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Meet Carol Slabolepszy From My Hares & Graces

The saying is true that art is like food for the soul. Carol Slabolepszy from My Hares and Graces could not agree more. She spends her days creating beautiful and intricate garden ornaments inspired by nature. We chatted with Carol about her love of art and her passion for creating innovative designs with her hands.

Carol, please tell us about your background?

I was born in East London in 1956 and had what I consider a happy childhood. My Mum sewed a lot and her sister was an artist and illustrator. My Dad drew and painted and was always fixing and making things. We lived in the suburb of Cambridge and also spent about 18 months far out of town on a farm in the area that is now known as Mdantsane. My father was the manager of the East London Agricultural Show and I spent many happy hours watching stock cars and seeing stands being set up for exhibitions. He also had a toy factory called Lambkin products that produced beautifully made teddy bears and other animals from sheep skin. I attended a wonderful nursery school called Playways where we were encouraged to do all sorts of different activities. One of my lasting memories from my childhood in the Eastern Cape were road trips to places like Cintsa and Alice …on the way we often stopped to buy the clay horses and bulls that were made by the young children in the area. The clay was generally not fired and the sculptures broke very easily…..it was always an anxious trip home cradling the precious clay animal but very satisfying when it arrived in one piece!

Animals have always been an important part of my life. I love the natural world and grew up with a healthy appreciation for our planet. I can sit for hours quietly in a car watching monkeys or baboons (if we are lucky to come across them when travelling by car) but I confess to getting bored in a game park situation when one drives for a long time and hopes that something will happen. As a child there were always pets in our home…over the course of my life we have had dogs and cats, a pig, a donkey, geese, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs.

I Matriculated from Hyde Park High school in 1973 and went straight to PACT Ballet company where I danced for three years. In 1976 I left PACT and auditioned for CAPAB Ballet and spent four years dancing with them…I think they were 4 of the happiest years in my life. I married Paul Slabolepszy in 1979 and we moved back to JHB in 1980. The next decade or more was focused on building a family and our first daughter was born in 1983. I had a son in 1985 who was very severely brain injured. He died in 1988. Our next two children were born in 1989 and 1995 respectively.

When Paul and I moved back to JHB from Cape Town in the early 80’s, we lived in 4th Ave, Linden and then moved to Greymont. After 4 years there we had had two small children and found a house in Parktown North that we could afford. We lived there for 17 years and then, funnily enough, bought a house in Linden which is in the same block as the cottage that we stayed in when we first came to JHB in 1981…we have travelled full circle. I love the wide pavements and the tree- lined streets of Linden. I treasure the peaceful life and being close to family and friends. We are extraordinarily lucky to have our children so nearby…my heart aches for those parents who have waved goodbye to their children and communicate with them via Whatsapp and Facebook. While technology has allowed us to keep those connections, it is impossible to replace the physical presence of our loved ones.

Our house was quite ordinary when we bought it but there was great potential and over the years we have created our own little bit of the Karoo in Linden. Our vision was to have an unfussy home where one could feel like you were relaxing in the Karoo but could also pop up the road to the local shop if you needed something. I am lucky to have my two favourite shops in the whole world within walking distance….Arthur Bales for fabric and wool and Herbert Evans for art materials. I still use my trusty Elna sewing machine that I was given for my 21st birthday. It has stitched leather, clothes, canvas…you name it.

Paul and I both work from home and I have always believed that home should be where we can be totally fulfilled. We have an old 1960’s swimming pool, which I love. My favourite time of the year is Summer and I am happiest in a bathing costume and sarong. I can swim, cool off and then go into my studio to work…then swim again to cool off.

***cold water swimming… This past Winter I swam every day in our pool – the lowest temperature that I managed was 8 degrees Celcius and I stayed in for 8 minutes.

Tell us about your training?

In 1999, after spending 16 years creating a family, I realized that I had to do something that would be ‘for me’ and embarked on a Fine Art Degree as a mature student. I registered with Wits Technikon and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it was one of the best things I have ever done. It was tough but inspiring and challenging and Paul and the family were incredibly supportive.

At the end of 3rd year I received an award for Most Outstanding Student. In 2002, I obtained my B. Tech Fine Art from Wits Technikon, majoring in painting, specifically oils. After my Honours year I spent a year studying Art Teacher training and particularly enjoy teaching adults. I have always been curious about how things are made (some of my favourite TV programmes are the ones like’ Inside the Factory’ or ‘Megastructures’) I loved discovering what I could do when studying at Wits Tech, there was so much practical work as well as theory. One of my favourite subjects was sculpture and it was that love to which I returned when I started making animals for My Hares and Graces.

Today you own My Hares and Graces. Tell us about the history of the company and your ultimate focus?

In 2011, after a hiatus of almost 10 years during which I did not make much art, I realised that I could and needed to feed my soul. I had always loved the sculpture modules at Wits Tech and I decided that I should experiment with some clay. My studio is small and I wanted to work with an animal of manageable size but more importantly an animal with personality. There are folk stories, legends and cultures that have the hare as an important character and symbol, often a trickster.

As a child, Aesop’s Fables, Beatrix Potter and Rudyard Kipling were ever present reading material in our home. I am fascinated by the expression and mood that is conveyed by an animal’s ears and body language. Hares, for me, are interesting animals, they are generally bigger than rabbits, with longer ears and legs, they are strong and athletic, fast and nimble, can be solitary and are occasionally aggressive.

My animals are sculpted in clay using photographic and real-life references as well as my imagination. A silicone mould is then made over the clay and the animal is cast in a blend of acrylic resin, pigments, copper and brass powder or marble dust. While my sculptures are weather-proof they are not ‘water-proof’ and are happy indoors or out.

