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Working with the grain

While my first love is Mopane, sometimes a piece of wood from another tree offers itself irresistibly to the sculpting process. Last month, Maun friends Desiree and Pierre Sharp pointed out the remains of of an old Combretum imberbe outside their gate. Known in English as Leadwood, and in Setwana as Motswiri, the wood from this tree is heavy enough to sink in water, and its coarse and wavy grain is a challenge to the carver.

One long trunk piece with an extraordinary broad wing called to me. Knowing where to cut a piece from its larger body depends a lot on my original impression: the story I see in the wood. In this case, the broad “wing”, with its dark and furrowed surface, spoke of a common experience in the African bush. Sometimes what seems to be a grey termite mound in the hazy afternoon heat can move, and become a living elephant, its huge ears slowly fanning, as it wraps its trunk around a particularly delicious piece of tree bark.

A big raw, cut piece of Combretum imberbe is standing on the work table. Next to it is a yellow tea cup to show that the piece of wood is much larger.
At the beginning of the carving process.
The carved elephant piece is standing almost finished on the work table. You can see the right side of the sculpture, the curved tusk, trunk and edge of the ear. The surface of the wood is still rough.
The process of cutting and carving.
The carved elephant piece is standing almost finished on the work table. You can see the large left ear, the left task and the long trunk. The surface of the wood is still rough.
A step closer to the finish.

Five layers of hand sanding, with progressively finer papers, transforms the surface, revealing a deep warm colour and
lustre. The natural fissures and furrows provide areas of contrast.

The finished sculpture Bushwise is displayed from the left side. You can only see the long trunk and parts of the tusk. The wood is smooth and dark in color.
Finished sculpture titled Bushwise.
The finished sculpture titled Bushwise. Only the right side of the face has been carved with a big tusk and trunk. The wood is smooth and dark in color.
Finished sculpture titled Bushwise.
Two Combretum imberbe trees standing together in a grassy field in northern Botswana
Combretum imberbe trees in northern Botswana, captured by PlantsandpeopleAfrica
Closeup of the leaves and flowers of the Combretum imberbe tree
Flowers of the Combretum imberbe tree, captured by PlantsandpeopleAfrica.
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