20 May Conrad Hicks
In the realm of the Toolmaker
Photos: Karl Rogers
Cape Town. In Observatory, Cape Town’s creative hotspot, I visit Conrad Hicks – an artist-blacksmith, or a toolmaker, as he calls himself. His studio forms a backdrop of a special kind. It is right in the middle of the previously burnt-out Art Déco cinema, which he bought and restored. Already the exterior view is quite surreal – it immediately takes me to a scene in the film Metropolis.
With my thoughts still in the 1920ies, I enter the forge, which lets me continue my time travel into the past. The heaviest cast-iron machinery is surrounded by an endless number of wrought-iron tools. It smells of metal. The muffled sounds of hammering and the roaring of the forging furnace provide the correct sound. Incredible!
Conrad Hicks is just busy coaxing a piece of hot metal into its desired form and asks me for a moment’s patience. I have a look around and wait in the adjoining gallery where a small selection of his works is on display. Design sketches and photographs of his sculptures decorate the corrugated iron walls, smaller objects can be seen in cabinets and individual larger works are dotted around the room.
I am very much looking forward to the conversation we are going to have in the Café ‘just now’, that has been set up in the cinema’s former entrance.
Still in a slight daze from the visual impressions I start to question Conrad Hicks about his artistic career. “I studied art with a focus on sculpture at the Cape Technikon and graduated in 1986 – still during the Apartheid era. There was no recognition of contemporary art, the projects in the existing galleries were purely mainstream. I just wanted to get away from the army and therefore ended up fishing before I started to work as a furniture restorer. There I met somebody who introduced me to the techniques of metal working. That’s when I got started. At some stage I found that I again needed a change, found myself in London and started restoring art. Whilst in restoration, I discovered an anvil in a workshop which became the key facilitator for my present works. I returned to Cape Town, became self-employed and built up my business around this anvil. It is one of my essential tools.”
“Sounds adventurous. What role did the purchase of this building play for you?”
Conrad: “A very big role. After paying off the bank loan for ten years to purchase this building I made the decision to take up sculpturing again and to embark on a journey of finding my own individual artistic expression. Initially, within the creating of architectural elements – wrought iron gates, railings, staircases and so on – until I increasingly felt that the artistic involvement with the process of crafting by hand …. in fact, the making of tools, was what was really essential to me. I became aware of the enormous cultural importance of tools. Not only in a functional, but also in a communicative sense. ”
” Do you mean that a tool transports a message that goes beyond its function?”
Conrad: “Yes, because the process of forging represents a development of the raw material by the human hand, and therefore, inevitably, instinctive creative expression flows into the process. Such an expression can be seen at the earliest stone knives and tools. Initially, finding their form might have been purely functional, but as culture started to develop, they became symbols of status and success in their increasingly more artistic workmanship.
“To get back to your works: Does the term toolmaker, by which you refer to yourself, embrace everything, I mean, also your furniture, bowls, sculptures and so on?”
Conrad: “I consider everything to be a sculpture, because the creative expression which I have just tried to show is reflected in each individual object.”
“How much planning and how much spontaneity is in the development of new ideas? I see design sketches everywhere……”
Conrad: “They are more of a mind map than a design drawing. Often I try out on the basis of a sketch whether a combination of various forms could work. While developing large sculptures, I often use models, like for instance in this series (pointing to pictures). I think we should have a look in the workshop. It might be easier to follow my work processes there.
Models of large sculptures
No sooner said than done! In the workshop I can feel Conrad to be in his element. First, he shows me examples of design sketches and sculptures alternatively, which are in the process of being made. It shows quite clearly that, while individual elements of form are visible, the specific, complete, overall design is not executed.
We then take a tour around the workshop.” I largely made the tools myself, some I collected and restored. They are like musical instruments to me. They, too, need somebody to play them, in order to ultimately find an individual expression. The human being here is only their medium.”
As a further example, in order to emphasise the importance of the tool in his work, he shows me a copper plate the surface of which is being worked on with a shaping machine. Finest line structures add something delicate, fragile, to the hardness of the metal. Japanese drawings immediately come to mind. “To me, the line structure which the cutter of this machine created is like a stroke of the brush”, Conrad confirms my thoughts.
In the middle of the room I discover a lounger which magically draws me closer. Its lying surface consists of metal elements with leaf-shaped edges. The supporting construction is made from plain rods. “That,” I declare, “is definitely not a functional lounger. It isn’t meant for comfortable lounging, or is it?” I ask, smiling. “It is more comfortable than it looks, just lie down on it”, Conrad now invites me.
Indeed! In some indefinable way, the form imitates the natural shape of the body. “My idea is that you feel that, via the direct contact with the material, you and the lounger have something in common…. this connection, that is so important to me”, he returns to his central topic.”
“I constantly re-experience this connection in my work. The working process has something incredibly intuitive and therefore performative. There is a rough idea, which I would like to execute, but which I am not able to communicate. However, via the contact with the raw material, on which I work with my tools, a life of its own develops, which keeps fascinating me again and again. The idea takes shape. Ultimately, it is the work itself which communicates my idea. All in all, archaic, primitive, artistic work.
What should I say? The building, the workshop, the artist himself …. and the sculptures, of course, form a unit which is physically tangible. A unit, which is ultimately reflected in all his work and expresses exactly that which is so difficult to put into words.
It is something magical.
Each element of his artistic forms emits something that has grown naturally – nothing is false or superfluous. Why? Is it possible that – when looking at the sculptures of Conrad Hicks – something in our subconscious is activated that takes us back to the origin of the human race and let us feel our roots? Is it possible that dealing with raw material philosophically can lead to the perfect form?
One thing is certain. All his objects convey messages far beyond their function. Messages that touch you . . .
… about the artist:
… about his exhibition at Southern Guild Gallery: