An artistic talent that’s ingrained

Ben Loughrill's sculptures give new life to dead wood, and they're all the more amazing as they are carved using a chainsaw, RACHEL BANHAM reports.

Ben Loughrill admits that he still struggles when he hears himself described as an artist. Yet, looking at the wood sculptures he creates, it's clear that he is an artist – and a successful one at that.

Ben is surrounded by wood sculptures he has created, including hares, dogs and bears. His surroundings are a tribute to his work, and an insight into how something as powerful as a chainsaw can be used to create beautifully refined pieces of art.

Ben discovered his artistic talent quite by chance, when he was working as a roofer in Cornwall a decade ago.

'I kept driving down the A30 every day and I saw this woman parked on the roadside. I thought 'That looks interesting, all those mushrooms out there',' he recalls.

The woman was selling mushrooms made from wood, which had been carved using a chainsaw. Ben had never used a chainsaw before, but wanted to learn.

'I asked her if she'd teach me how to make them. She needed some help at the time, and I needed a job, so that's how it started,' he says. 'It was just by chance. It was fate really. I never studied anything – I was just lucky. I still can't draw.'

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He completed two six-month stints with a tree surgeon, learning how to use a chainsaw properly, how to maintain it and all the safety aspects, as well as learning more about wood and trees. At the same time, he carried on sculpting mushrooms from wood.

'When I first started I made a lot of mistakes. I was a bit trigger happy so I was taking big chunks off and then realising I had taken too much off,' he says.

'Now I just start at the top of whatever I'm making. As soon as you get the head, say for a dog, you bring the head out and then you can build the body around it.

'You start making the shoulders and keep it all a little bit bigger than what you want. You've got two stages really. You make a rough cut, a bit oversize, and then for the second you go back over it and make it smaller again.'

Having grown up in Essex, Ben is now based on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. He has been chainsaw carving full-time for eight years now. His sculptures are often carved in oak, and sometimes he uses elm.

'I've got all sorts really,' he says. 'Oak is the longest-lasting and the hardest as well. People often ask if I can make something, and if I can I will. I make most things now.'

That includes sculptures of pets, many of which customers order for their gardens. Ben has made sculptures for various councils, including a large eagle and a sculpture tree with animals in it for Dunstable council, two totem poles for Wigan council, and a sculpture for a children's play area for Bedfordshire council.

However he says he is most proud of the work he has on display at Thetford Forest. He has his second artist residency there this summer, meaning he will do various chainsaw-carving demonstrations.

His sculpture of a family tree including a boy, father, mother, dog and little girl, which took months to make, can be seen at High Lodge. He also made another sculpture of a boy on his father's shoulders, again for the Forestry Commission.

'If it's something that I haven't done, like that big family tree, if I get the picture in my head I can work to that picture,' he says, explaining his inspiration.

'I have to tweak it a little bit, it doesn't always come out exactly the same as what I've got in my head.

'The difference is 2D and 3D. I've found that with 2D you have to try and make it stand off the page – I can't do that.

'But 3D I see every day. Everything is 3D. You can walk around it, look and see where you've got to take things off, bits here and bits there.'

At the English Open Chainsaw Carving Competition in 2009, Ben was awarded second prize for a pair of fighting hares that he had carved. 'Hares are one of my favourite things really,' he says.

Being based in the Norfolk and Suffolk countryside helps his creativity. 'I'm in a special place here. I've been very lucky to find my way here. It's nice because it is rural and there are a lot of people around who understand what you do and support you,' he says.

As well as his artistic residency at Thetford Forest, Ben will also be demonstrating the art of chainsaw carving at various shows and craft fairs across the region.

'People are starting to understand it more. When I first did it they didn't really get it,' he says. 'I cut dead trees down, but I do have to have a respect for it because it's part of the balance really – life and nature, and working with it. I just like to bring dead bits of wood back to life.'

n Ben Loughrill will be giving demonstrations of his chainsaw carving at High Lodge, Thetford Forest, on July 30 and 31 and September 3 and 4.