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Thursday 28 March 2013

Visiting Joachim Seitfudem's 'Zeitgeist' exhibition: a contemporary twist from a background of traditional Bavarian woodcarving

Today I visited an exhibition at a small pop-up gallery on College Green in Bristol called 'Zeitgeist'.
The exhibitor, Joachim Seitfudem, is a woodcarver from Bavaria who is now living in Bristol and whose father, Hans-Joachim Seitfudem, is a well-respected master carver in the Bavarian tradition.

It was very interesting talking to Joachim about how his father encouraged his carving from an early age. A lot of the woodcarving from that area depicts religious subjects, which isn't surprising when you consider that one of the main towns near the place that he grew up in is Oberammergau, famed for it's Christian passion plays (theatre re-enacting the suffering and death of Jesus).

A work in progress in the corner of the exhibition

In Britain, the religious upheavals following the Reformation during the 16th and 17th centuries mean that there isn't a continuous heritage of ecclesiastical carving. A lot of older church carvings were also deliberately destroyed by the Puritans, in their general campaign to make the country a more 'pious', drabber and more boring place. How many carvers must have lost their livelihoods or gone abroad in those times, when regular carving work must have been hard to find?

It's interesting to see, as a woodcarver, how the carving tradition is followed in areas like Bavaria or Austria which weren't subject to the same kind of disruptions as those experienced here. Joachim said that his father encouraged his carving from an early age, giving him exercises like carving a piece using only one gouge and sometimes destroying his son's pieces that weren't up to scratch (sounds brutal, but you certainly wouldn't make the same mistakes twice!) Some of these early exercises are on show in the corner of the gallery.

Carving figures in deep relief inside a piece of wood, surrounded by a 'frame' of unworked wood, seems to be feature of a lot of Hans-Joachim's work, although he also produces a lot of beautiful works in the round. Some of his son Joachim's early studies, like those shown above, also show this presentation style. 

All of the carvings in the exhibition are executed in linden, or lime, wood (Tilia sp.) More recent work by Joachim in the exhibition combines  the woodcarvings with found objects, mainly clock parts or pieces of bog oak, to make artworks with a much more contemporary feel to them. It can sometimes be hard to get metal and wood to work well together, but the old brass clock mechanisms work well with the lime wood. For some reason patinated, old metal often seems to work better visually with wood than shiny new metal to my eyes. The carvings show how Joachim's father's teaching and his traditional carving background have given him a strong sense of the human form, which the exaggerated musculatures of some of the figures in the more contemporary-styled pieces really display.

If you would like to see the exhibition, it is on until the 2nd April. You can see more of Joachim's work on his website at

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) March 2013

All of these images were taken on the Reykjanes Penninsula, in South-western Iceland, by Sandra Cook.

Images copyright Sandra Cook

Sunday 24 March 2013

Woods and Woodcarving in Iceland - a bit of history and a meeting with Jón Adólf Steinólfsson, Icelandic carver

Before the Vikings came to Iceland, it is thought to have had no permanent settlement (apart from the occasional visit by Irish monks looking for solitude). I was very interested to see how the strong Viking tradition of carving was faring in a country well-known for it's lack of trees.

Carved wood even played an important role in the founding of what would become the capital city, Reykjavik. When Ingólfur Arnarson sailed from Norway to Iceland in AD 870, he looked at the new land and then threw his ship's valuable carved wooden seatposts into the sea, saying that he would settle in the place where they washed up. They were found in an inlet with steam rising from it (from water heated by volcanic activity). That gave the place it's name - 'Reykjavik' means 'Smokey Bay'.

The prow of the Oseberg Viking longship burial, found at Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway and now housed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
Image from

What trees grow in Iceland?

It seems that Iceland wasn't always as treeless as it is today. 

From the fossil record, scientists know that during the Tertiary period (about 5 to 15 million years ago) the climate was much warmer and there were big trees such as Sequoia and large forests of Beech (Fagus spp.) growing.

During the Pliocene (from 5.3 to 2.5 million years ago), the climate had cooled a bit , but there were still huge forests of coniferous trees such as Pine, Larch etc.

All this changed when the land was covered with glacial ice during the Pleistocene (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago). No trees could survive under the huge glaciers which scoured the land. When they retreated, the first tree to recolonise was the tough downy birch (Betula pubescens, shown below) and this is still the most common native Icelandic tree, apart from the uncommonly-found rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and the even rarer aspen (Populus tremula). The tea-leaved willow can also be found, but it is usually more of a shrub than a tree.

