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Wednesday 31 July 2013

Part Two: Making the Metainsectivore. Whittling and carving an imaginary creature based on the HI-MEMS project from found and recycled timbers

Once the idea of a predatory mammal that would eat the 'metainsecta' creatures had been settled on as the subject, it was time to set about making the sculpture.

First of all, sketching out a few ideas on paper helped to give a clearer vision. It allowed me to work out  how the different features such an animal would have evolved for it's lifestyle could come together and also what kind of pose to show it in.

Then, I made a very simple clay model to further settle things in my mind. The model is very different from the final sculpture. but it has a charm of it's own. I think it looks a bit like an aardvark!

With the pose of the animal starting to become more apparent, it was easier to choose a block of wood for the body. I settled on a piece of locally-grown cherry wood. It was the right size and colour and not too strongly grained (which might have interfered with seeing detail). It is also great to carve - it would certainly be in my top three favourite timbers to work on.

Sketching out the form of the sculpture very roughly and directly onto the block showed where to cut away material to get the basic form. I cut some waste away with a bandsaw, but the piece of wood was a little too large and difficult to secure whilst cutting. Instead, roughly shaping with a Holey Galahad seemed a better option.

This tool is a metal disc shaped like half a ring doughnut and covered with small, tough metal spikes. It fits onto a standard angle grinder and spins round, removing timber, with the holes in it allowing the user to see where they are cutting more easily. You need to be careful when using it, but it's a handy tool to have.
You might notice the steel-toed boots, dust mask, safety specs, ear defenders and chainsaw gloves in the photo above. Not taking any chances!

The Galahad roughed out the shape from the block nicely, but then it was time to turn to more traditional carving methods. With the piece still fixed onto a woodcarver's adjustable stand, it came back into the workshop...

The shape of the head, body and the limbs was then carved by hand during the next sessions using traditional gouges and chisels, some over a hundred years old. This process took over 35 hours.

The hands and feet were whittled from apple wood, picked up in the garden of my rented accommodation years ago. I used a four inch long Opinel lock knife, the same one that I taught myself to carve with about nineteen years ago. It is still my favourite carving tool and can achieve some surprisingly delicate work with a bit of practice. 

The colour of the apple wood contrasts nicely with the cherry. It's very different to most apple timber that I've come across before.

Before being fitted, the hands and feet also had their claws glued on with two-part epoxy adhesive. The claws were carved from locally-grown holly using the Opinel and then sanded.

Whilst working on the hands and feet, the muzzle and eyes were also taking shape. The muzzle was whittled with the Opinel from an offcut piece of English Walnut, with the nostrils and whisker holes shaped using a Dremel hand drill. The mandible was carved from the same cherry timber as the head and body, the teeth are locally-grown boxwood and the tongue a piece of Yellow Box Gum, a didgeridoo offcut picked up whilst travelling in Australia.

The eyes were carved from an offcut of Pau Amarello that was being thrown away at a woodyard. I wouldn't choose to buy this timber newly cut as it grows in Brazil, even though it isn't classed as threatened there. However, it seems wrong to chuck away any offcuts of an exotic timber and I also keep even the smallest potentially usable pieces that are offcuts of my own carving.  The same is true for the ebony inlaid as the pupils in the eyes. I believe that Madagascan ebony is endangered and shouldn't be bought in any circumstances, but I have lots of small bits of African ebony that were broken sculptures or were going to be thrown away by other people and I save them down to the smallest usable piece. When it is gone, that's it. I might experiment with charred holly or something similar instead.

The eyes were finished with gloss varnish to give them a shine. The varnish can be better dripped on than painted on, to avoid brushmarks. They were set in using two part epoxy mixed with wood dust, to give a tiny differently coloured ring around them, like an eyelid membrane. They are quite staring, which suits a creature that is supposed to be a nocturnal hunter.

The next job was to  carve the fur texture. The Dremel hand drill was good for this, using two differently sized rotary burrs (ridged spherical bits). The rounded burrs gave a smoother, less coarse appearance to the carved fur.

