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projects: the standing squid
the standing squid

The Standing Squid, 2002, remains the BIG ONE.  the other four carvings were done from felled trees, lying down, where we could walk around them, and do the work with our feet on the ground.  to work on a tree standing fifty feet straight up in the air was a brand new challenge.  the only access was UP ... with a lot of attention paid to not going suddenly DOWN.

squid: before
squid: during
squid: after

step one was: 'hire an expert'.  the professional tree-surgery team took off the top, and all the side-branches we couldn't use, reducing the spreading tree-form to a spar with stubs, making it safe and manageable.   i must confess, i initially thought, 'couldn't we do that ourselves? save the money?'  once i saw the crew in action, i realized they earned their cash:  boldly scaling the heights, Tarzan in spiked boots, ropes pulleys safety-harness and chainsaw, with tons of dead branches smashing to the ground.  when they hit, it looked like a slow-motion sequence from a war movie, fragments flying spectacularly up into the air, dear me.  the crew hauled away all the debris, too -  bravo, gentlemen.

step two was:  a complete waste of money.  we paid a 'safety specialist' to tell us if this dead tree was going to stay standing or not.  the fellow took the £50, drilled a hole or two into the wood, and completely refused to commit himself - a definite 'maybe'.  safe for  him, anyway. thanks, pal.

step three was - a phone call.

passing a building site, i'd spotted a 'cherrypicker', a hydraulic lift;  i went over and noted the phone number: the 'Nifty Lift Hire Company'.nifty lift

'hello, my name is Robin Tatham; i'm the artistic director of a non-profit (dammit) community arts co-operative.  we are carving a huge dead standing tree into a sculpture, and wondered if you might be able to help us with some equipment.'

'yes, i think we might be able to help you'.   first thing the gentleman said, i swear!   they were friendly and helpful from that first moment - wonderful people.

(this was a complete contrast to Thames Water, who i phoned on the grounds that their machinery had ripped up the park and made it unusable for at least a year previously; might they like to put something back in?  not even a pretense of interest ... thanks.)

NiftyLift  brought the machine over on a flat-bed truck and left it with us for six days, no stipulations, no fussing about, didn't even ask for ID.  clearly they could see we were no scallywags.   at the end, they took a photo of the gang at work, and used it in their catalogue of their various machines - we were delighted.

so they said:  'here's the keys', and took off.  there we were, staring at this high-tech Dr Who spacemachine with TRAINED PERSONNEL ONLY stenciled all over it ... a tiny caged-in platform on the end of a tube,  that shoots way, way up in the sky ... with four levers:  'up  down  sideways  and, uh, the other one ... (eject?)'

day one, we were petrified. the slightest touch on the lever had you jolting wildly, clutching the side, as your mate on the ground shouted useless advice at you ... dear John Hoskins refused to even approach the thing.  by day three, we were smooth as silk:  our own sports-car in the sky, maneuvering perfectly around our Squid.standing squid

now that we can get at the thing, what to do?  lucky we've worked together as a team before; this really is a challenge.  the shape suggested certain images; the artistic theory was to lock them all together in one smooth carved harmony, a flow - hence the working title: 02 Ripple:  'oh! to ripple!'

a sperm whale diving, locked in the embrace of a giant squid, a leaping dolphin on one side balanced by a couple of owls in flight on the other side, all to be executed on the scale appropriate to its size, to be seen from a distance.  

it was one thing to visualize, another to execute.  in both drawing the outlines, and then cutting the forms, we could see only the bit of wood that was literally under our noses - it took some imagination to stick with the bigger picture.   i surprised myself by getting the scale of the squid arms right the first time, having made all the relevant mistakes on earlier carvings.

Andy is a master of the chainsaw, a heavy, loud, scary dangerous tool that he can handle with the finesse of a paintbrush, leaning out from that wee platform in space with ferocious concentration.  again, he couldn't seestanding squid the overall perspective of what he was doing, so we worked out a semaphore system, with me way down on the ground, clutching a ridiculously small scale model, and signalling up to him as best i could: left! LEFT! now down a bit!  and so forth... one thing for sure, you cannot go back and uncarve a piece once its been removed - best get it right the first time.

and at the end of each working day - well, the cherrypicker was quick at reaching  up and down, but as for actually going anywhere on its own wheels, it was a snail. responsible artists that we are,  we took it  to the locked-up works yard, so it'd be safe for the night.  crawling slowly along...  one night i watched an old granny in a wheelchair vanish ahead of me,  leave me in the dust.  that done, we used the high-tech device of a wheelbarrow to take all the heavy tools, petrol cans etc back to headquarters - a weary way. dear lord, aching biceps.

and after six days, NiftyLift retrieved their beast for some actual paid work, and it was time for phase two: the scaffolding.

up to here we had extra helpers, principally Tony and Silver Phil, plus anyone who cared to come by and lend a hand... we did lay on a big picnic lunch from our vanishing budget, by way of thanks.  now that it was time for the scaffolding platform to go up, there was a lot more direct use for all the extra hands. 

desperate phone calls on the part of the Artistic Director, who didn't want to lose momentum with our crew standing idle for the weekend, struck gold with Hewdon Hire, who kindly did us a half-price deal for a week.  they even came up with a configuration diagram of how best to arrange the elaborate structure of poles around the tree.  this useful diagram we found at the bottom of the pile after two days figuring it all out for ourselves...aye well. after two days of testing every single joint - that thing was safe when the crew started working on it.

standing squid standing squid standing squid

the main features were now laid out; it was time for the details... as we all know, 'god is in the details', along with a lot of time and sweat, too.  every tool had to hauled up on a rope, everything required a clamber, and, with the chainsaw, a clamour.  a dominant fantasy was 'Michelangelo doing the Sistine Chapel must've felt a lot like this' - minus the chainsaw, perhaps.

a bonus of the scaffolding work-platform was that we were  beside our first project, the Millennium Whale; all through the day we could see just how much of a focal point it had become in the park.  little kids ran over to climb up on it, people had arranged to meet there, picnics and so forth ... what a wonderful energy boost for those who had worked on it.

at points i had wondered if it would be more efficient for me to also take chainsaw in hand; but no, as it turned out, one was about right.  Andy moved a huge amount of sawdust: work on that scale would be impossible standing squidwithout his skill, but there was always more than enough to be doing otherwise.  all the details required hand-tools; keeping the crew focused; the public relations; the organization involved - it was surprising how much there was to be doing. 

the labour of the actual carving finally came to an end.  the scaffolding that took two days to put up took one hour to take down - just a matter of unbolting each piece and throwing it to the ground. 

although we knew it wouldn't last, we used creosote to darken the crevices in between the entwining arms of the squid, which stood out brilliantly with the white of fresh-cut wood.  it did in fact fade beautifully, down to a silver grey, which it remains today, and keeps the contrast with the shadows in between the arms.  being the height that it is, the Standing Squid, of all the carvings, offers the most spectacular results from the changing play of sunlight.

for this one, we didn't do an opening ceremony.  for one thing, standing up as it does, it was bit difficult to 'unveil' - but primarily we were all completely dead from exhaustion.  please allow me to collapse!  for at least a month, my idea of a good time was to sprawl on the couch ... Hallelujah, We Did It.

standing squid
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