Storming the Beaches: Driftwood Horse Sculptures
By Michele Brouder
In the exciting world of driftwood sculpture, two names are legend: Heather Jansch and James Doran Webb. A relatively new, commercial medium in the history of art, these two artists have set the standard for powerful, high quality sculpture. Both graciously agreed to be our featured sculptors for Glassing Magazine’s issue devoted to driftwood.
James Doran Webb
One cannot look at the powerful driftwood sculptures of James Doran Webb and not stop, pause, and gape with mouth open. Wow.
James Doran Webb. Artist. Craftsman. Driftwood sculptor. British by birth, his passion for art is in his blood. Growing up with parents who were both antique dealers and world travelers, he was exposed to both art and foreign cultures at a young age. This exposure left a huge impression on him and also led to an immense respect for art and its craft.
Although he has been an artist and a craftsman his whole life, it is only in the last two decades that he has started working with driftwood. He began making tables, chairs, and accessories for the home. It was his mother who asked him for a horse and when he found a piece of driftwood that suited that endeavor, thus was the beginning of his creation of driftwood horses.
The production of a driftwood sculpture is both labor intensive and time consuming. The initial process involves making a stainless-steel underlying structure called an armature which is then welded together. Large slabs of driftwood are then bolted onto the armature with the tips of the bolts being welded on. After that smaller slabs are screwed on. In the case of the horse, this process can take up to four months. The mane and tail are the last ones to go on. At the very end, James and his staff fill each and every hole with the same driftwood used on the main sculpture to ensure that it weathers the same.
When he made his first, basic driftwood sculpture years ago, it took approximately four months to complete. It still takes roughly the same amount of time today as both the complexity and level of detail have increased over time.
There are 20+ species of drifted wood and James quickly learned that taken away from its salt water environment, driftwood starts rotting almost immediately. It soon became apparent to James that only one species could withstand the continued exposure to the elements. That wood is Molave which has been dead for at least fifty years. It degrades slowly and is insect repellant. From his home, in the central Philippines, he now works exclusively with Molave wood for his sculptures.
According to James, there are two challenges to working with driftwood: “There is no established techniques of working with my material - therefore I cannot google a work method - I have to invent one! I have come up with methods to make a driftwood sculpture as strong as a bronze structure however it has been a lot of trial and error. Another great challenge is it is not possible to shape the driftwood to make the form - so you are obliged to work with what is already there. Unlike sculpting in other materials where you can cut off and shape the material until you have the form you are looking for.”
James Doran Webb currently lives on the island of Cebu, in the central Philippines with his family. He is involved in several community projects, most notably 80,000 Trees where he has planted 24,000 seedlings of which 16,000 have survived and are thriving. You can read more about him through his website: www.jamesdoranwebb.com.
One look at Heather Jansch’s sculptures of driftwood and bronze equines and one is impressed with at least two things: the artist has not only a deep love of horses but an intuitive sense for detail which translates into a sublime body of art. Her international acclaim is a well-deserved accolade. Her artwork sells globally with buyers ranging from private to corporate clients.
Heather has had a life-long love of both horses and drawing. Initially, she started out as a portrait painter of horses. She evolved into sculpting horses using clay and subsequently copper wire but felt her sculptures lacked power. She continued to experiment to find a solution. Inspiration literally rolled in with the tide one morning in the shape of driftwood. With her love of horses, her background in drawing, and a longstanding fascination with driftwood, it was like a perfect storm that ended up in the creation of her magnificent pieces.
Working with driftwood for over thirty-five years, she began collecting from beaches and estuaries along the Devon coast which lies in the southwest of England. In the beginning, she reports that driftwood was plentiful and there was no problem in sourcing it when she began to do her life-size pieces. However, with the mass production of driftwood products now currently available, driftwood has become scarce in the UK. Currently, some local estates will supply her with her resource.
She was recently asked if she was the victim of her own success and her answer is this: “Yes because my horses have made driftwood so fashionable that it is now really scarce in the UK. So far I have managed to avoid importing any and there is always the possibility that I could find myself invited to do a residency somewhere with abundant driftwood when it might be possible to fill a container.”
As for what she finds most challenging when working with driftwood: “It is as well that I like problem solving and puzzles because the most challenging aspect was, and remains, how to achieve sufficient strength whilst retaining enough space between the pieces of wood and at the same time concealing the steel armature (simple frame) that supports everything.”
Some of her best life-size pieces have taken up to five years to bring to their full potential before they are ready to be cast in bronze, it is a complex process and is described in detail on her website. The wait time for new castings is between four and six months. Driftwood does not last well outside so Heather only sells originals for interiors.
Heather’s work is not limited to driftwood equine sculptures. She also makes drawings and bas relief.
If you’re in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming area, Heather has a show at the Diehl Gallery running from September 7, 2018 to October 27, 2018.
For more information, visit www.heatherjansch.com.
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine September/October 2018 issue.