Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’

<em>Uncommon Ground</em> at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’

After seeing the profound and meditative works by Ai Weiwei in the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park last week, I spent some time looking at the current exhibition in the Longside Gallery there: Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966 – 1979. Continue reading Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’”

Ashes to ashes

Ashes to ashes

They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.

There’s an ash that I pass each morning with the dog.  I pay closer attention to the tree’s features – the grey bark, ribbed with a fine lattice pattern of ridges, the delicate leaves with their matching pairs of leaflets, and the distinctive black buds leaflets at the tip of each new shoot – now that it is like a friend of whom you hear news of a life-threatening illness.  This tree looks healthy yet (photos of it illustrate this post), but the fungal spores that lead to ash dieback are advancing across the country: there has been at least one confirmed sighting in neighbouring Cheshire.

According to Oliver Rackham in Woodlands, the ash is one of the longest-established trees of these isles, advancing across the land bridge after the end of the last ice age.  In that book Rackham writes that ‘trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities’, and the spectre of losing all our ash has prompted many reflections on how deeply embedded trees are in our culture and our daily, living consciousness.

In Wildwood, Roger Deakin talked the feature of ash which has bound it to humans through time immemorial: its practical virtues as a timber, deriving from its remarkable pliability and toughness. He quotes William Cobbett, who valued the utility of ash over its beauty:

Laying aside this nonsense, however, of poets and painters, we have no tree of such various and extensive use as the Ash. It gives us boards; materials for making instruments of husbandry; and contributes towards the making of tools of almost all sorts. We could not well have a wagon, a cart, a coach or a wheelbarrow, a plough, a harrow, a spade, an axe or a hammer, if we had no Ash. It gives us poles for our hops; hurdle gates, wherewith to pen in our sheep; and hoops for our washing tubs; and assists to supply the Irish and West Indians with hoops for their pork barrels and sugar hogsheads. It therefore demands our particular attention; and from me, that attention it shall have.

Deakin points out that coopers made the hoops Cobbett refers to by cleaving coppice ash in two and bending the flat side round the barrel or washing tub.  He also took advantage of the ash’s pliable nature when he created an ash bower near his home at Walnut Tree Farm:

My ash bower is a kind of folly, an Aboriginal wiltja that stands at the top of my long meadow in Suffolk. It consists of a double row of lively ash trees bent over into Gothic arches like a small church. I planted it twenty years ago. It is eighteen feet long by nine feet wide, with four pairs of trees six feet apart along each side curving up to meet just under seven feet off the ground, so you can walk up and down inside. In the summer heat it is a cool, green room roofed with wild hops and the flickering shadows of ash leaves. I sometimes sling a hammock inside. I even installed a bed last year … […]

I make no claims for the originality of its conception: it was directly inspired by David Nash’s Ash Dome. It is what they call in film or art magazines an hommage, although I prefer to hold up both hands and call it pure plagiarism. For all that, it gives me enormous pleasure and interest, and it has grown into a mild obsession. […]

The elephant-grey bark begins to gleam in a light rain shower. I love this skin of ash, almost human in its perfect smoothness when young, with an under-glow of green. It wrinkles and creases like elephant skin at the heels and elbows of old pleachers where they have healed. […]

The bower is floored in lords and ladies, ground ivy and mosses, and its eight trunks cross-gartered with wild hops, our English vines. They thatch its roof with their big cool leaves, dangling bunches of the aromatic, soporific female flowers from the green ceiling like grapes. As spring comes on, the bower fills like a bath with frothy white Queen Anne’s lace … Even at the age of twenty the trunks of the bower are beginning to show some of the early signs of what will accrue with age: they are green with algae and lichens are beginning to form around their damp feet. They are putting on ankle socks of moss. There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan.

Deakin speaks, too, of the characteristic flamboyance of the ash:

I love its natural flamboyance and energy, and the swooping habit of its branches: the way they plunge towards the earth, then upturn, tracing the trajectory of a diver entering the water and surfacing. In March the tree is a candelabra, each bud emerging cautiously, like the black snout of a badger, at the tip of every branch.

By the time Deakin came to write about his ash dome, in the closing pages of Wildwood, he was terminally ill, though unaware of this fact. In the book’s final passage he questions whether he was right to force the tree into the contortions required of it to form the bower; but, reasons:

I’ve done the tree no harm and in time it will grow into something beautiful as ash always does, the badger-noses on the new shoots leading the way.  It doesn’t need me to teach it to dance: it is naturally playful, a contortionist with ancestral memories of tumbling with the hedger’s no less wilful strength.  When the bower eventually comes of age long after I am gone, the wooden spinning top might still be going round too.

The ash dome created by David Nash on his own woodland in North Wales, is an example of a ‘growing’ work, a ring of ash trees he planted in 1977 and trained to form a domed shape. The dome is sited at a secret location somewhere in Snowdonia and whenever it’s filmed, crews are taken there by a circuitous route to guard its security. His planting of twenty two ash trees has committed him to more than thirty years of care, training and pruning and echoes his belief that he begins the works but they are completed by time and circumstance. Nash continues to maintain the Dome and records its changes in different contexts through drawings and photographs.

A couple of years back the Woodland Trust published a collection of short stories, Why Willows Weep, in which various writers each told a tale of their favourite tree.  William Fiennes chose the ash in ‘Why the ash tree has black buds’:

The trees have always had some idea of what happens to them when they die. In forests they saw their neighbours toppled by wind or age and rot into earth, and their roots sent up descriptions of peat and coal in vast beds and seams. Later, when humans came along, trees saw the stockades, the carts pulled by horses, the chairs and tables set out in gardens, and quickly put two and two together. Trees growing beside rivers saw themselves in the hulls and masts of boats, and trees in orchards understood that the ladders propped against them had once been trees, and when men approached with axes to fell them, the trees recognized the handles.

Trees often wondered what their particular fate might be. Would they subside into the long sleep of coal, or blaze for an hour in a cottage grate, or find themselves reconfigured as handle, hurdle, post, shaft, stake, joist, beam – or something more elaborate and rare: an abacus, a chess piece, a harpsichord? And out of these dreams a rumour moved among the trees of the world like a wind, not quite understood at first, it was so strange – a rumour that when they died, instead of being burned, planed, planked, shimmed, sharpened, many trees would be pulped. This was an entirely new idea to trees, whose self-image was all to do with trunk, sturdiness, backbone, form. But trees are good at getting the hang of things, and soon they understood that from pulp would come the white leaves humans called paper, and that these leaves would be bound into books, and after a short season of anxiety in which conifers shed uncharacteristic quantities of needles, the trees came to terms with this new possibility in the range of their afterlives.

