Creek Men stand guard at Snape

East Anglian sculptor Laurence Edwards has realised a life-long ambition to place some of his work in the heart of the Suffolk landscape - a place where, as he tells Arts Editor Andrew Clarke, is imbued with tales from ancient history and more recent boyhood memories.

Andrew Clarke

East Anglian sculptor Laurence Edwards has realised a life-long ambition to place some of his work in the heart of the Suffolk landscape - a place where, as he tells Arts Editor Andrew Clarke, is imbued with tales from ancient history and more recent boyhood memories.

Three silent sentinels stand guard over the Snape Maltings. Although they are cast in bronze, there is something organic about them as they stand on the mud flats amid the reed beds which surround the concert venue.

They are part of an on-going project by Suffolk sculptor Laurence Edwards which explores man's connections to his world. These are larger-than-life figures which look very much at home in this rugged landscape, dominated by the river and Suffolk 's big skies.


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These titans trigger a host of contradictory feelings in the viewer - they represent our Anglo-Saxon past, they conjure up a sense of timelessness - they look as if they have just risen from the mud - and yet they are very much of the here and now. They are contemporary sculptures and the way that Laurence has cast the bronzes, they look as if they are marching forward into the future. These Creek Men are not stuck in the mud - stationary - they have an animated quality to them.

Laurence Edwards is delighted with the way that they look in the landscape here at Snape. These figures were born at his studio at Butley and were inspired by the world outside his small foundry.

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Laurence is an animated interviewee. It is clear, even after a few minutes conversation, he is a genuine enthusiast with a real passion for his work. Standing on the banks of the River Alde, overlooking the mud flats with the river snaking away into the distance, he looks happy with the way the scene looks. He has pictured something similar in his mind's eye over the past year and now it is a physical reality, it matches the image he has had in his head. "For me, it was always about the landscape and our relationship with it, the history, the geography and the geology.

"Who we are is determined by our history and how we are shaped by our landscape and our environment. We are the product of our Anglo-Saxon heritage, they founded the settlements which came towns and villages along the Deben and the Alde. Their lives were dictated by the landscape, the seasons and above all the demands of the river - and we have inherited that legacy that collective link to the past."

During his post-graduate travels Laurence was delighted to discover that sculptors and bronze casters in India are described as mid-wives to the Gods - because it is their job to create earthly images of the deities. “He creates these figures of the Gods from the Earth.”

Back in Suffolk after his travels Laurence set up his first studio at the Clock House, Bruisyard, and gained valuable experience working alongside sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi and by casting bronze editions of figures by Rodin and Degas.

He was also inspired by his daily walks through the Suffolk countryside, picking up sticks and found objects which he started incorporating into his work and he also started delving back into art's historical past.

He was inspired by the artefacts uncovered at Sutton Hoo, particularly the elaborate Sutton Hoo helmet, which may nor not have belonged to King Raedwald. He was also captivated by the severed bronze head of the Emperor Claudius which was hacked off a full-sized statue in Colchester by the marauding Iceni and then thrown into the river at Rendham - only to be recovered in 1907. All these influences are combined in his work. It is also no accident that his eight foot giants currently standing guard over the Snape reed beds behind the Maltings concert hall also bear a striking resemblance to the sandmen unearthed at Snape and Sutton Hoo - bodies of Saxon warriors preserved by Suffolk's acidic soil.

Laurence uses a lost-wax bronze casting method which goes back to Renaissance times. To create these evocative bronze giants he sculpts his figure out of clay and organic matter - twigs, sticks, leaf litter and all manner of environmental debris that makes up our landscape.

This then fashioned into a plaster mould which is then filled with bronze. When the figures are released each one is slightly different as he refashions the clay original between each casting. "They are all recognisably similar but they are not exactly the same figure. It is as if they are brothers or sons. They are all from the same family but they are not the same person."

The use of organic matter in the sculpting process gives the figures a sense that they are a product of the earth. Laurence explains that he feels there is a sense of natural justice that one of the figures has arms, partially constructed out of hemlock branches. This figure is made out of a deadly poison which could cause his death - man can be the architect of his own destruction and yet also destroy the world around him.

"The figures, which can be seen in the reed beds, in front of Snape Maltings, during the Aldeburgh Festival, were very much inspired by the ancient woodland, marshes and Saxon history of the coastal landscape between Aldeburgh and Sutton Hoo. It is also very fitting that they are within sight of Barbara Hepworth's wonderfully contemporary looking Family of Man sculptural group while my three Creek Men provide a more evocative link with our past."

There is something strong about these three silent sentinels. The way that Laurence has cast them there is a rough physicality to them, a brutish strength which is transmitted by their almost primitive appearance - and yet there is also a feeling of decay. To some there may appear like cadavers risen from the mud like mindless zombies, their flesh rotting like the twigs and leaf litter embedded in the original clay sculpture. This feeling is enhanced by Edwards encouraging fungus and other vegetation to grow on his bronzes, to add to the organic look of his giant men.

