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Women Shaping Design: Kara Schoeman

Free State-based artist Kara Schoeman specializes in sculpture and video installation that is inspired by nature and environmental awareness

By Shannon Manuel  | August 12, 2021 | Design

With a passion for the environment and sustainable living, working in collaboration with her father, a Foundry artist, together they design and cast recycled aluminium artworks that often portray concepts regarding the extinction of various species. Her work has been exhibited in numerous galleries such as the Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery, Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Map Gallery, UJ Art Gallery, and Design Indaba.

H&G: Can you take us back to when you first started designing and how you entered your career path?

Kara: I come from a background in Fine Art where I explored various mediums and specialised in glass slumping and soldering, along with immersive video and sculpture installations. My fine artworks are often of an installation nature, which creates an immersive experience for the viewer. The immersive experience is important to me, as I would like to create an atmosphere of contemplation for the viewers. The creative process is of utmost importance to me because it allows me to develop my own understanding of topics, express my thoughts and emotions, and help me develop technical skills in working with specific materials.

H&G: You are currently completing an Honours degree in art therapy?

K: Art therapy allows patients to express themselves through the creative process of making art. It combines visual art and psychotherapy to encourage healing through expression and introspection. I have an Honours degree in psychology as well as an Honours degree in Fine Art. I feel privileged to be able to combine my two passions through the field of art therapy as this degree is a first in South Africa and became available in 2020 at the University of Johannesburg. I am excited to see what impact art therapy can have in South Africa.

H&G: What does art and design mean to you?

K: I constantly find myself searching for novelty. I am a curious person, and when I combine my curiosity with creativity I automatically end up at art and design. It is not a field that I consciously chose on a specific day. It was more of a journey that developed and continues to develop as the field of art and design changes and expands. My ideas for designs develop after I engage with new materials, topics and information. Art and design allow me to quench my thirst for knowledge by encouraging me to form my own understanding of topics and then express that understanding through designs. It also allows me to frequently engage with new information and develop new techniques. Ultimately, art and design mean communication to me. It is how I communicate with others and myself. I aim for my artworks to create an inner dialogue within the observer.

H&G: What do you love most about expressing creativity through art and design?

K: Each artwork teaches me something about myself. My creative process is often exhausting because I work with materials that require physical strength and long hours of labour. I frequently experiment with new concepts and designs, which requires me to develop new skills. It can be frustrating to develop new skills and I frequently fail at either a design or a technique. Emotional strength is crucial to get one through these frustrations and difficulties. I think it is important to become aware of one’s own emotions and then find a way to release or express them. The creative process allows for these kinds of expressions without having to verbally express them.

The materials that I work with a range between soft malleable clay, hot liquid metal, solid metal, and a variety of other materials. Each of these mediums requires unique methods to shape it. I challenge myself to find creative expression with each of these materials; I find that the tactility of each material can encourage different expressions of the same emotions and thoughts.

H&G: Why is aluminium your favoured material used in sculpture?

K: I enjoy the challenge that aluminium gives me, as it is a medium that requires trial and error before one can achieve the desired results. The process of creating one of my aluminium works is timeous and requires a range of techniques such as sculpting, mould making, melting, casting, grinding, sanding, and polishing.

H&G: Where do you generally source your materials?

K: I source my materials from scrap yards. I often use old car cylinders, melt them, and then cast the liquid metal into designs. The process of creating these designs and casting them speaks to environmental sustainability. It is a recycling process where each artwork has its own individuality. I do not re-use moulds, I create a unique mould for each artwork, and there aren't any duplicates or editions. The process is a bit ironic as it is a very destructive process. We use heat to destroy a product, which in itself is destructive. I want to create more awareness of the harmful side of human nature and the detrimental impact it has on our natural environment. I, unfortunately, rely on fossil fuels to heat the metal to its melting point. Fossil fuels are one of the most destructive forces on our natural environment. I, therefore, use this lengthy and exhausting creative process to release my conflicting feelings regarding my work and the impact that it has on the environment. Through this process, I create detailed and carefully cast designs.

