Updated: Jan 7
an Ulu and a whalebone
I had to explain recently about how I started using an axe in my work.
I was making sculptural paintings in the summer of 2016 on blocks of rough Oak - responding to the marks and grain already in the wood - my work always feels like a conversation - listening to the wood itself, trying to hear the story, geographies of place, sunlight...
I wanted to find a way to work on more than the surface - to go deeper and make my own marks, to 'draw' on and in the wood. When you trace things back it's easier to see the links, several things happened; A studio visit from David Nash, the gift of a piece of wood to work on, cut with his chainsaw marks and a question about a return to sculpture.
A rousing message from a friend, to her female friends, in the light of the then political situation talking about 'a call to arms' and a sense of urgency and energy.
My own life was on the edge of a difficult transition. I went to Scotland and found myself wandering in that pleasing, aimless, lost and found way
in an unknown city, without a phone, happily unmoored.
I covered that city and its periphery, walking all day each day, walking out the difficulties laying it out and seeing everything under a more Northern light.
At some point I found myself in museum. I used to build reconstruction Saxon and Bronze Age buildings, working from the archaeological record, recreating them using traditional tools which we made ourselves. I learnt to thatch and use and Adze and an Axe, to make dye from plants, to tan hides and make bramble string. We cut the wood we needed for the buildings choosing the trees. Everything was created as it would have been. Museums have always been a place of eight and wonder. I feel a sense of connection with the object presence and the stories behind artefacts. I can clearly see the people and practices.
I was drawn to two things in the museum - a slate Ulu (an Inuit woman's knife - used for everything - as a weapon, for skinning, cutting food to cutting a child's hair) and a whalebone. First I saw the whale bone, huge, beautiful, emanating such loud silence. I found myself standing in front of it magnetised. Struck dumb by its size and presence. The label told me it was from the Banda sea ( somewhere I had never heard of - sounding to me like a place from an Edward Lear poem). On a small part of the bone of were some cut marks, I read them as a drawing but it wasn't Scrimshaw, they looked like a story but were possibly from butchery, small, but strangely compelling and beautiful. The story they told - an immense old story within just a few marks - encompassed beauty and terror, seas and time and the great gentleness of Whales and the great violence of humanity, survival, ritual, and also the connection between hunter and prey. I was transported in that moment in front of that Whale bone. The contrast of the knowledge of the violence inherent in their being there, set against the beauty of how they were, if seen as a drawing, black on white, answered my question about how to mark the wood, the journey the work might take and something of the story I might tell.
A call to arms and a question of balance - holding a paradox - the tension of opposites.
Matter - both solid and also points of light and empty space. Beauty and violence, black on white, strength and vulnerabilty, masculine and feminine.
I'm a sculptor by training, a lover of trees and wood and fires - I'm familiar with using an axe - so it felt good to bring it into my art practice.
The image is a copy of the marks on the bone which I sketched at the time - translated onto an Oak block, with its own cuts and marks. They suddenly together seemed to me reminiscent of cave drawings - I saw people in boats hunting, some circular process, relational being, stories, translations, connection - deep listening to some resonance of matter.