Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Artist in Focus: Nic Webb
[ Artist in Focus, Artist Interview )
We caught up with sculptor Nic Webb to chat about what inspires him, his many different sculpting techniques and how he works with what nature gives him. His sculpture Form within Li is on display in our current exhibition Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water.
How does it feel to be included in this exhibition?
It feels lovely to be in the exhibition amongst other contemporary artists, but also in the context of the deeper history of creativity – that feels really lovely.
I imagine that juxtaposition of contemporary art with the older work in the exhibition just looking beautiful. That dialogue between old and new – it gives us a bearing. When we look back in history, the only thing that is left is a manifestation of creativity – art or writing. These are some of the only things that illuminate the past and we as makers and producers today are part of that process. It gives us a good idea about where we come from, if you know what I mean? And so, it’s important to me to be seen in that context.
You initially trained as a painter, what has been your journey as an artist?
I love painting, that was my thing. So whenever I see paintings, I think ‘aw blimey I wish I was painting’.
I have a piece of writing from when I was seven years old says ‘I want to be an artist and paint the whole world rainbow colour.’ That is something that I wrote as a tiny little tot. It always reminds me of what we can become if we follow our intuition, our heart and our dreams is almost innate and within us. You can imagine some sort of cultural lineage that runs genetically from generation to generation.
I’ve got a long line of makers and carpenters and creativity running back in my family. My name, Webb, means weaver, you know. So that is my lineage. And I just think that we have a propensity…we are almost destined to be what we become. In part nature and nurture. So I’ve always been drawn, always loved drawing and painting and then making and I’ve never known anything other, to be honest with you. I have just always kept going. I wouldn’t do very well at an office job!
How did you get into sculpture?
I studied painting at college. It was just oil painting and figurative but then I moved into more of an assemblage of quite deep relief work. I then moved to London and I was in a lot of commercial set building, model making and creative stuff.
I got myself a studio again and started painting, and then by chance I was given some green wood from one of the London galleries. It had come down from one of the parks. I just started cleaving it and making some spoons. It was about 2007, something like that. I did about 9 or 10 years of spoon carving, bowl making, greenwood carving and lots of teaching. That transmuted into vessels that became more abstract, less utilitarian, more sculptural and more artistic. That’s brought me full circle back around to a much more art driven narrative.
But also, having done ten years of traditional craft or to some degree heritage craft … it’s just a lovely confluence between the two. I feel like I have really cut my teeth and earnt my right to be working with wood. I’ve come from the shop floor of craft and material understanding. I have come to a point of artistry that is true to me, without being conscious or playing my own trumpet.
I love the idea of bringing the sincerity and the ‘groundedness’ of elements of craft to my work that can then start speaking in an artistic way and inspiring narratives. But I want to do it in a way that is not alienating the public and not alienating the viewer. One of the things is the tactility, the quality of wood – everybody understands that. Everyone loves touch because it’s where we come from – the backbone of human ingenuity. The tree serves us in so many ways, shelter, protection, warmth, cooking. We are innately connected to it.
How do you choose your materials?
Often stuff comes to us. People might come to the studio and say ‘Nic do you want to take a look at this?’ That can happen out of the blue. And some material comes from a few areas locally. Finding the right material really does involve going and having a good walk about. I’m not looking for great timber being cut into planks. We’re looking for real wood, that very often is this stuff that lumber yards would consider useless.
It’s stuff that’s a bit quirky with a few knots in it or whatever it might be, that’s good for some sculptural timber. I look for pieces where we can create work on what is being suggested by the grain and by the character of each piece. It is a notion of co-design between hands, eye and the material itself and is intuitive.
So, you work with what nature has given you?
Yes and rather than imposing design and form upon the wood, you intuitively work with it. There is a co-design with nature and that is almost like editing. We take away what we think is no longer necessary, but leave what is key to the character of the wood. It can be a pretty dance. That leaves you with something that is very beautiful that is human, but at the same time is really retaining what was so beautiful about the organic and the natural in the first place.
What sort of technique do you use when you are carving your pieces? What tools do you use?
Well, we use the whole array of everything at our disposal. We could be using chainsaws, angle grinders, cutting disks and we’ll use hand drills. We use everything that we can chuck at it you know, to get the job done efficiently and in the best way. Once you get down to the sort of finery and finishing stages, we use some more traditional scrapers, chisels, knives and all that stuff.
There is again a lovely confluence of traditional and more modern techniques. We use a lot of fire which is in the vocabulary of wood. One aspect of it is to be burnt. It can leave you with some beautiful surfaces and contrasting vocabulary. Against the grain you’ve got black against the oak, but then we try freezing the wood to sort of encourage it to split and warp.
We also steam wood, which really drives moisture out of it, but it also causes it to become very flexible. It can buckle and twist like leather does. We employ any technique in a way. Anything goes. We’re certainly not dogmatic in saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I’m much more maverick in my approach. I like that. I like the rebel.
In our exhibition, we are displaying your piece Form within Li. Could you tell me a bit about that work?
