The first piece in a new series by Catrina Davies exploring the relationship between art and landscape
I take the path through the old forest. An extended family of oak, ash, beech, birch and holly, dripping with bright red berries. Puffed-up cushions of psychedelic moss. Leaves drifting downwards in weightless silence, like the first snow. The ground beneath my wet feet a trillion different colours. The silence full of voices. The woods full of faces. Trees twist into animals and twist back again as I get closer. A pair of antlers turns into some fallen branches. An old man on a bench is a couple of rotting stumps.
The path follows a full-to-bursting river along a valley in Snowdonia that is buried like a dream beneath a scarred and shivering landscape of defunct slate quarries, bleak villages and howling peaks. The old forest is circled by managed conifer forestries. The forestries feel placeless, in the same way that new towns, identikit high streets and shopping centres feel placeless. It is difficult to connect with them. They have nothing to say. The old forest has plenty to say. Sculptor Dominic Clare is listening.
Dominic has lived in a rambling stone house in the bottom of this valley for 24 years. He is one of the reasons I keep coming back. I am fascinated with his garden. I come back and back to surreptitiously peer over his wall. It’s like peering into the mind of the forest.
Spirals hide behind trees like spirits. Faces blend into the woodpile, making me look twice. Punk haircuts, sunglasses, a charred torso in the fire pit. This is Dominic’s workshop, his playground, his head turned inside out. A sculpture garden and a sculptor’s garden.
Dominic was assistant to David Nash in Blaenau Ffestiniog around the same time that I was born not three miles away (as the eagle flies) from Nash’s studio, in a tiny village by an old slate-quarry at the foot of a dark mountain. Being 50 miles from the nearest hospital, and November, my home-birth was an act of bravery on the part of my parents for which I am truly grateful. The first sounds I heard were not the bleeping of machines, but the bleating of sheep and the laughing of the stream at the bottom of the garden. The light that opened my eyes was not a fluorescent strip light but crackling firelight and the rapidly-changing cloud shadows sprinting over the mountain tops. Like Nash’s famous Wooden Boulder, I resurface from time to time, near the stream where I was born. Pulled back by an invisible thread.
As I wander, with Dominic’s blessing (having finally mustered the courage to knock on his door), through his barn of a workshop, which is overflowing with ideas, and his enchanted garden, which fills a couple of hay-meadows right next to the river, I reflect on the propensity we humans have for developing strong emotional ties with the places that made us, investing them with deep and personal meanings, loving them like lovers. Art helps with this.
Dominic’s wood carvings have become part of what Snowdonia means to me. They are the human face of this landscape I love. They are watchful mountains that fold back endlessly on each other, like a hallucination. They are cold feet and clouds that descend in seconds, turning an ordinary climb into a terrifying ordeal. They are bogs with arms that snatch at my legs and wind that roars like a dragon. And they are the laughing spirits, faces and voices of ancient trees.
As he shows me around Dominic is thoughtful. This time next year he will have relocated to southern England, in order to be closer to his family. ‘A hard place to leave,’ I venture. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply. I get the feeling he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Dominic Clare is a sculptor and land artist with previous commissions for the Hay Festival and the National Trust. His art reveals a sensuous enjoyment in the rawness of form that is resonant and moving. The scale and size of his sculpture heralds the totemic and is made with an eye and heart fixed firmly in the majesty of Snowdonia.