John Surplice in Profile
Thursday 14 June 2012
Miriam Bentham visits John Surplice to see his tree sculptures for herself and to find out more about this fascinating work
John Surplice's passion for wood and its many uses is immediately visible in the array of handmade wooden articles in his garden.
From a tall bird feeder, to hollowed-out, oak trunk flowerbeds, a hollowed-out oak bird box, even a free standing piece of oak - secured upright, serving a purely decorative purpose - the enormity of wood's role in John's life is breathtaking.
We have driven to John's house, a detached cottage on the Mottisfont Estate - a National Trust property in Hampshire - to find out more about his wooden sculptures. Made from semi-decayed roots and tree trunks found on the estate, the sculptures can take years to complete. They are stunning forms, revealing nature's geometric patterns in a multitude of organic shapes and wooden rivulets.
John, now retired, worked as a forester for 34 years, so his eye is trained to identify wood that will produce interesting sculptures. He has been collecting tree roots, stumps and trunks for at least 20 years prior to beginning cleaning and carving them. Most of the pieces are oak - a favourite of John's for its beauty and durability. As oak's sapwood slowly rots away, the heartwood hardens, leaving a sound base beneath.
Other pieces are made from wild cherry - prone to bacterial canker - producing smooth, bulbous shapes that create stunning effects on the finished pieces. It is the process of decay that creates the intricate detailing, unique to each piece.
John's favourite sculpture is his yew tree root, which is currently exhibited in a gallery in London."It's so sculptural"Ě, John says. The yew root took three years to complete and is breathtaking.
John estimates he'd been collecting wood for at least 20 years before beginning to carve it. Although he works with a select range of wood, mostly oak, the huge variety of forms the wood can take makes the process of searching for interesting pieces an exciting prospect as well as one requiring a keen eye. The selected timber ranges from 35cm to over 1.5 metres high and the difference between the moss-covered stumps and finished articles is truly astounding; a testament to John's eye for detail and deftness of touch.
The most troublesome part of the process, John says, is removing the harder, inner-layer near to the sound wood; removing the outer layer of decay is far easier. Removing the outer wood takes its toll on the tools; edges blunt easily. This has led to John adapting a number of standard tools to his needs, for instance rounding-over knives, to access the hard to reach areas.
Initially, any debris is removed with a wire brush, then John locates delicate areas that require particular deftness and leaves them until the end, ensuring work on adjacent areas won't damage them.
Carving begins with the internal areas, which are the most difficult parts to work on due to the often limited space surrounding them. Some areas are so obstructed that they can only be reached via a particular angle, which can be problematic for the process.
Although John prefers to use the term 'cleaning' rather than 'carving' to describe what he does to his found-wood, the processes are very similar. As with carving, John works with the grain, removing wood to reveal the patterns that exist beneath the mossy surface. However, working with the grain is not always an option as the direction is continually altering and the sprawling surfaces of the wood, the twists and turns, can be troublesome to reach. In these instances, he must work against the grain, which makes lifting or tearing more likely. By removing too much wood, the organic patterns John aims to reveal can be obscured or destroyed.
Although this method is similar to carving, John never attempts to carve his own forms into the decayed root, merely to follow the form and reveal what has been hidden. When I ask if John has ever undertaken other forms of woodworking, he is quick to say that he doesn't enjoy 'so-called enhancement' work, preferring a 'totally, 100% natural'Ě approach. He used to do some turning, but found it repetitive and limiting. His work on the roots and trunks gives him variety and freedom. In the case of the yew root and oak trunk the only difference between the found wood and the finished article, John says, is that he displays what nature has provided upside down.
I'm hard-pushed to think of anything I've seen that compares to John's work. When asked if any artists inspire it, John prefers to hold nature accountable for the beauty and the breadth of the sculptures. The only comparisons he names are the North American companies importing driftwood to sell for huge sums and garden centres that sandblast and jet-washed wood to be sold for ornamental purposes. But there is something distinctly unnatural about the processes and finishes of these forms of wood-art.
John extends the ethos that protects the natural quality of his work right down to colouring. He doesn't use finishes, preferring the wood's natural colour, especially oak. Even after being bleached by the sun, the oak can take on a very different colour and when he shows me the difference between the two I am inclined to agree. The original colour is deeper and golden; it's truly stunning.
