Hearts of Oak
I am always fascinated to see where artists work, it tells you so much about them and the arts they create. I must admit I wasn’t quite prepared, clothes wise when I first met Alison Crowther in 2005.
Travelling down the winding narrow lanes into the depths of the West Sussex countryside my directions showed me I would soon be there! There happened to be an ancient timber framed barn, surrounded by fields with a huge felled tree outside.
Hearing my approach Alison poked her head out of the huge barn doors and called over. I was woefully under dressed for the conditions inside Alison’s studio.
The majestic barn was stacked with huge sections of oak ready to be worked, whilst others were in the process of transformation nestling on top of piles of wood shavings but it was freezing how can a carver work with her hands in such cold weather! Clearly I was getting soft in my old age. I had come to talk about a small project I was undertaking for the are RHS Garden at Wisley. I wanted a seat but not just any seat, I wanted Alison to create something more sculptural and organic in shape and form.
Since then, I have been lucky enough to work with Alison again and enjoyed a return visit last week to see her latest works and discuss her new exhibition. Alison specialises in using unseasoned English oak and some of her work is enormous whilst others you can simply hold in the palm of your hand. Each is unlike the next as the timber Alison selects quite literally dictates the direction in which the trademark lines and folds within her carving takes. The medullary rays which are the golden lines within the oak timber and grain are the integral features within the wood. The textured surface is following the flow and movement allowing the finished work to be caressingly tactile.
The process for a new commission starts with Alison drawing sketches of a design that she wants to achieve. She will then make drawings to scale and very often make a maquette to see how the scale works within the space that the piece has been designed for. A template will then be made out of plywood and this will give an outline for the design which can be held up against the piece of timber to see how it works in relation to it. Using the template Alison will then firstly take a chainsaw and carefully start to remove layers of the wood, in this process she is constantly measuring and checking to make sure that not too much of the wood is removed.
Once this is done, power tools will refine the shape to give it a more finished quality to the surface. This allows her to see the start of the grain, the colour and tone of the wood. This is a crucial part of the process as once the grain and the medullary rays start to appear she can then start drawing by hand her design which will follow the natural faults and lines to create the overall sculpted surface.
It’s only then can the timber can come inside and start to be painstakingly carved by hand. Alison explains that the need for low temperatures is crucial as she is working with unseasoned oak that will dry out too quickly if brought into a warm and dry environment and it will increase the amount of cracking that will occur to the overall piece. These cracks are a natural part of the oak’s character but Alison wants to control the process and allow the wood to relax. She makes sure that the tree is felled in the winter months so that the sap hasn’t risen into the timber as it would do in the spring. This is essential for a good finished result.
The majority of the timber is sourced locally, each having an FSC number telling her that it was legitimately felled from a well managed and sustainable source. One such tree came from the Leconfield Estate near Petworth where a tree had started to drop limbs and become a danger. The tree couldn’t be used for planking as the Estate Manager knew there were nails in the tree which stretched back decades. Alison loves it when she can exploit such a fault, for the character of the timber will change around a nail wound or a rotten limb causing discolouration and the way in which the grain is formed around this area. It’s these little nuances that really make the difference to each piece that she works. The inspiration behind the designs for her abstract forms comes from nature and the landscape in which she lives, within the South Downs National Park.
These sculptural pieces are for sale – price on application
Alison’s work is contemporary whilst feeling reassuringly traditional and permanent, working beautifully within the landscape they find themselves. Much of her work is commissioned for outdoors but the process doesn’t finish when she stops carving. As the oak is unseasoned the timber continues to change and weather for several years yet. The golden shades start to change and the silver-down process begins, which only oak can do so wonderfully. Whilst her indoor work isn’t exposed to the elements and it remains a golden nutty colour. I do so hate it when an artist clearly has created a tactile piece of work and you are not allowed to touch. Its like walking into a Parisian cake shop and being told you are suddenly on a diet – it’s hell! Fortunately with Alison you are positively encouraged to touch the folds and undulations that scroll around the finished surface.
Alison has sheer brilliance in what she creates and her reputation as an innovative sculptor and furniture maker goes before her, with some very substantial commissions along the way. The Lovers Seat for the 12th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth,The Rolling Benches for the Rothschild’s Foundation at Waddersdon and commercial clients such as the Shangri-La hotel at The Shard. Her work has been exported to China and Hong Kong and she has many private clients in Europe and the USA.
Smaller pieces available for sale at Alison’s exhibition
Nearer to home Alison’s latest exhibition ‘Hearts Of Oak’ is being held at Bedales School in the Bedales Gallery near Petersfield, Hampshire. She is brought together 50 of her smaller pieces of work to celebrate her 50th year. The exhibition runs until the 5th December and is a unique opportunity to see so much of her work in one gallery.
Mon -Fri 2-5pm, Sat 10am -1pm. Closed Sat 21st November
Her works at the exhibition are for sale in the gallery and larger commissions can be discussed directly with Alison at www.alisoncrowther.com