Homeless artist carves out a living

Michael Helsie makes wooden sculptures of animals

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Michael Helsie works on a wooden sculpture of a cheetah
Michael Helsie works on a wooden sculpture of a cheetah.

For motorists coming into and out of central Cape Town on Mill Street, Michael Helsie with his distinctive dreadlocks is a familiar sight. Helsie is homeless. He earns an income making wooden sculptures of animals at the roadside.

Helsie has been carving wood at his spot by the road for about two years. He is originally from Bloemfontein in the Free State. In the photograph above Helsie is working on a cheetah commissioned by one of his clients. It will take him around four days to complete and he will sell it for R500.

Helsie lives under a tree close to the Garden Centre. He collects pieces of wood wherever he can. “Sometimes people renovate a house,” he says, and he collects the off-cuts. He stores his wood in the tree where he lives to prevent other people from taking his materials. He says people will take the wood to make fires.

He has a few basic tools – a saw, a hammer and a metal file – and he uses cold glue. Most of his carvings and sculptures take between one and two weeks to complete.

While working, Helsie is quiet and completely absorbed in his process. “You must have the time. You must concentrate,” he says.

He gets his design inspirations from magazines. His creations include eagles, cheetahs and wolves. An incomplete wolf can be seen in the photograph above.

Above, Helsie shows off a completed sculpture of an eagle which he sold on Wednesday for R400.

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TOPICS:  Homeless Housing

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