Roberto Vaccaro’s final year art project at Glenwood House School in George was so extraordinarily creative he received an unheard of 100%. This vote of confidence marked the beginning of an inspiring sculpting career with a strong environmental message.

WORDS Clare van Rensburg photographs Desmond Scholtz

In a neat and orderly workshop in George, Roberto Vaccaro, 23, is bent to attention over his latest incarnation. A barrel of rusting wire, fragments of a barn roof, and several chains line a wall as they wait their turn to be fashioned into art.

He is working on Whale, a twisted metal version of the prehistoric mammal Cetotherium, an ancestor of the modern Southern Right Whale. Components of a typewriter make up its curved spine and ribs, a golf club lines its underside, and its tail is fashioned from the remains of a twisted roof rack. The burnished and bumpy effect of barnacles lining the whale’s jaw was created using a MIG welder. This is the first of a trio of whales the ambitious young sculptor plans to create to show the evolution of this threatened species.

Roberto is intense, articulate, and tall. He has the dark, brooding nature of an artist, tempered by the unfettered enthusiasm of youth. Surrounded by the tools of his trade, the only indication that the garage at his mother’s house is an art studio rather than a car workshop is the photographs and diagrams lining a small mood board. Several drawings of whales in different positions show annotations and measurements. While the detailed planning is typical of Roberto’s approach, he is not fastidious about dimensions: “I use the ratios to guide me, but I’m not precious about my work. If it looks and feels right, I go with it.”

The young artist fell headlong into his passion for metalwork when his Italian grandfather, Vincenzo, taught him to weld. “Unlike many of the more delicate art forms, I discovered I loved working with metal because it is robust and strong. You can really whack it! While durable, it is also disobedient. Metal insists on assembling itself. It’s an interesting medium to dialogue with; sculpting it can become war.”

During his final year, the Landmark Foundation, a leopard and predator conservation NGO, visited the school. The presentation featured a metal sculpture of a leopard. “At the time I had no idea what I was going to do for my final art project, my art teacher, James Stead, showed me the piece and said: ‘You can weld, why don’t you make something like this?’”

Entitled Scar Tissue, his exam piece was a post-apocalyptic figure of a man, fashioned with only basic tools at his disposal, using scavenged motorcycle frames, chains, golf clubs and bulldozer teeth. “One of the exam assessors let me know I had received a 100% for my end of year exam practical assessment and suggested my combined metal working skills and artistic talent had real potential.”

The idea of a leopard made entirely from confiscated gin traps was also pitched to the Landmark Foundation, which not only responded by commissioning and funding the project, but also supplied Roberto with bakkie-loads of traps. The impressive Apex of Evolution I now tours the country with the foundation as the sculpture has become an integral part of its awareness message. The exposure led to an extensive exhibition at the Hermanus Fynarts Festival at Creation Wines earlier this year in which 12 pieces, including several life-size animals, were on display.

Roberto’s apprenticeship in sculpting typifies the digital age. He describes the sharp learning curve as one guided by YouTube. Self-taught, the young artist progressed from using simple metalwork tools to more advanced plasma cutters and an acetylene welder by following online video tutorials. His later pieces show higher quality and more precision, portraying truer forms.

“I prefer sculpting animals to humans and man-made things. The layers of interaction of animals with each other, their environment and humans are still open to be explored. I love the fact that the assembly of scrap metal into an animal can have such an environmentally charged message – a perfect example of the medium becoming metaphor.”

Roberto’s work begins with hours spent at the scrapyard. “I have to patiently sift through the scrap in my mind until I have arguably the most compelling chunk of steal to suit the need of the creature it will become a part of.” He trucks home tons of debris and arranges it on the garage floor. “I stare at it for hours – that’s the frustrating part.”

He describes sleepless nights tortured by dreams of how the metal will be reborn. “It’s exhausting, but metal has this raw power, it eventually takes charge.” At some pivotal moment, when the analogical process is at an end, he launches himself into the sheer exhilaration of creating art. “The exciting part is working furiously to assemble a piece. I work frantically for hours and when I stand back, I don’t even recognise what I’ve created. It’s amazing, I love that moment.”

Typewriters and sewing machines, which are mostly sourced from second-hand shops, comprise some of his favourite sculpting material. “They give such interesting effects,” he says. “Their parts lend themselves to the idea of a mechanically organised creature.”

Roberto admits to a love-hate relationship with his chosen medium. “Scrap is dirty; it’s random; it rusts; it’s incredibly unyielding, and requires hours of fishing around in metal yards.” However, these are also the things that he clearly loves about the material. He is fervently adamant that valuable art can be created from the by-products of human existence, and that conservation issues should be addressed through art. “Our society is becoming more aware of the environment. People understand the value of recycling and up-cycling. Our consumerism is trashing the planet but here is yesterday’s discarded rubbish, something that society has deemed useless, and I can represent it as something of value.”

While Roberto is clearly proud of his finished pieces and spends time polishing and varnishing each one, he is philosophical about their eventual rusted fate. “That’s the nature of metal. It will eventually oxidise and return to nature. Rusting is just a part of the process.”

Roberto Viccaro
[email protected]

Click here for a pdf version of this article as it appeared in South in Summer2015-16.