Yes, the trees recognized themselves in paper, in books, just as they recognized themselves in all the other things that hadn’t been thought of quite yet, like bedsteads and bagpipes and bonfires, not to mention violins, cricket bats, toothpicks, clothes pegs, chopsticks and misericords. Men and women would sit in the shade of trees, reading books, and the trees, dreaming of all that was to come, saw that they were the books as well as the chairs the men and women sat in, and the combs in the women’s hair, and the shiny handles of the muskets, and the hoops the children chased across the lawns. The trees took pride in the idea of being a book: they thought a book was a noble thing to become, if you had to become anything – a terrible bore to be a rafter, after all, and a wheel would mean such a battering, though of course the travel was a bonus, and what tree in its right mind would wish to be rack, coffin, crucifix, gallows . . .

One tree was more excited than all the rest, and that was the ash. The ash has such an inviting, feathery shade: when men and women first had books to take into the shade of trees, they often chose the shade of an ash. The ash would look down at these people reading and see that they were discovering new regions inside themselves, and notice how when they stood up and left the jurisdiction of its branches they had changed as if buds inside them were coming into leaf, and the ash saw that this change was a property of the marks on the paper, and that paper was the only leaf with worlds in it. Soon ash trees were discussing this phenomenon all over the place, whispering about books in Manchuria and Poland and the Pennines, passing information from grove to grove, until ash trees across North America and the Eastern and Western Palearctic were sighing and swaying with thoughts of words and pens and poems and printing presses and Odysseus and Scheherazade and the Song of Songs . . .

So ash trees dreamed of becoming books themselves one day, even though they would be much in demand as firewood, and prized as material for oars, hockey sticks and the chassis frames of Morgan motor cars. Sometimes, dreaming ahead, they saw men and women sitting beneath them, writing – writing in notebooks and diaries, writing letters of love and consolation, writing stories. And the ash tree wanted to be that, too – not just the book, but the writing in it, the words that carried the worlds. They saw the men and women holding their pens, and the ink that came out of them on to the paper, and although they didn’t have hands, they tried to curl their branches into fingers that might hold pens, and they dreamed it so vividly that the tips of their fingers turned black with ink as they waved against the blank white page of the sky, trying to write on it.

Look closely: the ash tree has black buds, and the branches bend upwards at their tips, towards the whiteness.

The anthology has just been republished on Kindle to help raise funds for the Woodland Trust to combat diseases threatening the ash and other native trees.

Who knows how many ash trees may have to be cut down as the disease spreads.  In his journal, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of his anguish at seeing an ash being cut down:

The ash tree growing in the corner of the garden was felled.  I heard the sound and, looking out and seeing it maimed, there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.

Ash trees were not, of course, cut down for their useful timber – they were pollarded.  Here, Manley Hopkins is expressing the pain in losing a tree which forms part of the ‘inscape’ (a word he had invented meaning ‘individually-distinctive beauty’), as all trees are part of all our collective ‘inscape’. In the poem ‘Ash-boughs’ Manley Hopkins celebrates a tree waking from winter’s dormancy, groping toward warmth and light.  He watches the tree in winter, and then as it throws off snow and welcomes spring. It is the earth sustaining and being sustained by new life:

Not of all my eyes see, wandering on the world,
Is anything a milk to the mind so, so sighs deep
Poetry to it, as a tree whose boughs break in the sky.
Say it is ashboughs: whether on a December day and furled
Fast or they in clammyish lashtender combs creep
Apart wide and new-nestle at heaven most high.
They touch heaven, tabour on it; how their talons sweep
The smouldering enormous winter welkin! May
Mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray
Of greenery: it is old earth’s groping towards the steep
Heaven whom she childs us by.

In Edward Thomas’s ‘Fifty Faggots’, the age-old certainties of laying aside ash and hazel faggots for the winter is subsumed into a sense of dread at the uncontrollable forces at work in a world at war:

There they stand, on their ends, the fifty faggots
That once were underwood of hazel and ash
In Jenny Pinks’s Copse. Now, by the hedge
Close packed, they make a thicket fancy alone
Can creep through with the mouse and wren. Next Spring
A blackbird or a robin will nest there,
Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain
Whatever is for ever to a bird.
This Spring it is too late; the swift has come,
‘Twas a hot day for carrying them up:
Better they will never warm me, though they must
Light several Winters’ fires. Before they are done
The war will have ended, many other things
Have ended, maybe, that I can no more
Foresee or more control than robin and wren.

Diana J Hale, in her most recent blog post, also on the threat to the ash, quotes a beautiful passage from Edward Thomas writing about the sight of ash trees shedding their leaves in autumn.

Two contemporary poets seem to capture a sense of the deep meaning attachment that trees evoke, even in a suburban setting – as in Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Tree House’ – or deep beneath the capital’s streets on the London underground in Katherine Gallagher’s quirky ‘The Year of the Tree’.

Hands on a low limb, I braced,
swung my feet loose, hoisted higher,
heard the town clock toll, a car
breenge home from the club
as I stooped inside. Here

I was unseeable. A bletted fruit
hung through tangled branches
just out of reach. Over house roofs:
sullen hills, the firth drained
down to sandbanks: the Reckit Lady, the Shair as Daith.

I lay to sleep,
beside me neither man
nor child, but a lichened branch
wound through the wooden chamber,
pulling it close; a complicity

like our own, when arm in arm
on the city street, we bemoan
our families, our difficult
chthonic anchorage
in the apple-sweetened earth,

without whom we might have lived
the long-ebb of our mid-decades
alone in sheds and attic rooms,
awake in the moonlight souterrains
of our own minds; without whom

we might have lived a hundred other lives,
like taxis strangers hail and hire,
that turn abruptly on the gleaming setts
and head for elsewhere.

Suppose just for the hell of it
we flagged one – what direction would we give?
Would we still be driven here,
our small town Ithacas, our settlements
hitched tight beside the river

where we’re best played out
in gardens of dockens
and lady’s mantle, kids’ bikes
stranded on the grass;
where we’ve knocked together

of planks and packing chests
a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we’ve asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.
Kathleen Jamie

I came across Katherine Gallagher’s poem when it was selected by Carol Rumens as poem of the week on her regular online feature for The Guardian where you can read her gloss on the poem:

I carried a tree
through the Underground.

It was hard. At first,
people scarcely noticed me

and the oak I was lugging
along the platforms –

heavier than a suitcase
and difficult to balance.

We threaded through corridors,
changing lines: up and down stairs,

escalators, and for a moment
I imagined everyone on the planet

taking turns
to carry a tree as daily rite.

