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This ancient tree that has fallen into a river in North Wales
is about to find new life as works of art.
A real idea has spirit energy in it, and they compel me to make them,
and they actually bring that energy with them.
David Nash is a sculptor with an international reputation.
He has made his name, not from working in clay, bronze or stone, but in wood,
using cranes and chainsaws.
He also uses heat and fire to create artworks that are displayed
and cherished in many countries around the world.
Sequoia trees have been growing for thousands of millennia, in their forms,
but now I walk in a forest and I'll say, "My, that's a Nashy one, isn't it?"
Shapes that are features of the North Wales landscape resonate in his sculptures.
David Nash's base for the last 40 years has been perhaps the most
unlikely setting for an artist whose work graces museums, public spaces
and private collections worldwide -
the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales.
Today Nash has workshops in the town's industrial units, employing
a number of local people to create the work for a global demand.
The town, its history and its weather are all woven into art
which is made with the elemental forces of nature, and a deep understanding of wood and trees.
The weather phenomena of Blaenau is one of the most essential ingredients
of what I love about the place, and I deeply love the geography,
the fact there is a community here at all.
It grew here because of the slate.
You can see we're at the end of the valley here, and the wet air coming
off the Irish Sea just lifts to 800 feet here, and that's where it rains.
We have an average 120 inches of rain, and it's a bit like
people talk about rain here like the Eskimos talk about snow.
I actually heard somebody say, "It's coming down straight today."
There's a particularity about the angle of the rain.
It's a phenomenon, and ironically, this is where all the roofing slate is coming from.
It has roofed many buildings all over the world.
I wasn't really expecting to be living here,
but at the end of my art school years, "Where am I going to be?"
I discovered I could buy somewhere here very cheap.
That meant no rent, no mortgage.
I didn't mean, really, to stay. Found a cottage here.
The best thing that I did was to stay, was to stay here.
And, I think, for a lot of sculptors, place, location of where they are,
is very important. It runs deep.
And particularly with Blaenau, which is like an enormous sculpture.
These beautiful diagonal lines have just
found themselves out of millions of loose pieces which have just been...
Just tumbled down, thrown away, but they've ended up with a very precise geometric form.
The tips look as they do from the process of their making, and that to me was my fundamental
clue on how to work - keep my mind on the process
and let the resulting object take care of itself.
So long as the process was clean and true and pure, I could trust that
and let the object be and not worry it after I'd finished the process.
In 1968, David Nash bought an old chapel, Capel Rhiw.
At a cost of £200, this would enable Nash to keep his overheads
to a minimum and realise an ambition to fuse life and work.
Where a congregation of quarrymen and their families once stood
singing hymns, Nash replenished
the space by populating it with his sculptures and a family of his own.
He married an artist, Claire, and together they turned this chapel into a family project.
If something interesting is going on somewhere, however far away
from London or New York or wherever, people will hear about it.
Now with two young boys, life and work was one and the same thing.
Major galleries began to be interested and made the long trek
to the Nash studio and home.
People from the art world came to see the chapel, the work that was going on there.
And there was always something to see, because he was seriously working.
People liked the fact that he had made his house
and he had made his kids' toys.
We were like a sort of team of artists when the boys were little.
They were involved with everything we did.
This picture is of William in David's arms
while he's sawing a piece of wood, and just that lovely thing
of them being able to be involved in what we were doing.
Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas's father was a minister at Capel Rhiw,
and one day, while he was the MP for Blaenau in the 1970s,
he was amazed by what he saw going on inside this chapel
that he'd known as a boy.
I just walked up and looked through the windows and saw these...
obviously, what were works of art.
And I was immediately captivated by it all.
And I got to know David and I keep being reinvigorated
whenever I meet him or see his work.
I'd always had it drummed into me by my father that this is where
our roots were and, of course, this particular chapel was the great temple of the Presbyterian Church.
Y Trefnyddion Calfinaidda and... Well, that's, of course,
"Holiness, sanctity behoves your house."
that would be the translation. But, of course, holy in religion
is something spiritual.
Art, I think, is a close cousin of that drive towards the spiritual
in human life.
And I think it's very appropriate. Obviously, that's why he did it.
He kept it there because he saw a synergy
between what the chapel was in the past
and the spiritual activity that was here, and the creativity,
verging on the spiritual, which is in his work.