I want people to know that each piece has its own identity and every one of my animals has a numbered microchip, identifying it as one of my pieces. The microchip is a passive radio frequency identity device, otherwise known as an RFID, the same used for a family pet. The random sequence of numbers can be read by your local vet (if you want a giggle). The details of each animal are kept in a database. This was something I chose to do because I love the combination of technology and fine art that this addition suggests.

Covid 19 hit my small enterprise hard as it did so many. Lockdown was a shock. Sales outlets and even couriers were closed for a time. After a month of making tracks around our garden, doing the exercise that I could and working in my studio, I decided to make some small hugging hares in a Limited Edition that could be easily and safely couriered . There is one hare for every day of the South African lockdown which started on the 27th March 2020. I will make them until the end of Level 2. No two are the same, they are a little bit of history and a lovely way to send a friend a hug or a special gift …or just to have as one’s own reminder. Each one is engraved with the date, the number of days of Lockdown and signed with my trademark ‘button’.

Petrus Daluka, who has been working with me for 8 years, was unable to come to work for nearly three months. The Lockdown hares helped keep the wolf from the door and reducing the work days helped the money flow and ensured that Petrus was able to stay in work. These Covid times have been very tough on the industries that are not essential. ‘The Arts’ in general have been hit extremely hard and yet it has been the artists and performers who have made lockdown a little more bearable. The pandemic has highlighted how important the arts are for emotional well- being and perhaps people will start to view it as a MUST HAVE not a nice- to- have.

‘My Hares and Graces’ is dedicated to protecting South Africa’s dwindling wild hare population and I donate a percentage of the sales of my hares to the EWT Riverine Rabbit Trust. For every sale of a Pangolin sculpture, a donation of 3% for each goes to the African Pangolin Working Group as well as the Pangolin Protection Programme. The Pangolins have identity numbers as well. Through creating these extraordinary rare creatures, I hope that I have managed to capture their essence and vulnerability.

My ultimate focus is to have a small sustainable and personal business that revolves around my creativity and originality and has the potential to support others. I believe we have so many opportunities in South Africa. Relationships with customers are also hugely important and I pride myself on being willing to go the extra mile to fulfil someone’s requests. I think it is important to stay true to who I am and what I do….in the end that is what people respond to when they see my sculptures. An important part of my focus is nurturing the wonderful working relationship that I have with Petrus Daluka. He is an expert mould maker, casts my sculptures with such care and is an integral part of My Hares and Graces.

What personally inspires you in your working life?

People and South Africa inspire me. We have a country that is blessed with energy, visual delights and a warmth that I have not encountered anywhere else. Every time we drive on holiday whether it is to the Free state, the Eastern Cape, Western Cape , Mpumalanga, the Karoo, wherever…I am always struck by how beautiful our landscapes are and as an artist I am constantly taking reference photographs and making notes. While I recognize that we have a long way to go to reach the equality we need, as a nation we are overwhelmingly kind, generous and willing. I love this country and would not be anywhere but here.
I see myself as an artist /manufacturer. It is the joy of ‘doing’ that is my oxygen. Sometimes the need to make and the inspiration is so strong that I push things aside on my desk to make a space and then work feverishly almost without stopping until I have done what I had in mind.

What are some considerations when designing products?

The main considerations for me are:
1) Size of the sculpture
2) Whether there is a repeat market ie is it a particular breed of dog/cat in order for there to be further sales
3) I have worked with a couple of breeds of cats but mostly people respond to my interpretations of our much loved family cat Bilbo. When he died, I decided to offer the opportunity to place the ashes of beloved pets into my sculptures.
4) Lockdown forced me to start making smaller hares
5) The weight and robustness of the sculpture must also be considered as they have to be transportable.

Planning a new product can sometimes be a nightmare. Can you tell us some of the common struggles?

I don’t really find any particular struggles….I am clear in what I can manage and what excites and interests me and am inspired by people, moments and stories. I sometimes tackle commissions but I need to be confident that it is something that I have a ‘feeling for’ and can conjure and there is always the proviso that if I am not happy with the initial clay work then I will call the whole thing off. So far…that hasn’t happened.

What is your favourite current presently?

My current favourites are the Pangolin Mum and pup and Misha the Beagle (commissioned by Ian Hurwitz).

Any exciting projects or collaborations you are involved in?

I have had a happy collaboration with Kobisia Interiors in Dullstroom. They asked me to make a small hare lamp specifically for them. Petrus has been assisting a local artist in making his moulds and casting his work for him.

The perfect place in your home to indulge?

Our bedroom! We recently made a minor alteration to our house and created a bay window in an existing room which is now our bedroom. We have a beautiful view into the garden and it feels enclosed and green, like a forest.

I know very few of us are travelling right now but if you could where would you go?

I have never seen the Namaqualand flowers or been to the Okavango Delta so those are two places that are on my list.

What are your current favourite restaurants/shops ?

Favourite restaurant is Fat Zebra in Linden as well as Doppio Zero in Greenside. Arthur Bales and Herbert Evans are some of my favourite shops.

What’s your personal motto?

I have two – ‘Every difference makes a difference’ and ‘There is always a solution’.

A place you visited to unwind in Africa?

My ‘go to’ place to unwind in South Africa is Kenton- on- Sea. We have dear friends with a house that overlooks Bushman’s River…..the beach walks are unbeatable and the sea, temperature-wise’ is quite swimmable.

Any awards the company has won?

We have not won any awards but IF I was up for one, I would like it to be for Creativity, Great Service and Ethical behaviour!

Be sure to check out Carol’s clever and unique creations online at My Hares and Graces.

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