A few people asked
Why a tree?

I said it was for my own
edification –

a tree always
has something to teach.

Sharp gusts
whirred through the corridors

rustling the branches
as I hurried on

past the sweepers
picking up rubbish, scraps of paper.

Be sure to take the tree
with you
, they said.

Don’t worry, I’m taking it
to my garden,

the start of a forest.
When people stared,

Relax, I said,
it’s a tree, not a gun.

But I think it’s Robert Frost, in ‘The Sound of Trees’ who speaks most powerfully of the hold that trees have on us:

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Update 20 November: via the Caught By the River blog I was directed to this web page at Little Toller books that is a celebration of the beauty and the utility of the ash.  On the same website, Poet Jos Smith responded with a superb essay which concludes:

We ought to think about making vivid tributes to the ash tree now. Tributes that capture something truly distinctive about the tree as Hopkins’ ‘Ash-boughs’ or as E.J. Scovell’s ‘Ash Trees’ do. Poems, paintings and recordings, words, images and sculptures that with their own ‘shining loam’ conserve something of the ash. Not as elegies or commemorations necessarily, but to remind future generations of the virtues of this remarkable tree, a tree with which we have shared our lives more intimately than perhaps we always remember. Soon enough, and for many generations, the ash may no longer be a familiar sight, but here and there a few tenacious genetic variations will endure as they have in Sweden, Denmark and Lithuania. Of course, this won’t help the forest wildlife that will feel the withdrawal of such a huge agent in our ecosystems acutely, but it will give future generations some access to the impression the tree makes on us today; its uses as medicine, material and myth. It will also – and perhaps just as importantly – offer a simple appreciation of the ash’s ubiquitous and companion presence on the edges of our lives, dripping with rain or swelling softly with wind through the night.

Also at Little Toller Books, there’s a piece by Sue Clifford and Angela King that reminds us that the ubiquity of the ash is revealed in place names. Not far from here is the suburb of Knotty Ash, and my mother grew up in a Derbyshire village not far from Monyash:

It is one of our most common trees, as a glance at the numerous place names containing ash or ask in any gazetteer will tell: Ashby-de-la-Launde to Long Ashton, Askam and Askrigg to Knotty Ash. Reaching heights of 140 feet (45m) it thrives in city parks unhindered by air pollution. Enjoying the lack of competition for light, it is a frequent hedgerow tree, often covering for the lost elms. Ash also makes fine woodlands: on its own on the steep slopes of the Derbyshire Dales, with oak on the Herefordshire borders and on chalky boulder clay in the east where it also lives with maple and hazel accompanied by the richest of woodland ground flora.

Monyash means ‘many an ash’ and certainly the valley ash woods as well as road-side trees in the White Peak and Yorkshire pick out the Carboniferous limestone, further to the east the north-south sliver of magnesian limestone from Nottinghamshire up to County Durham also favours ash. Ash is common in the Jurassic limey Cotswolds and the Carboniferous limey Mendips where the oldest ash tree in Europe is said to be found at Clapton in Somerset; it’s of no age in comparison with the coppice stools in Suffolk.

They reminded me of something else, too, that I had completely forgotten: an old saw my mum passed on to me:

Looking out for the first to leaf in spring is one of the ancient and best known forecasting tools: Oak before ash we’re in for a splash, ash before oak we’re in for a soak.  The oak relies on warmth, the ash on light and our climate has changed sufficiently in the last 20 years to bring the oak into leaf every year before the ash, it is now ten days ahead…

And check out Richard Mabey speaking wise words about ash dieback in this recent YouTube video:

David Nash at Kew: the language of wood

David Nash at Kew: the language of wood

In The Secret Life of Trees, Colin Tudge notes that the ancient Greek philosophers assumed that all material things, inert or living thing, were composed of earth, air, fire and water.   Although that belief might seem ridiculous to our scientific understanding, he goes on to explain that, in the case of trees, it makes sense.  Trees manufacture their own nutrients, drawing the energy to do this from the sun (fire), and then extracting nutrients and water from the soil, breathing in carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere.

It’s an elemental process, and there is something elemental about the sculptures which David Nash creates, whether quarried from wood – carved, sawn and sliced, gouged or charred – or evoking woodiness, but cast in iron or bronze.  We had been over to the YSP twice a couple of years back to see the major Nash exhibition there, so when we spent a few days in London last week a visit to see the results of his recent residency at Kew Gardens was a must.

The YSP exhibition was truly memorable, but strolling around the exhibits at Kew, as flocks of parakeets screeched through the treetops and planes passed overhead every two minutes on the descent to Heathrow, it seemed to me that this one had something special: Nash had positioned each piece to engage in silent conversation with a tree nearby.

Indeed, before seeing any of the Nash pieces, it was a single tree before which we stood in awe. We had arrived at Kew exactly 25 years to the day since the Great Storm of 15 October 1987 that felled around 15 million trees nationwide. 700 trees were lost at Kew, but Turner’s Oak (above) survived, despite its root system being lifted right up before settling back down.  The tree is a cross between an English oak and a holm oak. It was created in the Essex nursery of Mr Turner in 1783 and planted in Kew’s original arboretum in 1798.  The Great Storm didn’t kill the tree: quite the opposite, it was given a new lease of life.  Before the storm the tree had shown signs of stress, its roots having become compacted by people sheltering under it for years. Afterwards its roots had been ‘decompacted’ and had more space, air and water to help it grow. Seeing this, Kew’s staff quickly developed decompaction methods for use on other trees.

I want a simple approach to living and doing.  I want a life and work that reflects the balance and continuity of nature.  Identifying with the time and energy of the tree and with its mortality.  I find myself drawn deeper into the joys and blows of nature.  Worn down and regenerated; broken off and reunited; a dormant faith revived in the new growth of old wood.
– David Nash

The Kew exhibition has had the creation of new works at its heart.  We arrived the day after David Nash finally ceased working on new pieces at the Wood Quarry established in the grounds in April, and where visitors were able to see Nash and his team cut and shape sculptures before being placed for display.

Many monumental sculptures were situated outdoors, throughout the gardens.  Two Sliced Cedars (below) was made in 2010 from wood sourced in Sussex. This is one of his works where Nash has chosen to char the sculpture to emphasise the form, the dense black reinforcing the sense of solid outline and dense weight.  At Kew, these pieces are situated within sight of a row of Atlas cedars.

Black Trunk was an old favourite from the YSP show in 2010, where it was charred by laying planks of wood all the way around the Californian redwood it in a conical teepee shape with dry kindling which was set on fire. Nash charred Black Trunk alongside Black Butt and in doing so, linked them, creating a pair (see my earlier post). They have since become separate as Nash feels that Black Trunk can stand on its own. Black Butt being a very old piece of elm would rapidly deteriorate outside so it has been cast into bronze.

