Ernst Gamperl is seeking artistic refinement in the wood he works with, his objects reach beyond sculptural dimensions towards an echo and semblance of nature.
In 2017 he received the prestigious LOEWE Craft Prize for his remarkable carvings that both transcends and respects his deep connection to the ancient craft of woodturning. The German wood turner’s approach to his work is unique. The way he works with rather than on the material, in harmony and respect with its inherent properties is what gives his finished work the qualities that have brought him international recognition within the art world since 1992.
Master craftsmanship – understanding the essence of a material
In working in dialogue with the material and allowing the wood to unfold through his craft, Ernst’s results are magnetic; they capture a deep connection with nature.
To achieve this he must understand the essence of the wood he is going to work with. “Every log requires a unique way of treatment”, says Ernst, to him, understanding the wood’s potential is the most important skill in the process. Recognising the raw material – its grain growth and structure, cluster growth around the branches and folds and how the branches fork from the trunk all fundamentally determine the outcome of the final object.
These skills come from years of practice and experience. Over these years Ernst has developed a distinct aesthetic language. In this, he distinguishes between two main stylistic elements, the first emerging from the more uniform grain structure around the wood’s core and the second unfolding from the more irregular grain structure around the branches’ forks. To Ernst, the latter appears more “wildly”, the clustered grain of the branches forks will follow the natural properties with more vigour and be apparent in the final buoyant, organic silhouettes.
‘The Tree of Life’ – the endurance of oak
“The tree came to me,” said Ernst of the 12 metre Oak that was to define his work for the next decade, a project that he titled ‘Tree of Life’.
The 230-year-old tree, over 2.5 metres in diameter, was uprooted by a fierce storm in Bavaria, Germany, before Ernst heard its call through a friend, who knew he might be the only one bold enough to work with such a mighty tree.
Travelling from the north of Italy, where he lived at the time, to Bavaria in order to view the tree he felt an immediate connection and could not resist such an immense opportunity. He set about the processes, buying the tree from the Forest Administration in 2009. The Oak, being the mightiest tree in his life so far, soon inherited the title ‘Tree of Life’.
The immense size of the Oak meant that he spent two years rebuilding his previous workshop. He had to construct new lathes in preparation, as no common turnery machines would handle the tree’s dimensions and weight.
When Ernst returned to Bavaria in 2010 to collect the tree, key decisions had to be made on spot about how to go about the filleting of prime cuts from the tree that would later be transformed on the lathe.
It is a critical part of Ernst’s creative method to envision the potential shapes and positions before dissecting the tree. It is a task of anticipation, judging how the vessels would transform as they progress through the whole process of Ernst’s art. To aid and further his ideas he made rough sketches of them on the tree itself in charcoal.
The first cut was a huge slice of the lower part of the tree trunk which Ernst then sculpted into rough shapes with a large chainsaw securing three large bowls. “There was a lot going on in terms of the decision-making”, he reflects.
He then proceeded to carve other prime cuts from the Oak and after two days of hard work on site, the tree was transported with the support of the local fire brigade’s low-loader to a nearby farm and then onwards piece-by-piece to his studio near Lake Garda.
HOME- harmony with nature
Two years on from this first cutting, in 2012, Ernst returned home with his family to Bavaria, moving to an alpine region about two hours south of Munich.
Ernst has forged a home there with his wife and children, adding his woodcraft to the existing farmhouse, now proudly cladded in local spruce and surrounded by a productive garden in which the Oak lies among other trunks, indifferent to the weather, in deep grass surrounded by climbing roses, stored comfortably, waiting for their time.
His workshop, one of the farm outbuildings, is a very long barn separated into smaller purpose-built spaces. Lathes of all types and sizes, hollowing tools, gauges, chisels, files and metal brushes are arranged accordingly, tools carefully kept along the walls and in shelves, and lined up ready to hand on the workbenches.
Ernst’s approach to his work reaches to every part of the home. His well-tended garden is a mix of orchards and vegetable patches and large hollowed out tree trunks serve as busy beehives. All is conscious connection and reverence to the natural realms from which Ernst draws his material, approach and inspiration. This relationship of respect that is woven into the daily lives of his family reflects in Ernst’s sculptures, a bond between a craftsman and the natural material.
THE SOUL – where craftsmanship becomes art
To Ernst, Oak has something special. “It is simply a mighty and enduring material with a strong bark, deep roots and a gnarly appearance”, he explains.
When a specific idea for a sculpture comes to him, he seeks out the perfect piece and cuts it to his needs, an approach reminiscent of that of a pattern cutter who uses the material sparingly and precisely. Ernst’s unique method of working with green wood allows the timber to change throughout the process, so his knowledge of the vessels potential movements will influence his selection. Once these complex decisions are made, the part of the trunk that will yield the best results is chosen and then Ernst can begin with the turning.
Ernst treats each tree an individual. To foster a relationship with the wood Ernst works on smaller pieces first, getting to know the cadences and individuality of the material slowly in order to understand the essence of the wood.
In the understanding of the essence beyond the material the dialogue is further established and an intuitive creative process begins.
He anticipates the tools and techniques he would use for each object and during the process he is continuously refining the composition of the object in his mind as the wood yields hidden features as it is carved.
It is this process that sets Ernst’s sculptural creations apart and has earned him the recognition as an artist and craftsman of international importance. The dialogue is dynamic. “There is an active dialogue with the material throughout the process”, he explains and admits that this way he feels completely engaged throughout.
