Some years ago now, back in the early 90’s, I spent a couple of months in Congo. Most of my time was spent trying to observe Western lowland gorillas and West African dwarf crocodiles in their natural habitat – rainforest. I also spent a little time visiting a good friend and fellow wildlife nut that was working at the Aspinall Foundation gorilla orphanage in Brazzaville. They were doing sterling work (and continue to do so) to reintroduce to the wild, young gorillas that had been rendered parent-less by the trade in “bush meat“.
During my stay I managed to get plenty of hands on experience with some of the residents (see right) and while in the rainforests north east of Brazzaville I managed to have several encounters with wild lowland gorillas. On one occasion, after having been on the trail of a group of three (two males, one female), the two big males decided to have a bit of a scrap (probably over the female). So involved they were with each other that they completely ignored me, even though they were crashing around just a few inches from were I sat.
Ever since this encounter I have wanted to carve the bust of a mature male gorilla or “silverback” as they are also known. I have just been waiting (for the last 27 years) for the right piece of timber to present itself . Then, earlier this year while on a walk near my studio, I took a closer look at a large oak tree that had been struck by lightening and had fallen around 5 or more years ago. I noticed that the sun had bleached the surface of the wood, where the bark had flaked off years previous, to the most amazing silver grey colour. I also spotted that there were some interesting undulations on the surface of this tree that reminded me of the muscular back of a gorilla.
I’d found the piece I was looking for.
After gaining permission from the farmer whose land the tree had fallen on, I selected the section I was interested in and chain sawed the piece down to a size that was manageable but maintained the bulk and features that I required.
I had already decided that I wanted to utilize, as much as possible, the natural weathered look (splits and all) of the oak that had been exposed to the elements; so I had to take great care of that surface while I sawed and manhandled my chosen piece (in fact I wrapped it in an old bedspread while working on it).
Once I had manhandled this piece of oak back to my studio I could start the process of roughing out the basic shape. As with most of my work, I had produced a plasticine maquette of the gorilla bust (in this case at about one third scale) and I could now use this to refer to while carving..
Observant readers will notice that something happened to both the colour and quantity of my hair (see left) during the intervening years since my adventures in the Congo.
As always, I prefer to use hand tools for sculpting, starting with some good size gouges to remove the bulk and then working down in scale to some very small tools of just a couple of millimeters in width and scalpel blades.
As mentioned above, I was leaving the back area as natural as possible, then as I worked towards the face I would graduate from rough tooling with some really big gouge work towards some finer work and a few very carefully sanded wrinkles (see right).
To the left is a photo of the completed “Silverback” after oiling and mounting on a plate of quarter inch steel that I patinated to darken the colour.
I am also very pleased that “Silverback” has been accepted for this years exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists (The Natural Eye) at the Mall galleries in London. The exhibition runs from 25th October until the 4th November 2018.
For more photos from various angles, video and further details, please see the website page.
Thanks for reading.