Bryan Cusack’s phenomenal artistry with driftwood he sources from KZN’s coastline is something to behold. From larger-than-life human sculptures and leaping horses to small, intricate décor pieces for your home, Durban’s The WoodShack is definitely worth a visit.
DECO first met Bryan at Cape Town’s Decorex expo earlier this year when his giant driftwood sculptures stopped us in our tracks. Along with his WoodShack partner Natasha Deary, Bryan’s dedicated artistry, creative vision and capacity for blending natural beauty with meticulous engineering produces driftwood décor that is one of a kind. At the time, we only had a few passing moments to stop and talk to Bryan, but this week we caught up with the Durban-based craftsman to hear his full story and take a closer look at his latest projects.
Blending natural beauty with meticulous engineering, Bryan and Natasha produce driftwood décor that is one of a kind.
Originally born in Limerick, Ireland, Bryan moved to South Africa after completing studies at CBS Lismore. He worked exclusively in the film industry in South Africa and internationally until 2004, when he decided to take a different direction. Less than two years after starting Durban’s The WoodShack, Bryan started sculpting, this time using driftwood and showed his first driftwood exhibition Creatures Of The Night in 2013 at the Factory Cafe. Since then, as well as doing commissions, Bryan’s been busy putting together a collection for an exhibition in 2016.
What’s your story Bryan – how did you come to be doing what you do?
When we started The WoodShack we mainly used reclaimed, reused, or recycled timber. We started using driftwood only later on. After getting our first load we did a few designs of décor pieces and slowly but surely the ball started rolling… shortly after that I used the driftwood in a sculpture that I then gave as a gift to my partner Natasha. It was bought on impulse from her by somebody who saw it by chance, then somebody else saw it at that person’s house and contacted me… and before long I started doing regular commissions. Shortly after that my first piece went into a gallery and most of my pieces now go directly to galleries all around South Africa.
Can you tell us how The WoodShack started, what was your aim?
The WoodShack started after I left the film industry and needed a change of direction. Shortly afterwards Natasha jumped on board, bringing her décor experience and colour skills. We wanted to concentrate on making custom pieces, with nothing mass-produced. We actually had only one main aim: to create unique décor pieces using our own designs without impacting on the environment.
We wanted create unique décor pieces using our own designs without impacting on the environment.
We’re impressed by the community aspect of your working team – how did they get involved in driftwood collection?
When we started The WoodShack, we didn’t really use any driftwood a I’ve mentioned, but then we were involved on a project at Umngazi and met with members of a community on the Wild Coast who wanted to get work or try to make some income. We didn’t have work to offer them but I started purchasing the driftwood from them that they cleared from the beaches (to let their cattle get to the sea) without a clear idea of what I was going to do with it. They still supply us with driftwood and they still make an income from collecting what would otherwise have been discarded.
Why driftwood – what does it enable you to do as an artist that other materials don’t?
Driftwood is a very unique medium: no two pieces are the same so there are no limits on what can be made. But as an artist who specialises in driftwood you cannot start a sculpture with a pre-conceived fixed idea of how it must look when finished – the wood more often than not takes over and moves you in the direction it needs to go. If you fight it you’ll end up with a wooden, stiff, lifeless figure. But if you embrace it and flow with it you end up with a driftwood sculpture that’s full of power and life. So, as an artist all I have to do is let nature do her thing. She provides the material, the inspiration, and the direction, I only have to supply some perspiration.
In our current Winter issue, we’re fascinated with artist’s studio spaces – tell us all about yours?
The inside of my factory-style studio space in New Germany is where I go to when I need to sketch, or when it’s raining, or when it’s bitterly cold. Otherwise, the Studio doors get rolled up and absolutely everything is moved outdoors. I like to work under a hat in natural sunlight, and be in the fresh air. I grew up outdoors and it’s where I still prefer to be.
‘Driftwood is a very unique medium: no two pieces are the same so there are no limits on what can be made.’
Some of your pieces are enormous; how do you construct artworks of such scale?
There is often engineering involved but not to the extent that you’d imagine. I seldom use steel or metal structure in my sculptures and I prefer to rely on using driftwood structural pieces for my ’skeleton’, utilizing the strength of natural curves and bends that are found in wood.
What is the most challenging piece you’ve attempted and how did you complete it?
One of the most challenging pieces I’ve done was a dancing lady that stood over six meters tall. She was very curvaceous and stood balanced on one foot, and I designed a concealed steel armature to accommodate her height. As my studio at the time was only 5 meters tall her height was always going to be problematic but I overcame it by building her in a horizontal position, spending several weeks working lying down! She turned out to be a wonderful piece and sold to a buyer from Zimbabwe on the first day she was exhibited.
Do you have any dream commissions you’ve not yet attempted?
I’ve had a full-sized driftwood Elephant on my bucket list for several years now. Just this week I was fortunate enough to be approached by a KZN company who will soon be releasing a full-sized elephant for the first time in over 100 years in KZN and they’ve commissioned me to do a sculpture of an elephant for them. We’ve got the local community involved in gathering the necessary materials for the piece. It’s going to be a fantastic project, and I’m really looking forward to it.
What is your favourite piece from your collection and why?
I have two favourite pieces. My first favourite piece is a pig who lives in my studio and he’s involved with me on most of my pieces: he’s my seat, my step-ladder, my toolbox. He’s a sculpture that I couldn’t let go of after he was created. My second favourite piece is a snail I did as my first ever driftwood piece and he lives on a shelf in my son’s bedroom.
Tell us about the smaller scale decorative pieces you have in your collection?
Every few months we spend a few days brainstorming new ideas at The WoodShack. Natasha and I have full trust in each other’s taste, so are allowed to veto any ideas as often and as many times as we want. When we both agree and like an idea the sketches and doodles we use get turned into a working drawing. The working drawing is then turned into a prototype which I always make the first one of. If we’re still both happy with it we may or may not add it to our range, it all depends but more often than not it just gets shelved! If we find that we both love it and are truly excited about it, or want to take it home with us we add it to our range. The Giant Africa which we displayed at Cape Town Decorex was one of those pieces.
If we find that we both love an idea and are truly excited about it, or want to take it home with us, we add it to our range.
Who do you follow online for inspiration? In other words, who is your #DECOguru?
I have an eclectic mix of accounts that I follow on Instagram, Twitter etc. it ranges from @elle_deco to @sara_story. More often than not though I just freestyle through sites until I find something that catches my eye. I rely on Natasha to keep me up to date on trends too. She’s the one with her finger on the pulse with what’s current and happening right now.
Finally Bryan, who is your favourite artist of all time?
Michelangelo. I admire him as much for his paintings, frescos, and sculptures as much as I do for his architecture. My favourite South African artist is without a doubt Dylan Lewis. I love the energy of his wildlife pieces.
‘Ordinary is everywhere so if you feel the need to create something, why not create something extraordinary?’
All of the sculptures can be seen on Bryan’s website at bryancusack.com and all the décor items can be seen on thewoodshack.co.za. Both sites are undergoing huge makeovers at the moment so watch this space. You can also follow @The_WoodShack on Twitter for regular updates.