In 2010, I was accepted to show in the RBSA Open exhibition. It was good to go back to a city that I know well and to show my work there. The society is also based in the Jewellery Quarter, a very historic and beautiful part of Birmingham and one of the last real trades quarters left in Britain. Almost everything around is connected to the jewellery making trade: assayers, tool suppliers and workshops as well as the jewellery college. It’s a lovely place to go for a wander!
The ‘Inspired’ exhibitions are curated by the very talented furniture maker Sue Darlison.
The quality of the work by other exhibitors has always been very good indeed, with a particular personal high point being the chance to show in 2013 alongside the renowned furniture maker John Makepeace. He founded Parnham College, which has had a huge effect on contemporary British furniture design.
I also had the chance to show there alongside David Colwell, whose environmentally-aware approach to design has also had a huge effect on design in this country, both through his own work and with Trannon furniture.
In January 2009, I was offered a commission to repair a sculpture by the late Zambian sculptor, Friday Tembo. The piece was carved from African Ironwood timber that had been darkened to look like ebony. Unfortunately, it had been accidentally knocked from a mantelpiece and had broken into several fragments.
Friday Tembo was one of Zambia’s top sculptors, who exhibited internationally. He was a personal friend of the owners and had given them the carving himself. It therefore had great sentimental value, particularly as he had since passed away.
It was a real privilege to be given the opportunity of repairing and restoring this strange, beautiful and interesting work. It represents a shaman in the process of transforming between the shape of a man and that of a fish.
This is how the sculpture was given to me. The small bag holds fragments which had been knocked from the fins.
Below are shown these same breaks after being repaired, retextured and then finished using the original methods that Friday Tembo would have used.
The break shown below had to be reinforced with an internal metal rod to strengthen it.
The repaired sculpture, waiting in a friend’s workshop for collection by the client. The tools give an idea of the size of the piece.
This sculpture was carved for the former Lord Mayor of Bristol, Geoff Gollop, and his family in 2009.
A much loved Robinia tree had to be cut down in their garden and they wanted to turn the remaining stump into a sculpture so that they could continue enjoying it. Making this culture involved using a range of tools, from chainsaws to traditional carving gouges and chisels.
After discussing a few ideas with them, they decided that they would like the two life-size birds, with a pattern going up the trunk. To make the woodpecker’s legs stronger, I carved them from two wooden pegs that were firmly fixed in. This meant that the grain direction made them less likely to snap.
I like the idea of the slightly indignant owl being woken up by the busy woodpecker and I think that the owl’s face captures that.
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.