James Delaney is a contemporary artist, working in a variety of mediums, including print, charcoal, paint, photography and sculpture. Delaney works out of his studio at Victoria Yards, producing a multitude of artworks and sculptures for sale and exhibit. His work has been show in 50 group and solo exhibitions in South Africa alone. However, his most famous work can be seen free of charge at The Wilds Nature Reserve. Known as the “Owl Project”, Delaney’s quirky sculptures have helped bring massive regeneration to the once dilapidated Wilds. Curious to know more about the artist behind these sculptures, we sat down with Delaney for a quick chat about his 20 year career as an artist and how he believes ordinary people can make a difference in their communities.
What inspires you to create? Where do you draw inspiration from as an artist?
I’m a bit allergic to the term inspiration as it sounds like an aha moment. My thought process around creating work takes time – beginning with something I see, read or hear, and then it grows from there, often linking to other observations or thoughts. Sometimes quite disparate thoughts connect in my brain, and that triggers a creative process. I’m never short of ideas; the challenge for me is distilling the ideas down and choosing the appropriate medium to express them.
Would you say that your artistic style and craft has evolved over the last 20 years? If so, how?
The content matter has evolved enormously in that time, from literal observations of things around me – still lives, the sky – to concepts where I’ve combined observation with thought. I’ve also pulled different mediums into my practice. I used to be largely a painter, but now I also work in sculpture, lithography, linocut, silkscreen, charcoal, digital print and photography.
The city of Johannesburg features quite often in your print and photography work. What sparked this interest in the city?
I find the historic parts of the city endlessly fascinating, both in terms of their actual history and the way in which the built environment has been created by some groups of people and then inhabited or repurposed by others. Where my studio is, for example, was horse stables attached to a steam laundry in a dusty mining town which had quickly emerged from African plains. The neighbourhood was inhabited by immigrants from overseas seeking their fortune. Today, the houses, synagogues and churches are used by immigrants from all over the African continent, also seeking their fortunes. There are interesting intersections of religion, fashion, artisanal skills, architecture, food and more.
Your work also often amalgamates nature and wild animals with city landscapes. Are you making a statement about the human impact on the natural world?
So, do you feel that as an artist you have the ability to create awareness around climate change and other socio-political topics and advocate for change through your work?
Artists have an important role to play in raising awareness of issues around us and challenging conventional thinking. We’re bombarded with social media information about problems in the world which in many ways overwhelms us and prevents us from thinking. Good art in my view, will engage the viewer sufficiently to trigger thought and questions – not necessarily provide answers. There’s an old adage that all good art is political. When the viewer is challenged, then the art becomes political.
How did the regeneration project at The Wilds come about?
The Wilds is next to where I live, and it had been neglected for decades. I just slowly started fixing it up, and the improved natural environment and facilities attracted attention, and grew over the past 6 years to engage thousands of people as volunteers. It’s a very special space, 40 acres of such natural beauty so close to downtown, my work there has given me great joy. It has also influenced my artistic process – I’d never made sculptures before, until faced with the challenge of drawing people’s attention to the natural landscape, and drawing them into the park, and realised art could be the tool I needed.
Do you have any other regeneration projects in the pipeline?
I’ve been helping volunteers who are trying to improve other parks around the city and South Africa, applying lessons I learned at The Wilds.
Finally, can you give our readers some suggestions on how they can help rejuvenate the city and keep our parks and reserves in good condition?
I would say just start with something small, which gives you satisfaction – prune the trees, plant an aloe, do some weeding, pick up litter – every small thing helps, and it inspires others. A spirit of volunteering costs nothing and can change the world around us.