurry and Cheetah see the animals in full flight, legs kicking wildly!

ISBN: 0-620-37090-4 To purchase the book at R449.00 including postage, contact – Caroline Smart