I love the idea that there is in this chapel now a new congregation.
David tells me that there are at least 400,
which must make it the best attended chapel for miles around.
Ever since David Nash settled in Blaenau Ffestiniog,
wood has been more than just a raw material to shape.
Throughout his career, it's led him to a deeper understanding
of the properties of trees and the natural processes at work.
This fallen oak tree is about to be transformed into sculpture.
David Nash's artistic vision enables him to identify unique forms in each tree.
Over his 40-year-long career, he has fashioned over 2,000 sculptures.
Understanding the tree and allowing the forms he makes
to retain the essence of their origins has been his life's work.
I would never take a tree that has no reason to take it down.
So I can only really engage with it once it's down, and then I go over it
like a dentist, looking at its teeth,
checking the rot spots and just what these forms are.
It's the art of making a sculpture.
For me, it's trying to make an object which is like more here,
and there are ways of doing this.
I never polish the surface because my eye just slides off it. The rough surface.
It needs to have holes and cracks in it which will draw the viewer in.
It's got to have an animation which is actually in the original tree.
You have got to allow the echo of the source
The work leads me.
I've always been aware of possibilities, they just wink at me
all over the place and, if I'm alert to them, I can catch them.
A team of local tree surgeons are brought in to extract the wood from the river.
This is dangerous. These are very, very heavy pieces of wood,
and these people are very, very skilful.
There are all these aspects which put, for me, value into that particular piece of wood.
One, that it is local to where I am.
I've known this patch for 15 years...more.
And to be able to put this amount of focus into a piece of wood,
that becomes a very, very special piece of wood.
This tree is probably 100 years old, so it's got a story, its own story.
Its form is because of where it is,
and because of where it is, it's fallen down.
That's all part of its narrative.
I make mainly abstract work but there is a strong narrative
to the sourcing of the material and that narrative goes into the form.
And I try and always source my wood from trees
which have become naturally available, like this.
It just feels ethically OK for me to source my wood
from this place.
Depending on the circumstances, the wood from the fallen tree
can be worked on at the location or be brought back to the workshops in Blaenau Ffestiniog.
David Nash works on the sculptures with chainsaws.
Nash has become a master of the chainsaw,
and uses it as adeptly as a painter would use a brush.
He makes large fires that he controls to achieve exactly
the right amount of charring to produce the deep black surface he requires.
These forms are then shown in major galleries such as here at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
In 2010, David Nash was the subject of a significant exhibition
showing over 200 sculptures
in a retrospective spanning his whole career.
Moving to this grey, wet town after art college in London,
it was the perfect antidote to London's competitive art scene.
Coming to Blaenau was like coming to somewhere where nobody was watching.
I was very naive and I started building a big tower here,
because obviously that was very evident. But in a way, I didn't...
I felt I was separate enough to try... To try this out.
Hence the first tower.
It was like an epic statement. Like trying to write a whole opera
or a huge philosophical statement, and this moving through
these various layers going up through the legs and the guts
and into the head, and then into the heavens.
And I built it very badly out of scrap stuff, and it blew over.
And there was a cable coming from a communal aerial which
went to all the TVs in Blaenau Ffestiniog, so that knocked that out.
And I heard, only recently, somebody said, "Oh, I remember that,
"We used to say when we got interference, 'It's the modern art!'"
From these humble beginnings
in bits of scrap wood,
David Nash's sculptures are now valued in the tens of thousands of pounds.
As Nash's reputation grew on the world stage, the sculptures developed in scale and ambition.
And it was a local lorry driver who was equipped to help the artist work on a larger scale.
I was advised that there was a chap in Blaenau
who had a hire crane, called Yonks, he was known...
There are great on nicknames in Blaenau.
And he came, and not only did he just present me with...
Deliver the wood, he was actually able to hold it up for me, you know?
Like a two-ton piece of wood. There's no way I...
I would normally have to have carved all the weight off it before I managed to pull it up myself.
So this was a revelation, that there was somebody here in Blaenau, and he turned out to be somebody who was...
Just was a brilliant natural engineer, and also very enthusiastic about what I was doing.
Yonks has been a very important part of this
and of the actual growth of the work, of what his...
Not only his equipment but his intelligence and his enthusiasm
and his creativity have actually...
What he's brought to the work, to what's possible.
