This was carved from a piece of a big Lawson Cypress tree that was cut down next to Ashton Court mansion in Bristol. The work was part of a landscaping scheme, but was very controversial at the time. It’s nice to think that some of the timber has gone to a creative use instead of rotting away.
I’d wanted to try carving a self portrait for a while, as it’s a real challenge for a carver to get right. Using a piece of such an iconic Bristolian tree also reflects my affection for my adopted home town. After milling it into usable pieces on site (with permission), the timber was also being used in many projects that I was working on at the time.
I got the chance to make a self portrait with an exhibition called ‘Cornucopia’ at the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bristol, UK in 2013. Portraits are pretty tricky things at the best of times, but self portraits show a bit more of your ‘soul’. I suppose that’s why so many artists have had a go at them: it’s a real test of skill and technique. However, on the plus side, the model is always there and works for free!
Many people just show a face-forward, neutral expression when attempting this kind of thing but that seemed a bit easy to me, so I decided to wink instead. Or perhaps it’s a grimace? I’ve always been very impressed by the character heads made by Frans Xaver Messerschmidt and carving an expression seemed a natural thing to do.
The sculpture is about 24 cm (9 1/2 inches) high and took a little over 42 hours to make. The soft timber wasn’t easy to work with and sometimes powered abrasive tools (like a Dremel multitool) gave better results than chisels and gouges. no matter how sharp the latter were kept. I’m particularly happy with the way that the expression turned out, which the grain of the timber helps a lot.
The sculpture also captured the perspective distortion from the reference photos – the face (which was closer to the camera lens) is exaggerated while the ears are reduced to almost disappear behind it. I like the effect- it’s a caricature and it reminds me of some portraits by the artist Chuck Close that I’m fond of as well.