Dave Thomas talks to renowned wood sculptor John Merrill at his yard in Glyn Ceiriog
The Ceiriog Valley is often described as an undiscovered gem. But there’s another hidden gem within it – the latest oak colossus created by Sheffield-born sculptor, John Merrill. His work can now be seen all over the country: in schools, housing estates, health centres, forest parks, castles and canals. His sculptures can weigh in at over 15 tons – feats of physicality, ambition, organisation, preparation and meticulous execution.
John started working from the Coed Ceiriog yard just over twelve years ago and has already produced oak sculptures of astonishing range and style. Some of you may have seen his ‘Guard’ at Conwy Castle (commissioned by Cadw) or his Marquis of Bute, holding up the wall of the leaning tower at Caerphilly Castle, or the five giant Black Grouse in Llandegla forest park, or the Horse carved from recycled lock-gates on the
Shropshire Union canal at Nantwich.
I asked about the the Coed Ceiriog cooperative and he replied with certainty, “It means everything to me. It empowers me. I mean I’ve got the space to store huge amounts of oak, space to work, a forklift and the big trailer, the mill – everything I need is here.”
This is carving on a massive scale; some works are more than 15 tons finished. It’s difficult to estimate the tonnage of oak brought into the yard at the commencement of new work but there are several enormous logs (more than a metre in diameter) cut to length and numbered to match a miniature prototype inside the workshop, a model to show to a potential commissioner so the people who pay can get a reasonable idea of what they would be getting for their money.
“It helps me too though. Sometimes they come to you and just say, ‘we want this or we want that’ and they are clear. Sometimes they don’t know what they want and basically give you a blank canvas which is great for me but it’s a bit frightening sometimes. What I’m working on now is for a large housing estate near Brentwood in Essex – it’s to be sited on a bit of green space surrounded on all sides by housing. It’s very ordinary ideas formed in my mind, but you have to take something more than a drawing so I made a mini version and could say to them, ‘this is what I’m thinking of’. But it’s not always like that.
“I wanted to do something to say we have isolated ourselves from the natural world, our housing is boring, sealed away.”
“I am trying to make this squared off form on the outside by cutting right through the tree but you can go inside the thing and find yourself in the woods, in a little clearing with interlocking branches.”
Once the original concept takes form in miniature and he reaches some sort of agreement with the buyer, he has to find the oak from local suppliers like Malcolm Claybrook, Dave Hinton at North Shropshire Timber and Ian Baines who is also a member of the Cooperative and has a forestry tractor and trailer to transport the raw material. He’s looking for trees that have grown into something like the shape in the model. The model may have to be adjusted but the process has started. It’s a battleground of budget, intention and possibility.
Sometimes there is rot in the stem and it has to be discarded. John has to pay a fortune for structural engineers and can’t afford weakness in the timber so finding good quality oak, in the odd shapes you have in the model often means compromise and adaptation as the artwork evolves through limitations of budget and the shapes you want in the sizes you want.
When he graduated in fine art from John Moore’s university in Liverpool in 1996 he had no inkling he would later find himself in Glyn Ceiriog carving an enormous pine cone, ripe and open, for a new college in Sheffield or a pair of giant hands for Derwent Water to celebrate 150 years of the National Trust. He has built a reputation for himself in the twelve years he has been in the Ceiriog Valley and has acquired the machinery and the experience to take on ever more complex projects.
He is hoping to be chosen for two more pieces for the same housing project in Essex. Once the work that is in the Glyn yard now has been erected on site on the Brentwood estate and it finally becomes clear what you get for your money, he may get the go ahead for two more.
That’s good news for local tree fellers, good for the cooperative and good for those helping John remove the bark, the sapwood and all the unwanted material before the next concept emerges from a collection of odd-shaped trees in a yard by a bend in the river in a small village in a valley where nothing much happens. Months of debate, working out, whirring of chainsaws, lifting and rolling, grunting and cursing, delight and disappointment – a new sculpture is emerging from a cold and damp birthing yard. It really is amazing.
Email John at email@example.com or visit his blog at johncmerrill.blogspot.co.uk