Sculptor Spencer Byles spent a year creating 34 works deep in the forest that clothes the valley of the Loup river. Now he can sit back and wait for the reactions as the word spreads and the curious search for the art that lives in nature.
I have to fess up now and say that I cheated on the search, getting a guided tour from the artist himself. After an hour on the trail I felt a strange mixture of calm and exhilaration – the spell that Spencer’s creations weave on the mind and senses had got to me.
Around one corner, three great rings of woven branches beckon like doors to another reality; around another, a friendly bear rises through the moss. All the works were made using “found” material gathered from the site, the only outside help brought in by Spencer was a little cable to stabilise some of the structures to insure against accidents.
From where did the impulse come to create this art, free in every sense?
Says Spencer: “Every now and then I seem to disengage from what’s expected of me and step into something outside of the norm. As soon as I do this I feel rejuvenated, transformed.”
This project was the result of that inner transformation. Maybe it’s an indulgence, but it’s one that has been carefully and sensitively considered.
“I took one year out of my life and spent that time submerging myself in the task of ‘furnishing’ three chosen forests with spontaneous creations that sprang from the woodland itself and were channelled by my imagination. I didn’t know what the final result was going to be.
“Members of the public may happen to come across my sculptures in the forests, but more by accident than design! Most of the work is in remote sections of the woodland and the sculptures are naturally camouflaged against the background of the forest, therefore not necessarily easy to locate.
“Their hidden quality is something that I feel is integral to this aspect of my work. Most of the sculptural works will be left to disintegrate over the coming months. Should any prove to be ‘considered dangerous’ for either people or wildlife then they will be removed.
“The temporary nature of my sculptures is an important aspect of my experiences and understanding. I feel my sculptures are only really completed when nature begins to take hold again and gradually weave its way back into the materials. At this point it slowly becomes part of nature again and less a part of me.”
It is a heartening and perhaps surprising fact that not one of his sculptures – 15 of the original 34 have survived – has been in any way damaged by humans. Clearly the simple beauty of the structures brings out the best in people who visit the forests – the two other sculpture sights are in woodland at Villeneuve-Loubet and Mougins.
Spencer settled in an enchanting maison du village in La Colle with his wife Paula, a teacher at Mougins school, and their daughter Alisha after a spell touring Europe to “wash our head out”, as he puts it. As he travelled he worked, creating art on the move, something of a troubadour of the plastic arts.
The 65-year-old sculptor’s peregrinations may be more local these days, but the spirit of adventure remains strong. His next project will involve the building of “paper landscapes” using papier maché to create installations at seven ruin sites, mostly in woodlands, 300 or so individual sculptures in all.
Is Spencer planning to exploit his creations commercially?
“I have been asked to create versions of the ‘Year in a French Forest’ oeuvres for villa gardens, but I don’t want to get involved in that sort of relationship, the work would inevitably end up being compromised.”
The last statement would sound precious coming from another mouth, but Spencer is just speaking a plain truth about the relationship between money and the sort of spontaneous art that he practices.
Long may the imagination of this Banksy of the Forest run free in our forests.