This is Ulmus Memoriam, a memorial to the largest Elm tree left on Earth, in Preston Park in Brighton. A Latin inscription reads ‘Ad gigantes augustos olim per terram nostrum pervagatos, nunc defectos’ (To the lost, majestic giants once spreading through our land.)
Keith Pettit is a sculptor in wood and wood engraver, based in East Sussex. He is working as part of a project called Ulmus Maritime, with ESCC and the Conservation Foundation. This celebrates and protects the South Coast’s exceptional elm tree heritage. This area is a last stronghold of elms, after Dutch Elm disease swept the country. The project is funded by HLF, and although the majority of work involves conservation research and replanting, it also involves a good deal of public engagement and art. There is an exhibition in Preston Park, all about elms, until 22 June 2015, curated by Rebecca Lucraft and Tom Stables.
The Ulmus Memorial is the central artwork in this. This is Keith’s statement, which I’m copying here in full because I like all of it:
As an artist I return constantly to wood both as a material to use, to shape and create with, or to record the trees in the landscape in paint and print. The material and habitat inspire me in so many ways and at so many levels; the natural world I live within is dominated by trees. I am fixated by bare winter trees on a horizon, the rhythm, the mathematics of their fundamentals stripped bare for all to see.
The ecosystems that grow up around these living giants – from the dark Wealden woodlands to the wind sculpted trees on the South Downs provides me with endless inspiration and solace.
Our constant interaction with trees and woodland has evolved. The understanding and exploitation man has had with each species’ individual strengths, leading to what purposes that timber was ultimately used for, is a source of great wonder to me. Over time, then, both humanity and woodland have shaped each other. I am myself intimately involved in an incredibly specialised use of wood, that of wood engraving and printing with box wood – a centuries old understanding and the exploitation of those very unique set of qualities box wood has.
I am also seduced by the endless cycle of renewal and decay witnessed both over the course of a calendar year and the life cycle of the tree itself – and also by man’s interruption of this process and the endless ways he finds of preserving and prolonging various stages of this cycle for his own benefit.
I am fascinated by the near futility of this – and a lot of my sculptural work reflects this – my huge complex bonfire sculptures are reduced to their molecular state by fire, usually within 48 hours of them being built. This both reflects the cycle of conception and decay in the natural world and forever prevents the art work becoming a tradeable commodity. And can only be truly enjoyed during its destruction.
Almost all my sculpture uses this natural process to slowly enhance the sculpture as it ages and is weathered.