The bronzes are quite disorienting: the finished surface of the bronze has taken on the the colour and original texture of the charred wood so convincingly that, until you touch them, you cannot tell that they are metal.  Nash has chosen to make bronze casts from wood sculptures that would not last well outside.  This is Black Butt in its bronze form and, below, with King and Queen II.

For Nash, sphere, cube and pyramid are ‘universal forms’ with a deep spiritual significance, and these forms were repeated in several different locations. Nash says, ‘these are basic geometric shapes that we do tend to see in the natural landscape when they are present, even as a mere suggestion.’  He believes that the visual arts bounce off this logic, where ‘artists find forms that are deeply recognised by our fellow human beings.’

Near to Nash’s home in North Wales, waste tips from the local slate mines make geometric shapes in the landscape:

For over thirty years, I have lived at the foot of one of Blaenau Ffestiniog’s slate tips, formed from unusable slate from the workings… the structure of the tip is one of horizontal and diagonal lines. My work involves geometric cuts into the natural form of the wood and I think that these geometrical forms have grown in me while I have lived among these slate tips.’

Black Sphere (above) is made from layers of 10 inch by 10 inch beams, stacked on top of one another. On two sides you can see all end-grain – the wood in cross section. On the other two sides, the wood is worked along the grain. This short video shows Nash’s team assembling the sculpture.

In the Temperate House, Nash’s sculptures play a game of hide and seek among the dense foliage, and the same geometric shapes are present.

The exciting thing for me is to see my work in the jungle. To put them among plants, which is where they came from.’
– David Nash

Nash curated these geometric shapes based on their structure and form in relation to each other and the surrounding organic forms of the tree ferns. The bronze forms of Cube Sphere and Pyramid (below) are suited to this moist setting since the bronze from which they are made can withstand the damp.

Many of Nash’s sculptures explore our dependence on nature – and specifically wood – for basic survival tools and utensils. He expresses it this way:

My lifework as an artist working mainly with wood has drawn me into the science and anthropology of trees. They have a profound wisdom evolved over millions of years. For every civilisation, wood is fundamental survival material for heating and building and so much more… I make objects based on this common language that are  motivated by an idea, an attitude, of a practical, healthy relationship with our outer skin, the environment.’
– David Nash

Mizunara Bowl is one such work. It was made from the trunk of a mizunara or Japanese oak in northern Japan. The oak’s lighter sapwood forms a natural edge to the bowl.  Mizunara Bowl is made from a single piece of wood, the ‘bowl’ sitting on a ‘table’. Nash describes the tipped-up form of the bowl as ‘speaking outward’ towards Throne in the centre of the glasshouse. He has also placed this work as a greeting to the Temperate House exhibition.

Throne (below) was originally made for the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield, where it was displayed in the gallery’s high-ceilinged apse. This gave Nash the opportunity to exploit a vertical space, which he has also been able to do here in the Temperate House.

Napa Ladders was made in California, from an evergreen species of oak. Tables, ladders, chairs and shelters are all basic human tools and utensils, and all recur in Nash’s work. Ladders are practical tools but Napa Ladders are symbolic objects. To Nash, they have taken on forms that allude to people’s dependence on wood. They almost look like they are staggering, wobbly, but also on the point of standing up and running.

Trees show their time-story through their form. In life they stand balanced, spreading, defiant, weaving the elemental forces of light, warmth, water, air and earth into their material body. In death their wood continues to change; bright and fresh at first, easy to split and work,  until it dries and cures into hard and useful lengths. We bring it inside: fuel for fires, heat and cooking,  for shelter in walls, doors and roofs, for our domestic life in table, stool, bowl and spoon.  In so doing we “borrow” it from its natural cycle of coming and going. Left outside it surrenders to insects and fungi that live and feed on it, taking it back, reintegrating it into the ground as humus.
– David Nash

Another superb piece in the Temperate House is Cave, made from yew which has been partially charred to bring enhance the contrast between the blackened areas and the rich reddish tones in the surrounding wood which replicate the red sandstone rocks which surround the sculpture.  Nash likens the texture of Cave to ‘scholar stones’– naturally occurring rock formations that have historically been valued by Chinese scholars and garden designers for their aesthetic forms.

Two of the most exciting works on show are Cork Dome and Cork Spire. Both are entirely new works assembled at Kew Gardens, and they also see Nash working with a new material, cork oak.  Cork Dome was inspired by a visit to Portugal in 2010 when Nash stayed on a cork farm during the cork harvest.

Cork oak forests are protected by the European Union.  In Portugal, which has the the world’s largest area of cork oak, the trees cannot be legally cut down, except as part of a forest management programme.  The trees are only harvested once they reach maturity, then they can be harvested every nine or ten years.  After being stripped, each tree is marked with the year of its harvest.  The first two harvests produce cork suitable for uses such as flooring and insulation.  Later harvests can also be used to manufacture wine stoppers. A close-up of Cork Dome reveals the texture and beauty of the arranged pieces of bark.

Cork Spire is a stunning piece, its rough textures contrasting sharply with the austere beauty of the Nash Conservatory where it is situated.It’s a towering structure with huge presence, and on the day we were there, its dimensions were being recorded and sketched by silently absorbed art students.

The Nash Conservatory is such a beautiful and wonderful space that I made the decision to make a single installation in here rather than a group of sculptures. I know the space, and then when the shapes come, it’s sort of like cooking; you’re bringing all the ingredients together.
– David Nash

Nash sees cork oak as illustrative of his own philosophy about our relationship with the natural world. Just as the cork back forms the outer shell of the tree, so he regards the environment as ‘our outer skin’. ‘We are in and of the environment; we are not apart from it or its master – and everything that we do impacts upon it, for better or for worse,’ he says. The farming of cork oak is one of the best examples of traditional sustainable land use because the trees can regenerate their spongy bark and therefore be stripped of it every ten years. Cork oak forests also support a rich community of many species. If we stop using cork, he insists, the trees will be cut down, the land re-used and this biodiversity lost.

One of the most striking exhibits at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2010 was Oculus Block, a gigantic piece of eucalyptus weighing 10,000 kilos.  At the entrance to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Nash has sited a huge offcut from Oculus Block, named Oculus Slab. It’s a dramatic cross-section of the eucalyptus trunk: the hole in the middle of this piece runs vertically through the core of Oculus Block, between multiple trunks that had fused together.

