‘Somehow the orchid fraternity got hold of me,’ smiles sculptor Nic Bladen. It may sound like a plot twist in a floral conspiracy novel, but this was perhaps the turning point in his career. While making a living creating jewellery, he was asked by the president of the local orchid society to cast a few whole orchids in bronze.
A former dental technician, Bladen learned about bronze sculpture under the watchful eye of Otto du Plessis at Bronze Age before going out on his own. He’d been loping along when the orchid request came. ‘I cast a flower one day and that was it. Lightbulb moment.’
The orchid job successfully executed, the penny dropped about how beautiful organic-matter casting can be, and Bladen embarked on a botanical path that has taken him to where he is today, exhibiting in the Everard Read galleries in London and across South Africa, while operating from a workshop in a heritage building in Simon’s Town.
At street level in the quaint coastal village on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula, the architecture, fish ’n chips shops and pubs are more reminiscent of Cornwall than of anything South African. But the similarities end where the town hits the adjoining fynbos-clad slopes: surrounded by the Cape fold mountains, the area is covered in indigenous flora, from proteas to buchu and thousands of other species in between. Some are common, many rare; this is Bladen’s foraging ground.
His process is simple in concept, but difficult to get right. ‘I go for a walk, find a plant or get cuttings – legally – and then start with some basic jewellery moulding practices. In normal jewellery making, this would be a wax form, something I’ve carved or have cast in a mould,’ says Bladen.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. ‘Things that get in the way include ego and over-confidence. A mould may crack or get a hole in it and once the metal is poured in, it falls through and it’s wasted – so I’m mindful of every task I undertake. I prefer to work slowly and correctly: if I don’t, I have to do it over again,’ he says.
The botanical sculptor has plans to grow, too: ‘I believe there are 361 protea species in southern Africa, so I want to build a mobile studio [to access them],’ he says. ‘All my tools fit into my trailer and I’ll be able to tow it into any landscape and pull out my drawer with my oven and vacuum tables on one side, and on the other side, the Bunsen burner and equipment I require for the foundation work. Then I’ll have a mould. Collectively, all I need can fit in a box. I’ll hit the road with all my stuff, and Bruhno [Bladen’s dog] in tow.’
Many of the plants Bladen casts are endangered and he is trying to shine a light on their status as well as the threat of global warming. But he also doesn’t want to be seen as collecting plants illegally. ‘I found my first plant growing in the middle of a path where people ride mountain bikes. It didn’t stand a chance, so it came home with me,’ he recalls.
‘I don’t just stop and pick material on the side of the road, because it’s against the law. If I’m asked where I got the plants, I can say, “This came from a privately owned piece of land up near Scarborough where I am allowed to harvest them. Here’s a photo with the GPS coordinates, here’s my letter of permission and there’s the parking sticker on my car.”’
The idea is to hitch his trailer, head north to East Africa to cast the flowering proteas of Uganda, and then drive back, following the eastern escarpment down to South Africa’s Limpopo province, capturing all the protea examples he can along the way. ‘Eventually, one day when I have a museum of proteas, I’ll be able to say, “This is what they looked like.” It won’t be of much scientific value to the world because there won’t be any DNA to work with, but it’ll include the shapes of proteas that are dying because of global warming and won’t grow again,’ says Bladen.
‘The same goes for indigenous orchids, of which there are more than 300 species in the Western Cape,’ he says. ‘I’d like to bring them together in a collection and construct a building in which to house them – the Cape Orchid Museum – with a wing for the Natal orchids. There are 6 000 plant species in the Cape to play with. I’ve covered maybe 400 thus far. That’s taken 12 years. I’m 43 now, so I have… 30 years to go?’ he asks, grinning.
‘These species might not be here in 200 years’ time,’ says Bladen. ‘I once saw a photo of a house where everything was burnt to cinders, and the only thing left was a bronze sculpture. That’s what could happen with these plants. Essentially, I’m making metal fossils.’