In search of exotic woods, world-class sculptor Brad Sells meets botanists, Boer farmers, scientists and Zulu shamans while learning the medicinal power of trees. From the African bush to the bright lights of a top Chicago gallery show, Tree Safari: A Sculptural Journey explores our cultural relationships to trees, revealing one artist’s deepening appreciation of his beautiful medium.Cookeville, Tennessee artist Brad Sells has carved a solid career teasing fine art from rough timber. Sells' work is now sought by a growing number of galleries and museums including Neiman Marcus, the Cincinnati Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery.
Arriving in South Africa, Sells' first stop is Johannesburg's Bruma Market, where he seeks out local carvers. Sells then calls on Boer farmer and former big game guide Chris Bassoon. Zebras and wildebeest scatter as they roll together over a landscape of sunburned hillocks and bleached grass flats to a stand of Pink Ivory trees. One tree shows the signs of a Zulu sangoma—a traditional healer—who has skinned a small patch of tree bark for what Basson explains as muhti, a combination of Zulu magic and medicine.
Harvesting a dying Pink Ivory tree, Sells begins to shape his first African sculpture—the first of many pieces that will be followed through to the Sculptural Objects and Functional Arts (SOFA) exposition in Chicago.
Curious about muhti, Sells seeks out Makazi Nomaziz, a sangoma who offers to read his fortune by "throwing his bones." The talismans pouring from her "bones" bag include beads, a green die, a Leggo, a 9mm bullet, and a domino.
In beautiful Walter Susulu National Park, Johannesburg botanist Ben-Erik van Weg explains more about muhti and the sangoma tradition deeply rooted in Zulu culture. While many of the mysterious treatments are proven effective by western medical standards, van Weg says that some are physiological, some psychological, and some are simply inexplicable.
The sculptor's acute respect for the spirit of these woods only intensifies as he consults Baba Mutwa, a Zulu sanusi—a sangoma to all sangomas. A living legend, Baba Mutwa speaks of the spirit of trees and the ways in which they are "our protectors."In the bush, Sells and assistant Steven Flatt locate extraordinary woods: chocolate-acacia, green-streaked olive, white cat's whiskers wood, and the legendary red ivory. The sculpting begins, but while still in rude form they are shipped to Sells' Tennessee studio where the pair race to deliver a world-class collection of objets d'art in time for the SOFA opening.
The shapes develop over months; the colors of the heartwood turn brighter with each sanding. Judging knots, grain, and contours, Sells coaxes the character from each piece.
Sells' art evokes the elemental: earth, water, wind and fire. His desire to arrest motion starts with hard wood and hydraulic saws, yet his works embody suppleness rarely seen in solid objects.
Chicago's SOFA show attracts America's top art critics and collectors who speak to the changing value of wood art, of the Tree Safari collection and of Brad Sells' singular talent. Gallery strollers guess at the process in which these fantastic shapes were born—a sculptural journey now well known to the Tree Safari viewer.
Through contact with the World Wildlife Fund, Rainforest Action Network, Nature Conservancy and others, all care was taken to ensure that the woods taken in the course of the program were not classified as protected or endangered. In their simplicity, these beautiful woods cross not only geographic but social borders, from the arid South African bush to SOFA's rarefied atmosphere. These woods connect the world through the philosophies of art, commerce, medicine, and environmental stewardship.