Wednesday, April 25, 2007

New Life for Our Blue Gums?

- Bruce MacDonald -

The carving of the five bluegum tree stumps in Kerkstraat has generated great enthusiasm in Prince Albert – both to have the project banished forever as a concept, and to have it introduced into every village in the country. There are very few in town who do not hold an opinion one way or the other.

Five people who are very much in favour of the project are young men for whom it represents a way of obtaining valuable experience and skills in working in this medium. The four apprentices on the project are all Prince Albert boys, and all have a school background that is appropriate to their current work – art and woodwork. Leon Kamfer, Jeffrey Armoed and Jaco Staalmeester all mention the encouragement that they received from their art and woodwork teachers, both at school and afterwards.

Given the limited work opportunities in the town, all have varied work careers to date – unsurprisingly, building-sites crop up most often in conversations about past employment.
Willem Strydom, descended from emigrants from Gamkaskloof, has worked at furniture restoration and renovation, and has made a living cutting firewood. Jeffrey has been very active in the community, running wire art workshops, and playing a role in the Hoërskool Zwartberg facilitation project. All are keen on the hard physical work that this kind of art requires.

The men are gaining skills in both the conception of the sculpture work, and the more physical aspects – wielding mallet and chisel, working with goggled eyes with an angle-grinder, and trying not to cut off their toes with a chainsaw. Providing the plinth on which the trees stand with a concrete surface draws on their building experience. Jacobus Murphy is the newcomer to the team, and the handlanger work falls to him in the meantime.

Project leader Richard Forbes has a broad vision for the initiative. A workshop is to be set up to train additional sculptors, at which point the current apprentices will become team leaders. Richard envisages a great deal of work in the next few years. “ABSA Bank has accepted this project as part of its Corporate Social Investment effort, and has committed to funding the undertaking for three years,” he says. “Our next project is likely to be in Potchefstroom. After that . . . ”

The sculpture project was reportedly the talk of the KKNK in Oudtshoorn, and Richard has been keen to work there. “Unfortunately, they clean up the town each year for the Fees, so there are no dead trees left.” The other option is to locate dead trees on surrounding farms, sculpt them, and transport them to a suitable position in the town. The Government’s Working for Water initiative apparently is flooded (!) with requests from farmers to remove alien trees from their farms. Richard views this as a valuable opportunity to obtain large old tree trunks, which can be worked on and then transported to towns which are not as well-supplied with impressive old tree trunks as is Prince Albert.

The team exudes a youthful enthusiasm as they go about their hot and sweaty work. Willem mentions the many passersby who stop and chat and ask questions. Interest is intense. I ask Jeffrey what it is like working with Richard. “I don’t know what to say,” he says. When he does work out what to say, it is sure to be something very positive indeed.

(Since the writing of Bruce’s article, the woodcarvers have noted that the tide of opinion about the project may be changing. They reported that a number of residents, who initially opposed the carving, complimented them on what they were doing and were enthused by their work. Also, the woodcarvers discovered that birds, including a family of owls, were nesting in the tree stumps. As a result, they did not go ahead with the planned changes to the trees’ upper branches, leaving them as they were. Ed.)

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