DREAM WEAVER NATHAN SOWREY SHAPES NATURE INTO FANTASY
Article by Bronwyn Boyer/ Photography by Heather Douglas
Imagine meandering through the woods one day, not really paying attention to the path ahead. Suddenly, you stop short, and so does your heart: You see a giant mythical creature blending perfectly with the trees, its white eyes and teeth gleam from a nest of coiled wood strands like a million serpents working together. You might feel like you’ve stumbled across a film set for a fantasy horror film, or you’ve entered a parallel world of dreams.
Such is the impact of happening along a sculpture created by Nathan Sowrey.
For Sowrey, nature is both medium and muse, flavoured by the spice of fantasy. And in most cases, it’s larger than life. Many of the pieces that begin in Sowrey’s shop in Novar outgrow it before their completion.
A landscaper by trade, Sowrey’s experience with loose stone stacking naturally progressed into stick weaving. The first spark of inspiration happened about 15 years ago while he was making a fence to keep deer out of his yard. Before he knew it, the weave started to emerge as he experimented with different ways of structuring it and filling it. What began as function also became art.
With no sculpting or artistic background, Sowrey’s next build was a 40 foot dragon, created out of woven saplings. The frame was made of birch poles and the rest was layered on through trial and error.
“At that time, I didn’t use wire or nails or anything,” Sowrey explains. “I just kept adding to it until it looked right. By then I had an enormous dragon that had out-grown itself.”
It wasn’t long before Sowrey’s unique cast of creatures were summoned from the dream world into waking life. Though he’ll tackle any custom project for clients, his trademark pieces are along the lines of dragons, owls, gargoyles and witches. His heart won’t truly be in a project unless he’s building something original and truly inspired.
“I want to bring fairy tales to life,” Sowrey explains. “Why make a deer when you could have a nymph – or a horse when you could make Pegasus?”
Sowrey first showed his work a few years ago at Nuit Blanche North in Huntsville at the encouragement of friends.
“I’m uncomfortable in crowds,” he admits. “But it got easier.”
Soon after that, Sowrey began exhibiting at Artists of the Limberlost and the Collingwood Art Crawl. Witnessing the response to his creations made the experience worthwhile.
“Even though some of the sculptures are kind of creepy, I can see the joyful spark in the eyes of little old ladies,” he says. “There’s a sense of childhood wonder, and the years just drop away.”
Sowrey’s inspiration is ignited by fantasy and nature. As a native of the secluded forests of Emsdale, his creativity is fuelled by places untouched by human influence. Solitude is paramount for a busy mind such as his, as the ideas are overwhelming at times.
“I work on three or four pieces at a time, partly because my imagination doesn’t shut off – my head is a whirlwind,” he explains. The creatures quickly come to life through the spontaneity and impulse. “I don’t sketch or plan what I want to do, because it changes anyway. It depends on the sticks and the mood. I start out with an idea, but sometimes it morphs into something else entirely.”
It took Sowrey almost eight years of experimentation to perfect his craft, although he is continually looking for ways to improve it. After trying different saplings in every possible condition, his favourite is cherry.
“Each stick has its own movement and lifespan” he explains. “It took a long time to figure out which ones break down too quickly or snap too easily.”
Gathering materials and transporting the sculptures is a team effort, so Sowrey gets by with help from his friends. Not only are they his moving crew, but they also help collect gemstones for smaller details and peel the bark from sticks to make lighter shades for colour contrast. Pieces of quartz gathered from job sites and wilderness treks are used for eyes and teeth.
“I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without them,” he says. “I call them and they’re always there for me. We roam around the bush for miles gathering material. Most of it would otherwise rot on the ground.”
The process takes longer because they’re careful not to clear-cut so that it’s done in the most sustainable way possible. Also, what doesn’t get used right away gets stockpiled. Sowrey’s shop is lined with un-used sticks, progressively becoming a giant walk-in sculpture in its own regard.
Creating the sculptures is almost an entirely organic art form and everything is locally sourced. Nothing is wasted, and it has a natural birth and death. In this way, the creatures are transformed by their deterioration.
“That first dragon I made lasted 10 years,” Sowrey recounts. “By the end of it, he had his head bent down and his wings were folded in. I tried to revive him by putting a new layer on him to give him a new skin but in the end, I finally buried him. I really felt the loss. There’s a lot of energy invested in the pieces and that’s what brings them to life.”
A lot of energy is certainly what it takes to create something so large and detailed, especially for someone who’s self-taught. When he gets inspired, Sowrey works continually for 10-hour periods, so focused on the work he can easily get lost in it.
“Another way my friends help me is they tell me when something is finished,” he says with a laugh.
“Otherwise they can easily get out of control. I’m trying to make them smaller so they’re easier to manage.”
Though someday he may experiment with adding colours, Sowrey prefers to keep the material as natural as possible. The various red and brown shades are the result of using maple tips that come up in the spring along the roadsides. Ironwood makes very strong frames. Larger sticks and random pieces of driftwood are carved into horns or become wizard staffs with pieces of amethyst glued to the end.
Sowrey’s muse is one that works co-operatively with nature, rather than trying to force it to be something it’s not. The sculptures are mostly held together by the weave itself to form bone structure, muscle, flesh and serpentine waves. Some of the sticks grow gnarled and crooked, which adds an extra supernatural element to the creatures.
“The natural flow of the sticks creates the movement and size,” Sowrey explains. “I like letting the rocks and the sticks do the talking. And then at the end of it, I have something surprising. I almost can’t take credit for it.”
As for future projects, Sowrey has endless ideas of things to build. “I’ll probably never be able to get to them all,” he says. “But no matter what it is, it has to have movement. Even the fences and panels I build should do more than serve a practical purpose – they should be works of art as well.”
If there is a deeper message in Sowrey’s work, it’s the impermanence of art that gives it value. “It’s what keeps things going,” Sowrey concludes. “That’s the power of Mother Nature – no matter what we do, she always wins in the end.”