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noah's ark and the owl bench, carvings spring 2003
owl bench
the owl bench

'we have two pieces that we'd think are worth carving ... thing is, we've only got the budget for one of them.  would it be possible to do the full treatment on one, and just do a quick job on the other one?'  it was John Hoskins giving me a ring, Chair of the Gladstone Park Consultative Committee and a faithful friend to owl art studio.

well ... money's a wonderful thing, more power to it, the ultimate flexible tool, please give us more, but ... money or not, we're gonna do the best we can, or what's the point in doing it at all?  we're not gonna turn in a second-rate piece with our names on it, that's for sure.  it's an opportunity to do another carving, after all, get the creative energy flow activated and out into the world.  we'll do our best on both of them.

so Andy once again dropped everything, and owl studio bought him a ticket over from Brittany; i personally arranged for some nice weather, and the Team swung into action.  this was the year that owl studio went high-tech:  we upgraded from the wheelbarrow to a bicycle-cart.  space-age technology, for us.  forever true to our 'recycle' philosophy, i tracked down a second-hand cart for sale on Brick Lane, out in the East End, and enjoyed another mini-adventure fetching it, with Richard and his work-van.  we were utterly charmed by the vendors, a fellow and his granny, classic comic East-Enders, who refused to even take the full asking price for the cart.  

the new cart turned a labour into a pleasure.  every single day as we coasted back and forth on the bicycles, all the tools now weightless in the trailer, i proclaimed into the cool breeze:  'this beats the wheelbarrow!'

the first mission was Noah's Ark.  this was yet another felled black poplar, but one with a difference:  all the others were the typical long tapering cylinder of a tree-trunk, but this one had been topped early on in its growth, and so had five trunks growing out of the stump.  this gave us, for once, a far greater range of design possibilities.

noah's ark
noah's ark

poplar is a softwood.  once down on the ground for a while, as this one was, it picks up moisture and starts rotting, from the cut end upwards.  this left us with a rough hollow that, making a virtue of necessity, we converted into the open hull of a boat, and thereby gave us the unifying theme for the piece:  Noah's Ark, with a menagerie of animals worked out on the five trunks.

'somehow, it all fits together' - shark, rhinoceros, parrot, sea-snake, dolphin, all riding on top of a couple of whales curving up from the turf.  the fun of this kind of carving is seeing what presents itself in the natural shape of the wood, and then what cutting we can do to bring it out.  Andy carefully cut a small flight of stairs along one side, in the shape of a school of fish, making the whole thing even more of a climbing frame.

noah's ark noah's ark noah's ark

the carving on this one took about a week.  by now we'd formed good rhythms working together as a team, knowing how to use our time and skills to best advantage.  we developed our own secret codes:  'hey Andy!  could you look over here for a minute please?'  translated as 'do you need a rescue from that boring space-cadet that seems to have you trapped in conversation?'  always take care of your mate!

ah, the joys of being engaged on a Mission, with every day an Adventure ... often involving the English Weather.  'England:  constant climate, variable weather'  or  'if you don't like the weather in England, wait ten minutes'.

Andy, in need of a sustaining hit of caffeine, headed off on the bicycle to the nearby cafe, up on the hill, leaving me to shepherd the work-site.  even as he vanished, black clouds started pouring in, big wind, distant lightning, and even, my goodness, visible line of rain and hail coming my way.

the essential element of these big work-sites is the giant blue rainproof tarp.  scampering frantically about, i hurled everything that might require shelter into a jumbled heap, then dragged the tarp over it and anchored the corners with chunks of wood.  just as the stormfront arrived, i crawled under myself, curling up onto a nest of our leather jackets.  there i lay, cosy and comfortable, enjoying the percussion of the hail whacking onto the plastic cover a half-inch over my head, until i drifted happily off to sleep.  

i later realized i'd been nestled into the bag of bananas as well ... banana puree, we ended up with.
Andy said he did think of me, as he watched the storm out the cafe window, sipping his cappuccino.

later in that summer of 2003 it was moved from the eastern edge of the park to over by the existing kids playground.  quite the feat, getting this huge heavy object moved - courtesy of John Hoskins, speaking with the carnival-ride operators who annually use the park, and were generous with their flat-bed truck.

