Chris Amey

Decay, life and consolidation. Q&A with Devon-based sculptor and carpenter Chris Amey

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Chris Amey

Chris Amey‘s latest work, Foreigner at the Edge sculpture exhibition, Heathercombe until Sunday, September 26, has been said to ‘dance all the time you are walking past it’. The sonic artist, turned carpenter turned sculptor took part in an ArtsCulture Q&A

Who are you and what do you do?
I am Chris Amey, a Sculptor and Carpenter working in Newton Ferrers, South Devon.

Why do you do what you do?
It seems like a need or desire to create. I can’t help but invent, to try to find solutions to problems, so there needs to be a way for me to vent that energy. In sculpture I find a particular sort of freedom, without rules.

Chris Amey

How do you work?
I started out by collecting ropey old pieces of timber from sawmills, boatyards and the woodland behind our house and working with them to create my first sculptures.

But more recently I have turned to working from my head; onto paper in the form of sketches; into my computer using Google Sketchup and then out into my workshop to struggle through the fabrication process. I guess timber frames is the general shape I’m going for right now, but I am also experimenting with different joints and as an outlook I am toying with the idea of preservation versus decay.

My question is, why battle with the inevitable? I hope to create works that will grow more beautiful with age as they interact and blend in with their natural surroundings.

What’s your background?
I graduated in Sonic Arts from Middlesex University but soon after I took on the craft of carpentry and joinery to accumulate some much-needed income. Now, years on, I’m so moved by the wood that the sonic art seems a distant memory, but it’s the theory and approach to ideas which has stuck for me.

Apart from all that, I grew up in Somerset, spending my early years on the Levels where my grandparents had their smallholding.

What’s integral to the work of an artist?
An artist? Well, creativity is a start! But everyone has plenty of that – I hate it when people associate creativity exclusively with artists, like it’s a disease or something, which only strange people suffer from. We are all creating all the time. But for me, I suppose art means a freedom to express at will and perhaps, needing/wanting to be heard. It’s pretty sad really!

What role does the artist have in society?
Good question!

From an objective point of view, I suppose artists are merely adding colour to an otherwise grey world. Like comedians mocking our politicians, artists paint caricatures of our world. They pass comment.

But on a personal level, subjectively, artists thrust psychoanalysis upon us: We are asked to appreciate their work as some sort of reflection of our own various facets, our condition. This can be very exciting and a connection towards a piece of art can momentarily relieve our own psychosis, our pain – thus, art can sooth the soul. To give a more common example, its like listening to someone speak and finding out you agree with them, this moment of mutual understanding can be very satisfying.

What has been a seminal experience?
Listening to the work of La Monte Young’s music performed at the Barbican many years ago. Reading What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula; Building a green wood chair with Mike Abbott; watching The Andy Goldsworthy film: Rivers and Tides; Discovering Ivo Pogorelich playing Chopin’s Prelude Op.45 on YouTube and walking in the mountains of the Chamonix valley.

Chris Amey

Explain what you do in 100 words
I work with wood, making sculptures and working as a carpenter. I question the motives behind trying to preserve things in their brand new look. I question the use of chemical products to suspend organic matter in a fixed state. I question the notion of value being linked to longevity. I want to make people more aware of what they like about old things and just how many things they find valuable which last no longer than they do. I try to unearth the structural possibilities of joints, trying to study their varying limitations.

What art do you most identify with?
The best art is that which sings a song: Art that has substance and wants to flaunt it and flaunts it well. The best art is packed with potential to the point where it’s boiling over in a flurry of beautiful, mindful reflections. Personally I have found this in the work of Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash, John Cage, Brian Eno, Jim Morrison and Anish Kapoor.

What work do you most enjoying doing?

What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?
Staring out the tall French windows of my grandparents smallholding, across the vast flat Moors of the Somerset Levels with my nose pressed against the cold glass, thinking.

What themes do you pursue?
Decay vs. life vs. consolidation; historical joinery techniques and anything else woody.

What’s your scariest experience?
Swimming back to the beach knowing there was a basking shark behind me.

What’s your favourite art work?
Too many! But I constantly come back to Cage’s 4’ 33”. Like Duchamp’s Urinal it was a seminal moment in history, but actually much greater because it reflects so many ideas, such as: the human interaction and subversion of each performance; the music of all sound that forms the constant background to our lives; suspense, time and meditation and the notion that nothing is ever the same twice – everything is constantly changing.

Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
Discovering a badger’s skull at my feet in our woods on the very same day I had heard of a death in my family. While taking a moment to consider the soil I was standing upon, containing within it many millions of particles some of which were undoubtedly those of the badger whose skull I was now staring at, I turned my gaze toward the ocean lapping at our picturesque South Devon coast.

It struck me then that the same mass of water, which had taken a life as far away as Scotland, must contain within it, some (if not millions) of particles of that dead body.

However, when I looked around me all I could see was an abundance of life (not death) springing out from every surface like a gigantic body of positive, procreative life-abundance, all of it living only (in fact) because of the death (that is food ) which surrounds it.

Indeed, it struck me that the beauty we find in things as they become old is not just some grim representation of death approaching but actually is the glowing abundance of life that is joining in on the act. In fact, at this moment of conjoined, interactive symbiosis of all things living and dying at once, there is an utterly beautiful harmony.

What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
As a carpenter for the past seven years, I have worked in Kent and Sussex as an Oak Framer, I have worked on the Conservation of the clipper ship Cutty Sark in Greenwich, I have refurbished chalets in the Alps and now, self employed in South Devon, my work has included oak framed pergolas, a foot bridge and dove cote amongst other projects.

Why art?
For colour.

What is an artistic outlook on life?
One with creativity at the centre of all decision-making and a tolerance for a more leftfield approach to problem solving.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Of my latest piece, Foreigner, the curator, Mel Bambury said that, “it dances all the time you are walking past it.”

What food, drink, song inspires you?
Food & drink: simple Tapas delights with a big fat glass of Rioja.
Songs: Backdoor Man, When the Music’s Over and The End  by The Doors; My Favourite Things by John Coltrane and almost any rendition on A Night in Tunisia.

Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
I don’t tend to get lonely, there’s too much going on in my head for that. In fact I pray for more time alone, despite living in relative isolation already.

What do you dislike about the art world?
The whole application procedure for funding and most other types of support: There is no one type of person who makes art, but those types who fill in applications well, tend to rise to the surface. Good for them, but how about more help to the rest?

What do you dislike about your work?
That there is not enough time (currently) for me to make more, and in quicker succession. Of course, anyone who wants to help out on that one can always commission me to make more!

What do you like about your work?
The response from others.

Should art be funded? 

What role does arts funding have?
That’s quite interestingly put! I’m now pondering on the different permutations of both private and public funding.

It’s always going to be difficult and highly political for a funding body to be truly representative of such a miss-match of wayfarers. But then it’s up to the private dealers and bursaries to pick up the pieces scattered around the edges perhaps? Together there should always be a route for newcomers to rise to the surface, ideally.

What makes you angry?

Chris Amey

What research do you do?
I am constantly chewing my way through wood-books: Ones about species; ones about crafts and architecture and ones about trees. I also use the Internet and sometimes contact people who know more than I do.

Chris AmeyWhat superpower would you have and why?
Time travel, every time! And my first trip would be to sail up to the South Hams before any other human being had stepped foot on British soil.

What is your dream project?
The Turbine Hall in Tate Modern

Favourite or most inspirational place (in Devon)?
One would have to be the shoreline of the Yealm Estuary, where the ancient wooded banks dip their fingertips into the tidal waters, whilst the low tide reveals a mass acreage of impenetrable mud. Here is just one of those untouched outcrops of natural habitat. We are actually so lucky here to have this scene repeated around much of the South Devon and Cornish coastline.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Believe in yourself.” Which I first acknowledged when coming from mouth of furniture maker Alun Heslop when meeting him at the Origin Craft Fair some years ago.

Professionally, what’s your goal?
To make bigger, more exciting sculptures.

What wouldn’t you do without?
I have every confidence that if any part of me were taken away, the rest would make up for it’s loss, somehow!


(Images, from the top: One half of Chris Amey’s Uber-Workshop; A close up of  Chris Amey’s latest work Foreigner, 2010; An oak framed pergola with hardwood decking on top. 2009; Timber framing in the Alps, 2009; One of Chris Amey’s reclaimed slabs turned into one of my wine racks, 2009.)

• For more about Chris Amey and his work, check out his website


(first published September 22, 2010. Updated June 9, 2012)