Bronze Act: Sculptor Nic Bladen

Cape Town sculptor Nic Bladen casts unique botanicals into bronze, creating artworks he hopes will last as fossils into the future.

The big idea is to hitch his trailer, go up to East Africa and cast the flowering proteas of Uganda and then drive south, capturing all of the Proteas he can along the way from the eastern escarpment back down to South Africa’s Limpopo province where there are lots of proteas.

“Somehow the orchid fraternity got hold of me.” It sounds like a plot twist in a floral conspiracy novel, but this was perhaps the turning point in sculptor Nic Bladen’s career. From making a living creating jewelry (which admittedly was very well received), Bladen was asked by the president of the local orchid society if he would cast a few whole orchids in bronze.

Bladen is preparing a cast for one of his plant sculptures. The plants are attached to the base of the cast and the cylinder is then filled with plaster of Paris.

Hardened bronze is inserted into the furnace to melt.

A former dental technician, Bladen had learned about bronze sculpture under the watchful eye of Otto du Plessis at Bronze Age before going out on his own. He’d been struggling along when the orchid request came.

“I cast a flower one day and that was it. Lightbulb moment. I’m casting at 0.3mm, but I am also casting tree stumps. It’s a marriage of the disciplines.”

The orchid job successfully executed, the penny dropped about how beautiful organic matter casting can be and Bladen embarked on a botanical path that has taken him to where he is today, exhibiting in the Everard Read Gallery in both London and across South Africa and with a workshop in a heritage building in Simon’s Town.

Simon’s Town, along the Cape Peninsula’s southern side, is a quaint little coastal village in that at street level in its architecture, fish ‘n chip shops and pubs it is more reminiscent of Cornwall UK than it is of anything South African. The similarities end where the town hits the mountain slopes it is built on. Surrounded by the Cape Fold mountains, the area is covered in indigenous flora from proteas to buchu and thousands of other species in between. Some common, many rare; this is Bladen’s foraging ground.

His process is relatively simple in concept, but difficult to get right.

Some of the tools required when casting bronze.

Nic and Bruhno (a Spinone Italiano breed) in his studio in Simon’s Town.

“I go for a walk, find a plant or get some cuttings, and then it starts with some very simple jewelry molding practices. In normal jewelry, this would be a wax form, something you carved yourself or did in a mold. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Things that get in the way include ego and overconfidence. Whenever you think things are going well, a bus hits you. Sometimes a mold cracks, or I get a hole in the mold and once you pour in the metal it falls through the hole and that’s wasted, so it’s just about being mindful of each and every task you undertake. Go slow and do every single move correctly. If you are not there, you have to do it over.”

“I think there are 361 protea species in Southern Africa, I’m planning to build a mobile studio. All my tools fit into my trailer and I can pull it into any landscape and pull out my drawer, there’s my oven, there are my vacuum tables and on the other side is a Bunsen burner, and the equipment I need for the foundation work. Then I have a mould. Collectively all I need can fit in a box. I hit the road with all my stuff, Bruhno in tow.”

Photography by Warren Heath/Bureaux.

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