Settlers Arrive

Even so, it is thought that when the first settlers arrived about 1140 years ago there were forests covering between 25% and 40% of the land area of Iceland. Some forests were destroyed by volcanic activity, but most trees were cut down to build with and to burn. 

Burning wood was done partly to stay warm and partly to make charcoal, used in iron smelting and working to make vital tools. Grazing sheep stopped the regrowth of the cut trees and so by the middle of the twentieth century, there was less than 1% forest cover in Iceland. This lack of tree cover caused the added problem of increased soil erosion by the wind and rain, in a similar way to that seen when tropical rainforest is cut down.

The centuries preceding the twentieth had been a tough time for Icelanders and many emigrated abroad when international travel was possible in the nineteenth century. One factor in this hardship was a lack of wood to build with, stay warm or even to construct ships to leave in.


At the end of the nineteenth century, people began to organise protection for the remaining areas of birch trees. In the mid-twentieth century, large planting programmes were put in place using suitable introduced species, such as Siberian Larch (Larix sibirica var. sukaczewii). These programmes are still going on today. Even so, most 'forests' in the country still have quite small trees, leading to this Icelandic joke:

"What do you do if you're lost in an Icelandic forest?"

"Stand up!"

(A lot of the information that I've used here came from an interesting article written by Throstur Eysteinsson, division chief of the Iceland Forest Service. You can read the whole thing here:

Meeting Jón Adólf Steinólfsson

One of the high points of our trip was meeting Jón Adólf Steinólfsson and his partner, Karin Esther Gorter.
Jón Adólf is a co-founder of the Society of Icelandic Wood Carvers and the Art Group Einstakir and Karin is an accomplished designer using glass lampworking techniques.

We had a great afternoon chatting about Iceland, carving and fantasy films, which they are both big fans of, amongst many other things. It was very interesting and quite inspiring to discuss carving with them. 
Jón Adólf  has studied in many places, having trained at the Hannes Flosason school of Woodcarving and the Kopavogur Visual Arts College in Iceland, the well-known Geisler Moroder woodcarving school in Austria and at two Italian schools of stonecarving. However, he freely admits that the most important and influential teacher that he has ever worked with is Ian Norbury, the well-known British woodcarver. 

It was very interesting to have a look around Jón Adólf's studio at his current projects and to hear about upcoming ones.

One particularly interesting project will be carving a memorial crucifix to go on a battlefield mentioned in one of the Sagas, the Viking tales which are a hugely important part of Icelandic culture and history.

Although he's still working on lots of carvings in wood, stone carving is also very important. Jón Adólf showed me a piece of obsidian which he is currently carving into a life-size skull for a client. He also mentioned a job which is coming up, carving a 10 metre tall stone giant; part mythical troll and part his own creation.

I asked whether woodcarving is very popular in Iceland. He said that it is, with a lot of retired people taking it up in particular. This seems similar to Britain, where carving clubs often have a lot of older, retired members who can put in the time (and financial investment) that the carving process requires.

I was also interested to find out where the timber used to carve in Iceland comes from. Of course, a lot of it is bought or recycled. Jón Adólf uses a lot of basswood (which is similar to European limewood Tilia sp.) that he can get sent from the USA. 

However, he also makes some very interesting carvings using driftwood found on Iceland's beaches. This timber originated in Siberia, where loggers floated cut trees downriver to be processed. Some logs were inevitably missed and these found their way out to sea, eventually becoming caught in currents, usually after being frozen into Arctic sea ice. When the ice melts, the timber is released and some washes up on Iceland's shores after perhaps over a century at sea. Jón Adólf said that the amount of driftwood that he finds is becoming less and less over the years. It is good to work with, although the salt and sand trapped in the wood can be tough on your carving tools. The pieces below and to the right were carved from driftwood:

During our conversation, Jón Adólf spoke about what an important resource the internet has been for him. Although he doesn't keep a blog, as that kind of writing doesn't really appeal to him, he maintains a website and a social media presence and links them all into each other. This has led to some interesting contacts, at one point a TV crew from Hawaii came to interview him about his work after locating him through the web. Karin is also very involved in the marketing and business side of the work and in maintaining a good online presence.
Another thing that he believes to be very important is networking with other carvers and makers and supporting them in their work.