Because of the size of some of the pieces and the hard work
in actually moving them, when you have something
that can actually lift them, it just opens a lot of possibilities
and it just makes life so easy, doesn't it?
But you don't just get a nice square block, do you?
Yeah, there are some pieces which are easy...
Quite easy to handle, but, you know,
there's a variety of shapes and, you know, you have to figure out
how can you physically lift it safely and without doing any damage?
When Yonks first helped me, it was just him with his truck and a crane.
Now he's got ten articulated lorries,
a very flourishing business and his son is now very active.
And he's a whizz with a crane.
Over the years, because of the interest in David's work,
I've got to know other people's work.
It's just give us a bit of interest into art.
You come to know who they're by.
I suppose if I hadn't been carrying David's work,
I wouldn't have given it a second thought.
But if I see a piece, I think, what would it be like to carry that
and how would we go about doing it?
You have that thought in the back of your mind all the time.
The cube, sphere and pyramid appear often in Nash's work,
seen here in Chicago.
And here, in the prestigious Tate Gallery in St Ives.
And it's the landscape of Wales that might have influenced
the young David Nash, whilst on family holidays
to his grandparents, who lived near Blaenau Ffestiniog.
I began to be aware that they were actually in the mountains
that I've grown up with.
There's a...from looking from Port Madog,
looking east, there's the Cnicht mountain.
That runs into the Moelwyn Mawr.
Then there's the Moelwyn Bach.
And so, obviously, I can see that there are shapes.
I didn't make these as a result of knowing that.
But I feel that as a child these forms are probably living into me.
With geometric forms, which are universal forms,
they live in us all, and they don't belong to anybody.
In 2009, the National Eisteddfod in Bala
recognised David Nash's contribution to the arts in Wales
with a special exhibition.
He is also represented in the collection
at Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales.
We have got a body of work ranging from one of his most important
early pieces, right through to recent drawings
and a wonderful sculpture multi-cut column.
So we've got a significant body of David's work from across his career.
Nash, in the National Museum of Wales, is symbolic of somebody
who has chosen to make his entire career based in Wales.
I remember early in his career, any curator such as myself
wanting to make a project with him, rule number one is,
you've got to come and see me where I am and look at my work,
and understand it in the context of my locality.
So he's demonstrated that such a career is possible in Wales.
By choosing to live in Blaenau, North Wales,
by in a sense cutting himself off - not really,
because actually he's very aware of what's happening in the art world.
But being able to have that distance,
and I suppose a kind of a peace. Being able to just make the stuff
that comes out of him and not just be unduly influenced by fashion
and what other people say or think or do.
But yes, very much his life and work being intertwined.
If one reflects on David's career,
you get a fantastic sense of both consistency and range.
He is rooted in Blaenau Ffestniog.
He has an incredible sense of continuity with some of his projects
in that locality.
But also, one's conscious of the global reach of his work,
and how, through his approach to the work,
he has engaged communities around the world
in a methodology that is absolutely extraordinary in my view.
So that as well as coming up with significant pieces, objects,
drawings, installations, in their own right, he's also generated
this sense of sharing ideology, values, experiences.
And I think that's, in a way, the real significance of the work.
Many people are involved in projects overseas.
Often it's construction workers who engage with the art long before
curators and gallery directors see the installed sculptures.
I think they're beautiful. I'm amazed.
I've never seen anything like it.
How did the shapes come about?
These ones that go up like this are for the rising sun.
And those ones coming down, are for the setting sun.
So this is like a flame, and that's like a patch or a wedge, or both, coming down.
Yeah, well this is the only one that the sun will shine through.
So they were cut and shaped for the sunshine itself?
Where the sun comes up, the sun goes down, yeah.
I'll be darned.
David Nash has undertaken many international projects
throughout Europe, the United States and Japan.
These events bring people together, as they share a common goal
to realise major works of art.
Throughout the '70s and early '80s, Nash worked alone.
But with a global demand for him to exhibit in other countries,
Nash realised the benefits of bringing teams together,
to create the works overseas.
Evan Shively's woodyard ethically sources its timber
from this part of California,
making it the ideal place for Nash to find his raw material
and work with wood that is not native to Britain,
such as eucalyptus and the great redwood trees also known as Sequoia.