After all the components for the mammal were complete it was time to glue it together using slow-drying two part epoxy ( I used Araldite):

...and while it was setting, there was time to carve the pupa that it is about to eat. This was whittled using the Opinel from an offcut of English brown oak and was inlaid with boxwood, plum, cherry and holly, all grown in the local area.
The pupa was finished with Danish oil, as this gave a slight sheen to the surface.

The base on which it all stands was reshaped from a piece of Honduras mahogany that had been salvaged from the renovation of a school in Exeter in Devon. It was varnished and then had a bit of sawdust sprinkled on it, to look like a taxidermist's vignette. It proved surprisingly difficult to find the correct shape of branch to complete the piece and it took about an hour of searching around the woodyard and a shortlist of about ten candidates to find the right one!

Finally, it was time to assemble the sculpture. I glued it together using slow-drying two part epoxy. The quicker-drying stuff really isn't worth bothering with, it has no strength in it. All the pieces were supported using a selection of blocks and sticks while they dried. The whiskers, made from fibres of bamboo from an old skewer, were glued in at this point.

Finding the right finish for the areas meant to represent skin and fur presented a bit of a problem. Waxes and oils would give a slight shine to the surface, which wasn't appropriate for the 'furry' finish. I chose instead to use wood preserver, which doesn't have any kind of shine at all when it dries. It was only applied to areas that hadn't already been finished with, for example, varnish.

So, after over one hundred hours of work, the metainsectivore was finished and ready to show.

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Monday 29 July 2013

Part One: Designing 'Metainsectivore' - an imaginary creature in the 'Metainsecta' series carved from found and recycled wood and inspired by the HI-MEMS project

This piece was carved to show in the 'Inspired' exhibition, but there really isn't enough space there to  talk about why it looks the way that it does.

Metainsectivore is part of a series that I've been working on for several years based around the 'HI-MEMS' project. This is funded by DARPA, the US defence department's research and development division. The project seeks to implant control devices into insects in the pupal phase, when the juvenile (the caterpillar or maggot etc.) breaks down inside its casing and reassembles as the adult (also called the imago).

Instead of individually implanting control mechanisms into each pupa (especially given the number of potential offspring of insects), it would seem more logical to implant a nanofactory instead. This would be some kind of nanotechnology that could not only create the devices desired inside the host creature, but could also recreate itself to be passed on to offspring of that creature.

Of course, once such hybrids were in the world, it could perhaps be hard to recall them. Particularly when the rapid process of reproduction in host and technology could give the opportunity in both for mutation, variation and so evolution. Genetically modified crops are already commonplace in the US and in a future time of war, perhaps modified animals would be released without too much thought.

What would these creatures become? Being that other living things would also adapt to take advantage of them as a food source, what would their predators and other animals in their environment come to look like? These are the themes that I've been exploring. There is some artistic licence of course; for example, I don't think that adapted pupae would have external electronic-looking boards. I have also used features of insects that don't have a metamorphic stage inside a pupa.

I've also tried not to give an obvious strong value judgement on the project that inspired it in the series, although I have my own opinions which probably come through. This series is as much about the potential for strange beauty that could arise, even if it is also unsettling. 

One piece is inspired by record players and by the genetic engineering in the film 'Bladerunner'. It is a weevil that walks around and plays a record through mouthparts shaped like stylus, in a future where fragile vinyl discs are rare and valuable commodities and genetic engineering is commonplace. Such a creature would be unable to feed so could not live for long.

All of the sculptures are carved entirely from wood, occasionally powdered and fixed in resin (even the 'vinyl' record above is charcoal dust in resin). This is partly for the technical challenge as a woodcarver and partly because I like the idea of using quite a few traditional carving methods and tools with more modern techniques to create these strange, futuristic creatures. That's why the pieces also have a feel of the Victorian naturalist's preserved specimens. Maybe the detachment of those 'collectors' relates closely to that of the scientist involved in the HI-MEMS programme.

The Metainsectivore is a mammal that would feed on the new insects. It is loosely based on a number of existing creatures, including quolls, cats, tarsiers and aye-ayes. Its adaptations to its lifestyle include:

Large eyes and ears suited to nocturnal hunting
A beak-like snout covered in tough hair (like a rhino's horn) to protect its face from dangerous prey
Small, sharp teeth
A relatively long, flexible neck to allow its head to grab food or to get out of the way quickly
Hands and feet adapted to move quickly through undergrowth in pursuit of food and to be able to pick apart food to remove inedible parts
One long claw on each hand to pick out indigestible pieces from prey or to prise them out of crevices.

