South Africa Outdoor Gallery Garden | Outdoor Spaces

Elsa Young

The story begins in 2009, when the South African artist Dylan Lewis hired an excavator to flatten an area around his house in Stellenbosch for his children to play on. Quite instinctively, Dylan began shaping the ground beyond the play area and creating pathways extending further and further into the grounds of his property. It was a spontaneous reaction to the landscape and had its origins in Dylan's experience as a young boy of making paths through his grandmother's garden, and later in his first job on a South African nature reserve. Eight years on, the result is a seven-hectare garden with a lily pond, grass-fringed walkways, sweeps of indigenous fynbos, streams and a mirror-like central lake. The house is almost completely hidden and the surrounding Stellenbosch and Helderberg mountains and distant views of the sea complete the foundations of the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden.

Once this essential backbone to the garden was in place, Dylan collaborated with designer Franchesca Watson on the 'initial broad brushstrokes of the garden' and with indigenous plant expert Fiona Powrie. Franchesca recalls arriving on site for the first time. 'Dylan had created something very beautiful with his big machines. He had carved out lakes, ponds and streams, with carefully placed boulders and considered positions for art in the garden,' she says. 'In some areas, the subsoil had ended up on top and the topsoil down below, and this required specialised attention by Fiona to put together a palette of plants that would work for these specific conditions,' says Dylan.

Dylan's vision for the garden was for it to become progressively more naturalised the further it extended beyond the domestic buildings, to ultimately merge with the indigenous fynbos vegetation and mountains beyond. The sculpture, too, becomes increasingly wild the further one walks through the garden, moving from intimately observed bronze animal representations to monumental, fragmented and truncated animal/human forms in rusted iron.

Fynbos, the naturally occurring flora of the Western Cape (from the Dutch for 'fine bush' because of its small leaf size), was ideal for achieving this vision. Not only would it help create a seamless transition from the garden into the surrounding landscape but, with a specialised root system allowing the plants to harvest nutrients in the most depleted of soils, it was also a practical choice for these conditions.

The part of the garden immediately surrounding the buildings at the entrance, which include a gallery and Dylan's original studio, is Japanese-influenced, with manicured planting. The plant shapes are rounded, looping back on themselves and reflective of the cycles of nature. The garden wrapping around this area sets up a magnificent tension between proximity and distance, masculine and feminine, civilisation and wilderness.

In look and feel, the entrance courtyard alludes to the Japanese principles of nature distilled. 'I am fascinated by the tension between explosive movement and quiet balance,' says Dylan. There is nothing superfluous here: all elements have been consciously placed. Dylan's process of garden making, like that of his sculpture, is intuitive. Clipped coleonema, Gymnosporia bachmannii, Diospyros whyteana and Buxus macowanii have been shaped into rounded mounds with a restraint that directs the focus onto the art.

Dylan describes the placement and shape of a rock in the entrance garden as an appropriate symbol, 'It was found on site and is a perfect reflection of the landscape.' It is also a powerful symbol of the prehistory contained within the natural world, and the concept of time and evolution. 'The progression of my art has no clearly defined beginning or end,' he explains. On the far side of the courtyard, a discreetly placed slab of raw marble with etched mandala motif is set into the surface of the courtyard floor, representing the Search for Ithaca, a story that embodies a physical and inner journey, with the conflicting emotions of struggle and surrender.

As one meanders along the pathways away from the entrance, the plant diversity is captivating. The hill below Dylan's original studio, to the left of the gallery, is covered with agathosma, acmadenia, erica and pelargonium species, and turns shades of pink from late winter through spring. Many of these species, particularly the agathosmas, are part of the rich cultural heritage of the South African Khoi and San people, who used the dried and powdered leaves mixed with sheep fat to anoint bodies in sacred ritual. Watsonia species and brightly coloured spires of wachendorfia fringe the central lake and streams feeding the lily pond. Erica verticillata - extinct in the wild since the early twentieth century - flowers a deep shade of pink, quite at home in this natural haven.

There is a profound sense of being in the moment in this garden, an awareness that the light and the season will change, as will the landscape, but the experience comes from being there right now. The sculptures, so evocatively positioned in the landscape, have been captured by the artist in just that moment to allow us a hushed sighting into their spirit.

Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden, Stellenbosch: 00-27-21 880 0054; [email protected] Visits and tours can be arranged by appointment