Hollow in Elm

26th January 2016

Date                    2015-2016

Size                     120 x 78 x 90cm

Weight                 47.5 KG( at time of completion)

Material               Scorched Elm


'Hollow in Elm' is made from a 200 year old Elm Burr. 

The tree was felled in 2010 having succumbed to the relentless progress of Dutch Elm disease that has decimated nearly all of the mature specimens of this species.

The tree is still common in hedgerows until the age of 15 years when the bark fissures, and the beetle that carries the disease enters the tree.

There are a few large Elm left in Britain. However, despite their protection and conservation, It is feared that all in time will be lost.                                                                                                                                                                                                       




Two Hundred years ago, Elm dominated the landscape of Europe and commonly featured in the art of the time.

When 'Hollow in Elm' was a young sapling, John Constable sat on the banks of the River Stour in Suffolk producing sketches for the Hay Wain.

The completed canvas belonged to  a series of works known as the 'six footers'; Large works depicting the rural landscape on a monumental scale. Historians suggest that the Hay Wain was intended to highlight the merit of rural life and the value of the natural world while warning against the peril of the encroaching urban sprawl of the recent  industrial revolution.

Nearly two hundred years since Constable sketched on the banks of the Stour, the industrialisation of our world has had impact far beyond the vision of his time. We have learned that the repercussion of our actions has had profound effect on the life and ecosystems of the Planet. Once mistakes are made they can be extremely difficult and at times impossible to rectify. 

The mill, the horse and cart and the Elm depicted in the Hay Wain are an echo of a forgotten landscape. They reminds us that despite the apparent permanence of our world, all is changing and all is dependent. 

'Hollow in Elm' is also remnant from this time. Not so much a representation or an impression but an actual, tangible artefact.  An unrepeatable souvenir that transcends the decline of this species from our landscape and quietly stands as an emblem for unavoidable change and the inevitable loss that follows.


The making of Hollow in Elm 

The tree from which this work was made was found buried in the hedgerow of a farm in East Sussex where it had lain for 5 years. Spalting had crept in to the trunk of the tree producing beautiful patterns in the wood. Fungus and mushrooms grew all around. This once majestic tree had begun a journey to ground once more.

With the help of a tractor and a local tree surgeon it was exhumed, recovered and forcibly, a new chapter began. 

When the burr arrived at the studio it weighed around 350kg. There followed several weeks of unrelenting work. I began each morning sharpening tools and prepared for the repetition of the day. At first the task seemed futile. Beyond achievement . Perhaps beyond purpose.

The shaping of the form progressed well but as I began the making of the hollow, I realised a challenge was ahead. 

I became a miner.  Each day I presented myself at the face and I mined Elm. The hollow only existed in my mind. It was a space I would make with my hands, my tools and my time. I chipped, cut, snapped and gouged, applying any action that removed wood and increased the void within the form. When a handful of chips and dust gathered in the base of the hollow, I cleared them with a dusting of the hand.

The hollow became larger. Large enough for my head and shoulders to fit. I spent many days 'inside' with the smell of wet wood and the sound of however many thousands of echoing  taps and scrapes while watching the grain appear and the chips fall. 

At some point in the making I was absorbed by this piece. At night I saw it. Its edges and figure, its pattern and shape. My clothes were full with it. My hands and arms were scratched and ached and I became engulfed by its being.

Though exhausting, I was energized by the work, by the journey, the effort and by the ever closer sense of completion.

Some 300kg were removed from the burr  in this way. What in the beginning seemed daunting was now manifest. What began as an idea, was now tangible. 

The hollow finally complete, I disappointedly felt that all I had created was a synthetic form. An object made by hand. All was imposition. All was considered. 

This failed to inspire me. It is the real and actual that I hope to capture in these works. I do not wish to create facade or imitate.

I began to percieve the work as a canvas on to which, if I were to paint, I must paint blind and without a brush. To depict the real I must let go with both hands and allow the elemental and the careless to take hold. 

 I have found ways to undo my care. To rescind ownership and control and erase these nuisance marks of making.  



The work was burned and sandblasted.

When all was done I admit to being unnerved. For all of my efforts, I could not see a trace of my making.

It appeared to me that I had found an object that had been at sea for many years and washed up on some remote shore. Or perhaps I had collected it from a mountain side untouched but for the wind and the rain.

 I couldn't see my time, my thoughts, myself anywhere.

As this shock subsided and I remembered my hope for the work, I realised that there may have been some personal success.

Nic Webb 2016