Notes on carving Wight Man, Feb 2006

This block was difficult to start; it had provenance, value and rarity, which has made the process of carving harder. Most of my blocks are mean lumps, perhaps damaged and rejected by others, bartered or found. That it had been sitting waiting for 50 years just added to that pressure – can one do it justice? Alabaster has the ability to gleam with shallow deceit… picture any of the semiprecious gemstones sellers’ baskets of polished pebbles which have such talisman qualities regardless of form. For the sculptor, a large block thus offers further dangers for the forms not being appreciated for their values alone; for a job to be perceived to ‘work’ when sculpturally it shouldn’t get out of the yard.

Sitting upright for some months, it became abundantly clear that this attitude would remain. For me, blocks resist wanting to lie prone; I feel I want to try and help them up and get some fresh air around their bases. Perhaps it is subconsciously practical; one would never consider public speaking lying down?

With a block so defined, there were few obvious starting urges to follow; in this case, some lines of weakness were taken and the block started to open. From the first few days of working, there were three defined ‘heads’ appearing through the faces of the upper block… in the photo, the right upper side shows the dominant one which I tried to suppress, without success, for a long period. In the end, this was sawn from the block to cease its dominance. But, it was relentlessly nudging towards a single figure… and sadly, conscious rational choices started to overcome, establishing the standard formula for legs trunk and arms, once a head had started to assert itself so figuratively. The block was never really large enough for this carving, but somehow it has worked.

It is interesting to see Epstein’s designs, drawn and perhaps a maquette too – for the Jacob and the Angel alabaster, which now sits in the Tate. the wing formations of his angel are spectacularly good inventions for keeping as much of the the original block as possible – ‘my’ alabaster figure was be-winged for a couple of months before the masses were removed as being pointless detail… this work will have no narrative. As I write in Feb ’06, the work is progressing but I still wonder whether it will pass judgement; whether it will have any humanity or humility. Time will tell.

As the block nears completion in late May ’06, it has been difficult trying to promote the new work for exhibition whilst not yet fully sure that it passes muster. Shocking to find how much the colour of the block distorts (and loses) the forms as the final finishing removes its matt whiteness (sanding it produces something akin to talcum powder) and produces the deep satin cloud forms and rusty stains which are so alluring and huggable. The original outer faces of the block are visible on every side of the work – just.  But it does seem to have some sort of contemplative, prehistoric almost, presence. Someone commented that on opening the photo I sent them that ‘it brought a lump to their throat for some reason’. I’m happy. But I want them to see it ‘in the round’.

It is to be called Wight Man, in recognition of its long spell on the Isle. Perhaps there is an undertone that the Isle of Wight seems a little like stepping back in time in a ‘good’ way – everything seems a little more honest and less commercial; where relationships matter more than things. Perhaps it will return there sometime.