Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Essence of Wolf 

Journal: Sunday 7 August

Seaside craft shops – or those in any tourist area, for that matter – are a rather mixed bag. Sometimes full of nothing but imported junk, sometimes with goods of moderate merit but no local connection, sometimes with local products that are in effect mass-produced – simple designs churned out by the score; pleasing enough perhaps, but nothing special.

Once in a while though, one stumbles on a treasure. I found one such this morning; the outward appearance was fairly typical - small, with an eclectic jumble of eye-catching trinkets in the window together with some locally produced work – but although cramped, the layout wasn’t crowded and the face behind the counter looked friendly and welcoming. A century ago, all of the shops in this narrow street would have been houses, and even as a house the rooms would have been small; as a shop, they were minute, several, and on multiple levels (probably as a result of internally linking two neighbouring houses); the archetypal Aladdin’s cave experience. Through the first room, through the second, down a step, past the narrow stairs, and up another step lay the furthermost room, and in the farthest corner of that farthest cave I spied something that caught my eye.

I couldn’t tell quite what it was at first; a rough, unfinished-looking sculpted shape, rather like a pile of curled up oak leaves gathered and glued together in a wild, almost savage shape. The head – or what I took to be a head - suggested wolfishness, although at first the form wasn’t obvious. At one level, what I saw in front of me was a wire frame to which had been applied thumbnail-sized dobs of clay, roughly formed, and minimalist colour applied. Once you looked past that apparently crude appearance, it was undeniably wolf-shaped, but equally undeniably it was a long way from a true physical likeness of a wolf; almost as far as you could get from such a likeness without losing it altogether.

Yet the more I looked, the more wolf it became. Not as a physical likeness, but almost a spiritual one. In her sculpture, the sculptress had presented pure essence of wolf – savage, powerful, cunning, single-minded. Just as fur is only the outer covering of the animal, so the clay’s irregular surface was just the outer appearance; somehow, the bone and muscle and sinew and spirit were there too, underneath.

The sculpture was hollow; a wire frame covered on top and side with clay but open beneath. Like trying to catch an invisible sprite by throwing paint over it, it was as though she’d caught the wolf’s spirit by moulding clay around it; primitive wolfishness made incarnate. She’d seen beyond fur and muscle and bone into the very soul of the wolf and given it form, bringing it into our world of sight and shape and touch.

If art can ever be said to have a purpose, perhaps this is it: the artist experiences something a little beyond the reach of our usual senses and finds a way to bring it into our awareness. And in that moment, our awareness expands.

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