“When I arrived at the boathouse with grandiose plans for my figurine, Brian introduced our workshop by gesturing at the layers of debris around us and saying, “Each wood chip on the ground represents a blow.” I appreciated this in a vague, general way – until I began my own work and felt his words in my back, my arms, and the blisters that quickly formed on my fingers. I tried out the various axes, trying to find my rhythm with each tool, and despite the friendliness of the group, carving away at the wood felt like a very solitary experience. As the morning progressed, I quit my awkward, full-bodied strokes in favour of the chisel and mallet, wanting to be closer to the work and periodically forgetting that unlike with clay, I could not just smooth out rough edges with my fingers. I became very aware of the grain of the wood and the time needed to create a smooth curve, a process which in my studio working with clay would take only moments. The crude shape emerging from hours of work bore almost no resemblance to the sketches in my head when I left home that morning, and I began to understand the recurrence of basic elements in representative art. Slashes for mouths, slits for eyes, big blocky triangle noses all made much more sense to me, driven by skill level rather than aesthetic choice. At the end of the day, I cradled my ugly little log baby, Twin Peaks style, and came away with a much deeper appreciation for the labor, skill, and time needed to create art from the wood.” – Cat Gambel (artist, ceramicist).
“I approached this with some trepidation. Woodcarving and woodwork is something that should (“should” is such a strong word) have been passed to me by my father. However, the glories of teenage revelries made me blind to the future possibilities this knowledge may have allowed. I ignored it all. Woodwork is not my strength. So, when Brian approached me regarding the Pallasboy Figurine Workshop I had to jump over a small yet noteworthy psychological barrier before accepting. Such is life.
I was selected, as others were, for this workshop because of a lack of skills in woodcarving. We gathered at Meitheal Mara for the workshop amongst the detritus of woodcarvings with worked examples – standing tall and proud – made just days before by Mark. We were given a short presentation on such figures and shown how to use the hand made tools, replicas of what might have been used for such work in the past.
When I started on the piece of alder wood I chose, I had no preconceptions about what I wished to do. I picked up an axe and started working, getting used to the feel of the tool and the wood. I began to look forward to seeing what would appear. I noticed my hands were beginning to get stained as I worked. Mark informed me that this type of wood held meaning for this reason, good and bad, as there are implications of blood from this staining.
I began etching out a face with the handmade replica Bronze Age tools. With some disillusionment I had shown my small screen habits and had made a face in the wood like one of the Children of the Forest – televisual contamination. Balking at this, I erased it completely by chiseling away details on the surface going deeper in to the wood. This erasure brought me back to the action and process itself. This chipping and knocking out bits of wood – of just gouging away – fascinated me. With the opening I was making, I began thinking of the power of making absences, some topsy-turvy but exciting thoughts about what an absence may mean. Ideas about apophatic theology (negative theology), about descriptions of things in the form of negations took over, and making something not to resemble anything but itself. Vitally this taking away of material was not to make the wood resemble something, more to allow an action to create something that is not easy to talk about” – Pádraig Spillane (artist, curator).
“A most enjoyable morning at Meitheal Mara – my over-riding experience being that of the pleasure that comes with working manually. Thinking through the material, effort, tools and with a vague mental cabinet of remembered models – quite a relief after conceptual practice!
Things that occurred to me while hacking away at ‘Gertrude’:
The bronze chisel gave me most control over the alder – the axes and adzes being good for roughing out, and the modern chisels being too adept at taking off long strips with the grain;
I reckon the original wood figures were the work of woodworkers, rather than artisans – i.e. it was part of the whole job of building a wood track, or a boundary, or the like, and not a passed-down, gradually refined art of making particular objects (in post-Neolithic temperate Europe this role was filled by metal smiths?);
The odd power of a roughly anthropomorphic block of wood reminded me of a discussion of a very early Greek statue, or idol (I think in one of Gisela Richter’s books). In a place of prominence in a temple of Hera, queen of the gods, it was little more than a slightly higher than human-sized plank of wood. The austerity of the object, however, in its sacred context, gave it a power and gravity that subsequent, more naturalistic statuary thought it essential to preserve.” – Fergal Gaynor (poet, independent scholar, critical writer, co-editor of Enclave Review).
“Knowing that Ralaghan Man was made of yew I was curious to see how the wood compared to alder in its raw form and how difficult it would be to carve. When our guest Mike Groves and I visited Mark Donnelly’s yard he brought us to the back of the site and showed us some large felled trunks and branches of yew, all of which were too big to fit in my car. He then kicked something with his foot. A gnarled log of yew was hiding under the grass. When it was revealed it immediately took on a persona, that of a beast or a being. It had protrusions and a gaping ‘mouth’. To me this seemed to be an important part of the making of an anthropomorphic figurine, identifying the person, beast or god in the timber at source before or after it had been felled. As Mark Griffiths has already pointed out our straight alder logs were less inspiring.
Back on site at Meitheal Mara the following day it was my duty to record our event with photographs, video and sound but it didn’t take long before I was itching to have a go. Nobody seemed keen to take on the harder and more irregular yew log. It was clearly meant for me. As the day came to a close I began removing the bark to reveal the pale white flesh. Where smaller branches had been cut off the log displayed its red innards. One of the boat builders remarked that it was the blood of the dead in the graveyard where the trees grew that gave it that colour. Im not easily spooked so I carried on. A large hollow scar on the log had a fantastic ‘lip’ that framed a mouth of sorts. Upon further inspection it revealed a pleasing colour change that could be used to suggest the depths of a throat. Above the ‘mouth’ I only had one ‘eye’ but there was always potential to carve another. However I was reluctant to carve anything until the full personality of the log revealed itself. There were other potential eyes and appendages already in existence on the other side of the log giving it the potential of being a beast of many and uncertain faces.
Initially I was a little intimidated by the hard wood and chose to hack away the bark with Mark’s modern axe. I also began using a modern chisel to freshen up the surfaces and create a uniform colour. However I found that the chisel dug in too much and that I was created ugly scars that then required more work to remove. It was all very counterproductive given that I wanted the log to speak for itself. I gave the bronze age replica tools another go and found them much more appropriate. There was no unintentional or overzealous injuries to the log. Every action counted and there were less regrets. The tools were a joy to use even on the tough yew. My initial frustrations disappeared and I became engrossed in the task at hand, so much so that I became quite unsociable and lost to the world. I also forgot to get up and stretch now and again resulting in me being slightly crippled when I finally did. Although I was nowhere near finished, my log had a persona that was now hopefully a little more visible to all” – Brian Mac Domhnaill (photographer, archaeologist, cross-disciplinary artist).