The subtle coherence that goes beyond crafting materiality is, in fact, an alignment between craftsman and the natural material. The dialogue between them determines the outcome of the object and ultimately enables the craftsman to transcend into art.
AESTHETIC LANGUAGE – A dialogue with wood
Ernst works with green wood, and his particular method of reinforcing organic shapes has radically redefined the traditional approach of woodturning.
Wood warps and changes as it dries, its fibres contract and structures change. The final shape of the vessel will emerge after it has fully dried. Depending on the direction and length of the grain, the greatest contraction occurs around the longest annual rings and the varying intensity of this contraction of the fibers is what results in the beautiful organic waves of the finished piece.
Ernst relies on the rule of approximately 10% contraction of the annual growth rings. This knowledge helps in anticipating the transformation of the wood and the wood is mutually encouraged to follow its intrinsic qualities, such as the curved edges of a bowl that give an organic tension in its static shape. This dynamic silhouette makes the bowl such a great piece.
Developing his own way of treatment, Ernst covers his work at the end of the day at the lathe with cling film, just as the potter does with clay. This keeps the timber moist until his work is finished and is essential to the final outcome of the sculpture.
Ernst is modest about his art. “Envisioning the outcome for a vessel comes with experience. You need to develop a feel for the mutual influence of the two processes.” These processes are, firstly the crafted process of the basic shape on the green wood created in a rotationally symmetrical style on the lathe. The second process is the shape that emerges after drying. Getting the balance right, knowing when to stop and holding back at the right moment to listen to the dialogue again is crucial in these steps.
MOMENTUM – turning the ‘Tree of Life’ into masterpieces
The very large vase made in 2016 and masterpiece that has won the LOEWE Craft Prize a year later, bulges on one side, akin to a bloated tummy. This is the result of the green wood heavily contracting around the core during its drying process causing the vase to evolve into its final anamorphic shape.
For this piece, Ernst chose a section from the ‘Tree of Life’ that places the branches’ core facing outwards towards the surface of the vessel. Initially symmetrical on the lathe, when it had dried, the longer dwindling grains evolved into a silhouette with an almost straight line on one side whereas the side around the core stayed bulged.
Ernst’s idiosyncratic artistic approach means that his work retains a spontaneous vitality. His elaborate and expert awareness of the intrinsic properties and unique characteristics of the material allow him to feel a direct response in his creativity. As a result, his process is never the same, but changes with the corresponding requirements of the wood. Ernst speaks about the tree’s soul that unfolds. The deep connection between them is a tangible testimony of the bond between a craftsman and the natural material in the final sculptures.
REFINEMENT – working the texture of the grain
Many of his pieces, bowls and vessels, even the larger ones, are extremely light. The walls average between 3-6 mm and appear paper-like and delicate but the strength of the relationship forged in the making gives them physical strength and presence that dominates a room. It captivates attention and demands careful consideration, to look beyond the object and see the process.
The surfaces of the ‘Tree of Life’s’ sculptures are methodically worked with gouges, giving a grooved and bevelled appearance. Ernst then refines the fine linework by clearing the softer annual rings with a metal brush. The irregularities that appear between the wood’s grain and the grooves put a stronger emphasis on the woods’ natural grains and therefore present a more tactile texture to us. It is a testament to the incredible age and life of the original Oak.
For the ‘Tree of Life’ collection Ernst has further refined the surfaces by enhancing the underlying colours of the wood using natural minerals. The grooves added have a purpose beyond the aesthetic as they allow the minerals to penetrate deeply into the fibres. Iron oxides and volcanic ash are applied to the surfaces to achieve more intense hues and hydrogen peroxide provokes a higher level of brightness. The pieces are then submerged in limewater, an alkaline solution that reacts with the tannins found naturally in oak, giving a matte appearance.
As a result, the wood loses its oily colour, turning a light brown and giving the sculpture a more muted, cloudier tone. The sculptures possess a texture of even greater natural rawness. It is an artistic statement that Ernst describes as “naturally cloudy”, nodding towards traditional Korean aesthetics.
The Korean perception of aesthetics is celebrating the intuitiveness of the maker’s hands during the process rather than being set by predefined concepts and designs. What seems imperfect and simplistic to our eyes is in truth the purity and expansion of the natural characteristics of the material. It is a refinement where the raw natural state of the material prevails and a rich emotive resonance is emitted, which can be perceived as its soul. Its intricacy reveals the tree’s life cycle, accentuating the trees irregular growth influenced by historical and climate-related events as well as the components of the surrounding soil during a trees’ life.
Ernst’s journey with the ‘Tree of Life’ collection has culminated in the LOEWE Craft Prize a fitting recognition of Ernst’s master craftsmanship that transgresses into beautiful artistic refinement.
The sculptures’ resonance, portraying a misty image and a rough touch hints at nature’s magnificent vulnerability in today’s context. It reminds us of the lasting relationship between humans and nature, what we can gain and create from it, but also the work brings awareness to how we might coexist.
Ernst has worked consistently over the past two years to finish all pieces of the Oak and finalise the collection, the result is a remarkable testament to his journey with the Tree of Life. The full collection can be seen on display at his major solo exhibition at the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur in Switzerland starting on the 25th of May 2019.
Words & Photography: Mareike Besch