When I was much, much younger, long before I discovered carving, my father came into the room one day and gave me a stone sculpture of a person holding a sack. My great-aunt Mary had died and the small statue was passed on from her to me.
The Inuit figure had been brought back from Canada by my grandmother in about 1965. That was really all that was known about it. As I learnt more about carving generally, the sculpture interested and intrigued me more and more.
The weight and shape of the dark serpentine, veined with greenish tints and flecked with red, make it so pleasing to hold in one hand. It was clear that someone had worked the design around the shape of the original stone: the dents and depressions of that rock were still visible, albeit smoothed out.
On the base was carved the number 1760. I knew that it wouldn't be a date mark but was it a catalogue number?
Who had carved this mysterious sculpture and where? For years I didn't know. Even a trip to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa failed to turn up anything, with the resident expert being out on that day and subsequent email enquiries to him going unanswered.
Reading books on the subject showed that the sculpture probably came from around the east coast of Hudson Bay but that was about it.
Then I learnt about disc numbers.
Disc numbers were used from 1941 to 1972 (or 1978 in Quebec) and were introduced to help various organisations (such as government agencies) to identify Inuit individuals. Before then people would have one name, given to them by elders. When missionaries arrived, many Inuit took Christian names but often altered them to make them sound more local: so Thomas might become Tumasi.
After the Mounted Police census in the 1940s, identification numbers were assigned to each person and were often used as signatures by Inuit carvers in the 1950s and '60s. The numbers (preceded by an E for east or W for west) were also stamped onto discs which would be worn around the neck or sewn into a parka. This practice was phased out after surnames became officially adopted by Inuit in 1969.
Using a site that traces Inuit artists by their disc numbers, I discovered that my carving had been made by Pauloosie (or Paulosie) Weetaluktuk. He was born in 1938, died in 2012 and lived at Inukjuak, a town on the east coast of Hudson Bay which was formerly known as Port Harrison.
I haven't been able to find any photos of Pauloosie Weetaluktuk that show his face, but have found a presentation that he gave as a member of the 'local grocers' association' to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in June 1992. It gives interesting glimpses of his life as a carver in a place very different to that in which I live.
He talked through a translator as he didn't read or understand English. The main topic was the high cost of living in such a remote place (he said that it was three or four times higher than in more southerly parts of Canada) and how that makes it difficult to survive there. The increases in taxes and high living costs mean that carvings 'do not make much money' any more and it is tough selling skins and handicrafts as there is 'hardly any value in them'.
Pauloosie Weetaluktuk said that: 'Our operating budget has to be very high these days. There are people who have never been employed in their lives, who have depended on carving and they were able hunters, but now that the price of carving has gone down, you just see them as men but they don't operate as men any more. They don't have anything to base their lives on or their manhood on.'
Sometimes it can be easy to forget the hardships that the people who created a carving might have had in making a living. This presentation cuts through any of that to show how tough supporting oneself was at that time in that place. I wonder if things are any better there now? I wish that I could have met Pauloosie Weetaluktuk, who created this beautiful sculpture that has meant a lot to me for a long time, and told him what I've just told you.
I went into the crypt under the church of St John on the Wall in Bristol today, to see 'In the Downbelow', the latest exhibition by the sculptor and model maker Tom Astley.
The crypt dates back to the early 14th century and one of the highlights of the place, for me, was the collection of carved green man faces on the roof bosses. They are quite low down compared to most churches and cathedrals, so can be easily studied from floor level.
This one has a fine set on teeth on show!
The crypt is very atmospheric and had inspired Tom to create some artworks especially to display in this space. It was interesting to see his new pieces, showing the distinctive style that he's developed.
This sculpture is entitled 'Plague doctor' and was based on the physicians, with their strange beaked masks, who tended to victims of the Black Death.
The sculpture 'Lady of Letters' came about because a tomb effigy of a wealthy noblewoman in the crypt shows her writing kit tied to her waist.
This 'Lord of Misrule' has a paper crown and would take over his duties during the Festival of St Stephen. The tradition lasted in Britain until the sixteenth century. Other images based on the idea can be seen amongst the misericords in Bristol Cathedral.
The final sculpture in the exhibition was inspired by the green men carved overhead.
You might agree that the darkly atmospheric artworks fit perfectly in the vaulted stone space of the crypt.
The Binaural Diaries is a project run by Ollie Hall. He records sounds and publishes them online. It started as a way of collecting interesting samples for music but has developed into more of a sound diary: 'binaural' refers to two microphones recording sounds which are transmitted separately to the two ears of the listener.
I chose a few sounds that woodworkers might know but those who don't work with wood may not be aware of. The recordings are of: a sharp woodcarving gouge cutting through seasoned lime wood, detail carving in oak, a side axe cutting larch wood, a drawknife in use on larch and wood being cleaved using a froe and mallet. There was also the chance to talk very briefly about what I was doing in each recording.
It's interesting to think about what you do from a completely different viewpoint. I realised that many of the sounds made in woodworking were things that had previously been taken for granted but which added to the whole process. There is a real satisfaction gained from hearing a tool cut cleanly and some sounds indicate when a change needs to be made (for example, cutting from a different direction as the grain pattern changes). Whatever work you do or whichever pastime interests you, it might be worth spending a short while trying to see that activity from a different sensory angle to see what new things you can learn about it!
After four and a half years working there, funding cuts meant that I was made redundant in 2014. I had been back a couple of times to teach since then and it is always good to see the place develop and grow.
This time, I was spoon carving with the 'Boiling wellness' group. It was great to be back in the nature reserve, carving wood with enthusiastic volunteers. We had a lot of fun and everyone got the chance to try a range of woodworking tools, some of which they might not have come across otherwise.
Doing spoon carving sessions with groups is always interesting as people come up with such a range of designs and styles when given the chance to do so. Once they had got the hang of using the tools safely, there was plenty of room for creativity to come out; working with the grain patterns in the wood for example. I hope that people have had the chance to finish their spoons with the techniques we discussed and that they all enjoyed the day as much as I did!
Each year, for the last three years, I've been honoured to be asked to carve this award. It is presented annually by the cancer charity Penny Brohn UK to a woman who is particularly inspiring: not only because of their professional or charity work but also because they have spoken publicly about their fight with cancer.
The recipient in 2018 was Jacqueline Gold, who is the chief executive of Ann Summers. This company sell lingerie and other items to spice up people's love lives, from shops in town centres all over the UK.
Each award is specially designed for the person who will receive it and this year's was no exception. The charity contacted Ms Gold's Personal Assistant, who told them what things she likes, then that information was relayed to me and informed the first design ideas.
I used some Lawson Cypress timber (known as Port Orford cedar in the US) from Bristol, as the charity's headquarters are just up the road from the place where the tree grew.
I find that this wood is often easier to carve using power tools than hand tools. No matter how sharp the gouges or chisels, the timber will tear a bit whereas cutting discs and abrasives fitted to power tools give a good finish quickly.
The final design was a rabbit, which was inspired by one of Ann Summers' most famous products. I feel that that the sculpture echoes it in a subtle and fun way. The serene-looking bunny has certainly been a hit at the workshops around my studio and apparently among the staff at Penny Brohn UK. I hope that Jacquline Gold likes it too.
There is a box in the back of the rabbit, suitable for holding small items such as keys, change or batteries. The lid is held on using rare earth magnets and has a really satisfying 'thunk' noise when it closes!