Conrad Hicks is an artist, self-taught master blacksmith and conservationist that is merging many worlds in his distinctive work.
Having studied sculptor when he was young, Conrad started hammering steel to shape it, initially not really using heat and without any technical understanding. Years later while doing restoration work, fixing up furniture, locks and hinges, he became more actively involved with ironmongery. Working on a project at the Cape Town Castle restoring all the iron works there is what drew him in, and that was the beginning.
Studying art, he knew this was what he enjoyed and wanted to do, but became disillusioned with the art and gallery scene in the 80’s. At the time nothing was really happening in Cape Town. When he started working as a blacksmith it was not meant to be a vocation, but just something that he really enjoyed. But he progressed to get a studio and started forging – making and shaping metal objects by heating them in a fire and hammering. Initially these were utilitarian objects, balconies and gates – but soon demand grew.
‘When you do something for so long, and do repetitive work, the actual design becomes a subconscious language and we start expressing things we didn’t intend to. This very thing became what people wanted in my work.’
With this Conrad’s work naturally evolved and the demand moved him towards being more expressive and discovering the potential of the material, bringing out the sculptural qualities of what he was doing. With more awareness, his pieces began to cross at the junction where a traditional craftsman becomes an artist.
‘Metal seemed to speak to me, even though I do work with wood, draw and paint, that is more to do with the thinking process, while metal – especially iron – has been significant given its properties. Hard and yet amazingly resilient. Working with metal means coaxing out its beauty.’
‘There are various kind of metal – mercury is a metal. But when talking about iron, the process involves heating it up and pouring it out – hammering and shaping it on the anvil to forge the required result. The techniques itself is an artform.’
With age Conrad claims to have become more aware of what he is doing, finding himself making tools. ‘Maybe it’s a piece of sculpture, but it was essentially classified in the genre of tools. A form of communication, just like words are tools.’ Talking to archaeologists and anthropologists, humans are just tool makers, we create abstract tools. ‘I realised that the forms that I enjoy are purely instinctive and have evolved over the millennia within my DNA.’
‘Over the past 50 years people have become removed from this craft, given technology. Now there is a return to that deep yearning to understand how things work, and what is at the root of the revived craft movement.’
Sitting in the building that Conrad bought in 1998, The Bijou had burned down ten years before and was partially restored when he acquired it. He had to work hard to pay it off, started with 20 workers on different hammers and machining, as they created balustrading and architectural pieces to order. The building was a great work space and once paid off Conrad started nurturing it and fixing it up. He decided to get rid of his staff and focus on his sculptural work, renting out space to cover the costs.
‘The studio and machines are part of my work. I have a gallery and studio and home in The Bijou and a close relationship with the building.’ Coming from a restoration and architectural background he can appreciate the building, and the marks of the fire that had once ravaged it. His most recent exhibition was hosted both at the Bijoux and at The Guild in the Silo District where anvils and tools were displayed alongside his sculptures in a bid to blur the lines between the two, bringing people to learn more about how Conrad arrives at the forms.
‘When I started working with copper about 5 years ago after mostly working with steel and iron, it changed what I was doing in that it created an opportunity for more freedom of expression with the surfaces, colour, symbolism and relationship of copper and iron.’
‘When we stopped making things by hand, we lost contact with the ability to control the beauty of those objects. When you make something by hand, you can say – that’s beautiful, I’ll keep it. If it isn’t, you don’t. That has been the yardstick of what is sustainable and good on the path of where we are going.’
‘Now machines create, and humans don’t understand how things are made, and there is no way to evaluate our technology and decide whether it is nice or not, and the result is that many unattractive things are finding their way into our world. Beauty is a complex thing, it is not just about what looks good, it is about the morality of the creation. Understanding this reminds us of what we need to return to, and similarly working by hand is something that a lot of people now crave.’
Conrad can feel good about the path he has walked. ‘It all started with an anvil and sledgehammer, employing one and then two people to help build the business, reinvesting everything that I earned. I had no capital, it all started with that faithful anvil and that is something that I am proud of.’
As for Cape Town. Born up the road in Newlands, Conrad grew up on the mountain hiking and swimming in the rivers. ‘I feel very strongly that I must play a role in how this community grows and looks after itself. The lifestyle that we have here is difficult to find anywhere else in the world. Despite our challenges. I wouldn’t have been able to find a building like this, the tools or the work anywhere else. This is where my making is.’
Conrad Hicks was born in Cape Town in 1966. He studied Art and Design at The Cape Technikon and graduated with a distinction in 1986. Conrad specialises in hand-forged metal work and uses this technique in his sculptures as well as in his architectural and interior design projects. His forge is housed in The Bijou, an old Art Deco cinema in Observatory. Conrad’s work is available online and specifically on Instagram and is hosted in numerous galleries.