The first man has Leather Strop fungus growing over him which was harvested from birch trees growing near Laurence's studio. The Leather Strop fungus has historically been used to sharpen knives and weapons. "This provides a link with the royal sceptre found at Sutton Hoo because it has now been identified as a whetstone. Adorned with a bronze stag it was a badge of office as well as a practical implement.

"I find the Leather Strop fungus performs a similar function. Whereas the whetstone was symbolic and useful, The Leather Strop can be said to have the potential to equip the giant for survival rather than just being parasitic."

The three giant men have an aggressive physicality about them and their threatening nature can be unsettling. You sense you are in the presence of an indomitable and unforgiving force. In many ways you are glad that these figures are physically divorced from you - positioned on a raft in the reed beds - rather being right up close."

In a recreation of an event not dissimilar to the beginning of the Sutton Hoo Ship burial, Laurence Edwards had his Creek Men towed on a barge up river from Slaughden Quay at Aldeburgh and then when they ran out of river as they approached Snape Maltings, the barge, decorated with artificial reeds, allowing it to blend into the landscape, was punted into position by hand.

These giant creations are an extension of work that he has been developing over a number of years. In conjunction with The Creek Men display outside, there is a series of small bronze sculptures inside the concert hall, which further explore Laurence Edwards' on-going fascination with the fusion of man and his environment.

There are a dozen small works placed on plinths, at varying heights, along the corridors which surround the main auditorium which show man made up of clay and twig and interacting with and becoming entangled with his world. Again these are highly animated works which look as if they are going to run away or fight their way to freedom while the viewer is still looking at them.

Laurence walked me along the display, talking me through the exhibition. “What I do is combine the figure with the material from the marshes. I burn out all the organic material in the kiln.

“The use of material from the reed beds give the figures tension. It's all about feeling that tension.”

He said that long sticks which form the spine of some of the figures reminded him of either a bolt of lightning hitting the ground - exploding matter on contact - or a constant musical note which then caused a crescendo of sound.

It reminds the viewer of a digital read-out or wave form visualisation of music being performed. “The human figure within the piece gives you that emotional core. If it was just a mash of different objects you would lose that anchor.

“All of a sudden you can put yourself in the middle of the sculpture. It all about relating to the work. You get into the marsh in different ways. You notice the ferns, reeds, leaves and twigs in the sculptures, it all roots you in the world - the world you know.”

Laurence has had a life-long connection with the Suffolk countryside growing up around Snape and even, as a young boy, carving heads on the wooden fence posts which divided up the fields along the river.

His familiarity and his love of the Suffolk landscape informs all his work. It's his way of communicating with the outside world - a way of drawing all the strands of the world, both past and present together.

Laurence said that he had always been drawn to art and particularly sculpture as a three-dimensional way to express his feelings buried within him. He said that one day, during his degree course, he walked passed the foundry and he was lured by the sight and smells of the work going on inside.

“I was fascinated by this collection of bizarre materials all brought together in one room - from wax, plaster, metal, fire, water and I thought how do all these materials combine to make these wonderful shapes and figures?

“The whole idea of a lost wax process fascinated me. You make something in wax, you melt it out and you pour molten metal in and it becomes solid is the most mind-blowing thing.

“You start off with a positive sculpture, to a negative space which is the mould, then you make a positive from the negative and then you make another negative - that burns away in the kiln - and then you pour another liquid in to form a new positive which is your bronze. It's an incredible emotional journey because you burn it away twice, in effect it becomes air, it becomes nothing - molten and intangible - and yet at the end of it, you end up with something strong, solid and will last forever.”

He said that if there was any one theme that linked all his work together was the notion of foraging in the dark. Laurence is a great believer in keeping his work rough and ready, incorporating the mistakes and the happy accidents, into the finished pieces rather than trying to give them that refined, finished polish.

“I am learning what I want to say through them I am learning through them. As well as creating beautiful or thought-provoking objects I want these sculptures to tell stories to provide the viewer with a narrative.”

He said that at the end of each bronze pour there is a ceremonial sharing of a bottle of wine, a communal sharing of food from a giant wok which sits on their furnace “and we sit around and tell stories, share the knowledge, just like the old Italian masters and apprentices through the ages. It's the sharing of the knowledge.”

He said that the placing of The Creek Men represented the realisation of a long held dream - “I had always wanted to occupy this piece of the landscape. It's my bit of Suffolk. It's where I grew up as a boy. It's where I carved those heads on the fence posts as a teenager… it's as if I have come full circle.”

Laurence Edwards Creek Men are watching over the Snape Maltings Concert Hall for the duration of the Aldeburgh Festival. They will be in place until at least June 29.

To see more of Laurence Edwards's work and to buy maquettes ofg The Creek Men, please visit: www.sheeranlockartgallery.com or www.globo.org.uk/laurence/ (site under construction)

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