Internationally-renowned sculptor Carl Roberts creates beautiful work at his Hillcrest studio
Story Sandy Woods Pictures Heidi Christie
It is inevitable that your art reflects who you are,” says sculptor Carl Roberts, seated in an art deco chair in the family study. “Art happens in spite of the artist. Who you are permeates the finished piece.”
Above shelves groaning with books, huddle sculptures far too precious to sell. An elongated white piece depicts Carl’s wife standing with their daughter balanced on her feet, while the next is Carl himself with his son elevated above his shoulders. Various ceramic pots and vessels are haphazardly pushed in between. These were early student pieces made at the very beginning of his happy years at Rhodes University. Two enormous raku-fired ceramic eggs nestled in the fireplace hearth are also from the same era. Made from Grahamstown clay, Carl has kept the last two of the series for his children. Joanna, Carl’s wife, frequently tells young visitors that they are dinosaur eggs.
Carl’s youth was lived fast and hard in a family environment that was transient and rootless, which was precipitated by his pilot father dying when he was a baby. The family travelled from Germany to South Africa and then traversed the southern tip of the continent in the wake of two stepfathers. With the benefit of hindsight, he realised years later that many of his sculptures speak of his early experiences. The winged male figures, boats, trees and forms released from compacted, knotted roots are all recurring themes in his work.
“All art is autobiographical,” he says, waving his glasses in one hand. He is wearing worn work jeans, a white T-shirt and a warm, woollen beanie. It is a fresh winter’s day in Hillcrest, and a steep, bushy garden is visible over his shoulder. “You just have to allow the process and medium to speak,” he says.
This is something that Carl Roberts relishes daily in his cluttered workshop. Dust, from sculptures long dispatched, has settled on the rough white brickwork. Tins and glass bottles holding torn pieces of sandpaper, rusty metal files and paint brushes fill every flat surface in the room. Nude figures carved from rough black wax stand proud and tall on his workbench. They are the first step in a long process, which will end in a limited edition series of willowy bronze sculptures.
Carl and his son, Jack, have fashioned their own bronze foundry in the dry, dusty hollow beneath the old, disused trampoline net in the garden. This project began as an experiment for Jack, who expressed an interest in casting a few small pieces for himself. However, the foundry worked so well that Carl is enthusiastic about using it in the long term. Although bronze sculptures are his present focus, he is widely known for his anthropomorphic sculptures created from organic materials like animal bones, clay and wood. Many of them are massive in size and scale and the rest are small, thin and translucently fragile.
Carl chooses the bases with care from a large mound of stones stacked on a bank leading down to the stream on his property. He has patiently collected them through years of family holidays from three locations and stacked them in piles of differing colours. With the same forethought, he has an enormous collection of indigenous wood and animal bones stored next to his workshop, ready to use when the inspiration strikes him. He speaks animatedly about collecting a bakkie load of giraffe and rhino skeletons from the Natal Parks Board after a devastating drought many years ago, and the continual challenges of obtaining the correct transport permits.
Carl leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head and smiles as he says, “I really enjoy my job. My work allows me to play every day.”
Carl’s work can be viewed by appointment.