Theme: Simply Beautiful

A sensitive celebration of South Africa’s indigenous flora, Nic Bladen’s botanical bronzes, recently exhibited at Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town, delicately capture the intricate beauty of the individual species of the Protea family. At a glance they look like the real thing – something picked up on a walk on a mountainside – but close up they are an extraordinary delight: a combination of an acutely observant artistic eye and remarkable metal-working skills. Bladen’s journey to becoming a sculptor of this exquisite work is a remarkable one, showing that all things learnt in life can lead or develop into something extra special and it is never too late to stop learning. Originally a dental technician, he became highly adept at crafting porcelain and gold crowns – a job he mastered over eight years. Such a discipline requires great tenacity and precision. However, having developed a love of sculpture, he moved on to work with the highly regarded Bronze Age Foundry, where he learned the art of bronze casting and heavy metal work on a giant scale. He then began to experiment with casting flowers and leaves, and the marriage of his small and large scale metal-working skills started to get some great results. Taken further, he developed his own method of capturing organic material using the lost-wax method of bronze casting. This method is highly complex and involves many stages in the production so maintaining the aesthetic process and the quality is challenging at every stage. Bladen modestly describes his process, “I just work with plants and they speak for themselves.” But his work is not simply about copying nature; it is more of a complex “dialogue with the plant”. It requires on one hand experimentation, trial and error and artistic license with the materials but, on a deeper level, learning about unique terrains, the make-up of an individual plant, or listening to a plant expert who has a deep-seated knowledge. But most of all it is looking, and learning how to see. The artist observes the way plants form or sit in the landscape, and also grows and nurtures some in pots – plants he wistfully describes as “not having touched the earth”. And he seeks out, with the permission of landowners, the rarer varieties. “The wonderful thing about wild plants especially is the growth is pretty random,” he tells us. “They form individual characters.” All these factors eventually help create a beautiful poetic version of the plant. It’s a long and in-depth conversation which sometimes comes easily, sometimes takes years. In his artistic pursuit, Bladen has helped fellow researchers find species and learn more about indigenous plant life. He explains that once you become attuned to the look of a plant, you begin to see more of it, despite initially believing it to be rare on a wild landscape. Like, if it was thought there were only six, and suddenly there are 35, and then 60. If that amount is found, Bladen may then get permission to take a cutting to help create a piece of art in honour of the specimen. And that is why art like this is important. Without this sensitivity to our planet, without acquiring such intrinsic knowledge and without such incredible artistry we would be in danger of losing sight of what is important in all our lives.

100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.