Improvisation and carving

EbonyTowerJohn Fowles’ short story The Ebony Tower introduces Henry Breasley, a veteran painter talking to his future biographer David Williams who happens to be a young, conceptual artist:

‘My dear boy. Painted to paint. All my life. Not to give clever young buggers like you the chance to show off. Don’t care a fart in hell where my ideas come from. Never have. Let it happen. That’s all. Couldn’t even tell you how it starts. What half it means. Don’t want to know.’ He nodded back at the Braque. ‘Old George had a phrase. Trop de racine. Yes? Too much root. Origin. Past. Not the flower. The now. Thing on the wall. Faut couper la racine. Cut the root off.’

Art will always be elusive and irrational and this excerpt helps bring us to our senses in the current concept-laden climate. I believe in Breasley, and I want to believe in the Braque quote too. David’s actions in the story (I won’t spoil the plot) are a metaphor for his refusal to take the existential chance in his art the way Breasley does; the outcome a mirror for his ‘safe’ choice of abstractionism.

Breasley says he is purely interested in the visual as it happens; but examining some of the elements created is interesting. A finished sculpture is often puzzling, and a regular haunt for contemplation thereafter. The imagery exists and its ambiguity forces one on into further carvings. One knows they are inextricably linked to one’s self – but wonders quite how they fit in.

Charmer has just been acquired by Surrey University’s art collection. It happened to be a work which was photographed throughout its development as I wanted to have a record for students who were attending a course on carving without pre-conceived ideas, to contrast their own experience of making small models and then translating these into the stone which is for me,  a mind-numbing process akin to working on the chain gang.

The images below present the (odd) prompts used for improvisation well, on a block donated by chance. I had no decision as to its size or proportion, just a blind acceptance.  As an exploration of not pre-conceiving the direction of working, the slate slab was started as a lettered plaque, the first H being suggested randomly by my son and other consonants provided by others through a question posted on Facebook.

A need for English language meant allowing a free choice of vowels from the sculptor. As the first word ‘horn’ thus emerged, this route of random suggestion suddenly appeared extremely limiting and incredibly pathetic, as the result would be less visual art than an exercise in semi-automatic writing. It had, however, resulted in material being removed from the block, which must always be viewed as positive progress towards the finished carving or hard-won pile of chippings.

The first created word saw some association for a five year old, who linked it to a first drawing of a giraffe – presumably from the association with the fluffy nodules on the head of that animal. A second attempt had more rhythm and this triggered its being adapted to the surface of the slab without much thought from me. What followed was some exploration of the surface of the remainder of the slab, exploiting lines of weakness and marks various.

I suppose that there must be some form of subconscious resolving going on, as new scribed lines unite some marks and exclude others, as forms start to emerge. The process is important in that nothing is planned. As long as something is removed, possibility will come at some point; a heightened response that begins to lead the carving into some form of visual order, whatever that may mean.

Click on the first image for annotated slide show:


So what can be concluded? For me, improvisation seems to result in stronger and more interesting imagery than that I might conceive consciously. It also gives a limitless framework for continuing, wondering just what might emerge next.

The Ebony Tower book (and film with Laurence Oliver) click here

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