A PERSON COULD BE FORGIVEN for assuming that the sculpture “Mystique,” by Courtenay-based artist Lynn Branson, is carved out of marble. Its pale, inviting sheen emanates a similar luminosity to the stone. It is, in fact, a unique piece of walnut from which Branson has released an elegant, mermaid-like female form. Its curves, planes and voids may call to mind the Modern tendencies of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, with Constantin Brancusi humming along in the background. The marble effect is intentional, but once you approach the work, the true medium becomes more obvious—as does the artist’s affinity and reverence for it. The perfectly smooth top of the piece curves inward and outward in alignment with the grain. The grain dictates the shape.
“Mystique” 26.5 x 15 x 5.5 inches, walnut
“I sanded for weeks on that piece—and I have a cyst on my thumb to prove it!” laughs Branson, who knew instantly what it would become when she first laid eyes on the raw wood. “Right away I saw the female form,” she declares.
Whether it is a human figure, or her more frequent subjects of bird or beast, she views her wood carving practice as an act of releasing the thing within. “Wherever I look,” Branson shares, “whether it’s the raindrops, or the leaves, or the clouds, I never just see a cloud. I’ll see what’s in the cloud.” This outlook and approach reflects her deep regard for the natural world. In her work, she is rewarded by this reverence and awareness—and patience. “I’ll have a piece in my studio and I’ll walk by it for ten years. Then all of a sudden I’ll walk by it and there’s something looking at me,” she says with delight.
Branson was born and raised in Edmonton, a child with an enormous imagination and an affection for making things. She adored spending time on her grandmother’s acreage. Her mother was a painter who came to Canada from England with Branson’s grandmother; both shared her love of nature. Noting that her grandmother emigrated quite late in life, Branson reflects, “I think she is where I got my adventurous spirit.”
Armed with little else, Branson left home for Vancouver at 15, where she found work making beds at St Paul’s Hospital. It was not an easy life, but “I would spend hours at the beach looking at driftwood, and I loved [that],” she recalls. She eventually made her way back to Alberta, married, had a son and a daughter, and spent some years raising them. After some time as a single parent, she remarried and lived on a farm in Innisfail.
“Any time I was in the forest or the bush, I would see wood lying on the ground and I was always drawn to it,” she says. She started picking it up. Today she purchases about 85 percent of her wood from all over North America. “I don’t have any vices; I don’t go shopping very often, but if I see a [special] piece of wood, I’ll do anything to get it,” she laughs. A solid half of her studio space is devoted to various intriguing burls and blocks, some of which she moved with her from Alberta. She jokes that her children fret over what they will do with it all if something should happen to her.
Carving became part of her life while she was on the farm. For a studio, she claimed a former chicken infirmary with straw walls and abundant mice. “I was constantly getting rid of the mice, but it was a great life, farm life. I was very close to nature everywhere I looked,” she recalls. She carved as much as she could, building her skill and making a name for herself at competitions and sales.
Sadly, in 2001 her husband was killed in a tragic accident while horseback riding. This, after they had just survived injuries and damage from the Pine Lake tornado in July 2000. After her husband’s death, Branson moved back to the west coast. “Everybody has their struggles and their stories,” she says. “I am very, very fortunate because I have another chapter in my life, and I am very grateful for every day that I do what I have such a passion and love for.”
That passion has been recognized by her four-time world champion title at the annual Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art Carving Competition held in Ocean City, Maryland. She is the first female winner in its 47 years, and she cherishes the family of carvers she has become part of. The event is an annual highlight for her and her partner Greg Pedersen, an accomplished carver in his own right. She has also been a judge at the Pacific Brant Carving and Art Show since her farm days.
"Emergence" 23 x 24 x 13 inches, red cedar with maple base. Received "Best in World Interpretive" at the Ward World Championship.
Her work is widely collected, and she was the only female to be invited to participate in the Blakely Burl Tree Project, a small group of artists commissioned to create works from the giant burl of an old pecan tree in Georgia. She was invited to do so by friend and mentor Mark Lindquist, the renowned American wood turner.
He’s among a varied list of influences Branson credits. Along with the aforementioned Moore, Brancusi and Hepworth, Georgia O’Keeffee, Robert Bateman, Emily Carr and Courtney Milne have all had an impact on Branson’s practice. But Lindquist gave her perhaps the best advice she’s received: “He told me always to have fun. If it’s no longer fun, then you don’t do it.”
That’s truly necessary, considering each piece takes about three to five months to complete. Not to mention the extreme physicality of the work—some of her pieces begin in the hundreds of pounds. At about five feet three inches, Branson is not a large person, though her work has made her strong. She may begin a piece with a chainsaw to rough out the form or remove the dead wood. Next comes hammer and chisel and/or electric grinders for shaping. With a high speed tool called an NSK (yes, the one used by dentists), she can render a subtle suggestion of feathers or, remarkably (and after hour upon hour), the fine grit of sandstone. “Balance” is a carving where you can see this virtuosity. Bare-handed to ensure the proper feel, she employs sandpapers ranging from 80 grit to 800, the latter being the key to that marble-like finish. Final steps involve polishing cloths and finishing in oil, acrylic or wax.
Occasionally, like in the piece “Cresting the Wave,” she will add a touch of pigment. In this carving of a kingfisher at the helm of a swirling wave, subtle swathes of bluegreen play among the grain as if the oak itself is saying, “You see, I was water all along.”
“Cresting the Wave” 19 x 19 x 15 inches, oak
“That’s just an extraordinary piece of wood,” Branson enthuses. A portion of it was petrified, and Branson interpreted it as a dollop of seafoam. “I carved a lot of [the wood], but the shape was already of a wave.” Setting it free, while a months-long process, begins and ends with the wood itself: “I don’t spend hours planning, I just start. The wood tells me where to go.”
Lynn Branson’s work can be seen at Peninsula Gallery, 100-2506 Beacon Avenue, Sidney, 250-655-1722, www.pengal.com and at www.rawearthcarvings.com.
Aaren Madden’s own affection for nature has found its way into her home in the form of several bouquets of driftwood, pilfered sea shells, pine cones, myriad stones, bits of moss, and twigs. Her husband duly frets.
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