Adam Birch
Adam Birch
Image: Justin Patrick

After completing a degree in fine art in 2000, Adam Birch opted for a somewhat more practical career. He apprenticed as a tree surgeon and later went on to found his own tree surgery company. As he climbed high among the branches he was pruning, he saw sculptural shapes emerge among the limbs, and, inspired by these organic curves, he returned to the training he’d received at university to sculpt art pieces and furniture. Years later, these pieces are highly sought after at international design fairs and auctions.

We catch up with the artist to chat about his work before his first solo exhibition, Bifurcation, opens at Southern Guild Gallery, Cape Town.

How did you get into furniture design and sculpture? I studied fine art at the University of Stellenbosch, but it actually all started after my studies, when I took up an apprenticeship as a tree surgeon. We pruned the ancient camphor avenue at Kirstenbosch Gardens and I kept a forked piece of that timber. Months later, I carved a chair into it, and that was the beginning of a long, happy journey.

From a fine art student to a tree surgeon. How does that work? I did the apprenticeship because I liked the power tools and the risk involved. Tree surgery is looking after, pruning, and or felling complicated, often dangerous trees. It’s mostly done at height, over power lines and houses, so there’s a certain thrill to it.

For now, your sculptures are formed from trees. Do you ever see yourself working with other materials? Definitely, I feel I am only just scratching the surface of what lies ahead.

Where do you source your wood? From tree jobs and other tree surgeons working in town, and even occasionally from the side of the road. One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.

Is the form of the tree equally important to you as the wood? It helps, but I have had some interesting surprises working on pieces where I end up with a form I did not anticipate. The shapes come to me almost instinctively... when I get into the process I lose sense of time.

What principles do you follow when designing a new piece? It’s mostly instinctive, but exposing the grain and form of the timber is important, as is comfort and functionality beauty. Kids love playing on these pieces, and that makes me happy.

Your work has been seen in places as far and wide as Anthropologie in New York and luxury safari lodges across Africa. Who do you picture sitting in your furniture? People who can appreciate the work that goes into it, and how valuable and unique wood of this size is. These trees, which had to come down for whatever reason, are a lot older than anyone reading this.

Your solo exhibition opens this month - can you tell us a little about what to expect? These are my best pieces as of yet. Southern Guild has been amazing with their support in giving me the freedom to focus on new shapes and really give it horns.

LOOK | Pieces created by Adam Birch:

Bifurcation shows at the Southern Guild Gallery in Cape Town from 25 April to 18 July.

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