For the future, Jón Adólf said that he is very interested in investigating blacksmithing and metalworking techniques. It seems appropriate, as carvers are so closely involved with the metal tools that allow them to create their carvings. 

If you would like to see more of Jón Adólf Steinólfsson's work, you can visit his website (which is written in English):

Karin's beautiful glasswork can be seen on her English-language website:

DesignMarch festival of design in Reykjavik

Iceland has a lot of very talented designers and we were lucky to visit Reykjavik during the 'DesignMarch' festival of Icelandic design.

While having a drink at a very relaxed, nice bar called Hemma og Valda on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik, we met Rannveig Gísladóttir, who was showing her 'Fönix' range of  wearable designs made from feathers. They were very colourful and striking. You can see more of her work at:

Image copyright Rannveig Gísladóttir 

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Icelandic street art...Reykjavik

Wandering around Reykjavik, I noticed some great street art about. There has even been a book, called 'Icepick', written about the Icelandic street art scene.
Here's a few of the pieces that can be seen there at the moment:

And finally, the best-placed street CCTV camera that I've ever seen..

Friday 8 March 2013

Wooden stamps for Steve Carter of Saint Werburghs Pottery, to use for embossing ceramics

I've just finished some stamps for a friend of mine, who will use them to emboss designs into clay.

 Steve Carter is a very experienced ceramicist based in Bristol, who runs the 'St Werburghs Pottery'. He loves using stamps carved from boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) to make embossed designs as he says that they don't stick to the clay like stamps made from rubber, plastic or plaster do. They are also a lot sturdier! The boxwood used for the new stamps grew in Gloucestershire, about 24 miles (39 km) from my studio. The older pieces used boxwood that grew near Exeter in Devon.

You can see more about the stamps made previously on my website, by following this link:

Steve reckons that "Plaster of Paris doesn't come close to an Al Park 'Boxwood'".

Here's some that I've made previously for him in the last few years:

The two new ones will be used in producing a line of ceramics for the award-winning St Werburghs City Farm Café in Bristol.

Image from

One has the logo of the St Werburghs City Farm (a crowing cockerel) on it, and the other just says 'City Farm Café'. If you're in Bristol, why not go and have a look at them in the Café itself? The food there is great too.

You can see Steve's website by following this link:

To find more out about the City Farm Cafe, you can go here:

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Building a strawbale urinal at Boiling Wells in St Werburghs

The sun came out yesterday and the temperate reached double figures (hurray!), so it was time to get things moving at the St Werburghs City Farm's Boiling Wells site.

On Tuesdays, I work with four young people doing construction-type projects and have been doing so for a term. They're a good bunch and we get a lot done too! Three have been referred by their schools, whereas the fourth is now at college and volunteers to come down. He told me that since he started his college have been much happier with his work, which is great to hear.

We've worked on a few projects, including making doorframes for the roundhouse and also constructing a new window frame from larch timber (you can see that post here:

The final project has been the biggest though; designing and building a strawbale urinal building from scratch.

For a while now, the only toilets at Boiling Wells have been the compost loos, but these don't really benefit from getting too wet so it's good for some wee to go elsewhere. However, going behind a tree obviously isn't a good option when children are running about the place, as they sometimes are!
There's another reason for the strawbales too. Apparently, urine is a great compost activator, being very nitrogen-rich. I've also read and heard that male urine is better for this than female, but I'm not sure why. Some say it's less acidic but I can't vouch for that. You can read about another place using straw soaked in urine as an activator here:

The group have constructed the building from timber. First, we assembled frames for the wall panels using halving joints. We then fixed on lapboards to clad the wall. The boards at the bottom are thicker to stop people kicking them out.

Then, yesterday, it was time to put it all together! We had help from my friend Simon and managed to get all the walls and the urinal trough made. Next week the roof will be fitted and, hopefully, a screen put in front of the door.

 The urinal works by putting the strawbale in a kind of trough made of thick plastic sheet and open on one side with a space in the wall behind it. People wee on the strawbale and then, when it needs to be changed, the plastic can be lifted up so that the bale rolls out into a space behind the building. It can then be pulled out, put onto an adjacent compost heap and replaced with a fresh bale.

Fixing the panels to the supporting posts 

Putting in noggins to fix the recycled plastic splash guard to

Digging the postholes

Putting the first wall up

Fitting the other walls

 Ready for a strawbale!