The action of destroying the aluminium’s previous use (a car cylinder) and casting it onto a new function, mimics the process of extinction and re-creation. I polish the bowls for hours. It becomes a meditative action where I can see how I am influencing the shape of the artwork. This connects to my life and I realise that not only my actions influence me and my environment but also my thoughts. I then try to become aware of my environment and my body while I do the sanding and polishing work. It takes me out of my mind and my thoughts and connects me to the immediate environment. In this repetitive state of sanding and polishing, I have the chance to stop reflecting on the past and the future but rather embrace the moment of polishing. It allows me to clear my mind for a moment.

H&G: There is quite a deep meaning behind your aluminium designs – dealing with the extinction of species?

K: I currently reside between the Golden Gate Mountains and the Maluti mountain range in the Eastern Free State. It is an area where dinosaur fossils are found. The formations underlying the Golden Gate Highlands National Park were formed during the Late Triassic Epoch and the Jurassic Period (roughly 150 to 230 million years ago). This environment inspires me to imagine the past, but also the future. The dinosaur fossils remind me of extinction and I find myself wondering about current and future species extinction. I value sustainability because I do not want to be the cause of species extinction, although I also have to come to the realisation that I most likely have had an impact on the extinction of species. I feel a sense of existential guilt when I see our human impact on species. I fear the formation of a trophic cascade; it is when a species goes extinct and due to its extinction, the ecosystem becomes fragile and other species become vulnerable to extinction. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, over 26,500 species are in danger of extinction.

Ninety-nine percent of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct over the course of five mass extinctions, which, in the past, were largely a result of natural causes such as volcano eruptions and asteroid impacts. Today, the rate of extinction is occurring 1,000 to 10,000 times faster because of human activity. The main modern causes of extinction are the loss and degradation of habitat, overexploitation, invasive species, climate change, and nitrogen pollution. There are also other threats to species such as the pervasive plastic pollution in the ocean, an increase in travel and trade, which allows pests and pathogens to hitch rides to new locations, and warming temperatures that enable more pests to survive and spread and wildlife trafficking which is the main concern in South Africa.

I use the destructive and creative process of metal casting to express the emotions that I deal with when I think of the human impact on species extinction. I understand that extinction is a natural process, but I struggle with the emotional toll of having a direct impact on species extinction. If I know that a specific action can add to the extinction of a species then I would like to have an alternative option. I aim to create awareness through my artworks. Coral bleaching is the main topic in my works. A vast amount of coral in the ocean is dying due to the temperature increase of the ocean. The ocean temperature is rising due to global warming. Coral is a habitat to many underwater species and is crucial to the ocean ecosystem. I can’t help but think of what my contribution is towards the bleaching of corals.

H&G: I am very interested in your statement of “We fear our extinction along the path to environmental sustainability.” – is this something that you truly believe, that the one cannot thrive if the other does?

K: I think that it is normal for us to think about our own extinction. What is new and interesting to me is wondering what role we play in our own possible extinction. We have a stronger impact on the environment than ever before, but we are part of the environment, so I wonder whether we would cause our own extinction or whether it would be nature that takes a stand against our parasitic-like symbiotic relationship with the ecology.

H&G: How are you shaping design?

K: By breaking the mould by exploring “novel” ideas as sustainable options, encouraging the development of alternative options when desired to do so, and by using art and design to encourage awareness and social change.

H&G: Who have been the women that have inspired you and how would you describe the ways in which you engage and empower others?

K: Sonnet Ehlers is a South African physician, lab researcher and haematologist. She invented RapeX. A female condom that protects women from rape, the jagged latex hooks latch onto the skin of an attacker. Dr Ehlers counselled rape victims and then designed this condom to protect them from further attacks. She inspires me because her design does not only speak of the violence in South Africa, it also acts on preventing further victimisation of violence.

I am a co-founder of “Safe Haven”, an art residency in Clarens for women who have experienced violence. The women are encouraged to express their trauma through creative processes and various art mediums. This process allows for healing and coping mechanisms to develop throughout the duration of the residency, which becomes valuable to their integration into society.