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Category: Sculptures for Exhibitions

Carved wooden birds at Woodland Arts

These carvings of birds were made for ‘Woodland Arts’, an exhibition in Leigh Woods, Bristol in 2017. I like making new pieces to show in events like this one. Although it can be time consuming, it always gives an opportunity to explore themes that interest me but perhaps haven’t come up in my commission work.

I hadn’t carved a bird sculpture for quite a while, and the woodland setting for the show seemed to make them an ideal subject. Kestrels (as above) and nuthatches (shown below, poised to run down a tree trunk as they do) are both birds that interest me and that live around these woods, so they were the ones chosen.

Carved wooden nuthatch

For the bodies of each bird, I used European larch timber. These were timber offcuts from companies that share the area that my workshop is in. Larch isn’t particularly easy to carve with traditional hand tools, no matter how sharp they are, so much of the work was done with abrasive discs fitted to angle grinders.

woodcarving using power tools

This also gave the carvings a smoother, slightly abstract feel which I really like.

Nuthatch bird wood carving

The pale wood in the kestrel’s beak is hornbeam, taken out during building work at Bristol’s Southmead hospital.

The dark wood used for the eyes and the beaks is a bit of Bristol’s heritage. It is a timber called greenheart, from offcuts which were given to me by a furniture maker friend named Jim Sharples. Jim had made a large bench to be placed near Bristol’s ‘Mshed‘, using wood from the old North Junction lock gates which led from Bristol Harbour to the Avon Gorge and then the sea. The huge trunk of tough African greenheart wood lay on the top of the old gates, to protect them from bumps by ship’s hulls. It was removed when the gates, which were fitted in the nineteenth century, were recently replaced. These small bits of wood are really pieces of Bristol’s maritime history.

imaginary animal - crustacean

‘Velocivenator satiei’

What if lobsters or large shrimp had evolved into fast-swimming hunters instead of creatures adapted to a life mainly on the seabed. What would they look like?

 

unusual woodcarving of a crustacean inspired by Erik Satie

 

This sculpture, made between Nov ’08 and Oct ’09, is fairly closely based on macruran decapods (creatures such as lobsters and shrimp) and their cousins the stomatopods (mantis shrimp). Only wood and tagua nut, without any dyes or stains, has been used to make it. I enjoyed revisiting my old studies in Zoology to work out how a realistic creature would look.

 

imaginary creature- a hunting crustacean

 

All the woods used were either found after they had already fallen or are recycled material that would otherwise have been thrown away or burnt. They include:
Cocobolo and Pau amarillo from the scrap pile at a West Country wood merchants,

Juniper from a hill in the Lake District,

Mahogany from the counter of an old Post Office in Bow, London. My friend Molly was born in the flat above,

Cherry from the waste pile at a guitar maker’s workshop in Devon, from Highgate Park in Birmingham and also from a garden in Warwickshire,

Purpleheart and ebony scrap given to me by a cabinetmaker in Devon,

Tagua nut, an ivory-like nut that is a renewable rainforest resource from Brazil or Ecuador,

Holly and boxwood from Devon, courtesy of a tree surgeon friend,

Rose gum offcut from a builder’s skip in New South Wales, Australia,

Beech from the foot of the Totes Gebirge (‘Dead mountains’) in the Austrian Alps,

Black poplar and walnut offcuts from a woodyard in Bristol,

Almond from near a village named San Pedro in Almeria, Spain.

 

hunting lobsters

 

I like to imagine this piece being a specimen in some strange Victorian naturalists’s study. The title means ‘Satie’s fast hunter’ in Latin. In 1913 the composer Erik Satie, who had a taste for the humorous and the surreal, wrote a piano piece about the desiccated embryo of a hunting crustacean.

carved wooden bird skull

Predator Bird’s Skull

After making a few ‘Metainsects‘, I started to think about what kind of predator would adapt or evolve to feed on such ornery little beasties. What would they look like?

 

carved wooden bird skull

 

With an anatomy-themed exhibition coming up, I started to carve a bird’s skull, but one that would eat tough, large and potentially dangerous insects. The skull is quite chunky and crested, so the bird would almost certainly be flightless but probably a good runner. It has a large braincase, so would be smart. The whole skull is about 25 centimetres (approx. 10 inches) long.

 

wooden bird skull

 

The nozzle on the beak would fire a sticky mucus that would disable the defences of the prey. This is adapted from a similar system used by a seabird called a fulmar, which shoots foul-smelling secretions at potential attackers from a similar nozzle over it’s beak. The large beak would then be able to pick apart the prey.

The skull part was carved from a single block of sycamore. The beak and nozzle are carved from a piece of English boxwood. The stand is stained oak and bamboo.