Chris-the-Cabby rang me one day after the move, to say:  'i was just driving by the park, and i noticed all the kids had abandoned the playground to swarm all over the Ark.'     no higher praise.

noah's ark

Noah's Ark finally finished, we moved straight on, over to the far western end of the park, by the playing field down there, where yet another black poplar had come down in a wind storm.  this time the wood was still green and relatively hard, not rotted at all.  here we were presented once again with the traditional long cigar shape, with a bit of variety in that the roots were still attached, giving some irregular forms to work with.  Andy got poetic with the killer chainsaw, and that end became either waves under the head of a whale, or flames bursting forth from a dragon, depending on how you were feeling that day.

the Park Committee wanted us to include an actual bench to sit on in this one:  there wasn't otherwise much of a gathering place down at that end.  this became the Guardian Owl of the piece, with outstretched wings forming the back.  it went from there into a fierce eagle head calling out a Celtic spiral, then finishing off with one of Andy's turtles, humble and happy, climbing aboard.


we experimented a bit on this piece, by leaving the bark intact on certain sections.  it was still green when we started, fresh and hard with an interesting character.  but -  once the cuts into the wood were made, the bark lost all its moisture, shrivelled up and curled off:  not a suitable element for a enduring piece.  and so, in the future, we reverted to our previous policy of debarking a piece before we carved it.

The Grand Opening

the Grand Opening of this double-barrelled project was just about on the Summer Solstice, so this was our theme, once again handing out leaflets and fliers.  

and once again, the announcement mailed to the local paper failed to get published - when i phoned to inquire, the letter had arrived, and was still lying unopened on the desk.   i'd written on the envelope:  Special Opening in Park!  the fellow did have the grace to apologize...

the good news for this particular opening was a brand-new feature:  Boo-Boo the Children's Entertainer put on a show.  Boo-Boo, otherwise known as owl studio member Sean Hempson, kindly donated his time, energy and considerable talents to our evening.  i must confess, appreciative as i was of his generosity, that i was also slightly nervous - whatever is he going to do?  i couldn't imagine.  what if the kids are all restless and disrupt his efforts?  ha-HA - shows you how little i knew.

owl bench boo-boo owl bench

we mobilized the troops in good time, meeting up at Owl Bench to get everything ready.  the giant carving vanished under two huge blue tarps all lashed up together, much assisted by a passing Australian jogger who joined in, proved a wizard at the ropework.  its always fascinating to see how the energy flow reaches out to fellow pilgrims, ready to get happily involved for a moment.

for the Participatory Theatre aspect of the evening, we'd laid in a supply of clean rags and vegetable oil, to be doled out in styrofoam cups, so that everyone could participate in the final stage of presenting our sculpture to the world, by giving it a good polish - making it 'Our Sculpture'.  ah, the power of the symbolic gesture.

and in preparation for the Boo-Boo show, all manner of gear was lugged in, including a power-generator, speakers and tapedeck, lights bubblemachines and all manner of impressive gadgetry - clearly a serious endeavour was underway.

or would 'serious' be quite the right word to choose?  the show was hilarious from start to finish - 'those kids were mesmerized'  said one of the mums ... and that'd be an understatement.  it was a flow of music puppets balloons great floods of bubbles and greater floods of laughter, all tied together by the seamless flow of banter from the good mister Boo-Boo ... dear me!  a rock star!


meanwhile just slightly higher up the park, the older generation was comfortably spread out on a big circle of blankets and picnic baskets, clearly enjoying themselves just as much in their own fashion, keeping half-an-eye on their kids safely engaged in front of them.  the evening sunshine went on forever, the longest day of the year, all that a Midsummer's Eve should be in an English Park.  carpe diem, seize the golden moment, and gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

it was that evening that we realized the serendipity of the position of Owl Bench. carved in place, exactly where the windstorm had dropped it, it was perfectly oriented for the sunset on the Summer Solstice - our own Stonehenge.  (on a reduced scale, of course).

by the time the oldsters had demolished their picnic hampers, Boo-Boo had roused the troops to a perfect frenzy, and we were ready to move on to the highlight of the evening, The Unveiling.  with no more than the usual chaos, we managed to all the kids lined up on the ropes ready to pull off the tarps, and - One! Two! Three!  Owl Bench was revealed to the world.

owl bench owl bench owl bench

John Hoskins said afterward:  'for one brief moment we could see the sculpture, all bright and gleaming - then it completely vanished under a wave of kids swarming all over it'.  perfect!

and now for a word from our Master of Ceremonies.  the first thing i did was take full credit for the glorious weather, of course ... then i expounded upon the Main Theme of the Owl Studio Philosophy:  this belongs to all of us, the sculpture and the park itself, and it's up to us all to take care of it.  now we're all of us together going to finish Owl Bench, by giving it a beautiful polish with a bit of oil, which the nice people just over there have all ready for you ... and forever after you'll be able to say 'i helped do that!'

owl bench owl bench owl bench

and everyone became an owl studio worker for the moment, polishing away with ferocious concentration.

owl bench

by now the adult picnickers were even more relaxed, and merriment was general.  as evening finally slid over into dusk, dear Rebecca said: 'that's the nicest evening we've ever had in Gladstone Park - thank you, Owl Studio'

the owl bench
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