FEATURE: Woodcarver who’s never stumped for a way to keep fit
Anyone who spotted sculptor John Williams at work as we shivered through the icy chill of January would asume he’s a man prepared to suffer for his art.
Bitter cold, frost on the grass, freezing mist swirling round the nearby abbey ruins ... none of it deterred John.
He has spent hours chiselling away in his temporary studio – a disused birdcage in the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds.
Far from suffering, he couldn’t have been happier.
He was not only doing something he loves, but the exertion of working the wood kept him so warm he had to peel off his coat.
In fact keeping fit was his main reason for taking up carving again in his 70s.
And he only did it after deciding it was time to give up skateboarding and scooting.
“I used to windsurf,” said the former college tutor and photographer.
“When I gave that up my grandchildren taught me to skateboard and I loved it.
“I did it for nine or 10 years. I’d do five miles round the town in early morning or late evening.
“After that I took up scooting, until my hips told me to stop.
“I’ve only been carving for two and a half years. I needed a way of keeping fit, and it’s hard physical work.
“I’d studied it as a student but hadn’t done any since,” said John, whose Cambridge art college classmates included Spitting Image creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law.
His wife Sandra was also a fellow student.They met travelling on the train every day from Bury to Cambridge, and married in 1964.
John went into teaching and taught subjects including applied art and design at West Suffolk College.
“We used to live in a very nice Victorian house in Bury with a big garden,” he said.
“If I’d stayed there I would never have taken up sculpture because there was always too much to do in the garden. I was becoming a slave to it.
“We moved three years ago to a new home in the town and within a few months I started to whittle.”
He worked with what he could find, picking up pieces of chalk and discarded building materials from the site around his home.
Leftover wood, even a Thermalite insulation block, were transformed into sculptures.
“My first piece was carved with a screwdriver because I didn’t have any tools,” he says.
He put on an exhibition, and sold most of his work.
Meanwhile he had noticed a tempting tree stump near his home in Bury’s Eastgate Street.
“I wanted to carve it into a horse, something children could pat as they passed by.
“So I spoke to Melanie Lesser from Bury in Bloom, and she said why not ask the people who will be looking at it what they would like.
“Residents of Josselyn Court, which is named after the Abbey’s medieval scribe Jocelyn de Brakelond, thought he should be in it.
“So it became Jocelyn and his horse.”
Melanie later asked John to take on the Abbey Gardens project, making four carvings to display in the gardens enjoyed every year by thousands of local people and tourists.
They feature significant figures from the Abbey’s history, a stonemason, a physician, a scribe and a herbalist.
He chose the wood he is using – it comes from elm trees that once stood in Nowton Park.
As he works, the budgies in the cage next door fluff their feathers against the cold and ignore him.
But his presence intrigues passers-by. “Are you OK in there,” one asks.
And there is always time for a word with head gardener Graham Maynard who is helping to oversee the project.
John doesn’t charge a fee for his work. “I see it as my legacy really, something to leave behind.”
When he’s searching for inspiration he turns to one of the greatest masters of all time – Michelangelo.
“I know his sculptures really well and in all my work you can see his influence,” says John, whose CV includes 15 years of collaboration in perceptual art with Bristol University,
His love of art began with trips to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge after he moved to Bury aged eight to live with his mother.
“I found the experience overwhelming,” he said.
As a small child he was fostered by a family who lived close to Thornham Hall near Eye. They had very little money and there was nothing to spare for treats like museum visits.
“But I could live like a wild boy wandering through the Thornham estate with its wonderful woods and wild flowers,” he said. “That’s probably where my love of nature comes from.
“Carving is a constant conversation with the wood. It tells you what to do.
“The grain starts to reveal itself and you start to use your hopes and dreams to expand that.
“That’s what I love, never knowing exactly what it’s going to turn out like.”
Another of his sculptures can be seen on the forecourt of the Cadogan Arms at Ingham.
At times, as he transformed the trunk of a dead tree into a stunning work of art, he was 18ft off the ground wearing a safety harness.
“I didn’t realise how frightened I was of being up there, especially when I had to raise my arms above my head.
“I had to move right out of my comfort zone. But in the end I loved being up high, waving to the drivers of the juggernauts going past.
His next job, which he has already started, is a big one ... carving the trunks of four oak trees in the grounds of Ickworth House at Horringer.
The 170 year-old trees, which were all dead or dying, have been cut down to leave massive 10ft high stumps.
“I asked Ickworth head gardener Sean Reed if he had any nice pieces of wood lying about. He said he had plenty!
“I said I didn’t want to put it in a gallery, but leave it where people would encounter it.”
Each sculpture will feature mythological figures on one side, and aristocratic characters from the stately home’s past on the other.
At the request of the curator will all be topped with a capitol, like those on the house.
And they could also feature the faces of real people. John has invited residents of Horringer to approach him if they would like to be immortalised in wood.
“I’ve already included one of the dogs who is walked regularly in the park in a hunting scene on the first sculpture,” he said.
John himself will also appear as Zephyr, the Greek god of the warm west wind.