Calder Wood Veterans

Calder twisted limb beech

Calder twisted limb beech, Charcoal on paper

My most recent charcoal works form the beginnings of what I think may be a much larger series. ‘Veterans’ encompasses trees which may not necessarily be very old for their species but have some of the characteristics of ancient trees, perhaps due to damage, past management or a challenging environment. Rot holes, water filled hollows, fungal growth, broken branches or damaged limbs all give these trees an aesthetic appeal I can’t resist drawing, as well as creating a rich range of habitats which sustain multiple other lives.

Calder bundled beech

Calder bundled beech, Charcoal on paper

For me, it’s these veteran qualities which make these particular trees stand out: their visual richness demands attention. I’ve returned to these six trees numerous times over the last 3 years since my first visit to the wood. The tree drawn below had one large surviving limb when I first encountered it, which had broken by last autumn, seemingly under its own weight. It must have happened shortly before my visit as the leaves were still fairly fresh, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was witnessing a death. It now stands like a slowly decaying monument to itself.

Calder collapsed beech

Calder collapsed beech, Charcoal on paper

Read more about how to recognise ancient and veteran trees at the Ancient Tree Forum

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Beginning the Howden residency

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I see my residency at Howden Park Centre as a fantastic opportunity for me to take stock of where my work is now and explore some new possibilities for the future.  Looking at the work on the walls gives me a more complete perspective than when it’s dotted around the studio – I can regard it as a body of work rather than as a series of individual pieces. I’m hoping that this will spark a period of experimentation, but I have to trust my subconscious on this as I have no idea right now where it will take me.

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Collaboration is a more certain way to stimulate new ideas so I’m delighted that writer and photographer Steve Smart has agreed to work with me over the next few months.  I did a fair bit of preparation for the residency earlier this year, principally getting to know Calderwood and learning my way around its variety of landscapes, so it was great to share some of my finds with him on a visit last week and fascinating to see the wood from his perspective. We were also really lucky to have a clear, crisp and frosty day for the visit with gorgeous light.

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He will be writing some poems in response to the locations, trees and themes in my work, which he’ll present at the closing event of the Dialogue with trees exhibition. In the meantime, feast your eyes and your ears on his images and poems on his blog

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Tree hunting in West Lothian

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Having had a illness last year which incapacitated me for about 6 months (which I’m working up to blogging about sometime), I’m so happy to be able to get back to the woods this winter. So I started the year by making some plans to explore new locations through a series of mini-residencies – a sort of self-directed intense period of study, learning about the history of the landscape, making links with locally knowledgeable people and making as many on site drawings as I can.

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Since I have an exhibition at the Howden Park Centre in Livingston scheduled for the end of the year, it seemed natural to start in West Lothian. While the recent storms have been blowing outside, I’ve been indoors poring over old maps and current satellite images, looking for clues to more ancient landscapes and some likely places to look for old trees. I thought I knew West Lothian pretty well, having worked there on and off for the last 20 years, but Calder Wood is an exciting new discovery for me.

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It’s a plateau of ancient woodland bounded by the Murieston Water and the Linhouse Water, which both join the river Almond at Almondell. The river banks are steep and the trees mostly hide the surrounding housing, making it feel much more remote than it actually is.

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These are a few photos of the wonderful trees I found – impressive old beeches, gnarly sycamore, elderly birches, hazel coppice, twisty decaying sweet chestnut.

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I’m starting to learn my way around the woodland now, working out how all the little tracks fit together, where the clusters of old trees are and which are the best candidates for more prolonged sketching.

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Maps are marvellous for getting the structure of a new place into my head, but now I realise I need to start creating my own mental maps – these are the first of many days in Calder Wood…

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