A truly Cornish artist

PUBLISHED: 22:33 13 June 2013 | UPDATED: 22:33 13 June 2013

James Eddy working on Growth and Decay

James Eddy working on Growth and Decay


Walking up the garden path to what I hope is artist James Eddy’s house, my gaze is attracted to a shoal of shimmering silver fish, dancing on iron stems and swimming gracefully in the long grass and salted wind. I am in the right place. Next to greet me are the bright blue eyes and easy handshake of James himself, who welcomes me with a friendly “Here she is!” before guiding me into his sunlit home and offering coffee and a heap of chocolate crepes.

By way of an introduction James gives me a tour, not of the house, but of the many artworks within it. Hung on walls, piled in boxes and gracing tabletops are sculptures, carvings and works in progress, and as we sit down to our interview at a beautiful table carved by James himself, questions about what sort of person has the commitment to work in his rarefied field of sculpture are already being answered.

James Eddy is an artist whose work falls into the category of site-specific art – a unique genre of artwork that has little to do with the world of the commercial gallery and everything to do with concept and community. This is not work for money. Site-specific, or environmental art, emerged in the late 1960s as a reaction against the growing commercialisation of art, and over the last 40 years has intersected with land art, performance art and installation art. Created in response to ‘place’ and inseparable from its immediate surroundings, site-specific art is designed to restructure the viewer’s perceptual experience of a particular environment, an idea encapsulated in sculptor Richard Serra’s famous dictum ‘to remove the work is to destroy the work’.

Greatly acclaimed as resident artist at Cornwall’s Lost Gardens of Heligan and recently returned from showing at the ‘Omnia Scroll’ International Exhibition in Venice, James’ route to the cutting edge of contemporary sculpture has been a fascinating one.

Born and raised in Gwithian and educated at Redruth, James was awarded a Duchy of Cornwall scholarship to Scotland’s prestigious Gordonstoun School - renowned for educating both the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales - to study science and maths at A level. Here, James pursued his passion for the outdoors, walking, sailing and mountaineering in the beautiful Scottish Highlands but, far from home and wrestling feelings of social isolation, he found comfort in making artwork and writing poetry.

Combining heartfelt creativity with his love of nature, James began to see himself as something of a woodsman and focused on a career in ecology, opting to study for a BSc in Science and the Environment and taking a gap year job as an assistant ranger, where he learned the time honoured crafts of hedging and coppicing.

Continuing always to make his art, lightening struck when James returned home to Cornwall for the holidays and offered his skills as a volunteer set builder for Kneehigh’s community theatre project. Inspired by his experience at Kneehigh to pursue a career as a professional artist, he booked a room at Falmouth’s Poly arts centre and gave his first exhibition of poetry, paintings and sculpture. He has never looked back.

In 2004 James was selected to assist internationally respected African sculptor El Anatsui with his sculptural commission for the Eden Project. 2005 saw James’ first site-specific work, Limpet, a glittering, night time beach installation of flaming seashells which connected the natural elements of sand, sea, air and fire in a glorious outdoor display of movement and colour. That same year his one-day installation, Material, used long and short lengths of gleaming white and vibrant red fabric to wrap trees, restructure space and define lines of perspective at Camborne’s Tehidy Woods. In 2008 James was lead artist on a community art project to create a giant fish-skeleton sculpture as part of Flushing Arts Fair. Visually imposing and elegantly constructed from reclaimed timber, the work was inspired by Flushing’s history of mackerel fishing.

His 2011 work, Growth and Decay, the result of a year long residency at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, is an awe-inspiring example of site-specific land art, where sculpture is not merely placed in, but created from the very landscape around it. An organic, gravity defying sculpture of charcoaled wood that twists towards the sky like a plant form reaching for the sun, Growth and Decay, has developed as a living artwork from its conception, as insects, fungi, seeds and weather work their magic on its burned and strangely beautiful surface.

Truly an exercise in artistic commitment, this work is the result of months of chopping and carrying wet wood to the sculptural site, texturing and carving timber by hand with Swedish axes and splitting wedges, creating natural tinder from Willow Bay herb and burning and charring logs one at a time to create wonderful textures and colours. Like a jigsaw puzzle, during construction James let each branch find its own place, trusting the naturally emerging form to define itself as an imposing, elemental curve.

Discussing with me ideas of art, theatre and architecture inherent in site-specific work like this, James cites Leonard Koren’s seminal book, ‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers’ and ‘In Praise of Shadows’, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, as inspirational texts. He also recites the Zen saying: ‘Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water’, meaning commit yourself fully to even your smallest acts.

I begin to understand what James is saying: the art of creating responsive sculpture of such astonishing sensory power is a simple exercise in physical labour and faith.

When asked how I should describe him - land artist, environmental artist, sculptor - James resists being labelled. Perhaps the site-specific nature of his work means that throughout his life and career, he will become whatever is required of him in that moment and place. n

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