South African artist Chris Bladen has specialized in doing bronzes of wildlife - particularly fish. See some of his stunning work and read about the process of shaping and finishing bronze statues of tuna, flying fish, dorados, tigerfish and much more.
As you turn left into the road going down the hill, to Chris Bladen's studio, you overlook the little picturesque fishing village and harbor of Kalk Bay. When your eyes follow the semi circle of the coastline to the left, you get Muizenberg, Strandfontein, Monwabisi, Macassar, Strand, Gordonsbay and ending in the distance with the familiar silhouette of Hangklip, which indicates the end of the bay or the eastern border of False Bay.
Sweep your eyes
to the right over the sea and the over the massive entrance of the bay and your eyes will come to rest at Cape Point. The other half of the entrance to False Bay or the western border of False Bay. Follow the coast line back to where you are standing and your eyes will go over Millers Point, Simon's Town, Fishhoek, back to Kalk Bay. This huge bay, False Bay, got its name from the shear size of it. Being almost completely surrounded by mountains the sail boats in the olden days thought they where safe from the storms in this bay. But the expanse of water is so huge that the (False) bay offered little protection from the storms and the name given by the Portuguese sailor, Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, Cape of Storms, did its name justice, it offered no protection from the storms and many a ship was lost to the storms as it swept through this vast expanse of water.
This name was however changed to Cape of Good Hope, after they discovered the sea route to India and the East. The other theory about False Bay's name, is that when the sailors rounded Cape Point they thought they have past the southern tip of Africa. They entered the bay thinking they have made it past the southern tip of Africa. But the southern most point of Africa, Cape Agulhas, is still a 150 km further east-south-east. Looking over the bay, this is one of the best views in the world.
This is the view
that Chris Bladen sees everyday as he drives from his house in Simon's Town to his studio in Kalk Bay.
I met Chris shortly after I moved to Cape Town, which is fast approaching 20 years, and through the years we shared many fishing stories over a beer at the Cape Piscatorial Society's bar.
As you enter Chris's studio you are struck by, and amazed how neat, organized and structured it is, compared to some of the other studios of artists that I have visited. But if you model fish to the finest realistic detail that he does, I suppose it makes sense.
The walls are lined with custom made tools that Chris designed, and made to do special jobs; the precise forming, shaping, to provide the exact texture, to replicate and give the effect of the depth of the 3D of a fish's slime, scales and color. Chris is a wildlife bronze sculptor, with his favorite subject being wild fish. He works mainly from photographs, taken by himself, in and out of the water.
Depending on the size, the pose and the patina that is required, it can take anything up to six months to complete a sculpture.
Chris says: "Because you work so long on a sculpture you start to develop a special bond with the piece."
I joked with him, saying that it is a good thing that he does not sculpt life size girls; he will develop a bond with the model and with the sculpture.
Chris is an avid and accomplished fly fisher
and has fly fished in 18 different countries and counting. He has caught tarpon in Cuba, sailfish of Africa's east coast, bonefish and GT's on the flats of Scheycelles and trout in the Rockies to name but a few. He once even chartered a local dhow (sailing vessel) on the east coast of Africa to sail him to a little uninhabited island that he could see on the horizon from Pemba Island. He negotiated with the owner of the dhow that he will only pay him on collecting him, just in case the dhow owner had other plans. He soon realized why the little island was uninhabited. Not even the Pied Piper of Hamlin would have been able to rescue this little island. He ended up hanging all his rations from the trees to save it from the rats that came out during the night. This little island called ‘Misale', in the middle of the Pemba Channel, produced tuna and queen fish, on fly, from the beach...
Chris caught his first fish
on a self tied fly when he was seven years old. When he was about ten years old, he saw a marlin sculpture in bronze. He was absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty, and from that day onwards, knew exactly what he would be doing one day. For a ten year old it was not within his means to make a bronze sculpture, so he started honing his skills in his dad's stone carving business, carving all sorts of gamefish, from different types of stone. To appease his dad he studied to get a ‘real job' and qualified cum laude as a dental technician. That is perhaps also where he learned his attention to detail.
Have you ever
looked at a bronze sculpture and wondered what it entails to produce such a piece. The process is still the same as the 6000 years ago when it was invented by the Chinese. It is called "The lost wax casting process."