In the Shirley Sherwood Gallery Nash has assembled a lavish display of works from all stages of his career, illustrating many of his recurring themes and forms.  There are works across a range of media – from wood sculptures of table forms, vessels, cubes and columns, to drawings, photographs and film.

There are some wonderful tree studies – charcoal drawings of trees at Kew, including lime, sweet chestnut, maple and beech that he did this spring – while Blue Ring (below) began as a living work when, in the winter of 1983, Nash planted thousands of bluebell bulbs in a 30 metre ring on an open slope at Cae’n-y-Coed. Every spring, just for two or three weeks, a circular concentration of blue was visible amidst a sparser sea of blue, gradually dispersing back into the general swathe of bluebells after four years.  As a way of recapturing this blueness, Nash has here gathered bluebell seeds, which are a deep indigo blue, to create a loosely scattered circle, accompanied by a loose blue pastel circle on canvas on the wall.

And then there is a Wooden Boulder Journey (below), an elegant calligraphic line signifying the journey of Wooden Boulder – a  rough sphere carved out of an old oak with a chainsaw – downhill, by river, to the Irish Sea.

During the next 24 years storms moved it down a local stream nine times, and eventually into the River Dwyrwyd where it floated frequently up and down the estuary according to the tides, wind and rainfall.  In 2003 it disappeared and after a long search it was assumed to have gone into the  sea. In 2008 it reappeared briefly in the estuary. It has not been seen since. Nash remarks:

It is not lost, it is where ever it is.

David Nash speaks the language of wood.  He says in the exhibition catalogue:

Working within the Gardens provides me with an opportunity to continue my explorations into the science and anthropology of trees. …Every activity that takes place under the name of Kew, from saving seeds for future generations at the Millenium Seed Bank, to caring for on-site plant-based artefacts and collections, as well as the overwhelming physicality of the Gardens themselves, carries a message that reminds us that we cannot separate ourselves from the natural world.  Our actions, from everyday activities to essential; industrial work, have an impact on it.  My work invites the same consideration.  Nature is the essence of our continued existence – it guides us spiritually and takes care of us practically.

On a last circuit of the Gardens, we encountered Kew’s Lucombe oak, a fine, spreading tree, nearly as old as the trees planted in the Gardens’ first years back in the 18th century. Remarkably, this tree has moved.  At the age of 73, it was moved when the great avenue of Syon Vista was being created nearby.  In what would have been a major operation, a sloping trench was dug from its old location to the present one. With the root ball prepared to preserve as much of the root system as possible, it was dragged up the slope by a horse or ox team and earth built up around it, forming the mound it sits on today.


In this gallery (the first I have made using a great new WordPress feature), you can browse all of the David Nash sculptures that I saw at Kew.  Hover your mouse over an image for the name of the sculpture; click it to view it full size.

See also

David Nash revisited

On the final day of the wonderful David Nash exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we felt we had to make a return visit after seeing it for the first time in August. The place was heaving with people of all ages – and extremely muddy!

Our first move was to set out across the fields, slithering and sliding in the mud,for Oxley Bank where Nash has installed a permanent piece commissioned by the YSP, which we didn’t have time to see in the summer.  Black Steps (above) consists of 71 charred oak steps embedded in a coal drift that usefully replace an original flight of steps leading up Oxley Bank from the lake which had rotted.  Between each step Nash has laid down coal, a reminder that beneath the grounds of the stately home and parkland created here in the 18th century lie extensive coal mines.  In this way the organic nature of the steps –  wood and coal – recapitulates the history of the local countryside and underlines man’s dependency on the natural world.

The path up Oxley Bank takes you past earlier permanent installations by Andy Goldsworthy, left behind after his major retrospective exhibition in 2007.  Hanging Trees (below) is another intervention in the landscape that works with rather than in opposition to forces which shape the landscape. It consists of three felled tree trunks and boughs embedded in pits of the Yorkshire stone that is characteristic of the area.

The trail brings you to the Longside Gallery, where we had a chance to explore again groups of sculptures and drawings that reveal how the themes and practices that Nash established in the late 1960s and early 1970s have evolved throughout his career.  Nash has said, ‘if anyone looks at my work as a whole, it is a bit like a tree, there are different branches and different themes but there are cross references to them. Each new branch of forms feeds back into the central trunk of the tree’. This idea is beautifully illustrated in Nash’s huge drawing Family Tree which he updates regularly. (below, click to enlarge)

The works in Longside Gallery provide a vivid overview of Nash’s work to date. From  Nine Cracked Balls (1970), which encouraged Nash that he was on the right path in trying to learn the language of wood and the way that it warps, twists and cracks with time, through to recent pieces, it’s possible to trace Nash’s increasingly confident and sophisticated working of the material. I was particularly impressed this time (and after watching him in action on the recent BBC4 documentary) with the pieces that have been deftly and delicately sliced with the chainsaw. Many of the Crack and Warp pieces have been sawn along the horizontal, vertical and diagonal to produce thin slivers like the pages of a book that, as a result of the natural processes of certain woods as they dry out, have created cracks and warps.

Back at the main display in the Underground gallery, one piece I had overlooked before is Eighteen Thousand Tides (1996), a  large, weathered timber slightly worked by Nash that once formed part of a wooden sea defence on the English south coast.

This has been a truly memorable exhibition, and we were really glad to have seen it again before it closed.  Great too, that as part of the recent British sculpture season on BBC4 we were able to see the documentary Force of Nature: The Sculpture of David Nash. The film gave an intimate insight into Nash’s methods of working with his material. From sawing and gouging to charring and planting, it revealed how he has used his profound knowledge of trees and the forces of nature to inform his work.  Using archive footage, it traced Nash’s artistic journey from art school to the bleak mining landscape of Blaenau Ffestiniog in north Wales, culminating in the preparations for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition – his most significant to date.


Forest of Dean sculpture: retracing our steps

Forest of Dean sculpture:  retracing our steps

Place 2010

Magdalena Jetelova: Place

We were retracing our steps in place and in time.  Coming back via Mortehoe took me back forty years in time – for Rita, even longer.  By Sunday lunchtime we were in the Forest of Dean, halfway back to Liverpool and revisiting another place in time – the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, last explored with our 8-year old daughter in 1992.

The forest of Dean is one of the largest surviving ancient woodlands in England. A large area was reserved for royal hunting before 1066, and remained as the second largest Crown forest in England, after the New Forest.  Historically, the main sources of work in the area have been forestry – including charcoal production – iron working and coal mining. Evidence shows that the area has been mined for coal from about 8000 BC to 1965.  This history provides the context for several of the sculptures on the trail.  Indeed, the Sculpture Trail was created in 1986 as a way to gain an understanding of the area’s industrial past, with its mine-workings and tramways.  The model was the Grizedale Forest sculpture trail in the Lake District, another Forestry Commission project.

