Despite a comfortable Constantia life Dawn Kennedy discovers that acclaimed wildlife sculptor Keith Calders is still an untamed spirit.
Copy: I expect someone who shapes kudu for a living to be a rugged figure, definitely bearded, wearing safari shorts with binoculars slung around hid neck, and perhaps a vague whiff of elephant dung about their person. But the man who tumbles through the door of his Constantia home, to be greeted by a chorus of domestic demands, is urbane and dressed in the de-rigueur denim and black T-shirt of Cape Town’s creative milieu.
Granted, it has been years since Keith has loped around the bush. He’s been settled in Constantia and working as a full time sculptor since the birth of his first child in 1988.
Keith has just returned from Dubai, where he spent three days installing a six-foot gold statue in the middle of the City of Gold’s most prestigious shopping centre. You can’t get much further from the African bush. This, Calder’s biggest commercial project to date, presented a logistical nightmare and took him and three workers nearly four days to install.
The statue depicts the money tree taken from an Arabic legend and symbolises the folly of a man who turns into a tree and dies while trying to cling onto his gold. It’s a warning against miserliness – presumably an encouragement to shoppers not to hold onto their money too tightly. The piece earned Keith the rather princely sum of R3 million.
All this talk of gold and six-figure sums at the outset of our conversation is once again not what I expect from someone who has been portrayed in the media as a kind of pure and incorruptible nature spirit; a shamanic figure able to enter the soul of wild animals. Has he sold his soul?
“We all have a price – and this all costs,” he says, gesturing towards the comfortable Constantia home.
The story of how he discovered his calling has the ring of legend. While recovering from malaria as a young game ranger, his mother, a ceramicist, gave him some clay to potter around with. He began making rudimentary animal shapes and continued clay modeling as a hobby when he went back to the bush. He entered a competition held by St Sithians to symbolise their motto “One and All”. He won, and his three metre bronze elephants still stand intact outside the school, despite the fact that half the herd initially collapsed on the way to the foundry because Keith had no knowledge of armature, the technique which holds sculptures together.
He’s caused a stir with his recent work. His new technique appears calculated and carefully thought out, but he admits, he stumbled across it accidentally. He’d been commissioned to sculpt two footballers and had found himself bored while working on them. He stretched their form, gave them outsize shorts and began to smooth the surface of the sculpture. Eventually, what emerged was abstract, exciting and the beginning of a new approach which has been greeted enthusiastically by the art community.
Keith works from home in a spacious tented studio which resembles a Zen safari camp. At the back is one of the most impressive examples of Calder’s new style ¬-the sleek and stealthy figure of a cheetah.
Clearly Calders, who is approaching 50, is inspired and at riding the crest of if his creative powers. Far from selling his soul Calders is finding it in a Michelangelo-like fascination with form.
As an artist, Calders is a close observer of animals and humans alike. He has a deep reverence for wild animals: “perhaps they symbolize our purer selves,“ he suggests. He is less enthusiastic about people: “I find humans a disappointing species,” he admits.
Keith appreciates the beauty of the Western Cape and keeps in touch with nature by riding his mountain bike. While Cape Town has never had such a grip on his soul as the beloved bush, he continues to feed his passion for watching wild animals by spending hours watching the baboons on the mountain.
Keith natural habitat is at home or in nature. He’s an introvert who enjoys a close knit family life and is not drawn to the bright lights or café society. His tastes are refined and he appreciates the fine things in life such as good sushi, good books and fine movies.
Favourite food: “As a family we don’t eat out much. Generally we prefer take-away in which case it is usually sushi from Wasabi.(021 794 6546). For entertainment we enjoy art movies and generally go to Cinema Nouveau in Cavendish (021) 657 5620
Spare time: “I enjoy browsing in bookstores and getting inspiration and ideas from art books. I like Exclusive books in Constantia (021) 794 7800 or Cavendish (021) 674 3030 but whenever I’m in a shopping centre I head straight for any bookstore.
On his bookshelf: “I enjoy reading South African fiction. I’ve just finished Dark Video by Peter Church – it was great. Also there’s a stack of National Geographic magazines which I subscribe to.”
Daily constitutional: I try and exercise every day. I’m a member of Constantia Virgin Active (0210 794 5010). I swim, spin and do the circuits.
Favourite artist: Michelangelo
Secret side: “I like being anonymous; walking through the city at night and striking up conversations with strangers.”