Skeleton Trees

Elaine Bolt River Trees in the shade

For the last six months I have been working on something rather different for me. For a long time I’ve had in mind an idea for a piece that is human scale, and that stands in nature.

I am a ceramic artist, so working in clay is my practice. But until recently it has been on a very small scale. I have made wall pieces and vessels featuring ceramic twig-like pieces, most of which are no more than 10cm in length.

Elaine Bolt -  grey/red twigs
Elaine Bolt – grey/red twigs (10cm)

Last year I was asked to show some of my woodland inspired vessels and wall pieces in the craft exhibition at the Fresh Air Sculpture 2019. The exhibition is entitled ‘From Where I’m Standing’ and was a fantastic exhibition of makers responding to a theme curated by Jo Swait.

When I heard more about the wider sculpture exhibition it would be part of, and the gardens with streams running through, I became entranced the the idea of making a sculptural piece that would sit outside in the landscape. The piece is something that I have had in mind for a long time and just needed the right location and opportunity.

I visited the site, met the organisers and proposed an idea. I was delighted to be accepted. I also applied for, and was delighted to receive an a-n Artists Bursary to assist with the project development and a Bursary to help towards the materials costs from  the Quennington Sculpture Trust.

The site visit led to the selection of a spot along the river that I felt would best suit the work – a quiet intimate part of the gardens where the river met the bridge and a part that was somewhat secluded, away from rest of the garden. I then created a set of drawings, working out how the installation might look.

The proposal was to make a set of tree-like pieces that would stand on the river bank and step down into the water. The cluster of cropped, white ceramic trees would form a skeletal, ghostly gathering of tree forms, left without their branches, with only the core of the trees remaining. They would be small in height – 5ft at their tallest, my height, and they would hopefully evoke a feeling of eery stillness.

Then the task of creating the pieces began. Working on this larger size form was a new venture for me and meant scaling-up my existing techniques and investigating new methods to suit the project. The tree forms were constructed as hollow tubes of architectural stoneware clay, rolled out using a broom stick for a rolling pin. The 1.5 metre long forms were then cut into sections, making the joins into a jigsaw-like profile to allow the pieces to slot together when re-assembled. The forms had to be cut into sections to fit into my kiln, which could only accommodate a maximum length of 45cm. But split into sections like this, the pieces for up to three tree forms could be fired at once. Over twenty tree forms were made in this way.

On one weekend I took two prototype trees with me to test outside in a nearby garden, to work out how they will be assembled and how they will stand in the ground. This test process helped me to assess how strong and inflexible the steel supporting core for the sculptures needed to be, and it led to an adjustment in the thickness of the tree trunks and branches to help stabilise the forms.

Elaine Bolt test tree installation 1
Elaine Bolt test tree installation 1

A test visit to the installation site was also carried out to assess the softness of the ground and how installing the pieces in the water would work. On the river bank we were able to hammer iron rebar supports into the ground. However the river bed turned out to be too rocky to allow us to hammer in the iron bars as planned.

This meant a significant change of plan for the trees to be installed in the river bed. For these a technical assistant was drafted in to create concrete bases with copper tubes embedded in them for us to insert the metal bars. This would make the sculptures secure and keep them upright in the water against the river flow.

The final installation process took two half days. A significant accidental breakage meant that some of the trees could not be installed. However 15 trees were eventually installed into the desired position, forming a cluster on the river bank and into the river.

The Fresh Air Sculpture show opened in Quennington on the 15th June 2019 and remained open until the 7th July. The trees will now be dismantled and will hopefully find another site for a more permanent home.

Overall the experience has been energising and challenging. Moving into making sculpture has only started for me but hopefully there will be more ahead.

Elaine Bolt River Trees installation
Elaine Bolt River Trees installation

More images and stories about the development of the sculpture can be found on my instagram feed.

Some of the cost of the installation build was funded by the Quennington Sculpture Trust. In addition, some off the work outlined here, and in the coming months is funded with the help of a-n Artists Bursary. I’m extremely grateful for their support.

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