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How Artist Joel Parkes Transforms Unwanted Wood Into Sculptural, Museum-Worthy Bowls

A rare look at the artist's secretive process.

Joel Parkes wood Gary Didsbury

Wood has been mankind’s constant companion for millennia. And while its value has been superseded by metals and minerals over the centuries, when worked by skilled hands it retains an ability to mesmerize that few materials can match.

Artist Joel Parkes was making large public artworks before switching to bowls and smaller pieces six or seven years ago in his workshop in South West England. He fells nothing: The wood he uses has generally been down a long time in field, forest or river. Drying and manipulating it until it ruptures, he uses melted metals, gold leaf and other natural elements to ornament his work in remarkably elegant ways, giving them an aesthetic that is both ancient and futuristic. The Japanese call it kintsugi—the mending of broken ceram­ics using lacquer and powdered gold, an art that academics estimate goes back some 500 years. For Parkes, it was a process that came to him when much else had failed.

“I’d been living in Australia and moved back to the UK to live with my dad. I couldn’t get any work, couldn’t pay the mortgage,” he says. He stumbled upon this technique as a way to strengthen his bigger works, which would crack under duress from the British weather. “Now, after all this time, I’ve worked out that trying to make something beautiful out of all these cracks is really talking about me, and maybe all of us. Things breaking and our ability to go with it. There’s a broader narrative, an artistic thread that draws me to keep doing it.”

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