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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.

Carved wooden insect HI-MEMS

Scorpion fly 2006

‘Scorpion fly’ is one of a series imagining the potential results of the ‘HI-MEMS’ project, currently being undertaken by the US Defence Department. This project is trying to find a way to implant controlling and offensive technologies into insects.

 

scorpion fly and other HI-MEMS beasts

 

Although most entomologists are sceptical about the chances of success, billions of dollars have been poured into this project.

Given the huge numbers of offspring that each insect could potentially produce, I reasoned that the ultimate goal would have to be to implant nanofactories, rather than individual nanodevices to perform whatever job is required of the insect. These tiny factories could then make reproductions of themselves as well as whatever device they were designed to make, with the new factories becoming implanted into the insect’s offspring and so continuing the process.

 

scorpion fly

 

Of course, with both insects and technology reproducing the potential for mutation and rapid evolution also increases, as well as the chances of technologies crossing between species. It would be very hard to keep control of such a process and humans don’t have a great record of keeping control of interventions in the natural order: cane toads in Australia being an obvious example.

If such creatures could breed and evolve, what would they become?

elm breadboard with hand carved lettering

Breadboard with hand carved lettering

I’ve made a few breadboards using the beautiful wood from English elm trees. Unlike oak, the timber is quite resistant to splitting and doesn’t contain a lot of harsh tannins, so it seemed a good choice from which to make and carve this breadboard. There are only two difficulties: elm is a bit trickier to carve than many other timbers and, since the ravages of Dutch elm disease, it is much harder to find pieces that are large enough to make a board from.

 

elm breadboard

 

Of course, I’d be happy to make carved boards using other appropriate timbers! If you’d like advice on this or if you’d like me to make and carve a breadboard for you, please feel free to get in touch.

old elf

Wise old elf 2015

This character was carved as part of a project in Bristol, working with a professional storyteller and a local school to create wooden panels that form a storytelling trail through the school grounds.

In July 2015, I was invited to carve oak pictures as part of a project at St Chad’s primary school in Patchway, Bristol. The school was looking to get the pupils to generate their own stories.

Storyteller Martin Maudsley worked with them to create tales which were then told to me. I used the five stories to produce images that were then carved into oak plaques, which were set onto larch plinths in a small woodland in the school grounds.

 

storytelling trail carved wooden panels

 

One plaque tells a story about a storytelling dragon that befriends a village. At first, the villagers are advised by a little girl to turn their backs, to stop them being frightened by the dragon.

 

wood carving of a dragon talking to people

 

Another shows a person who is helped by birds to plant a magic garden. The small squares are caps of oak covering the stainless steel screws that hold the plaques firmly onto the larch plinths.

 

storytelling

 

This story is about a secret garden hidden by ancient trees, which is uncovered by reciting the magic words.

 

storytelling trail

 

This plaque shows an old elf called the ‘Father of the Forest’. The surrounding leaves are all from trees that grow in the small woodland that the trail winds through.

 

old elf

 

oak relief carving

 

Finally there is a story about St Chad (a Saxon boy) and the people he meets on his adventures.

 

relief carving of St Chad

 

I also made some benches from durable larch timber, for children to sit on and make up their own stories (or just play!)

 

benches made from larch

Part of the project also involved carving a panel live at Patchway community festival in Bristol, which was a lot of fun and meant that I also got to meet some of the parents whose children go to St Chads.

Carving at Patchway festival

 

Carved panels using braille 2016

These oak panels, featuring braille as part of their design, are part of a permanent installation at the Brunel building in Southmead hospital – a major healthcare facility in Bristol.

Initially, the commission was to make an artwork that would include words and phrases chosen by patient’s knitting and writing groups as being important to them. As part of the making process there also had to be an opportunity for patients, visitors and staff to try their hand at carving parts of it during two hospital open days.

 

woodcarving the braille panel at Southmead hospital

 

On visiting Southmead, I realised that most wall-hung artworks there didn’t really give much opportunity for blind or partially-sighted people to interact with them. They were mainly prints behind glass.

Working with guidance from local braille users, together with organisations and blind artists from around the country (particularly Alan Michael Rayner), I designed a touch sculpture that also includes braille as a fundamental part. The Bristol Braillists group were particularly helpful with this area of the project. Paul and Hazel from the group even visited my workshop to give help and advice on the design.

 

making a sculpture for blind people

 

Eventually, the installation developed into three panels. The largest one shows the patient’s groups knitting and writing, together with a carver (who might that be?). The knitting, writing and carving is spilling off the table to become a landscape with the important words and phrases written on it. In the top right-hand corner are well-known buildings in Bristol. Above it all is a description in braille, made from brass pins that have been fixed into the oak.

 

braille woodcarving

 

The second panel shows a much smaller version of the main panel (a bit bigger than A4 size), with different features labelled in braille. This was suggested by Camilla at Living Paintings, who pointed out that blind people can get ‘lost’ when feeling their way through a large area. This small orientation panel allows visitors who are using touch to work out where they are going on the larger artwork.

 

braille on woodcarving

 

The third panel is a key to Grade one braille, so that sighted visitors who would like to work out what the braille on the other panels says can do so. There are several types of braille, with grade one being the simplest – a letter-by-letter translation. This inspired some discussion about whether it was the best form to use, as most British braillists use Grade two braille which is quicker to type out and to read. However, most users felt that people who weren’t so confident in reading braille and those from other countries would find this form easier to understand.

 

grade one braille key

 

Once the panels had been fitted in March 2016, the installation was unveiled by the Chief Executive of NHS South-west, Andrea Young. She is standing in the centre of the photo below with Ruth, the arts director for Southmead, standing to the left of the picture. It was great to see that Paul and Hazel, who had helped in the design, could make it to the unveiling too.

 

south mead hospital braille artwork

 

I really appreciated the opportunity to explore new ways of interaction with public carved sculpture but also being given the chance to find out more, as a sighted person, about how blind and partially sighted people interact with the world around them. I hope that the things learnt can be incorporated into future projects and thank you to everyone who generously gave their time to help me with practical advice and suggestions.