Issue Number: 107
David Nash RA has long put environmental concerns at the forefront of his art. Now the artist famous for working in wood takes Richard Cork on a tour of work in progress for his show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
David Nash RA stands alongside Rough Elm Sphere, 2010, which will be charred, then displayed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photograph by Jonty Wilde
Dressed in a robust jacket covered in sawdust, David Nash RA looks ready for action. I meet him on an astonishingly sunny March day at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where he is busy preparing for the largest exhibition of his 40-year career. It is a retrospective survey of Nash’s achievements that also includes new, large-scale works and an ambitious site-specific commission in the landscape. So when he greets me, outside the park’s Longside workshop with its beguiling and extensive prospect down over the epic sweep of this historic parkland designed by Capability Brown, Nash has a purposeful air.
Gesturing towards some monumental pieces of wood on the ground nearby, he explains with relish: ‘We’re going to burn these two at the exhibition opening, on the edge of Longside with the panoramic view beyond.’ It sounds like a spectacular event, but there is nothing arbitrary about Nash’s decision to inaugurate his show with flames. Charring wood has been a central activity in his art for many years, and he is fascinated by the transformations that it makes. Changing the wood surface to carbon makes it strangely removed from the world and, inevitably, bound up with the unfathomable mysteries of mortality.
Even so, burning is only a part of Nash’s work. As a sculptor he is deeply involved with every aspect of unseasoned wood (wood with the sap) and extensive cracking occurs after the cutting is complete. But he welcomes the wood’s unpredictable changes. It is his chosen material, and he has long been preoccupied with direct carving. ‘I let the idea come from the wood,’ he says, ‘and through experience, the characteristics of the wood are incorporated into the form.’ At the same time, he never lets his profound respect for the innate character of wood dictate the final identity of his work. Instead, he introduces fundamental geometry, carving with vertical, horizontal and diagonal cuts.
As soon as he starts to take me on a tour of the work in progress, his close and passionate concern with wood becomes clear. Pointing at a mighty piece lying expectantly on the ground, he tells me: ‘It died in the 1980s during the big elm disease epidemic, and stood standing in a field until three years ago, when it fell over. It was unusually large for a European tree.’ Nash then leads me over to an enormous sheet of green plastic, lifts it up and reveals an extraordinary lump of eucalyptus. ‘It’s from northern California, a four-in-one, incredibly dense and tactile wood. It will stand up like a big table in one of the galleries, and its four trunks are all growing out of one root, like quadruplets.’ Guiding me to the other end of this fascinating object, he declares, ‘It’s one of the heaviest woods in the world. And it’s visceral and raw. I’m really into the meatiness of wood, the gutsiness of the material.’
Nash at work on Red Column, 2010, at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photograph by Jonty Wilde
Nash’s engagement with wood has defined his entire career and, at the age of 65, he shows no sign of losing this excitement with his chosen material. Taking me towards an orange cherry picker, he invites me to climb on board and journey up the side of a commanding 20ft-high Californian redwood sculpture called Red Column. ‘I’ve been cutting off the sapwood, which is white, to get to the red heartwood,’ Nash says. ‘Then the surface oxidizes in the open air and goes dark red.’ Although our cherry picker bears the brand name Horizon, it provides a startlingly vertical experience once Nash sets the machine in motion. Ascending to the summit of Red Column, he shows me his ‘small saw’ and explains: ‘Most of the big cuts were done last week with a much bigger saw, getting my form. Once I’ve got the saw in, I’m not noticing much else. It’s a very durable wood, resisting fungus. The bark is like asbestos, so it resists forest fires. But paradoxically, it’s very easy to cut.’
Nash’s animated arms and hands carve energetically through space as he talks. Our cherry picker shakes as we reach the top of Red Column. But Nash seems thoroughly at home up here and grins when he presses a button in order to bring us swiftly back down to the ground with a bump. By now my coat is covered with wood dust, so the no-nonsense Nash blows it off me with a compressed air hose. Looking back at Red Column, which he plans to install in front of a yew hedge, I realise all over again how much Brancusi must have meant to him.
