sculpted from soil: the mesmerising dylan lewis sculpture garden
This is a story about what happens when a sculptor gets hold of an earth-moving machine. In 2009, after hiring a digger to create a level play area for his children behind the house, Dylan Lewis couldn’t stop. ‘I had no intention of creating a garden but when the earth-moving machine began work, I was mesmerised,’ he says. ‘It was like a giant sculpting tool, moving tons of earth at a time with the potential to transform the derelict tract of flat farmland that we lived on into dynamic forms.’
The spectacular 5ha garden that resulted could be considered his largest sculpture to date. Here, land and indigenous vegetation have been shaped to contextualise more than 60 sculptures. Against a mountain wilderness where leopards roam, you can walk along 4km of pathways through areas dedicated to phases of Dylan’s sculpting career, including his early birds, world-renowned big cats, shamanic figures and monumental abstracted fragments.
With the help of two excavator operators, Dylan did the initial hard landscaping over two years, then collaborated with garden designer Franchesca Watson on the garden layout. Indigenous plant consultant Fiona Powrie was brought on board to oversee the project botanically.
Opened in 2017 on a by-appointment basis, the garden focuses on indigenous species, particularly fynbos. 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 Fiona. On the pink ‘heather hill’, a combination of ericas, buchu, 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 bright pink Erica verticillata, extinct in the wild, was planted along one edge of the garden’s lake.
This is a space that explores the tension of opposites, both sculpturally and botanically. Plain green restful areas balance visually busier parts; you may walk through the pure verdance of a bulk rhus planting before entering a series of progressively complex, planted areas.
Vegetation becomes art material, as seen in the historic pepper tree copse housing the leopard figures, where Dylan has pruned branches to emphasise the trees’ sculptural forms.
There’s a sense of dark magic in places such as the cave-like grotto, with its hidden doorway guarded by a Pan-like figure, the twisted form echoing the gnarled wild olive trees behind. Deep symbolism has been carved into the land: undulating lawns flow down to the reshaped central lake, water representing the unconscious. Expect stepping stones, secret paths, a fire circle, a pavilion, and a meditative poplar grove encircling sensual female torsos, and a planting of Salvia africana-lutea ‘Eversage Blue’ wrapping around one side.
In the evenings, the air is scented with wild gardenia, starry wild jasmine and saffron bush, while the leaves of buchu, pelargoniums and wild mint release a herbal fragrance when brushed against on summer days.
This is a waterwise garden, even though it has a perennial spring and a seasonal mountain river. In winter, waterfalls gush down from a mountain kloof to fill the lakes. The arid area near the dam has been planted with a mixture of restios and grasses such as African bluegrass (Cymbopogon validus) and olifantsgras (Merxmuellera cincta) with its showy catkins. These gradually give way to succulents, low-growing spekboom (Portulacaria afra) and plakkies (Cotyledon orbiculata) with aloe species. Cheetah sculptures are found among paperbark thorn trees, and a Kei apple boundary, which serves as a drought-resistant security barricade, has been planted around the perimeter.
Japanese gardens, which ‘seem to distil nature into its essence’, were an influence on Dylan. Yet most importantly, he says, ‘every form, every curve, every sculpture’s placement and all the plantings respond in some way to the mountain wilderness beyond – a powerful metaphorical reminder of the wildness within the human psyche, which many of the sculptures express in one form or another’.
Visits to the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden are by appointment only (entrance fee is R140). Call 021-880-0054, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.