This time last year, Sara Roslyn Moore spoke with artist Rhodri Owen about his new commission from Snowdonia National Park to design and build the Chair for the National Eisteddfod in Anglesey. The Chair is the centrepiece of the event and the main prize awarded for poetry. What makes this year’s Chair of particular importance is it marks the centenary anniversary of the death of poet Hedd Wyn, killed in First World War. Here Sara revisits her conversation with Rhodri the week of the unveiling of his work.
Sara: Congratulations to you, Rhodri, on this elegant and transitional piece of artistic craftsmanship, it’s a delight to finally see it and is sure to be a welcomed addition to the home of the yet unknown winner of the Eisteddfod chair, 2017.
It is inevitable that the chair will be compared to that of Eugene Vanfleteren’s Black Chair, so how in your words does it compare? How did the brief draw inspiration from it and how does it differentiate, what makes it unique?
Rhodri: Thank you Sara, that’s very kind of you, and I’m glad that I and Snowdonia National Park could finally present it to the Eisteddfod and reveal it to everyone. There had been a few weeks between completion and the unveiling so I was kind of nervous what people would think because it is obviously different to the 1917 chair, but also to recent chairs as well – and certainly totally different to anything I’ve ever done before.
Snowdonia National Park wanted this chair to carry its own message and I went out to achieve that above all else, and I think I had something to prove so went all out. The very idea of it having a message at all ups the ante; the need to make that happen without making it cheesy, or boring, or redoing old ideas but keeping visual impact.
Visually both chairs don’t look anything alike but there’s some Celtic symbolism and ideas on Vanfleteren’s chair that definitely sparked something in me. That combined with the Celtic druidic legacy of Anglesey. So in a way I was reusing old ideas but maybe presenting them in a different way. The most obvious thing to do was to use a deep black in the design. Obviously the 1917 chair isn’t actually black in colour but that’s how it’s known and the indian ink I used was quite an easy way of giving the chair and Ellis Humphrey Evans a respectful nod whilst using the same visual device to convey moving on to a new peaceful and confident future for Wales.
You stated in your blog that you considered the shape of the tools and implements in rural life a century ago; could you explain exactly what this means?
I like the idea of repurposing things. My father knew how to make cartwheels out of wood, and that was my grandfather’s day to day job. Even in 2001 the building next door to my workshop had “Gruffudd Owen – Wheelwright” on the dilapidated shutter window. My workshop, which was my dad’s, is still full of tools from that age, tools that exist for one sole purpose. Even though I mainly use hand tools there isn’t much of a call for cartwheels anymore. The same goes for things like peat spades and especially made handles for scythes and spades and things most people generally buy a machine for or get in B&Q and throw away. It was its own economy, and things were built for purpose and made to last but still replaceable from the woodworking side of things. The irons on the tools lasted longer but still came from the smithy.
My thinking was my workshop and my background and tools come from the same age as Ellis Humphrey Evans. I’ve got a template for a scythe handle from that age hanging in the workshop and a bag of old peat cutting spade irons. I always thought that even though they served a specific purpose and were designed to make work easier that aesthetically they looked pretty cool. If you look at a deck of cards and see an ace of spades – I know what you’re thinking.
So, as we’re guilty as Welsh people of looking back longingly at a recent past I’m thinking there’s a way of re-using and repurposing these (near) obsolete ideas and templates for now. It’s kind of a personal thing I guess.
I also saw a chair from, at the time, a war torn Mozambique in the British Museum in London. This chair was made out of decommissioned AK47’s and was very throne like. Looking into it, African cultures also have a reverence towards chairs and this kind of sealed the deal for me.
Talk us through the design and concept.
I designed the chair and then worked out how to make it. It was a real learning curve but very enjoyable because of the ideas that I’d come up with. I kind of thought I’d designed myself into a corner to start off with, but it all worked out.
The main concept is moving forwards whilst recognizing the past. To achieve this I’ve used Celtic ideas of rebirth and life and death. The celtic underworld or Annwn would be in the earth. This is also where life begins. So using something as simple as a spade, with all the ideas I mentioned earlier attached, to point down to Annwn and usin
I particularly like the contrast between the light and dark wood, the fusion of two different species as one, what Idea does it hold? I am intrigued to learn about the red stripe at the center?
