Internationally acclaimed sculptor Dylan Lewis’s true inspiration is the wilderness: untamed places where he can connect to his wild, instinctive origins. From animal to human, his beautiful bronzes are a poignant reminder of this broken connection and how we’re losing ourselves as we destroy the environment around us.

Thousands of years ago, the wild, bountiful valley cradled by the Helderberg and Jonkershoek mountain ranges was home to two tribes of indigenous people: the Khoi and the San. Collectively known as the KhoiSan, they lived in harmony with their surroundings as hunter-gatherers. The Khoi had herds of livestock which they grazed on the relatively edible ‘Renosterbos’ – an indigenous plant named after the animal species which was also once prolific in the area: the rhino. The valley was also home to Africa’s other great icons including lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and cheetah. Large antelope such as the eland also thrived, the buck holding mythical and totemic significance for the KhoiSan, who depicted them in their stylistic rock art.

In the seventeenth century, this natural harmony was shattered when the Commander and first Governor of the Cape Colony, Simon van der Stel discovered the fertile valley and earmarked it for agriculture. Not only did these first Dutch settlers oust the KhoiSan, but they also quickly removed the threat of wild animals. It is believed that the first animal meat eaten by them was the now excessively poached rhino and one family was recorded to have trapped and killed over 200 leopard. The Renosterbos was cleared along with the wild animals and vineyards were planted in its place. Agriculture in the fertile valley boomed and civilization gave rise to the oak-lined streets of Stellenbosch, a historic and cultural gem in the heart of the Cape Winelands.

This picturesque town is home to acclaimed South African artist, Dylan Lewis, who is one of the most highly regarded sculptors working with the animal form today. His work features in private collections across the globe and he is one of only a handful of living artists to have had more than one solo auction at the distinguished Christie’s of London. Although his sculptures have been commissioned by the super wealthy to adorn golf courses and wine farms, it is not art without a message. The poignancy of his pieces stem from their underlying philosophy: Lewis believes that along with the destruction of our natural environment, we have also destroyed a part of ourselves and, in so doing, lost something of deep, intrinsic value.

Lewis’s love of nature can be traced all the way back to his youth. With a true passion for exploring outdoors, he collected objects that inspired his creativity: bleached bones, wood fragments, rock chunks and even animal skulls. It was in Africa’s bewitching playground – from desolate landscapes to ancient rock shelters – where he felt most at home and, to this day, Lewis’s creative process begins outdoors. The artist draws inspiration from hiking in the soaring mountains surrounding his home and admiring their rocky outcrops, cliff overhangs and intricate geological patterns and textures. From the swirling patterns he sees in cloud formations to swaying grasslands and twisted tree trunks, these natural phenomena are models for his artwork as much as any flesh and blood subjects.

Between studying Art at the Cape Technicon and studying painting under Ryno Swart at the Ruth Prowse School of Art, Lewis spent four years in the 1980s studying taxidermy – a skill which would prove invaluable in his future career as a sculptor. Born into an artistic family in Johannesburg, he started off painting. It was only after the death of his father, well-known sculptor Robin Lewis, that he began his world-renowned work as a sculptor. Lewis focused chiefly on large cats as his subject – a metaphor for the untamed freedom he experienced while being in the wilderness – and created an unrivalled collection on this theme. Highly acclaimed, this large cat series was rated as one of the most important collections of animal sculpture to come out of Africa.

In order to perfectly capture the cat’s movement as they hunted, leapt, stretched, groomed themselves or relaxed, Lewis spent long hours drawing and sketching from life. For him, the act of drawing is also a form of meditation as he observes the living being in front of him and senses its presence. While sculpting, he constantly refers to his sketches and scribbles and it is this process that enables the artist to immortalise his subject’s spirit and almost palpable sense of life in bronze. His sculptures may be metaphors for a more mystical realm, but they display accurate detail, perfect composition, and are anatomically correct in every way.

The natural beauty of Stellenbosch and its surrounding mountains provide the perfect backdrop for Lewis’s work and many of his pieces are showcased in his Sculpture Garden near his studio. Others can be appreciated in the postcard-perfect town of Franschhoek and on the prestigious wine farm, Delaire Graff, both widely visited by tourists from around the world. Placed in these high-profile areas, the sculptures are an evocative reminder of what was lost when we gained both the culture and viticulture so celebrated in the area: the wild animals that once had free reign of the valley. Today, only a handful of leopard live high up in the rugged mountains, out of sight from the species that took over their territory.

Inspired by their ‘ancient animistic belief and myth’, Lewis admires the affinity the KhoiSan had with animals and their environment. This is nowhere more evident than in his sculptures which touch on the world of legend and mysticism. African Monolith, a departure from his more characteristic animal sculptures, is inspired by the San rock art that has captured his imagination since childhood. In deep trance states, the San shamans – believed to be medicine men or healers – painted their visions of animals on cave walls in an attempt to communicate their findings with the rest of their tribe. Many of their paintings depicted half animal and half human hybrids, which planted a seed of inspiration into the artist’s subconscious.

After spending more than a decade exploring the animal form, Lewis’s later sculptures examine the development of humans out of animals. The pieces are half natural, half abstract. While merging with their animal masks and features, these human forms fleetingly reconnect with their origins – the part of us that is truly wild.

By denying these wild origins, Lewis believes that we disconnect with who we essentially are, resulting in painful spiritual and psychological consequences. The sculptor does not claim to have the answers and does not offer any solutions. He simply celebrates the possibility that we will reconnect to our primal past and be able to repair the link between mankind, animal and the planet.

Set in the natural amphitheatre of the towering Heldeberg mountains, the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden offers the perfect setting for the sculptor’s favourite pieces. It is open by appointment only. For bookings and ticket sales, please contact the Dylan Lewis Studio by email at info@dylanart.co.za or call 021 880 0054.