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Paul Kristafor's turned wood vessels are as delicate as porcelain and seem to hum with an inner life that dictates their forms. I called on him in his Porterville studio to talk about his work.

Paul Kristafor has been turning wood as an art form for close to four years. “The first two and a half of those were spent in total immersion to learn from masters of the art. It was  a complete obsession but at some point I had to emerge from that all-consuming learning space, and make a go of it.”

From the start, his pieces were well received. He has shown in numerous group exhibitions and supplies several galleries in South Africa and abroad including Kim Sacks in Johannesburg, the Gallery at Glen Carlou wine farm in Stellenbosch, and Hanneli Rupert’s showcase at London’s Burlington Arcade. The reason for this swift ascent is evident the moment you see Kristafor’s works in the flesh. 

The vessels have sculptural proportions. The larger pieces are best appreciated when you orbit around them, admiring them in 3D, gazing, and murmuring your admiration. Yes, they assert, am I not very beautiful? And while turned wood is indeed lovely, you’ve never seen it like this. What arboreal secret transmogrifies a tree stump, so stolid and workaday a material, into this porcelain lightness of being? Kristafor’s lathe seems to release some inherent knowledge; telegraphing it along secret woodland ley lines so that each piece hums with an individual will and re-emerges as the elegant, impossible forms I see breathing quietly on the studio shelves. 

I’m visiting his home and workshop in Porterville, a small town in South Africa’s Western Cape province. I usually do interviews solo, but sometimes I move in a pack. Today is one of those times. My happy, noisy posse sets off to find the place, driving inland with the windows wide to the summer. To find it on a map, you trace a line from Cape Town up the west coast, then a bit to the right to where the Groot Winterhoek mountains rear into an immense backdrop for the rolling farmlands of the Swartland. And there it is. Porterville. Barely a speck on the map of Africa. The car billows with the same baking wind that’s drying miles of wheat in the landscape around us. Combines churn up clouds of harvest dust as far as the eye can see. The region is dotted with working-farm communities that have so far escaped gentrification. Tourism Speak calls this authentic charm, presumably as opposed to faux-rural posturing, which is rampant in the Overberg and every hamlet within commuting distance of the Mother City. 

Porterville’s authenticity is exactly what appeals to Paul and his partner Katja Abbott, who is a Fine Artist in her own right. Their home is a characterful, white-painted nineteenth-century South African classic. It has the vernacular curved tin verandah roof and all of its own teeth by way of original features, on a street lined with similar proud vintage properties. Later in the day when we leave one of the elderly neighbours is lying in wait to scold us for "parking with your hot tyres" on the verge. Can’t we see the grass is struggling with this heat? She’s quite right. It was thoughtless. But now we’re just arriving. We pull off the tarmac, edge the car into the shade of a tree and storm the front door baying for tea.

Paul greets us with wood chips and sawdust curling off his hair and freckling his t-shirt. At his shoulder Katja is saying, “You can’t wear that old shirt for photos.” 

“Why not?” He seems confounded but lopes off to dig up something with a collar. While he’s changing Katja confides, “The city wasn’t our scene.” She’s a blur of cups and kettle filling, her gentle kitchen startled by a jostle of people getting in the way by getting out of the way. “Tea for everyone?” 

Paul’s passion for wood as a material has roots in his childhood growing up in the bush and later working in various remote wilderness areas of Southern and East Africa, but it was an encounter with a wood-turning exhibition at Kirstenbosch Gardens that 360’d his world less than five years ago. To wax poetic for a moment, Art put a hand on his shoulder and called him by name. Virtually overnight he stopped everything else to focus only on this. He credits Katja with giving him the courage to pursue it as an art form. 

“I was in a very non-creative environment for most of my working life. Art wasn’t an aspect of my character that I was in touch with at all. A big chunk of the credit for going on this journey belongs  to Katja, whose own artistic journey has been an inspiration.” 

As a studio wood-turner, Kristafor creates vessels on a traditional lathe using gouges and contemporary carving techniques. His timber is sustainably sourced through a local contact, usually as part of alien vegetation eradication programs. Each piece begins with green wood that’s buttery on the lathe. In this climate, he has a limited window of time to work before the drying process takes over and the wood answers to its own divinity. 

“Drying resolves the wood’s inner tensions and its eventual form. The vessel twists, warps, and assumes the shape the wood wants it to be. It’s very seldom that anything I try to impose on a chunk of timber ends up the way I plan.” 

Once the turned piece has settled on its dry structure, Paul revisits it with a selection from his range of ever-evolving surface techniques. This may be fine copper wire stitching, sometimes flame scorching, a chiseled surface texture, or a fine polish, but always in a way that speaks to an ethos of the beauty found in imperfection, and his respect for the material. 

“To quote Ernst Gamperl, one of my biggest heroes and sources of inspiration, ‘Our job as artists is to create a good enough canvas for the wood to paint a picture.’” 

“Paul Kristafor” (Video) by Bev Tucker


Photos & Video Bev Tucker

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