Some pieces bulge with smooth, rolling curves while others feature holes where fire has chewed at the material or split fibres to create jagged edges. Every detail serves as a visual history of the journey the piece has undertaken – a journey Webb considers himself to be one half of. “It is co-design,” he explains. “Due to the grain and the nature of how the tree grew, wood is already impregnated with features, flaws and potential – suggestive of the design within it.” As a result, Webb considers it his role to observe the form nature has already provided and to work with it, creating something he feels is authentic to the raw beauty of the material he uses.
“If I take wood and cut it into proportions that are human and build myself a table, I’ve used material purely to impose upon it,” explains Webb. “Whereas if you start with the material exactly as it came from the tree, and then respond as a sculptor would with stone, that’s a lovely journey to make – one that is free of expectation.” Working with, and responding to, the form already cultivated by nature allows Webb limitless creative freedom. It also means he can rarely predict what the final outcome of a piece will be, instead relying on instinct and unfolding developments to guide his progress. This ethos has in turn rendered the journey of making central to Webb’s work. “A final object is not always what I’m trying to achieve – when you go for a walk, you don’t come back with anything other than the memory of the excursion – that, for me, is like making,” he explains.
This attitude makes Webb refreshingly unprecious about his work – setting fire to pieces he has laboured on for weeks, slicing into wood free hand or even burying it in thick mud and letting nature take its course. He believes the knife-edge on which the outcome of these experiments hangs helps his work to flourish. “Often in creating something, you are presented with two paths – one is risky and the other less so, and I try to opt for the latter even if it sometimes results in loss,” he says. “With fire in particular you are really rescinding control. Sometimes the loss is beneficial and it makes the piece, while at other times you go backwards, but I like to sail close to the wind.” This daring approach to making means each chunk of raw greenwood – the starting point of any of Webb’s pieces – has the same chance of being returned to the ground as ash as it does ending up exhibited.
In keeping with the spirit of his work, Webb’s entry into woodworking has also been an organic process. “Someone offered me a chunk of greenwood and I just started splitting it,” he says. “Somehow, it felt completely natural to work with. I began making spoons and bowls and it very quickly grew from there.” Twelve years later, Webb is a self-taught expert in his material, working in harmony with the countryside that surrounds his workshop. “I source my wood from local tree surgeons,” he explains. “It is something people want to get rid of – either they are planning to chip it or burn it because they consider it rubbish. But it isn’t – it’s a beautiful material that in some instances has taken 400 years to grow and is unrepeatable. What I do is, in essence, upcycling.”
THE VALUE OF MAKING
Webb believes that his work also generates a wider conversation about the objects we own, and our relationship with how they were created. “Eighty years after the technical revolution, people are craving something that’s been absent for some time – a knowledge of where things come from and a connection with the making,” he says. “It stems back to the earliest periods of human history where if someone in your community gave you an object they had laboured over for hours, that meant something. It said, ‘I want you to have this as a symbol of the bond between us.’ Nowadays we lack that – we need to feel connected again.”
This contact is abundant in Webb’s work – contact with the natural character of the raw materials he works with, contact with the processes that have shaped each piece, and contact with the cycles of nature we all belong to. “We often see ourselves as above nature, but in reality we are not separate – we belong to it,” explains Webb. In this way, he sees the transformations he makes to wood as no different to the same piece decaying on the floor of a forest – both are natural processes that represent equal parts of one system. Webb remains humble about his place in this cycle, but his work is testament to the compelling beauty of expert craftsmanship.