Creating the Garden
The project began in 2009 when Lewis hired an excavator to create a level play area for his children behind their house on the farm, and began creating what would become a 7-hectare sculpture garden.
When I saw the potential of what that machine could do, it gripped me, Lewis says.
‘I spent almost two years with earth-moving equipment, these very large machines contouring the landscape much as I would the surface of a sculpture, using the same principles but on a much bigger scale. I developed a sign language with the operator and he became an extension of my hand.’ During the earthworks, Lewis shaped a disused tract of flat farmland into dynamic hills, valleys and water features. In fact, the garden could be considered his largest sculpture to date.
Lewis describes the process of creating the garden as intuitive. ‘It is not a linear Western garden imposed on the landscape. It is very organic, very natural. It could appear that nothing has changed here, that no work has been done, because it fits in with the natural order.’ Lewis has grouped the sculptures within the garden not as a response to a conscious plan but rather, as he describes it, through a process that unfolded intuitively over many years, in which certain sculptures seemed to ‘gather’ into distinct areas.
The influence of Japanese gardens and the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic is evident in the minimalist, sculptural design of the garden, its ellipses and curves, its sense of spirituality and acceptance of transience and imperfection.
The Garden’s Focus
The garden focuses on indigenous species, particularly fynbos. Although planted to give year-round colour, it peaks in July and August into September, when its many buchus and ericas are in fragrant flower. ‘Fynbos is winter vegetation, dormant in summer. The challenge in an indigenous garden like this is to bring in big flushes of summer colour,’ says indigenous plant consultant Fiona Powrie, who oversees the garden botanically.
On the pink ‘heather hill’, a selection of ericas, buchus, birch-leaved pelargoniums (Pelargonium betulinum) and Flats’ silkypuffs (Diastella proteoides) are seen. Unusual varieties of erica were sourced from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden: every available cultivar of Erica verticillata, extinct in the wild, was planted along one edge of the lake.
The garden’s four sources of water are a natural perennial spring, a seasonal mountain river, a borehole and agricultural water.
Lewis’s Sculpture is Primarily an Outlet for Emotion
His fascination with wilderness began during his upbringing in a religious fundamentalist family. Today, his interest lies in the path of non-judgement, which he describes as, ‘the burning point between tameness and wildness, between devil and God, between human and animal, that is both paradox and crucifixion’. Nature has come to symbolise this for him. ‘Unlike humans,’ he notes, ‘plants, birds, animals, clouds, rivers and oceans have no opinion of me; they are utterly indifferent to my existence. There is both a horror and a tremendous freedom in this realisation.’
Viewing nature as a ‘church with no dogma’, in the words of poet and psychologist Ian McCallum, Lewis says, ‘It is a place that connects me to my authentic, untamed inner nature.’
Humans have progressively colonised Earth’s wild places, and though our lifestyles may have improved, this has brought an accompanying shadow, in his view: the widespread ecological destruction of our planetary home, and the psychological trauma as we become disconnected from nature. Similarly, we are born wild, but must censor these aspects of ourselves in order to live in social groupings. We risk dying psychologically, Lewis believes, if we become alienated from the authentic wild self. For him, inner peace and authentic vitality lie in learning to live with this paradox. Many of his sculptures, and indeed the garden itself, express this as a physical and visual balance around a centre point.
A Theme Runs Through the Garden
Another central theme is the personal quest for the unknowable and the impossible. ‘That element for me is in the garden: the search for meaning, the sense of what this journey is all about,’ says Lewis, who has long been inspired by words from British sculptor Henry Moore: ‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.’
Interview in the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden, Art Angels 2017