The Grove of Silence

In 1983, Martin Orrom, Forestry and Environment Officer for the Forestry Commission, explained the mission in the founding document of the Sculpture Trail, Stand and Stare:

Woods and forests have inspired feelings of awe, dread, poetry and romance over   the   centuries, particularly   in   Northern Europe. By the end of  the nineteenth century two movements had interrupted this flow in inspiration. Our population had largely fled to the cities and there had been extensive loss of woodland to agriculture and urban development.

Since the 1950’s there has been cheap transport for urban dwellers and encouragement to visit the countryside where there are many new forests.  The forests they see  are often managed for timber production and encouragement to visit has rested on explaining the skills of forestry – a public relations exercise. There has been little attempt to reawaken the poetic feelings in visitors despite the fact that it should be easier in the present day since some of the greatest fears such as the highwayman, wolf, bear and wild boar are missing. The greatest perceived risk is probably one of getting lost on a walk.

As the new forests mature their interest increases permanently. The felling programmes bring changes of shape and colour on the hillsides and the different types and ages of trees bring welcome diversity – what is now needed is to show visitors what a source of pleasure and wonder this diversity can be. So far we have relied on foresters and scientists to identify and classify the diversity and to write popular trail guides about it. What is needed now is to encourage visitors to stand and stare, to reawaken their sense of wonder and romance.

This may best be started by an awakening of all the senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell in a woodland setting and by a recognition of the primeval provision which forests have made to man down the centuries of mystery, religion, poetry, shelter, fuel, food and drink.

Our first encounter today was with Place, a massive structure in the form of a chair (top) by Magdalena Jetelova that dominates the skyline with a commanding view over a neighbouring valley. It was one of the first sculptures placed here back in 1986, and we saw it in 1992, when the surrounding area looked very different:

Place in 1992Place in 1992 (2)

David Nash, whose major retrospective at Yorkshire Sculpture Park we saw recently, produced two of his earliest works for the Trail, both commenting on the area’s industrial heritage.  Black Dome was originally a dome constructed from 900 pieces of charred larch packed together, inspired by the old charcoal hearths of the forest as Nash explained:

While in Grizedale Forest, Cumbria, working as resident sculptor in 1978, I often came across centuries old-charcoal burners’ sites-oval level spaces, barely discernible on the hillside…These spaces, although nearly invisible, had a sense of the human being, a presence remaining from the concentrated activity of charcoal burning. The experience of these spaces made a deep impression on me.

The Forest of Dean also has a history of charcoal manufacture. The idea for Black Dome arose from these thoughts encouraged by the appropriateness of an object that has an image link with the history of the forest. Ideally the sculpture would be a mound of charcoal, but charcoal having no structure would not have survived the public’s use. The sculpture needed to be anchored to survive, so I opted for charring the ends of sharpened larch poles.

David Nash recently returned to inspect Black Dome. The work had been pummeled down by the growing volume of visitors. Nash admitted that, ‘when I first came it was a quiet forest; I naively imagined my work would be viewed from the path’.  Nash has now done restoration work on Black Dome, though the original timbers are now compressed (above).

Near Black Dome, a stream now flows through what was once a man-made canal. Here David Nash placed Fire and Water Boats, a flotilla of small charred boats, that seem almost like the mysterious remains of some early civilization.   Again, Nash was inspired by the industrial associations:

The oaks here were planted by request of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, in preparation to build the fleet of the mid-twentieth century. The shipbuilders of 1800 had run out of oak and had to use teak from India.  This led to thoughts of boats and vessels. A dead oak had been felled for us to use …from the oak I cut three vessel forms and passed them through the fire (charring also acts as a wood preserver). The resulting pieces were placed in a boggy area in a dell full of wild watercress.”

Another piece that very clearly evokes the industrial past is Keir Smith’s Iron Road.  It’s located on an old tramway that ran through the forest and consists of 20 carved wooden railway sleepers, each carving representing an aspect of the forest, from smelting to writing, charcoal to hunting.

Back in 1992, when we came here with our 8-year old, the highlight was Sophie Ryder’s Crossing Place, a superb work that consisted of thirteen deer crossing a swamp.  Sadly, it was removed in 1995: it was, after all, made of rust-prone wire, and Ryder did not expect it to last:

I had a lot of problems with siting my work outside, as it is very fragile and tempting for children to sit on. The idea that sprung to mind was to situate them in water. I had one month in which to work. I wanted to make twenty deer, but had time only to make thirteen. The space they occupy is quite large and I still think there could have been more of them, to create more of an atmosphere of this herd of frightened or disturbed animals rushing across the water….What I did was to make the legs much longer than normal and sink them into the deep mud on the bottom of the pond. Since the water is so still, I am hoping the deer will stay in position for a year or two. The wire I have used is very rusty, so they will rust away before they sink. I love the different shapes in colour and texture of rusting wire.

Sophie Ryder's Crossing Place in 1992

Sophie Ryder’s Crossing Place in 1992

However, another Sophie Ryder work from 1988, Searcher, still survives, fenced-off some distance from the main track. It’s another deer, in the act of rubbing against a tree. In The Sculpted Forest, published in 1990, Rupert Martin comments:

Sophie Ryder draws her inspiration from the English tradition of animal art, with its attention to anatomical correctness. Her subject is the animal itself and not what it might symbolise, and her approach is simple and uncomplicated, deriving from her observation and love of animals. Where her work is unusual is in its use of metal wire to create the illusion of sinew and bone. It is a surprisingly versatile material, and the way the light falls on it suggests the vigorous working of the muscles. Her work is the quintessence of Englishness, and it relates well to the landscape of the Dean.

Cone and Vessel, by Peter Randall-Page is a scaled-up fir cone and acorn cup, carved in sandstone.  The sculptures are placed under their respective trees and they reflect the balance in the Dean between deciduous and coniferous trees. The colour of the Forest of Dean sandstone quarried nearby varies from pink to green

The next stretch of the walk brought us to to of the recent additions to the Trail.  Raw, by Neville Gabie is an entire oak tree, planted in the 1800s to provide timber for warships, and felled to open up to the light a glade in the woodland.  Gabie has reconstituted – repacked – the entire tree as a sculpture constructed of cubes of timber, using as much of the tree as possible: mass reformed.

Nearby is the stump of the tree from which the sculpture was created:

From it new life is emerging:

And the sculpture, too, is generating new life:

Echo, by Annie Cattrell, is cast from the face of the quarry in which it is situated.  It’s an extraordinary piece, cast from 310 million year-old rocks in gleaming metal:  a foil to the originating stone but juxtaposed to expose the relationship between them.