I had the pleasure of meeting David for the first time
maybe three or four years ago.
I didn't realise we'd been building his candy store this whole time.
But he did as soon as he drove in.
It is fascinating in working with him, of course,
that the conversation goes both ways.
Sequoias have grown for thousands of millennia in their forms.
But now I walk in a forest and I'll say,
"My, that's a Nashy one, isn't it?"
He lives it, breathes it.
Every moment of the day or night, it is always percolating.
This Nash sculpture, the Oculus Block,
was formed out of a huge root and trunk of four eucalpytus trees
that fused together as they grew.
For me, it doesn't really need to symbolise anything.
The thing is what it is. It could be nothing else in the world.
I love that idea that David has brought together
all of these different agencies.
And then to develop the equipment necessary to cut the edges from it.
Which were chainsaws, double-ended chainsaws, a motor at each end.
And I think there was something like 20 feet of chain on those saws.
With two guys holding the saws, so that they were on lifts,
and as they came down the piece they shaved off these edges
and sliced off those pieces of wood in one go.
So you get this incredible surface.
The chainsaw is just to make a straight cut, yes,
but also to be able to make one simple gesture
so you can see the marks of the tool
going uninterrupted across the face, and to emphasise the simplicity
of the very minimal nature of his interventions into it.
Almost how little it took,
with the right insight, to make it into a sculpture.
Other artists have occasionally asked us
to consider literally the passage of time in their work.
But I don't think there are many artists who have embedded
those kinds of ideas in the material reality of their work.
The centrality of it to David's work is pretty unique.
David Nash has always recognised that time is an integral element
to the way he works in wood.
A lump of wood cut from the base of a fallen oak
allowed Nash to explore decay and reintegration,
as the lump was pushed into a nearby stream
and followed as it was washed down the mountain by successive storms.
It became known as the Wooden Boulder.
Eventually it made its way into the Dwyryd Estuary and became mobile.
The Wooden Boulder is, geometrically, essentially a sphereish thing.
If it was a cube or a triangular shape, it would be a manufacture.
But it looks enough like a boulder to be naturally there.
It sort of is in disguise.
That's the other thing about my outdoor pieces.
It's this low visibility.
I'm not very interested in making big red things outside,
that shout at you.
These earlier works, particularly, Wooden Boulder and Ash Dome,
are very discreet and have low visibility,
like the wooden boulder, people would walk past it
and think it was a boulder. That's fine.
The wooden boulder would travel four miles out
and four miles back with the tides in the estuary.
The artist would photograph and film it where it settled,
until one day, the wooden boulder could not be found.
After much searching, it was finally declared lost in 2003
and presumed to have gone out into the Irish Sea
and even beyond to the Atlantic Ocean...
..a journey that took 25 years.
To explore the concept of living and growing sculpture,
a circle of ash trees were planted in 1976.
All the time, he's learning what each of these woods does
and they all work in different ways
and so he understands how ash reacts in certain conditions,
how beech reacts and how those woods are used in particular ways.
Through these living works, Nash has a deeper understanding
of his materials, incorporating the elements more fully
into his understanding and relationship with wood and trees.
It is only now, after 30 years of careful nurturing,
that the Ash Dome is being realised.
If I was to prune this branch off, if I prune it here,
it can't grow over the wound.
If I cut it back here where these rings are,
that bark has got the capacity to actually heal over the wound.
If I cut it here, this will rot
and then you get a rot spot going back into the tree.
Obviously not good.
Here, we've got a very successful healing
so that was quite a big branch I cut off
and that has actually grown over and completely healed.
So that took about 10 years to completely grow over
and seal itself up, very satisfactorily.
It's just this gathering of practical, hands-on knowledge.
It just comes part of the great compost of information
and feelings and everything that makes up a maturing human being.
So like a tree, there is an 18 year-old inside here,
there is a six year-old, which still has an essence coming through
into how I am now but, hopefully,
one is learning and becoming a little wiser from all this deeper knowledge,
out of which one is created.
At the workshop, massive lumps of wood continue to arrive
to be transformed into major works of art before they leave
Blaenau Ffestiniog to go on a journey where they will be seen
and appreciated in galleries and public spaces all around the world.
The next generation is already responding
to the work of the sculptor from the slate town,
who has brought Blaenau Ffestiniog
to the attention of the world through his art.
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