You get the feeling, when you talk to David Nash, the internationally respected Anglo-Welsh sculptor and land artist, that he really loves his primary material, wood.
In October the Towner in Eastbourne is showing a retrospective of his career, 200 Seasons at Capel Rhiw, an indoor forest of his raw abstract sculptures, in all their charred, chipped and chain-sawed glory. The exhibition celebrates the artist’s long relationship with Wales, where he has been working in his studio – a converted chapel in Blaenau Ffestiniog – for 50 years. He also has strong connections with East Sussex, where he sources much of his wood.
“Every species speaks a different dialect of the language of wood,” he tells me, over a glass of elderflower cordial, on a hot July afternoon. “Each has its different qualities. Oak has longevity, birch has a short life. Holly is so dense and white they use it to make piano keys. Elm doesn’t split, but it can smell funny. In fact, it can smell like dog shit. I had to remove a sculpture from an exhibition once, because everyone was looking at the soles of their shoes.”
Another sculpture that had to be taken away, for a different reason, was Big Bud, a four-metre-high, 6-ton oaken carving that was briefly on show, in Grange Gardens, as part of his 2007 With the Grain exhibition, in Lewes Town Hall. “It was vandalised,” he says, “and we had to put a fence round it, and a guard, with a dog. It became too much bother, so we removed it. My wife didn’t like it anyway.”
Nash has utmost respect for his materials. He would never kill a healthy tree, to make a sculpture. “I only work from dying, or dead trees, or ones that have fallen, or become dangerous. After a storm, people ring me up about a fallen tree; if they’re any good I go and quarry them.”
Wooden Boulder was a case in point. In 1977 he was alerted to the fact that an oak had fallen on a hillside of the Ffestiniog Valley, in North Wales. He hewed out a huge, asymmetrical, half-ton lump, and attempted to work it down a stream, so he could take it in his truck to his studio/home at Capel Rhiw. It got lodged in a waterfall, and he chose to leave it there, visiting it regularly to see how it changed, through the seasons. Over the next 25 years, rainstorms moved it down the stream to the estuary below and it disappeared, presumably washed out into the Irish sea.
“I never thought I’d see it again,” he smiles. “Then, ten years later, in 2013, it mysteriously reappeared, in the same estuary. It was like a lap of honour.” Two years later, it disappeared anew. “I doubt I shall ever see it again,” he says, “but it’s still somewhere, it’s just out of sight. No energy dissipates.”
Image: Branch Frame, David Nash, 1996
28 Sep-2nd Feb 2020, free entry