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Rock Star

Author: Judy Harper
Issue: June, 2017, Page 28
Photos by Jill Richards

Showing the pride of a craft he learned long ago as a young boy in Africa, Gedion Nyanhongo sets free the images he sees trapped within stone.
Charmed by the chisel, a Zimbabwean sculptor carves a lasting legacy in Arizona

Surrounded by cacti in the shadows of boulder-strewn hills, Gedion Nyanhongo spends his days chiseling away at great slabs of stone. He scrapes and drills, files and sands. He becomes cloaked in dust. As he works, hard rock is transformed into the fluid lines of an embracing couple. Flat, nondescript stones become three-dimensional works of art: a woman harvesting seeds, a panther on the prowl, perhaps a trio of elephants. The desert of Carefree may be a world away from his African homeland, but his message of living life to its fullest is universal.

“Anticipation,” serpentine, 16"H by 9"W by 13"D
Nyanhongo grew up in a family of artists in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. His grandfather was a blacksmith who made bows and arrows to exchange for grain and
livestock. His father, Claud Nyanhongo, was a renowned stone carver and pioneer of the country’s Shona sculpture movement. Eight of his 19 siblings are also artists. Nyanhongo remembers as a child awakening to the sound of his father chipping away at a stone sculpture, and he recalls crouching down in the back of his family’s humble abode as visitors from across the globe came to see the elder sculptor and to purchase his artwork.

“There we were in our mud home—with a pole in the middle holding a grass roof and a wooden door that my father had carved—and these people were coming from Hong Kong, Dublin, England, Germany and Canada to see my father,” he exclaims. “We learned English in school—we ran 9 miles to and from, with no shoes and often no jersey even though it was very cold—so we could understand what they were saying about him. All I knew was that I wanted to be just like him, and I couldn’t wait to get home and help. When I was 7 years old, I started to carve.”

With an artist’s eye and practiced hands, Nyanhongo chips away at a chunk of rock. “I believe every stone has a spirit to embrace the world, and I am just a channel for it to say what it wants to say,” he explains.
Over the years, Nyanhongo gained an intimate feel for the stone. He developed and refined his technique, with influences learned at home as well as through an apprenticeship with internationally acclaimed Zimbabwean sculptor Joseph Ndandarika, a friend of his father’s. By his early 20s, he was earning a living as an artist and quickly becoming a well-known figure in the global art world, with exhibits in galleries and buyers spanning the globe. A man who thinks deeply and cares passionately, Nyanhongo celebrates family, love and nature in his artwork and the spiritual power it provides to promote peace and unity.

“My work drives collectors crazy because they want to box me in and classify me as an animal or figurative artist, but I create whatever nature calls me for,” he explains. “When I look at the stone, it tells me what it wants me to do. Unlike an artist who works with clay or metal by adding to a piece, I create beauty by subtracting. This is one of the most powerful forms of art because I listen to the natural configuration of the stone and look for what doesn’t belong.” Nyanhongo notes that in the case of commissioned pieces, he learns what a client wants and then looks for the right stone. “If you want me to carve a lizard, I go to my field of stones and look for a lizard and then help it come out.”

“The Kiss,” springstone, 27"H by 13"W by 9"D
Nyanhongo finds most of his stones in his homeland of Zimbabwe, including in a quarry owned by his father. He carefully selects each rock for its shape and character and transports the chosen ones to his Carefree studio. He has transformed springstone, dolomite, serpentine, cobalt, marble, alabaster and many other materials into beautiful and profound works ranging from monumental pieces to petite pendant necklaces.

Many of Nyanhongo’s sculptures share endearing elements of his African heritage that transcend cultural barriers. There’s a woman cuddling her child and a family embraced by the hands of their Creator. A small girl carries firewood, while a dancer celebrates life itself. For all their bulk, many pieces are delicate and graceful, polished to bring out the living texture of the rock. His works emphasize the beauty, mass and sculptural integrity of the stone, with special attention given to facial features. Lips are puckered, noses are straight, and hair is flowing. Eyes, however, often appear to be closed.

“People often ask me if a figure is happy or sad, and it’s right in the middle,” the artist states with a tone of affection and respect. “It is an invitation for viewers to stop listening to the world and look inside. It’s a contemplative, inward feeling, a passage to the heart to be happy. I want to interact with people from all over the world and teach them through my sculpture that life is a gift and we should lead a celebratory life.”

Nyanhongo creates pieces both small and large. “Look at Me Mum,” 5'H by 2'W by 1.5'D, is hand-carved from a single piece of springstone.
Susan Morrow Potje, owner/producer of Scottsdale’s annual Celebration of Fine Art, which Nyanhongo has participated in for the past 10 years, says, “Each piece that Gedion carves is infused with his passion for people and joyful emotions. His bright and welcoming smile invites people to speak to him about his work and what inspires him, and the tapping of his tools on the stone adds a melodic quality that is part of the overall experience that visitors enjoy.”

The same steel-eyed determination that helped his family survive during tumultuous times in Africa now drives Nyanhongo’s art. “This is really hard, dusty, physical, challenging and painful work, and at the end of the day my muscles will be aching, but someone’s got to do it,” he insists with an infectious smile. “My goal is to send a message of peace and happiness, to reach people, one stone at a time. It makes me so happy when I can knock away some stone and touch a person’s heart, mind and soul. I’ve had collectors tell me that my work brings peace and healing to their homes.”

Like the country from which Nyanhongo hails, his clients are equally far-reaching. His artwork graces homes across the world, from China to Canada, Switzerland to Australia, and everywhere in between. Celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Vinny Del Negro and the late Muhammad Ali are among his collectors. His sculptures can be seen by appointment at his studio, as well as during annual local art events, such as Hidden in the Hills Studio
Tour and the aforementioned Celebration of Fine Art. A public installation can also be found at the Phoenix Zoo near the zebra habitat.

“Gedion is an amazing sculptor and artist,” notes Arizona Center for Nature Conservation  President and CEO Bert Castro. “The meticulous attention to detail and passion that was poured into the stone sculpture of a Grévy’s zebra was a perfect tribute to honor the 50th anniversary of the Phoenix Zoo Auxiliary. We are fortunate to have this artwork on our grounds to be enjoyed by all.”

Rob and Lou Ann Jenkins of Grand Junction, Colorado, also feel lucky to share in his journey. They discovered Nyanhongo’s art in Scottsdale and are now avid collectors. “We enjoy Gedion’s work and celebrate every day with ‘Receiving Blessing,’ which looks gratefully up to the high sandstone cliffs of the Colorado National Monument from our backyard patio; the ‘Swimmer,’ whose backside is patted regularly by our 3-year-old granddaughter; and ‘Proud of My Dress,’ which nobly greets all who enter our home,” says Rob. “Gedion—his friendship and his works—enlightens our days.
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