I really enjoyed carving the ‘Predator bird’s skull’. It gave a chance to revisit my studies in Zoology and the anatomy of this skull is based on those of real birds. The different bones shown ‘fused’ to form it match those in nature, albeit with some features (like the crest of bone) added or changed.

Metainsectivore

This sculpture was made in July 2013, to be exhibited in a show called ‘Inspired’ at Ashton Court in Bristol, UK. It represents a mammal that would feed on the hybrid insects depicted in the ‘Metainsecta’ series that I’ve been working on for a few years. Other sculptures on this theme are also shown in this website, including the ‘Predator Bird Skull‘, the ‘Mechanical Insects‘ and the ‘New Mechanical Insects‘.

 

metainsectivore - an imaginary mammal

 

There was a bit of pressure to make a good job of this carving, as one of my fellow exhibitors at ‘Inspired’ was the very well-known furniture designer and maker, John Makepeace. That’s his table and chair next to my piece in the exhibition.

 

Inspired exhibition at Ashton Court

 

The entire sculpture is made from found and recycled timbers. including the eyes and whiskers. I wanted it to look like a Victorian taxidermied specimen, with the same kind of dramatised pose that such exhibits had.

 

carved wooden hands

 

It appears to have been surprised in the act of going to eat the ‘metainsect’ pupa hanging from the branch.

 

Metainsect DARPA HI-MEMS

 

The design took elements from real, existing creatures and put them together to invent a new one: features of cats, quolls, tarsiers, foxes and anteaters have all been included. A lot of thought went into what this creature would look like and why: for example, the strange long, narrow muzzle allows it to pick apart prey, while keeping vulnerable parts of the face a good distance away.

 

 

Imaginary creature-speculative evolution

 

If you would like to find out more about the designing and making of ‘Metainsectivore’, there are more in-depth descriptions posted on my blog, which you can visit by clicking on these links: Designing and Making. There is a link on the blog to bring you back to this website.

scorpion fly sculpture meatinsecta speculative evolution

The ‘Metainsecta’ series

These sculptures were inspired by research into creating insect/machine hybrid creatures for military use, currently being conducted in the United States by the government-sponsored organisation known as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The project is known by the acronym ‘HI-MEMS‘ (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems).

 

scorpion fly and other HI-MEMS beasts

 

The aim of the HI-MEMS project is to install devices into insects during the pupal or larval stages of their development, allowing them to be used in military surveillance ( and presumably attack) operations. Although many entomologists are very sceptical about the chances of success, billions of dollars have been allocated to fund this research. All of the sculptures use design elements taken from existing insects, combined with a bit of theatre, to explore what might happen when humans interfere in this way with creatures that have existed for a lot longer than we have.

 

Wooden insect sculptures

 

Given the short lives and the amount of offspring that insects can have, I’d imagine that it would make more sense to implant tiny nano factories that could replicate themselves as well as producing the devices to be implanted, rather than the devices themselves. These would then be passed down through the generations. However, such technology would be very difficult, if not impossible, to control in the outside world. If both insects and devices evolve and change; for example, by devices moving into other creatures through the food chain, what would happen? What creatures would evolve to feed on them?

 

Metainsecta chainsaw beetle

 

osteotome beetle

 

I imagine this insect to have been developed to be attracted to and to cut up calcium-rich cement, so being used in swarms to take out bunkers and other defences. When there are no more bunkers, it would cut up bones.

Not all of the metainsects are for military purposes though. This is the record-playing ‘Gramophone weevil‘.

 

gramophone weevil

 

 

Self portrait 2013

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.

Ashton Court big trees

 

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!

 

carving a self portrait

 

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.

 

self portrait 2013

 

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.

 

self portrait

 

Sculptures for exhibitions-gramophone weevil

Gramophone weevil 2010

‘Gramophone weevil’ is one of a series of sculptures combining my interests in Zoology and woodcarving.  The entire piece was made from timber collected, with permission, from Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. The ‘vinyl’  is actually charcoal dust cast in resin (and in case you are wondering, I haven’t tried playing it!)

 

gramophone weevil

 

‘Gramophone Weevil’ imagines a future world where modified insects, produced for a particular short-lived role, are easier to come by than scarce vinyl records. This creature has been engineered and produced to play records until it needs to be replaced. The mouthparts are purely adapted to hold the needle that plays the vinyl, as it doesn’t have to feed to perform its function.

 

HI-MEMS project-Gramophone weevil

 

The sculpture reflects my concerns about some current research projects (specifically the US Defence Department’s HI-MEMS project), which look to engineer insects into tools for human use. Considering how much longer insects have been around on this planet, I can’t see success in such endeavours ultimately ending well for humans in general.

This particular piece was also partly inspired by the amazing VW camper record player in Money Mark’s ‘Hand in your Head’ video.