The fine early morning rain matched our mood of slight apprehension, would our first workshop work? To get the results we were hoping for we needed our participants, as they carved, to focus on the nature and possible meaning of these mysterious anthropomorphic figures, to hold some personal feeling, or thought, as they worked, and in so doing create an object that reflected back this meaning. And if this wasn’t enough to ask, these virgin woodworkers would be using hand crafted reproduction tools of the period.
By mid-morning we were a small group, huddled in a damp corner of Meitheal Mara, watching attentively as Ben ran through a power-point on the history and theory of these rare, enigmatic carvings. I then set out a few health and safety rules, briefly introduced the different tools they would be using, and offered a few general techniques needed when working green timber. Finally, Brian explained to the group what it was we hoped to achieve from the day. Would the experiences of our participants in some way give an insight into the cultural significance, and possible meanings behind these markers from our distant past? Before we set to work I shared with the group my own experience of crafting my reproduction of the ‘Red Man’ while reflecting on the close relationship I had with my grandfather. I was surprised at the strength of emotion and memory raised by focusing on one individual as I was absorbed in the sculpting process. It left me with an appreciation of the power these carvings could evoke, carrying as they may have done a physical representation of a personal memory.
Each of our woodworkers chose a length of alder log from a pile, and then found a space to work. All opting to work on the ground rather than the relative comfort of a bench or trestles. Soon the boat yard rang with the sweet percussive sound of axes at work. I walked between the group giving advice when needed, but happy to watch in silence as they lost themselves in that ancient simple pleasure of creating something with your hands. As the day wore on a few members of our group reluctantly had to leave due to other commitments, leaving just three or four carvers battling blisters and hand cramps to finish their projects.
To our joy, every one of our invited participants had found the project both unique and completely engrossing. The work had been physically hard, yet stimulating and creative in a way many had not experienced before. A few people stuck with the initial ideas for the form their figure would take, whereas others had been happy to let the wood dictate a shape or character. It was fascinating to see, as we lined the finished carvings up against the side of the timber shed, how each one possessed its own strong, individual personality.
Sweeping the yard and packing up tools at the end of the workshop, I reflected on one moment from the day. During the afternoon the partner and children of one of our carvers had dropped by the yard to see what we were doing. As she watched the work the mother fed her small baby, which was bound snugly close to her, meanwhile their other young daughter had found a game, playing among the scattered chippings of fragrant alder. A beautiful image that felt drawn from the very origins of these evocative figures.
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