It was a couple of years ago. I had just started listening to podcasts in bits and bobs and different ways. I got to know other cultures. I have a real affiliation with Asian culture and things like Buddhism and Taoism. I was just listening and there was this notion of ‘li’, which is the energy that runs through all things. It is a vital natural energy that is the ripples on the pond, eddies in the stream and the grain in the wood.
When I heard some of the metaphoric descriptions of li’s manifestation, I thought ‘crikey this what I’m working with, the grain in the wood’. What I wanted to do with this work, this piece of cherry, which that piece (Form within Li) is made from… actually I’m looking at a piece of cherry right now. It’s got branches coming off. It’s has knots, it has intersections. What I wanted to do with that work was to go in as ‘analogly’ as possible.
By making the fewest cuts, you start to basically discern the line of ‘li’. I wasn’t looking to swirl about and be organic. I just wanted to almost… I just wanted to block in what the ‘li’ was and see what came – it was an experiment really. I’ve done a few pieces like it. It’s like an exercise…if I could only simplify ‘li’ and present that as a form and as a sculptural object.
I just thought it was interesting. It’s the interaction of the human within the natural world and hopefully interacting in a way that is considered respectful. It is not trying to impose upon nature, but almost to enhance and present it and remind the viewer and yourself how special and privileged it is to be able to interact freely in the world.
What what was it particularly about Asian culture and Buddhism and Taoism that really drew you?
I guess this idea of Buddhism and Taoism that they are not so much religions but more philosophies. Take it or leave it. I think going back to that notion of being maverick and rebellious, I’ve never really got along with anything that’s dogmatic. I think it is also an innate thing. My father kept bonsai, I keep bonsai and I love Japan. I have been out there a couple of times and…you just affiliate with certain cultures don’t you?
It’s really hard to know why. I do the same with Greek culture. I love Greece. There’s elements of its cultural heritage that really feature in my work when I’m thinking of making and doing. But I think the fact that there is this consideration of the world but without the imposition of law, you know, nothing is right and nothing is wrong – just being. The elevation of the self in a spiritual sense. That’s what I like.
How has the Sussex landscape and the local area inspired your work?
I moved down here about 9 years ago. I came from 20 odd years in London – moved from Peckham. But now I’m looking out of my workshop, I’m looking out over sheep and through the trees and the fences and the fields and then the South Downs in the background. It is so freeing. The expanse of the landscape almost allows an expansiveness to grow within the mind. But it doesn’t necessarily happen in an instant. You have to work hard at it. You have to emancipate yourself from the conditions that you have been used to.
I enjoy having the more rural landscape in my personal life too. I go out walking and swimming in the sea, paddleboarding and walking in the forest and then the Downs. That doesn’t happen in London. From there it’s a good hour and a half to get somewhere. So it was a very positive move from a work perspective, as well as holistically for my entire life.
Since I’ve been here the work has really grown and developed and the stuff that the studio is now pursuing is exciting. When I moved down here, you know, I was just on my own, but I’ve now got three people working with me. So, it is really growing. We’ve got dreams, we’ve got visions.
Are there any sort of particular parts of Sussex that you particularly like and find inspiring?
If I’m really honest, no. My wife is a midwife, we’ve got a nine year old boy and I am working every single hour that I can possibly lay my hands on to meet everything that we’ve got. I’d love to say that I spend all these hours walking around these fields blah, blah, blah. No, but we get the weekend and we go out but its very local. In a sort of Ravilous-esque landscape we walk Birling Gap and we’ll go to Holywell where we spend all summer down at the beach with friends and family paddleboarding, swimming… And then there’s Preston Forest. We spend a lot of time walking that area. It is so lovely in all seasons.
The environment here (Webb’s studio) has been really beautiful because you are in it every single day. You notice the changing colours, the birdsong… We notice when the spring comes because of the blackbirds and the robins. They change their song when the weather is warming. You really become aware of the minutiae and the tiny little changes which is a rare privilege in our modern era.
What are your plans for the future? What are you working on at the moment?
Taking over the world Matt… I’ve got a gallery in London called Sarah Myerscough Gallery, who are we working with now. We’re on a real roll, we just finished a beautiful commission for a New York designer which is a pendant lighting installation. Very sculptural. Very large. Oak.
We did a table and some small lights that showed in Masterpiece in London. It’s just gone a little bit crazy in the last year. We have lots of commissions for these interior pieces, utilitarian tables and light shades. We are really employing the sort of sculptural aesthetic we have developed in this work.
It is really turning into a more holistic treatment of interiors. So we’re looking at the lighting in the tables, we’re looking at wall pieces and sculptural work and site-specific pieces. I don’t know, we’re really on one, it’s super exciting.
One thing I’ve always said is that the sculptural work – it resonates the feeling within a room or within a space. I’ve always loved the idea of doing the whole space. So I’m driving towards that and it seems to be going in the right direction. We really love to be doing that right now, whether it’s in a gallery sense or an architectural sense. It really excites me to convey our vision. The experience of the space, that’s super exciting. That’s our vision.