This article first appeared in The Times SA on 2 November 2017
Striking while the iron is hot would be a fitting strapline to Conrad Hicks’ life. As a master blacksmith he has been beating the shape out of metal for close to three decades.
Hicks, 51, graduated with distinction in Art and Design in 1986 from the Cape Technikon. Over the years he has created a diverse body of work, from furniture to architectural art, drawings and utensils. His greatest passion though, is sculpture, a discipline he studied in the 1980s, initially working in the art restoration field before founding his own business in 1991. Today his forge is located within The Bijou, a famous old cinema and a landmark Art Deco building that he owns in Observatory, Cape Town. The cavernous space smells like lit sparklers and is stacked with the paraphernalia of the trade and piles of steel rods awaiting metamorphosis.
The way a sculpture evolves from its genesis to completion is like metallurgical choreography, a shifting of shapes until the visual outcome complements the brief and what the creative has seen in his or her mind’s eye. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” was how Michelangelo put it, so succinctly. Whether marble or metal, there is a thing of beauty hidden in the raw material, and it takes a craftsman with a unique skill set to bring it forth.
Hicks’ sculptures are his tools of communication –“they speak their own language”, he says. Whether it’s the Stoomtrekker Mutant Vehicle at Afrika Burn, the spiral staircase at Tokara Wine Estate, an installation on the 2010 Fan Walk or sculpted interiors, his creations transcend function and stimulate conversation.
A true traditionalist, Conrad specializes in hand forging where wrought iron is heated and softened in a forge furnace then laid on anvil and then hammered into context. It takes a sagacious mind to get the proportions of a grand scale piece just right and the technical aspect is as complex as geometry. Blacksmithing is a very physical business and sculpting follows that line, being directed towards and appreciated by the sense of touch, even more than vision. I always find myself wanting to run my hand over a sculpture, to feel the texture and connect with it for some inexplicable reason.
On the day I visited the smithy in Obs, Hicks was busy putting the finishing touches onto a commissioned piece, a deep champagne bowl with a rim that undulates like an oyster shell, made from copper. The outside was a thermal palette of blues and greens and the inside the most perfect shade of salmon pink, buffed to a high shine and smooth as satin. At the time of writing this, Conrad was in Big Sky, Montana, installing a private commission on a country estate, a spiny and sacred looking copper structure planted harmoniously in nature, against a row of pines.
Hicks enjoys the nuances and versatility of copper, as does his son Leo, 19, who has produced his own exceptional range of spoons, bowls and forged frying pans under The Tool Room brand and who is now trying his hand at jewellery design. Having his father as a clear and present source of knowledge and inspiration is clearly a huge advantage and success is pretty much a given.
Conrad Hicks is a metallurgical shape shifter. “My pieces are tools that communicate my artistic investigation – this is the essence of my art.”
Details of his upcoming solo exhibition can be found on www.conradhicks.com. Follow @conrad_hicks_artist_blacksmith & @thetoolroom_ on Instagram