Meditation

This piece was made specifically for the west cloisters of the Cathedral, commissioned as part of a group exhibition: “In Praise of Trees” for the 2002 Salisbury Festival. I thought of the cloisters as a processional, meditative and teaching space, with the columns, arches, tracery and bosses having their origins partly in the form and structure of trees. This suggested to me a woodland walk, in which you might have thoughts about the natural or spiritual worlds, where you might notice and think about details of things around you, about ideas and things associated with trees.

The sculpture has several different elements all arranged along a pathway. There are five sculptures made of unfired paper-clay, (this is clay mixed with recycled paper cellulose). I liked the idea of the paper, having come from trees, being mixed with earth to make a new tree-like form. Each form, except the middle one, started from thinking about a particular tree, and some of the myths and symbols associated with it. I also wanted them to reflect some things found in the cathedral, like columns, capitals, altars, fonts, candelabra etc. There are myths in many cultures all over the world, today and historically, in which trees are identified with people, gods and goddesses and spirits, or represent the relationship between mankind, the heavens and the underworld, or have magical or healing properties. Trees also often suggest human forms. I have tried to bring all these things into this piece.

The first tree form is taken from an oak tree, and has mistletoe on it.  For the Druids, the oak was the masculine principle and the mistletoe  the female, but in several cultures it is regarded as a sacred tree, or has divine associations, as well as representing human qualities.  Philosophically I have made it a dualistic tree, that is one thing dividing into two.  The second form was taken from a silver birch which is associated with light and fertility, and was thought to have the power to drive out witches.  This is why birch rods were used for beating people.  In paganism it was associated with the mother goddess and with the moon, whilst in shamanism it is the cosmic tree.  The middle form is a symbolic tree, with its branches in the ground and its roots above, and a lotus flower in its roots, based on one concept of a Tree of Life.  The fourth form is based on a yew tree, which often has a very pronounced spiral form in the bark.  It is probably most thought of in connection with churchyards, death and mourning, but it is also a Celtic and Christian symbol of immortality.  Here it has six branches, and the trunk as the seventh.  In Iranian, Jewish and many other cultures there are seven-branched trees with many different meanings.  The last form had its starting point in the ash tree, which is not only the cosmic tree of the Scandinavians, but here was thought to have magical healing properties.  For example, if a child had a broken limb, the ash was split, and the child passed through it.  The tree was then bound up, and if it healed it was believed that the limb would heal.  I have used  the idea of something starting from one, dividing into two, and joining again to make one, so it is the opposite of the oak at the other end of the sculpture.

In between these pieces are four branches made from paper with a line from a  poem by W. B. Yeats on them:  ‘From joy the Holy branches start’ (meaning grow), and is about positive and negative ways of thinking about things.  Because the ceramic sculptures are very solid and earthbound like trees, I wanted to make something that was closer to the delicacy and movement of leaves.

On the ground there are fired ceramic panels, which have things taken from my local wood imprinted in them.  You can recognise particular plants and leaves.  But there are also signs of humanity in the odd footprint or imprint of a man made object, or  an old saying, or biblical quotation.  Whilst making these for the cloisters one of the things I thought of was the Stations of the Cross, marking out the journey to Calvary, where the cross, often represented as the Tree of Life, rested.

It is not important to know any of this to look at and enjoy this piece of work, and my starting points might be very different from the things it suggests to you and your imagination.  Like walking in the woods, allow your thoughts to roam.  There is no right or wrong way of looking at art; it is there to be enjoyed as something that is pleasurable to look at.

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,
Knowing the truth of things unseen before;
Of Daphne and the laurel bow
And that god-feasting couple old
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
‘Twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated, and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart’s home
That they might do this wonder thing;
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.
From ‘The Tree
Ezra Pound
O profound
Silent tree, by restraining valour
With patience, you revealed creative
Power in its peaceful form. Thus we come
To your shade to learn the art of peace,
To hear the word of silence; weighed down
With anxiety, we come to rest
In your tranquil blue-green shade, to take
Into our souls life rich, life ever
Juvenescent, life true to earth, life
Omni-Victorious.
From ‘In Praise of Trees
Rabrindranath Tagore.