Nash has never forgotten visiting Brancusi’s studio in Paris in his teens. The idea that a sculptor could live in the place where he worked, surrounded by some of his finest pieces, inspired Nash to acquire a Victorian chapel in Blaenau Ffestiniog, north Wales. The year was 1968, and the 23-year-old sculptor paid little more than £200 for Capel Rhiw. Most of the other chapels in Blaenau Ffestiniog had been demolished during its severe economic depression, so Nash was lucky to acquire the disused building. Although he grew up in southern England, family holidays spent in the Vale of Ffestiniog ignited his imagination. Like his distant relative Paul Nash, who drew inspiration from ‘the spirit of place’, he was captivated by the Vale’s powerful landscape. And since 1968 he has gradually been able to fill Capel Rhiw’s lofty and luminous interior with a selection of his finest carvings. Many will be brought to Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the exhibition: ‘It will leave my chapel at Blaenau almost empty – we’re going to strengthen the floor while they’re gone.’
But one of Nash’s most impressive and widely hailed works can never be moved anywhere. Further down the Vale of Ffestiniog, where he stayed with his grandfather as a child, are four acres of prime Welsh woodland surrounded by grand, dome-like hills. Having inherited this terrain, Nash decided to plant 22 ash trees there in the late-1970s. He chose ash because it is a very resilient tree, forever contorting itself in order to seek the light. And over the decades, with the help of careful pruning, and splashing of faux fox’s urine to keep the bark-stripping squirrels away, Nash has made Ash Dome grow into an impressive natural sculpture that echoes the forms of the encircling hills.
Nash loves working with wood. ‘There’s a profound wisdom there, stretching over millennia,’ he tells me. ‘I take my cue from what the material suggests to me. And this exhibition will reveal 40 years of my research. I am a researcher into the science and anthropology of trees and the wood they produce. For every culture and civilisation, wood is a fundamental survival material for building, defending, cooking and so much more. I’m also a maker of objects that are motivated by an idea, an attitude of a healthy relationship with our outer skin, the environment.’
When Nash mentions the word ‘elemental’, I ask him what he means. ‘In air wood cracks, in water wood floats, in fire wood burns, and in earth wood rots,’ he says. ‘Wood is elemental: it naturally grows out of the elements, and engages with them. I only use wood that becomes naturally available through death and natural causes, such as storms.’ Does he have a favourite wood to work with? ‘Well, the gamut is whatever is available locally. In Europe it is oak, beech, birch, ash and elm when I can get it. The work
I am submitting to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Raw Elm Frame is
from the same giant elm as Rough Elm Sphere that I have been carving for the Yorkshire show.’
He takes me over to witness another highly dramatic spectacle: two assistants charring wood over an immense, vigorous fire. Then another man climbs into a forklift truck, drives it over to the fire, plucks out a charred, smoking block and presents it to a fellow assistant, who sprays it with water. As Nash explains, the wood is ready now to ‘have the heavy char scraped off, so that its surface is perfect for propane burning, which creates a much tighter texture.’ And as he speaks, I watch a man activate a propane torch with a flinty old lighter.
Just how important the charring process will be this summer grows clear when Nash talks about his permanent, site-specific commission in Yorkshire Sculpture Park. ‘This is the flight of steps leading up Oxley Bank,’ he says, referring to the wooded hillside rising from the lake. ‘We are replacing the original steps that were worn and rotted. So I’ve chosen this as an appropriate outdoor location, and they are delighted here at the Sculpture Park because they have been wanting to do this for ages!’ Nash shows me some of the new steps, and explains: ‘Instead of putting soil in between them, I’m using coal: underneath the park are extensive coal mines, but there is no trace of them apart from the occasional subsidence in this “sublime” Capability Brown landscape.’
When I ask Nash what he hopes the show will achieve, he stresses: ‘It’s got to be accessible and welcome visitors into it. 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 Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, 01924 832 631, www.ysp.co.uk, 29 May–27 Feb, 2011 David Nash Annely Juda, London, 020 7629 7578, www.annelyjudafineart.co.uk, 16 Sep–23 Oct. See Events for an RA Summer Exhibition lecture by David Nash RA on 8 July