Echo is the most recent addition to the collection – but not for long.  At one point on the trail we encountered a team at work on the latest piece, due to be unveiled at the beginning of October.  Hill 33, by David Cotterrell, is a massive work and promises to be provocative. Hill 33 is made of HESCO Concertainer units, which are used by the Army to build shelters and large-scale defence structures in Afghanistan. Cotterrell’s first sight of HESCO was when he was based in Afghanistan as a war artist, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust.

Cathedral, by Kevin Atherton, was another work that left a lasting impression after our last visit.  You approach it along an avenue of conifers as if advancing down the central aisle of a cathedral; suspended above the path is a large stained-glass window 15 feet high by 10 feet across.  Atherton explained the purpose of his work in 1986:

Operating as a visual trigger, the window is intended to serve to connect mentally the concepts of two separate spaces, the ‘forest’ and the ‘cathedral’.  Amongst the common features shared between forest and cathedral is the way that they are affected by natural light. In both cases there exists a darker, interior light, in the spectator’s space, surrounded by a brighter, outside light…

Although deliberately using the association between stained glass windows and church architecture, the subject matter of the window is not religious but is a design taken from drawings and paintings done in the forest. The tracery of branches and the stark silhouettes of trees lend themselves very well to the properties of lead line, and similarly the pooling of light on the forest floor transfers naturally to the pure colour of the cut glass shapes

Back in 1992:

Cathedral 1992

Finally, another piece that gave great pleasure to an eight year-old in 1992, but which has since been removed.  As There Is No Hunting Tomorrow by Zadok Ben-David consisted of seven deer, each with an emblem rising from its head, back or tail, relating to some aspect of the secret animal and vegetable life of the forest.

As There Is No Hunting Tomorrow by Zadok Ben-David  in 1992

As There Is No Hunting Tomorrow by Zadok Ben-David  in 1992

Zadok Ben David explained that the deer were not literal representations but creatures of the imagination, suggesting the mysterious, unseen life of the forest:

Six months before I started working on this project, I visited the Forest of Dean for the first time. I remember being fascinated by the variety of the landscape and the colours; hills and valleys – the open and the intimate.

Gradually I found myself more interested in the concept of keeping the spirit of the wood with its natural habitat, yet at the same tune adding new images which seem at odds with the environment. I wanted to make a group of sculpture as part of an intimate surrounding. I built a group of deer, all black like their own shadows, mostly facing in one direction, and yet each one acting as if he is alone in the forest, caught in his own world, with his own fantasy visible. To achieve this I used very bright colours to stress both the alienation and the individuality.

Retracing our steps. Some things remain, much has changed.

Sarah on Melissa's Swing in 1992

Sarah on Melissa’s Swing in 1992

Rita on Melissa’s Swing in 2010


David Nash at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

damp and dry
burnt and buried
wood is given
we do not make it
in air it cracks
in fire it burns
in water floats
in earth returns

These words by David Nash contain the essence of his work as a sculptor: creating pieces, always in wood, shaping  living trees or carving ones that have died naturally or been felled for other purposes. His large wood sculptures are sometimes partially burned to produce blackening. His main tools are chainsaw, axe and blowtorch.  Some works are planned as ‘growing’ works to change organically over time – others as ‘disappearing’ works that will erode and decay.

Yesterday three of us visited the large David Nash exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that presents new work – some of it monumental – as well as providing a definitive overview of his 40-year career.  It’s a magnificent and inspiring exhibition that is worth travelling some distance to see, because photographs can’t really capture the power and intensity of  these pieces. It’s on until January.

In the Gallery Gardens are a number of works created especially for this exhibition, situated alongside pieces of raw wood.  Chinese Irons (above) is a set of metal menhirs,  while Two Sliced Cedars (below) is a charred oak work.

Red Column (above) was carved at YSP from a large trunk of redwood sourced in California, and reminded me of  a totem pole from the same region.  The YSP exhibition guide states:

Red Column continues Nash’s interest in working with the vertical growth of a tree, in connecting earth and sky through root and branch, and relates to Constantin Brancusi’s famous 1938 sculpture Endless Column.  Nash … was inspired by his work as a student.

Nash’s pieces explore the different properties of wood as a material, something made apparent in the displays in the Underground Gallery.  The first sight that greets the visitor in room one is the dramatic weight and form of Oculus Block:

‘a stunning statement of Nash’s confidence in the language of his material and we are immediately confronted by the volume and density of the eucalyptus wood, its smell and texture. Oculus is Latin for eye but is used in this case to refer to a hole that runs down the centre of the piece. The wood cut from the sculpture is arranged against the walls, setting up a kind of rhythm between the centre and edges of the space. David Nash sourced the wood for Oculus Block in Northern California. He carved it there in a woodyard before it was sent to YSP by sea.’

Nash began to use the unseasoned wood of whole tree trunks and limbs after rediscovering forgotten pieces of timber that had continued to change without his intervention.  This approach celebrates his chosen material as it continues to dry, warp and crack, and change in appearance long after he has finished shaping it.

The massive size of Oculus Block suggests a mighty torso that has just sucked in a tremendous draught of air. Its shoulders bulge, it is bursting with power. And when we know that it is eucalyptus, one of the world’s most flammable trees, we understand it also contains incendiary power, a kind of compilation of all the roaring eucalyptus that have burned Australia in recent years. Once, walking in the Blue Mountains eucalypt forests with a fire-fighter friend, I learned that these trees also defy classification, their wild genetics producing new species every year. The resin-rich bark is very beautiful, a mottled skin of greys and tans, shaggy and peeling.
– Annie Proulx

The large, central space of the Underground Gallery contains several important sculptures, many from the artist’s own collection, which relate to each other.  These include Two Vessels (top, foreground), Red Dome (centre) and King and Queen in charred oak (bottom, centre right) and Crag and Cave (right, foreground), made from the crown of a giant yew tree, probably about 1500 years old, which Nash found neglected in a woodyard.

The next room features the striking Millennium Book (2000), two slabs of carved and charred timber with a grid of cut lines, bound together with rusty hinges.  It was made to mark the end of the twentieth century, which Nash felt had been doom-laden; its title “might refer to the wisdom that we had accrued, and possibly lost, as a species in that time”.

