In the forest, just down the road, I recently came across something pretty magical. Something unique and intriguing but hidden and secret, and yet open to everyone. You may be lucky and stumble upon this surprising place, this French forest art, but more likely than not, you won’t. Deep in the woods in the small village of La Colle sur Loup on the French Riviera, an artist has been hard at work, creating a number of unusual, organic, mystical and ephemeral works of art. For a year, from sometime in 2014 to 2015* British sculptor Spencer Byles spent all day every day producing around 40 amazing forest sculptures out of materials he found in the surroundings. He called his project “A Year in a French Forest”.
French Forest Art
Spencer Byles created his art from bark, twigs, branches, leaves, shells, stones and other forest finds to blend seamlessly with the natural surroundings. Even the twine and wire, and other non-natural items like nails, were found on-site, all probably discarded by farmers and local artisans in an unauthorised dump. The creations vary from large pendulous nest-like shapes to intricate, delicate orbs – “dream-catchers” as described by my son.
There are spider-like creatures and figures made out of branches and two very different, and to my mind altogether unorganic – a beehive structure that brought to mind Kapla (the construction toy made of lengths of wood, a great favourite of my boys when they were little) and a bear.
You’ll also find magic circles, archways and plinths. Some pieces look like traps or natural animal lairs, some are big and bold, others camouflaged in the trees. The pieces are not named, leaving everything up to the imagination of the audience.
Spencer spent the first 3 months of his “Year in a French Forest” just observing the forest and getting a feel for the place before starting on the sculptures. He would work on several at any one time, moving between locations as inspiration struck.
Each work of art came about organically from its surroundings and nothing was planned or formally worked out. Pieces would be left for weeks or months before being finished off, giving Spencer time to reflect and decide if anything else was needed.
A couple of years later, not all the sculptures remain, some have been vandalised, others reclaimed by nature which is exactly the aim (the reclamation, not vandalism!) These installations were not designed to last forever, they were created to fade away with time.
Spencer explains: “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 they slowly become part of nature again and less a part of me.”
When I visited, I explored for an hour or so and am quite sure I didn’t see all the works of art, even Spencer himself believes about 50% of his works never get seen. Part of the magic is that there is no official explanation of where to find the sculptures, no directions or map. You just have to get lucky, hiking in the forest or walking your dog.
Or, like me, you have to know someone who’s already stumbled upon them and agrees to let you into the secret. I’m not going to break the magic by detailing how to find these magnificent works of art here but if you’d like to see them for yourself you can get in touch and I might just let you into the club!
Spencer Byles has now left the region and moved to Malaysia to weave some more of his intriguing magic on the other side of the world. No matter whether you like his work or not, I feel it can’t leave you untouched, unmoved. It’s so utterly original in both concept and style. I personally love it and feel hugely privileged to have experienced the result of his year in the forest. I am very lucky this is just on my doorstep.
What do you think of Spencer Byles’s approach to art, and the works themselves?
* These dates are worked out from dates of published articles, I couldn’t find the exact timing anywhere.
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