A crepuscular unveiling

What a magical dusk, with refreshments on tap and low lighting bringing the Square to life as the day withdrew over High Wood’s horizon and 80 people or so celebrated. It was summed up for me by my watching one of the last people to leave the square, who had been – silently – looking at the sculpture almost as if in a trance. He said that he hadn’t contemplated something like this for a long time, and we talked about the value of things which have no purpose other than to inspire such contemplation. With that, my – our – job is done. To those who were there tonight, I’m sorry we didn’t have the same rich interaction time as during the stone’s creation. I’ll value those sessions and the conversations and threads they spawned.

My speech notes for the benefit of those who couldn’t be there:

It is 5 years since we first discussed a new, exciting way of creating public art engaging with local people, here at Highwood Village in Horsham District.

The sculpture has responded to the past and present of High Wood’s landscape on the banks of the Arun, led by my eyes – and the memories, information and experience which have been volunteered by many of you – in addition to your considerable efforts with the tools.

Berkeley Homes committed to something meaningful which goes beyond the “design” that we see in most modern public art, surrendering to a emergent process which becomes a rich thread in peoples’ lives when empowered to contribute. It has resulted in a work which is locally distinctive but links with my other stones on the South Downs;  in Lewes, at the Devil’s Punchbowl – and another work also influenced by the River Arun – at Pulborough.

There is synergy in others being able to consider the work “theirs” whilst an artist feels uncompromised in his or her “art”. It is worth explaining the process:

Marking the stone into random, smaller forms starts to suggest things to the eye; thus the first sessions gave participants freedom in following their own thoughts while being instructed to carve stone safely. Things happen by chance and others’ intention. That might be the heart inscribed on one side of the block by our very first community carver from right here at Highwood (it disappeared several days later) or the little profile of a head carved several days later which still exists on the rock now. Other marks will have indirectly led to where significant holes started to form.

As the stone progresses and a local story starts to take hold, you became skilled apprentices under direction, helping me carve deeper in the block, the vision emerging.

8 tonnes – 60 days – 360 hours – Between 1.5 and 3 million chisel ‘releases’ of stone – 1.5 tonnes removed. All by hand. 15 Highwood families – 40 carvers in wider Horsham – 400 contributing through interest and discussion including all those from Highwood Mill – thankyou all for keeping me going through the colder and rainier sessions. 

The carving has developed from early Spring to Autumn 2019 and has responded to High Wood above the young river Arun.

Development has funded archaeology which has uncovered more about the the pasture lands of the Weald. The oaks which surround us here lie on an arc which follows an oval around the base of the High Wood and dates perhaps to Iron Age times – the first ditched enclosure to the protected hill which later became field boundaries – and whose mature trees now connect the open spaces through Highwood. 

Those craggy, time-worn oaks emerge in the stone.

There are some obvious forms which have emerged; duck, heron, woodpecker, grazing cow and pike – from visual prompts and your stories told.

And some less obvious – the owl, roosting bats, the water wheel, medieval mill shack, the gnarled trees… and blackberry (which grew on the riverbank close to our carving site)

The figure’s overarching stance embraces all the other forms. The chance element of it emerging – essentially 15 feet tall – is a huge energy lift for the final work. 
I decided that it needed to “stay” at the stage of the woodpecker emerging close to where the figure’s face would be. It somehow united the faunal forms, like some friendly Green Man.

The upper area of the block is deliberately less worked as it represents a lot of the indistinct tree tops, but many see more than just the head of the human figure; bison or large animals have been mentioned. In thinking what response this elicits that might link back to High Wood, we must look to the Horsham district’s Knepp Estate where the re-wilding project is seeing a return to a more primeval Wealden landscape. Perhaps the glimpsed heads might link to things like the extinct Aurochs, an ancestor of the domestic cow as well as the European Bison, domesticated some 8000 years ago.

Our bird of prey crept in from the circling of the High Wood buzzard pair and occasional wavering red kite’s flight. I suppose it also records the first trip of one of the recently-released Solent white-tailed eagles over Horsham – following the corridor of the Weald, Knepp’ Castle’s Re-Wilding project and the South Downs – back home to the Isle of Wight.

Thanks to photographers Anne Purkiss, Cliff Palmer and David Leadbetter who have documented both the stone, setting and sculptor in their various ways. Whether it be youtube channel, national sculpture recording project or exhibition material for a broad body of work on sculptors, it highlights Horsham and Highwood on the cultural map – where genuinely interesting cultural things have happened and where a significant object now exists which is good for a thousand years or so.

Thanks also to Berkeley who have hosted and patiently supported both the process and the visitors participating. When “somewhere to sit next to the stone” was suggested by one of the locals, Emma had a bench installed before the week was out.

Lastly, to Horsham District Councillors who provide a steer for how developer contributions should benefit local people. Doing something different takes vision – artists continue in their work but with opportunities like Berkeley Homes’ community sculpture project at Highwood Village, Horsham residents – and young people particularly – have experienced something extra-ordinary – and which will endure for future generations.

To ALL the carvers, you now need to think of YOUR next block! Your work here is done!


(Oh – and the stone was named, but you can wait for the next posting for that one).


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