The red was originally there on paper to anchor the design, it looked a bit ‘Adams Family’ without it. I was deliberating whether to keep it or not because it didn’t really have a meaning but I was doing this at the same time as the Wales football team were in the Euros last summer. It fits in with the idea in the brief of “moving on confidently as a nation” and I haven’t seen anything that fits that description better. Without getting into it too much, I also believe that as a nation we suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, so I thought that if anything warrants a large red leather stripe down the middle to show we exist as a nation then this is it. So it stayed.
Using leather was the easiest and cleanest way of doing it.
As for the contrast between the ash and the oak – I thought the ash would take ink better and lend itself better as a lighter wood to the contrast between the deep dark and light. Oak is more orange when finished and I definitely wanted to use oak just because I like working it and there’s druidic connotations as well.
Am I right in thinking that there is a metal pole in place holding the circle at the top of the chair, is there a reason for it not being made of wood?
Yes it’s a steel rod, in a way it’s not actually part of the chair – a kind of disconnect between the actual main body of the chair and the disk with the year and nod cyfrin. The disk can be seen as the moon or Arianrhod so idealy would be floating. Everything in the design is about ascension and points upwards so this would be where we’re aiming for.
The nod cyfrin, the three lines /|\, is the symbol of the gorsedd of bards also denoting ascension.
What was the process of creating the chair, and how has it been documented?
The process was about two years long from start to finish. Once we agreed on a design, I then went out to find the timber, which in the end I was lucky enough to get from Yr Ysgwrn. Except for the more complicated bits, the making wasn’t that much different to anything else. More angles than I’m used to, but that was fun. I’m glad I had the photographer Geraint Thomas of Panorama Cymru with me from start to finish so the whole process has been documented. I’m glad of this; because when you make stuff you often forget parts of the process.
I’ve learnt a lot, but that’s the thing with woodworking, you’re always learning. In this case I’ve used lasercutting technology at Pontio, Bangor to burn out the lettering. This I can see potential for other uses as well. Using ink as a finish, strong Joinery that allows for movement, for example the back panel is four parts; the two spades (and half the back), the center pole in between the spades, and the bridge looking bit at the top. The two spades are mortise and tendon joined into the frame behind the seat, as is the center pole. The spades are joined inside the back legs as well as to the inside of the center pole. The Center pole is attached to the “bridge” and the bridge is pinned and joined to the very top of the spade panels. Working out how to do this, and if it would work, was the most difficult task.
In our previous discussion you mentioned you had to tone down your ideas in order to meet the brief and also taking in to consideration the winner having to live with it in their home. If you had total freedom to do as you liked what would you have done different. What was the original idea before being toned own?
I think this chair is on the right-side of over the top. I didn’t want a polite chair, because peace is a central idea to it. And there’s no point being polite about peace. So I pushed it as far as I could, but I think I wouldn’t have worked anyway if I did anymore to it. There were a few original ideas and this chair is actually a mix of two of them.
You also mentioned that you would be keen to further develop your ideas for an exhibition in a gallery setting in the future, do you still feel the same, is this something we could expect to see in the near future?
This is definitley something that’s going to be happening. I’ll be making new furniture and changing them to create a large installation to be shown in galleries around Wales in 2018 (with thanks to Arts Council of Wales). If you check out calongron/ir-byw there’s more information about the project which is called I’r Byw / To the Quick.
There’s some elements to the project that involves other artists (who I’m on the lookout for) and different social groups within communities across Wales.
What happens at the Eisteddfod? Any events/talks planned?
Except for the obvious chairing of the bard – I have a stall in the exhibition hall of the Eisteddfod alongside Lisa Eurgain Taylor, the artist from Anglesey. I’ll have all new furniture, some of which will be made from the same timber as the Eisteddfod chair and as always I’ll be there to discuss possible commissions.
I have a few talks planned at the Eisteddfod – when and where I don’t know at the moment.
I’ve also got a workshop type activity, which is to do with the I’r Byw/To The Quick project where a piece of my furniture will be publicly changed, modified, possibly destroyed by a group of Eisteddfodwyr and another artist that I’m not allowed to say who it is yet. I’m curious to see how that will work and my reaction will be. I look forward to it anyway!
Rhodri will be chatting to Lisa Eurgain Taylor, Arts Co-ordinator at the Galeri on the centenary anniversary of the Eisteddfod of the Black Chair 31.07.2017 at 2pm, Galeri Caernarfon.
Click here for tickets
For more information on the Eisteddfod click here
Images courtesy of Panorama Cymru.