Here is the process as described by Chris Bladen in his own words.
Process for bronze casting
- After research on a specific subject, I would start sculpting the original artwork in a medium I think would work best for the piece, i.e. clay, wax, plaster etc. In the case of the brown trout, I used wax as the sculpting medium.
- Once the original is completed, a silicon rubber mould supported by fiberglass is made of the piece.
- The mould is then opened, the original removed, and a hollow wax reproduction is made by sloshing molten wax around in the mould, and allowing it to set.
- The hollow wax reproduction is then ‘gated', meaning wax runners and risers (breathers) are attached for the metal to run through, and for air to escape. A patch is cut from the piece in order to achieve a hollow cast, and is attached to the gating.
- The gated wax sculpture is then dipped in a ceramic solution and ceramic sand is added. After about 6 layers of ceramic, it is then left to dry properly.
- Once dry, the ceramic mould is placed in a kiln, and is baked. During this process the wax burns out, leaving a hollow ceramic shell.
- Bronze is then melted in a Carbon crucible, and poured into the ceramic shell, filling up the void were the wax was before the burn-out, with other words, whatever was wax, is now bronze.
- The ceramic shell is then removed by chisel, and sandblasted.
- The runners and breathers (risers), that are now metal, are cut off, the patch is welded back in place, and the metal sculpture is worked of with air tools, files etc., until it looks exactly like the original.
- When I am happy with the metal finish, the piece is sandblasted again to clean the surface from any impurities.
- I then ‘patinate' the bronze. By heating the sculpture, and applying carefully chosen chemicals, I oxidize the metal surface to the desired effect. A clear wax is then brushed on to the patinated surface, once it has cooled down, to protect the bronze from further oxidization, and to give the surface a high lustrous finish. Recently I have started using a clear Nylon based coating, similar to that used in the automotive industry to protect my patinas. A wax is still used over this coating.
- To maintain your bronze, a clear shoe wax can be lightly dabbed on to the surface, with a soft paint brush, left a while to dry, and then buffed with a cloth that won't scratch the surface. Once or twice a year is more than sufficient, depending on your local climate. Coastal areas with high humidity generally demand more attention than in drier areas. Some people like to leave their bronzes to age naturally, giving them a slight buff once in a while, highlighting the bronze on high areas.
If you ask Chris
what is his favorite sculpture, he says that he does not have a favorite piece or pieces; all his pieces are his favorite pieces but he does have a couple that are more memorable. Some of his more memorable pieces are a life sized sailfish. Another is a life size potato bass that was commissioned by a diver. This diver discovered a potato bass in an underwater cave on a dive, as the diver went to visit this potato bass on every dive, a bond developed between the diver and the potato bass. Eventually the diver commissioned Chris to make him a bronze sculpture of ‘his friend' so that he could visit him when ever he was not able to go and dive. Another memorable piece that he sculptured was a Cape Mountain leopard.
More and more
of Chris's works are commissions, where fisher folk want to immortalize that dream catch in a more permanent and elegant medium than fiberglass. After carefully thinking about it, it is much better to tell about your dream catch, while showing, a once off bronze sculpture, that is a work of art as well.. Chris feels very strongly about catch and release ethics, and does not do any work from dead specimens. He welcomes all forms of photographs if someone do want a special piece made.
Chris Bladen has exported
his work to New Zealand, Australia, Europe and America.
His works of art graces many a private and public collections.
Some of his work can be seen at the IGFA offices in Florida and he currently has work on exhibit at "The Gallery of Rockport", Rockport, Texas. His works are all of a limited edition, with the mould being destroyed once the edition is run out. He has his own Bronze foundry, were all the work is done by himself or by apprentices under his personal supervision.
All his export orders are done with a door to door courier service in specially manufactured crates.
Asked about what wishes he has, Chris answered "I truly hope that every bronze fish specie that I have sculptured will be outlasted by its cousins in the water, because very few people realize how threatened our fish species are"
Chris Bladen's work can also be viewed at www.chrisbladen.com and he can also be contacted via his website www.chrisbladen.com
Cell: +27 73 158 7355
Studio: +27 21 788 8736
Fax: +27 21 788 3812