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?
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.
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.
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‘.
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.
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.
It appears to have been surprised in the act of going to eat the ‘metainsect’ pupa hanging from the branch.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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‘.
This cedar log was carved as a sign for Rock Meadow, a housing development of affordable housing in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire. It shows animals and plants found in the local area, including orchids, wild daffodils, a shrew, rabbits and dormice.
There are also carved rocks on it, reflecting the name of the development. The bottom of the log, below the band of carved ‘rocks’, was uncarved except for slots as it was to be sunk into a concrete base when fitted on site. Cedar is a durable timber, so the sign will hopefully last for a while outdoors.
How many animals and plants can you spot in the photos?
This project (with limited time and budget to complete it) was carved during May 2008 for the ‘Forest of Avon Trust‘, an organisation in Bristol that seek to promote the use of local woodlands in environmentally sustainable ways.
Four posts were sited at Jubilee Stone Wood near Backwell, on the edge of the Mendip Hills. Four others were fixed in at West Tanpit Wood, near Lower Failand and across the Avon gorge from Bristol. All eight posts were shallow-relief carved using long-lasting sweet chestnut logs, with designs chosen by young people and people with special needs from the area.
West Tanpit Wood
These posts stand a bit over 5 feet (1.5m) tall and mark a short circular route through the woods. If walking in early summer, the woods suddenly turn from being carpeted with the white flowers of wild garlic to the deep blue of native British bluebells – very beautiful indeed.
A bird called a Dipper (which can sometimes be seen running about in the stream next to this post)
Bluebells and Bumble bee
Fern by a stream (before leaving the workshop)
Oak leaves, acorns and a logpile, symbolising the two halves of the wood- native deciduous trees and commercial softwood plantation.
Jubilee Stone Wood
Early Purple Orchid with Silver Washed Fritillary butterfly
Robin singing on Ivy (before leaving the workshop)
Sunset over Nailsea- the view next to this post
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.
This portrait of the well-respected poet and botanist Libby Houston was carved into a large oak bench that I designed and made. which is now sited on the Clifton Downs in Bristol.
The leaves that she is holding are from a Houston’s Whitebeam, a sub-species of Whitebeam tree (Sorbus spp.) which is only known from a single specimen growing in the Avon Gorge near Bristol. Libby discovered the tree and it has been named after her.
When Libby visited, she brought the leaves with her for me to copy in carvings on the bench and also very kindly explained what made them distinct from similar trees. Whitebeams are deciduous, meaning that the leaves are shed by the tree every autumn (fall). Therefore obtaining these leaves hadn’t damaged the tree at all.
After she had left I realised that, since there is only one specimen of this tree known to exist, they must be leaves from the world’s rarest tree.
This totem pole shows things that are important to the person who received it – a collection of personal totems including an owl, a horse and a trout.
The piece was carved for a commission in 2012 and is now installed in the New Forest, Hampshire. It was a lot of fun to carve but also quite a challenge, as it includes a portrait of the person that it was a present for. This was the first portrait that I had been commissioned to carve.
The pole is carved from durable European Larch, grown in the local area to my workshop. It is 14 feet (4 m 20 cm) tall in total, with 4 feet (1m 20cm) going underground when installed.
I couldn’t meet him in person to take measurements and so the portrait had to be done solely from photos, which were all taken at different times in his life. I never got to meet either the person who commissioned it or the subject of the portrait carving, so have no idea how close the likeness is!
Apparently he likes the carving though, which is what everyone wanted.
This bench is the largest single project that I have taken on to date, being 2.5 metres (8 feet) long and weighing well over half a ton. It was commissioned by the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society in Bristol and was installed in June 2015. The wood is oak that originally grew on a farm outside the village of Backwell, about seven miles from where the playground where the bench has been situated.
The bench is quite unusual, as the site that it has been placed on is part of Clifton Down in Bristol. The Downs Committee, who oversee the running of the area, hardly ever give permission for permanent works of art to be installed there and I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity.
The bench was almost two years in the making and shows notable people, creatures and structures to do with the area. Researching it myself was fascinating. One carving is a portrait of renowned poet and botanist Libby Houston, who visited my studio a couple of times. Showing her the portrait for the first time was a little nervewracking! Fortunately, she liked it.
Amongst many other subjects, the bench also shows Thecodontosaurus, the ‘Bristol Dinosaur’, which was discovered not far from the playground.
The bench rests on three large oak carvings showing creatures that lived in the seas that covered the area millions of years ago; a crinoid, a coral colony and a brachiopod (a shellfish a bit like a modern clam).
There is also a ‘treasure trail’ of ten spider carvings hidden all over the bench for visitors to try and find if they can!