John doesn't use power tools, even when removing the problematic first layer of decayed wood. With his sculptures taking between one and three years to complete, the lack of artificial power used to create the finished roots is startling. Although, in many ways, it is the tactile, time-consuming approach to John's work that makes the end result so impressive. His light touch is partly responsible for the beauty of the pieces. He works hard to avoid leaving knife marks in the wood because the appeal of the sculptures is that their manmade attributes are invisible; like a painter striving to conceal brush strokes.
All these tools are integral to John's work but when pushed to name the one that he could not do without he selects the rounded-off carving knife. For sharpening: a fairly coarse rougher stone and plenty of spit does the job.
John's main obstacle is time and although power tools would perhaps conserve it, they wouldn't produce the same effect hand tools can. Occasionally John uses a compressor to blow out the dust that gets stuck in the fissures from the removed wood. If left for a while, cobwebs form a glue-like tenacity; their fine and sticky quality cocoons the debris, making it difficult to remove. Although the compressor can sometimes be helpful, it often blows the fine dust even deeper into the fissures, confounding John's skilled hands as his most effective tool.
John's workshop is a timber structure in his garden and stands at roughly 12 x 20ft. It remains unchanged since it was built alongside his house in 1937; he attributes the good condition it is in today to having been 'religiously creosoted'Ě all these years.
Even though the workshop is spacious, the sculptures take up so much room that john's current project, a very thick oak trunk, has to be kept outside, tightly covered in tarpaulin to protect it from the elements. The only advantage of it being outside is as John says, "when the evening sun shines, it really brings out the relief".
Accompanying John in his workshop are the sounds of Bach, his golden retriever Molly and, for a time, a family of swallows lived comfortably in the rafters, remaining undisturbed despite intrusions from various photographers who had come to see the sculptures.
Not only does John not use power tools in his work, but the only electricity he uses in his workshop powers the lights, his radio and occasionally a compressor.
John is very environmentally conscious; he says he even worries about making short trips to the wood yard. All wood used by John comes from the local woodland he has worked on for many years. He is quick to add that anyone wanting to take wood must first seek permission of whoever the land belongs to.
He says, ‚Äúthe joy of working on a totally natural form, on a wood that may have taken 100 years to decay is a great feeling; a wonderful link with the earth.‚ÄĚ In this sense John's work is very green. Using found objects that, without John's recognition of their potential would cease to exist, and using minimal electricity - gives a conservational aspect to his work.
John is concerned about the ever-increasing distance between people and the natural world around them: the "disconnect from mother nature." He condemns the human tendency to improve living standards at the expense of the world around us.
The environmental aspect of John‚Äôs tree sculptures is heartening. Those viewing the pieces, are confronted by both the accomplishment of the painstaking delicacy that has transformed them, as well as the complex beauty of the natural world. The sculptures have a humbling quality when compared with the often alienating art of the modern era.
John cites a mixed reaction as the usual effect his work produces. Some people are indifferent and some, John says laughing, believe he has carved the entire piece from a solid block of wood. Most are, however, delighted by the naturally occurring beauty of the pieces.
There is a timelessness and universality to John's work that affords its wide appeal. When looking at close-up photographs, it can be hard to discern whether one is looking at a tree, an aerial view of a mountain range or a piece of coral; the rivulets and fissures take on an otherworldly depth.
John's work has received considerable attention. Whilst his yew sculpture has been exhibited in London for several years, the Abbey on the Mottisfont Estate has also displayed John's work. Several pieces have made the journey to the Bentley Weald Woodfair, where they met a good reception.
John has sold his sculptures to buyers in the UK, Europe and North America. The time scale the sculptures take to complete make it challenging for John to recoup a price representative of his efforts. One difficulty John has is knowing when to stop. He returns to work he has finished several years earlier when new ideas come to him.
His work is all-consuming and John often finds himself in danger of becoming totally obsessed. If he wasn't married, he'd be working all day, everyday. But for now, with Bach playing in the workshop and a glass of wine in hand, his work, he says, is worth living for.