A further room documents all of the works created by Nash on his own woodland in North Wales, in particular Ash Dome: an example of a ‘growing’ work, a ring of ash trees he planted in 1977 and trained to form a domed shape. The dome is sited at a secret location somewhere in Snowdonia and whenever it’s filmed, crews are taken there by a circuitous route to guard its security. His planting of twenty two ash trees has committed him to more than thirty years of care, training and pruning and echoes his belief that he begins the works but they are completed by time and circumstance. Nash continues to maintain the Dome and records its changes in different contexts through drawing and photographs displayed here.

In the Bothy Gallery there’s a display and a film made by Nash of the most celebrated of his ‘disappearing’ works – Wooden Boulder, begun in 1978. This work involves the journey of a large wooden sphere down a Welsh mountain stream to the sea.

In Wildwood, Roger Deakin wrote:

If Ash Dome is about putting down roots, Wooden Boulder is an equally radical work about letting go.  It is adventurous in every sense, a great gesture of liberation in which Nash has surrendered his work to nature and the elements and set no limits.  In the summer of 1978 he heard of a great oak that had recently been felled directly uphill …Working the tree where it lay over a two-year period, Nash carved a dozen or more sculptures from it.  The first of these, a giant oak ball three feet in diameter, was originally intended to go into the studio…Nash had the idea of using the nearby stream … to carry the half-ton sphere down…Nash realised it was an opportunity…that would transform the work by enabling him to release it back into nature: to shed it like a leaf.  He would let it go its own way and be a rock in a stream, with water playing about it, freezing to it, papering it with autumn leaves.  From that moment on it became Wooden Boulder, a new kind of work with its own independent life, its own story and the sculptor as its biographer.

Over the years, the boulder has slipped, rolled and sometimes forced by flood through the landscape, following the course of stream and river until it was last seen in the estuary of the river Dwyryd. It may have been washed out to sea or buried in sand in the estuary.

‘It is an important part of the Wooden Boulder story that its material formed on the hill from the elements and minerals of that particular place.  The boulder’s origins go back to the tree as a sapling 200 years ago.’
– David Nash

Next, we took the gallery shuttle to Longside Gallery where pieces from David Nash’s own collection, the ‘congregation’ from the chapel at Capel Rhiw in Blaenau Ffestiniog have taken residence for the year. The arrangement of the pieces in the gallery is designed to recreate the atmosphere of Capel Rhiw (lower photo).

Roger Deakin wrote memorably about a visit to Capel Rhiw in Wildwood:

‘Capel Rhiw, the Victorian Methodist chapel where david Nash lives and works, stands almost grandly in  a row of slate miners’ cottages on the outskirts of the town.  There were once 18,000 people and twenty-six chapels in this Welsh Machu Picchu. […]

I step inside to a surprising burst of pagan colour: the warm glow of wood.  It is a beautiful, uplifting building with little nuggets of primary colour in the stained-glass friezes of its high windows that beam down blue, yellow and red.  I shall not forget the sheer drama of the exuberant throng of Nash’s work that fills the tiered space, literally to the lofty ceiling.  Moving through the chapel, I mingle with the wooden multitude, ‘the congregation’, as Nash calls it.  It is like meeting the family, an unusually big one, exciting and daunting at the same time: impossible to remember all their names, only a general impression that you want to get to know them much better one by one in due course.’

The Longside Gallery exhibits are engrossing, revealing the many ways in which Nash works the different woods, and the processes which he leaves to take their course, to warp and crack the green wood.  I found Standing Frame particularly interesting: a huge timber has been sliced and sawed, revealing how planks or boat hulls can emerge from the chrysalis of the wood.

‘I start with people’s familiarity with wood, through doors, floors, tables and domestic items. Most people are aware of how trees change during the seasons. The material is embedded into our daily lives. Then I enter into the deep history of trees and their culture. But I try to touch the wood as little as possible. I’m not interested in over-carving, polishing and craft. I don’t mind splinters, and I want it to crack. Trees stand for me as a threshold into the huge world of the environment.’
– David Nash, RA Magazine Summer 2010

Annie Proulx writes:

‘For me the most compelling attribute of David Nash’s work is this element of change. Unlike other artists he seems not interested in the static sculpture. The preservation and conservation of a petrified forest are not part of his style. Because he uses raw, uncured, untreated wood, change is inevitable. Wood splits, cracks, warps, opens fissures, changes colour, displays its knots and swellings, flaunts a grain, succumbs to fungal and microbial growths, to natural chemistries and mineralisation, softens and loses bits of itself, decays. Everything in the world moves toward decay…’

Here you can follow the ideas present in his work and see how each idea has inspired another. This is illustrated beautifully in the large-scale drawings of The Family Tree where the genealogy of each idea can be followed backwards and forwards through time:

If anyone looks at my work as a whole, it is a bit like a tree, there are different branches and different themes but there are cross references to them. Each new branch of forms feeds back into the central trunk of the tree.

Here, also is a very different kind of work:  Nash created An Awful Falling 9.11 in 2001 after seeing images and film footage of the attacks on the Twin Towers, New York. It was not his intention to make a work in response, the exhibition notes inform, but he realised that a piece of beech he was developing looked ‘hauntingly like’ one of the images he had seen of the aftermath. The installation is displayed on its own as Nash sees it as separate from the evolution of his own practice, being a direct reference to global events. In his career Nash strives to make positive interventions in his environment, to work with natural processes and to develop a practice that both attempts to make sense of, and also celebrates, the world around us and our place within it. His career is inspired by the lived experience, including the tragic, the profound, and the gently humorous.

Outside is Trunk & Butt (above), another monumental work of charred elm and redwood, looking back across the valley to Bretton Hall and the YSP Centre.  The pieces were charred on site: there’s an account of the slightly hair-raising process here on Culture Colony.

For some years now British landscape artists such as Goldsworthy, David Nash and Richard Long have been looked down upon by many in the art establishment. They have been regarded, despite their wide appeal and international success, as latter-day 1960s renegades, too metaphysical, too intense, too lyrical and unapologetically moral. This is an age that is more comfortable with cynicism than with the stench of dung and death. Yet never has there been a time when these artists’ work was more resonant, as the planet warms and old landscapes are destroyed. There is something inspirational in Goldsworthy’s devotion to the skills of handling wood and stone, to the crafts of stonewalling and forestry that are rapidly dying out in rural life. He deals with the big questions: those of mortality, memory, history and our place in the fast-disappearing natural world.
– Sue Hubbard, New Statesman, April 2007

‘I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.’
– David Nash

‘Once I am installed with all my equipment and the sawdust starts to fly, a dynamic chain of possibilities begins to reveal itself.  The tree becomes a vein of material which I can excavate, the site becomes a quarry, vibrant with sawdust, big wood shapes, offcuts, branches, and the working tools – saws, levers, chain hoist, winch: a wood quarry.’
– David Nash