Sculptures of Karola Messner

Monday 9 July 2018

My whole stem wooden sculptures are all hand-carved from one single piece of timber. They dramatise common human behaviour which sometimes leads to the collapse of human society; a somewhat unusual theme, which could also be said about my background.

Being accepted at Munich's Academy of Fine Arts in 1976, I resigned almost immediately since I could not accept the art trend at that time. Instead, I became a medical doctor, and later an orthopaedic surgeon and professor of Sports Medicine. It wasn't until 2000 that I returned to being a full-time artist.

Working with the stem

Carving sailing boats for fun from small lime tree branches became, with time, whole lime tree stems of up to 3 meters (9.8ft) in length and more than 1 meter (3.3ft) in diameter, containing complex scenery with up to 85 figures.

I am not fussy about choosing stems, I take what's available from communities wanting to get rid of their lime trees for various reasons. Any trunk can be turned into something special, provided that there is not too much damage.

After the tree has been felled, I choose a piece of 2-3 meters in length, most often the lowest part, and start carving almost immediately: the greener the better, as this makes it much easier to work with.

I only use two types of chisels: a round one about 20mm in diameter, and a straight one of 10-16mm, plus a straight knife and a wooden hammer. It is a long process and I do not want to proceed too fast, but prefer to have the liberty to change details for as long as possible.

Establishing scenery

I do not make sketches or models in advance; I just have an overall theme and then decide what part of the stem can be used for what scene. It involves a lot of looking and deciding, and it takes months until the whole scenery has roughly emerged. I try to capitalise on all particularities of the stem; if there are any ditches I will accentuate them, or conversely if there are any parts sticking out, I use them for rising hands or heads. The goal is to make the scenery so vivid that you forget that it ever was a tree.

Having a green stem at the beginning, I let it dry slowly by taking away the bark successively, leaving bark at the bottom until it is almost finished. Until I come to adding small details, I keep it outdoors under cover.

Carving the figures

The worst that can happen is that you have to take away a figure if the area gets too crowded. Beside the parts with figures, I decide what I have to take away to prevent cracking during drying.

If I use the stem lying on its side, I decide on how many rows of figures there will be. With a diameter of 700-900mm, two to four rows will do, but of course there will be no straight rows, rather natural looking ones according to the different scenes.

Radial cuts mean giving the stem a direction to crack. If I use the tree standing (Survival of the Fittest) the whole interior of the stem needs to be removed, otherwise it inevitably will crack.

Then the long carving process starts. Finishing a whole sculpture takes more than one year, but I usually make two simultaneously. I try to carve all figures as complete as possible. Of course there is need for extra long instruments.

The whole process is like a slow adventure in the unknown. What the figure will look like in the end is impossible to imagine, and I myself am regularly surprised as to what finally comes out. Of course I trust my sense for distribution and dynamics, which so far never has let me down.

Thus, the stem itself, by its natural form, has an important part in the creation. Finally, when everything is ready, I just smooth the surface with sandpaper; no paint and no oil.