Resculpting nature's towers

"Nature's tower is the tree," is announced on a drawing in David Nash's room in Grizedale Forest. It was placed and hung where a hundred years earlier an embroidered text might have read "God Bless this House." That room was filled with clusters of drawings and sculptures.

David Nash is primarily a sculptor though he looks like and has the knowledge of a forester.

He has written: "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 on old wood!"

He is not only aware of the various uses of different woods but of the powers and functions of trees which are unseen. Trees are fountains; they precipitate rainfall. Trees are drains, sponging up water from the ground around their roots. They are the preservers of fertile land against the ravages of erosion. They are also moderators of temperature, shading from hot sun and protecting from severe frost. The list could go on but what is important is the realization that we are dealing with a sculptor who really does know his medium.

David Nash has made a gradual progression from the use of regular woodmill wood to greenwood and now he uses the tree itself. From each tree's unique character he tempts out his sculptures.

I am sure most of us have seen in trees gnarled faces, and in their branches long, twisting fingers. Some of us have seen them as dancers, deer, giants, cadavers, monuments, caverns and dragons. They can point at us uncannily or they can dance as prettily as nautch girls. Their variation of character within their population is just as great as ours.

In his sculpture, David Nash isolates the particular property or feeling of a tree and adds his own ideas which seem to have grown alongside the tree. Shaping and sawing are generally only a small part of the finished work; much more important is the original selection.

"Apple Table" (1979) is a good example of his work. The branch legs are reversed and point downwards like gawkish spider crabs. They are poised in an upward stretch to maintain the rough platform of the table. The left leg, sawn on one side, shows white grained wood like the throat of a lizard.

Another aspect of David Nash's work lies in the sculptures he is slowly making with living trees. In 1977 in Maenwrog, North Wales, he planted a circle of young ash trees. They will be fletched over three times at ten year intervals and then left alone to form a thirty foot dome. David describes it as "A silver structure in Winter, a green canopy space in Summer, a volcano of living energy." In Grizedale Forest, Cumbria, he planted a larch enclosure on a slope. The trees are planted at a sixty degree angle radiating from the centre so that when they are released from their stakes they will appear to be sweeping past down the slope.

Necessarily these projects will take many years. Again David Nash has accepted the dictates of his medium. The tree grows slowly and steadily so these sculptures must grow slowly and steadily.

In one respect David Nash has made me more intolerant. More intolerant of over-finished woodwork, of all that over-clever craftsmanship which trips up the craftsman with his own eloquence as he tries hard to cover up the fact that wood comes from a tree. Now, when I'm confronted with highly-polished, sleek, stained and ornately disguised wood, I long for a rough table and the dull piquant smell of fresh-cut wood.

In all art there is a very present danger; that is to become so obsessed by skill that we forget the tools and the medium in an effort to prove our cleverness. Many wood sculptors and craftsmen are in danger of this. David Nash is polarizing the opposite point of view. He has gone where the trees have led him adding only his enthusiastic, imaginative spirit and his growing understanding of "nature's towers."

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