As promised I am continuing my series of local Artisans and I have to admit these are as interesting for me to write about as they are for you to read and for that I have to thank you, for without you all reading and being so encouraging I would not have written the first article or continued with so many and I would have missed out on so much local knowledge, for I have learnt so much in the process. This week I bring you a group of Artisans, extremely talented sculptors…
Last week, late one afternoon, Millie and I decided to have a walk through the woods at Port d’Envaux and see if we could find any of the legendary statues and carvings of the Lapidiales sculpture group, who hang out deep in the greenery each summer. We’d heard rumours that this was a real adventure, and it turned out to be not only that, but also a very interesting experience.
We parked the car in a deserted lay-by where we saw a quarry a little way down a track, and hopped out for a quick look. Two other people were wandering around in what was obviously a deserted attraction, and it seemed our luck was out for the year. Port d’Enveaux lies by the River Charente, and is a popular destination for canoeists and kayakers, but the stone carvings seem strangely lost in the general tourist blurb
We slowly ambled down to the tin-roofed area and ducked into what was once a sandstone quarry, now cloistered with a tin roof and wooden columns for events during the summer season.
Deeper into the hillside we went, slowly losing the light, and then on a wall we came across some remarkable paintings, obviously by the hand of someone very in tune with our ancient ancestors. It should have given us a clue to the talent that awaited us….this was no ordinary graffiti…..
Dispirited, we left, vowing to return next year, but as we moved down the road and around a corner in the car, we realised we’d stopped at the wrong place to start with, and there was very much life deep in the forest, and in a clearing next to the road a busy group of people were hard at work turning stone into art !
Amongst the artists were several monumental works and scaffolding ran around one huge piece which was busily being photographed by a man in a straw hat. Beyond him, we saw a path leading downwards into a gully, with a signpost indicating a route to follow. Millie and I decided we’d do that first and come back to the clearing later.
As we descended the path, we became aware that we were in a veritable cathedral of stone-worship, and any thoughts of mere touristic curiosities swiftly left my head as I looked on the first carvings, the start of a series of steps into a story of stone, each sculpture or grouping by a different artist, all following the natural theme of the life of mankind.
The green dim light coming through the canopy above us gave the whole scene a surreal grotto-like atmosphere, and with barely a whisper of birdsong to disturb the silence we both grew silent in contemplation of each artist’s individual act of worship to both the stone and the story-line they followed. The scale of the carvings was immense in places.
we took to the earth again, following the hollow into and under the hill. Here it became dark once more, and various groups, images and figures gazed and watched us from every corner.
To my western eye, Dali and Hieronymus Bosch seemed to lurk in every dark shadow, as contorted figures and morbid representations of life, suffering, temptation and sorrow sighed with the evening light as we went deeper into the darkness.
As we came out the other side into another part of the quarry, the emphasis by the artists seemed to have shifted towards that part of life that begins to wonder what lies at the end of our earthly sojourn. Each artist seemed to bring to life their own national cultural thoughts, and we saw works from Senegal, Russia, England, Kenya and Argentina amongst many others.
One brave soul had created an imaginary temple opening into the hillside, and Millie and I were both glad the door did not truly open.Amidst the temptations, a life-size woman escaped into an Escheresque opening,
and a monumental, detailed and freshly finished work by a New Zealand artist, Paora Toi Te Rangiuaia, towered up a complete cliff-face, and swept me back to the Bay of Islands and all the imagery I once looked at there. The gleam of paua shell in the figure’s eyes seemed oddly at ease in the dark subterranean light.
Finally we turned out of the dark and started back up the hillside to the clearing on the other side of the quarry, and it became apparent that the sculptors here were now creating their own visions of hell, eternity and the life thereafter.
A mythical city in the sky, presided over by a huge head of stone, quickly led to an expected vision – hell, and the damnation which occurs in it.
Exhausted somewhat by our journey through life and its tribulations, Millie and I crested the low hill and came in to the workshop and its attendees. We dawdled, and watched fantastical shapes being craved, with eyes carved and hair straightened on heads, and sinuous curves being sanded by loving hands. There was the steady chink, chink, chink of tools and mallets, and the scene looked as if it could have come from a place far long past, in an age when woodcutters and masons joined forces to shape sandstone for new churches a 1000 years ago.
A gentle sculptor showed Millie the ear she was perfecting,
carving with a tool unchanged for 500 years. After it became obvious that Millie was fascinated, the lady broke off a piece of sandstone, offered Millie an awl, and taught her how to carve her own name.
Finally, as the sun fell, people started packing up, and I fell into conversation with a sculptor from the UK who briefly told me the history of the Lapidiales group, and what it represented. Artists from all over the world have been meeting here for over 20 years, and what has emerged in terms of work is simply a mutual understanding of talent, and a growth of sculptures all related to the inherent motive – to understand, teach and reflect on the destiny of man. Whether it is the works of stone, or the traditional music and plays, or even the rapport that the group establishes each season and each night with their audience, it seems there is something for everyone, and the site has enough energy and is respected enough, that during the 8 months of the year that it lies unattended, no one comes to desecrate or vandalise. I’m keen to come in winter and see how it all feels then, away from the green light of summer.
As we left, we had time to admire some finished statues and carvings in the workshop clearing, and some of the work that had taken all summer to complete was simply astounding in design, complexity, detail and a skill. Alongside a stunning Celtic warrior in the fullness of life,
was another, caught in the embrace of death and legend
Our New Zealand artist had also contributed to the circle of carvings, and his offering once again told volumes about patience and the depth of his truly unique talent.
It seemed a long way from the land of Maori, here, deep in a small wood in the Charente Maritime, but I thought it must have been a journey of thought bravely followed. I felt a sense of great achievement attained from a mutual gathering of spirit, a kinship that gathered each year to worship stone and produce art designed to last for centuries.
There is a giant end-of-summer party this weekend as tools are packed and the grotto and clearing are then left to nature for the winter – there’s a child’s workshop one afternoon and I know all of mine will want to go.