Transforming The Wilds: A Q&A with artist James Delaney

James Delaney The Wilds 2
Artist James Delaney with his dog, Pablo.

Five years ago, the artist James Delaney got a dog who needed regular walks. But although his flat overlooked The Wilds, a sprawling park, there was a problem: it was an overgrown, litter-strewn no-go area, notorious for crime. And so, with a set of shears, he set about changing this. Today, thanks to his hard work — along with the help of 1000 volunteers, including children from local schools — the park has been transformed into a safe and welcoming public space. They’ve restored stone pathways and water features, built a new entrance, installed signage, removed invasive alien plants and planted indigenous ones, and repaired and painted 80 benches in bright colours. 

What inspired you to start cleaning up the park?

I like plants and trees, and I didn’t like that they weren’t being cared for. But after working for three years, not even my friends would visit — the park had a reputation for crime from many years back, a bit like the Central Park stories from the 1980s. It was great having a 40-acre back garden wonderland all to myself, but for it to be sustained and cared for in the long term it had to be relevant, and loved. I had to think — as an artist, what could I do which would capture people’s imagination sufficiently to get over their fear? And so I installed the owl sculptures on Mandela Day 2017 — 67 owls, for the 67 years Mandela gave in public service. They changed everything: 500 people arrived the day they were launched. Since then it’s been busy every weekend. The owls created a destination, and drew visitors’ eyes upwards to appreciate the beauty of the indigenous forests, planted a century ago but long forgotten. There are over 100 sculptures now, including a life-size pink giraffe, several antelope, a pangolin, monkeys, leopards and more. 

Delaney Owls FWhat has the reaction been like?

At first, it was tough: neighbours called the police on us and the council gave me a hard time. So I worked on weekends when the council couldn’t get in the way. On Monday mornings they’d arrive to great piles of dead branches, and had to deal with them. But then they started seeing the benefits — opening lines of sight so walkers felt safe, allowing light and water into the forest floor so flowering plants could flourish again. Neighbours love it now — they have a beautiful park to enjoy, and their property prices have increased. The new mayor of Johannesburg is one of our biggest fans, and sees this as a model for public spaces across the city. 

Who uses the park?

Regular users are from the surrounding suburbs and the inner city — the park lies between the two. This makes it an interesting meeting point for people from different worlds, rich and poor, black and white, old and young. We have a lot of free walks and exercise classes led by members of the local community, which encourages interaction. It’s also becoming a destination for international visitors, exploring Joburg before or after their safari. 

What’s coming next?

Priorities are restoring the dramatic mid-century greenhouses, getting the waterfalls flowing again, planting loads more indigenous aloes and trees, and securing long-term funding for future projects. 

Photo Nov 04, 10 09 24 AMAn edited version of this Q&A appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of MONOCLE.

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