The timbers used include;
Cherry from a local tree surgeon
English walnut from an offcut given by a friend
Boxwood from Gloucestershire
South American mahogany from a bookcase taken out during a school renovation in Exeter and due to be thrown away
An ebony offcut given by a cabinet-maker friend who was going to get rid of it
Pau Amarello from a pile of waste offcuts of bowl blanks at a timber yard
Apple from a garden in Birmingham, UK
Holly from the local area
Yellow Box Gum from ann offcut of a didgeridoo
An offcut of brown English oak from a friend who was building a bed
Plum from Gloucestershire

... and whiskers made of bamboo fibres from an old skewer! 

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Sunday 28 July 2013

'Inspired' at Ashton Court-a few more images of work on show

Here are some more photos of the work on show at 'Inspired':

This photo shows one of the three rooms, with work by;
Chuck Elliott, Tim Chadsey, Waywood furniture, John Makepeace, Jonathon Markowitz, Barry Cawston, Graham Ilkin, Anthony Gray and Ben Rawlinson

The 'Audrey' cabinet, by Cadman furniture

This stainless steel hare was made by Miranda Micheals,  with the image behind by Tina Lewis

A bleached oak chest of drawers, made by Dunleavy Bespoke

The table and boxes are by Erich Fichter, with the dandelion study by Tina Lewis

This ceramic piece is by Dartmouth-based Bob Dawson

The 'Slow Wave' bench by Sue Darlison, the curator of the exhibition

These woven willow pieces are by Sarah Woodrow

'The Bridge' oak table by Martin Urmston, with Anthony Gray's 'Solitaire' table lamp

Kevin Stamper's 'Orford' table and lamp

'Night Horizon' bureau, by Knut Klimmek

A detail of William Self's 'Ellipse Squared' table

Petya Kapralova made this wall sculpture, which shows a detail of the Icelandic coast

Graham Ilkin's 'Triunite' console table

These sea images by Jane Reeves are actually made from fused glass

The marquetry pieces on the wall are by Christine Meyer-Eaglestone,
with the table made from oak and glass by Caroline  de Winton

The jewellery cabinet was made by Rhys Gillard, with the picture by Karyn Rossenrode

These glass pieces were made by Becky Wills, of Yellow Dog Glass

Saturday 27 July 2013

The preview for 'Inspired' at Ashton Court

The 'Inspired' exhibition at Ashton Court is looking fantastic. The invitation-only preview was held today and gave a chance to meet the other makers who are showing.

Today began at 6.45 am with a chat to local radio about the wooden model of the Matthew figurehead that I'll be carving at the exhibition during the coming week from 10am 'til 4pm. Unfortunately I can't really remember what was said as my brain wasn't really switched on at that hour!

The work in 'Inspired' really is inspiring. As with all of Sue's shows, the quality is superb and it's great to be exhibiting next to such interesting pieces.

My contribution is a mammal that would feed on the insects depicted in my 'metainsecta' series. The whole piece is made from found and recycled timber.

I only managed to take a few shots of some of the other work there, before my camera battery ran out. Here's those few to give a little taste of what can be seen. I hope to post some more when I revisit with full battery power;

The table and chair in the foreground are by John Makepeace, the chair and lamp on the far left by Nick Crossling, the glass vase in the window by Becky Wills of Yellow Dog Glass and the bench by Dan Burrough.

This sculpture is by Glenn Morris and is inspired by his travels in the Arctic.

Avril Farley makes these beautiful ceramics with their interesting crystallised glazes.

These sculptures are by Margaret Lovell

This little yew wood stool is by John Makepeace, who is exhibiting four pieces 

I like this chest from Waywood a lot, it's hard to resist touching the surface of it!

Graham Ilkin's 'Betty' chest is full of interesting wood colours and patterns

Jonathon Markowitz's 'Humby' desk and chair have a very cool, clean-lined modern look to them.

The exhibition is on until the 4th August at Ashton Court Mansion, Bristol. You can visit between 10am and 4pm and admission is free.