Simon O’Rourke interview: Award-winning wood sculptor behind new Beatles works
Waterloo-born Simon O’Rourke is an award-winning wood carver who creates imaginative sculptures across the globe. Now based in Wales, Simon is currently in the midst of a four-week project which has brought him back to the Liverpool City Region and it’s said to be one of his biggest challenges yet – carving The Beatles from tree trunks.
Your Move caught up with Simon to find out more about the ‘Fab Four’ task, his favourite projects and plans for the future.
Interview by Rhiannon Ireland
Your sculptures are incredibly lifelike. Do you have a particular creative process that you go through before carving them?
I do a lot of research first. I’ve done a huge amount of research over the years into anatomy and proportion and form.
Planning and preparation is the key, as well as knowing what’s going on under the surface of a human form.
Your projects are really varied, with works ranging from the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ inspired booth at a Steak of the Art restaurant to the ‘Viking Raid’ competition entry. What has been your favourite project so far?
The ‘Viking Raid’ was really quite special to me, I put a huge amount into that. All the sculptures have different qualities.
The restaurant work has been a huge amount of fun because so many people get to enjoy it and seeing the reactions of people has been really rewarding.
There are loads of projects which I’ve really enjoyed though. It’s really, really difficult to pick a favourite.
You tend to work on four different types of sculpture; animal life, human form, fantasy and rustic. Which do you most enjoy working on?
I think the human form. I like the challenge – anything that pushes my boundaries is what I tend to enjoy most.
Michelangelo once said that [human form] is the highest form of sculpture just because of the complexity and the challenge of getting it right.
“Working to a timescale is the biggest challenge, and obviously getting The Beatles anatomically and proportionally correct is also a huge challenge.”
You’ve travelled to lots of different places to showcase your work, including Japan and North America. Do you find that it’s looked at from different perspectives in different places?
Yes, I would say so. Different people have different tastes.
[Competition] judging is always subjective and you can never get away from that. It must be incredibly difficult to judge any kind of art competition.
What I’ve found is that the difference in people’s styles in different countries has been the thing that stands out the most to me. There is a very particular style that comes through in Japan and the Americas.
In terms of how people receive it, it has always been a good reception. I think everybody loves to see a big sculpture created over a short period of time.
You’ve described carving the Beatles as a ‘daunting but hugely exciting challenge’. What makes it so daunting and is there a particular Beatle you’re most looking forward to carving?
Working to a time scale is the biggest challenge, and obviously getting The Beatles anatomically and proportionally correct is also a huge challenge.
I’m going to be using just a chainsaw, so some of the more refined facial features you see on my other sculptures will not be the case with The Beatles. I’m going for feel and overall appearance, although you can go into detail with a chainsaw anyway.
I’ve got to pick out all the features of The Beatles that make them recognisable; face shape, haircut etc. For example, Paul McCartney has slightly sloped eyelids.
As for my favourite Beatle, I would say I’m particularly looking forward to doing John Lennon, just because he’s the last one. I think I’ll enjoy each of them for different reasons.
Do you feel there’s a particular significance in returning to Liverpool, given that you grew up in the city region?
I think it is a little bit of a homecoming. I’ve been in Wales for 20 years this year but I still have family in Liverpool and my two younger brothers live in the area.
I have a real fondness for the dock area and the Pier Head, remembering family trips out there.
Wood carving is quite niche. Have you always wanted to do something so individual for a living?
It was more of a happy accident, to be honest. After I did my illustration degree, moving into tree surgery was a necessity of needing work and that was what came up at the time.
I ended up really enjoying the tree surgery and then I saw somebody carving and thought I can draw and I can use a chainsaw so I’ll try that.
I suppose I met the right people and I was in the right place at the right time but there has been a lot of hard work and perseverance to get to where I am today.
Is there a particular person or thing you’d like to make a sculpture of in the future?
I’ve got a project I want to work on. I came up with the concept about eight years ago but I needed the financial backing and the land to be able to do it. I have a location so it’s just the finance now.
I want to create a buried giant. It wouldn’t be wood sculpting, it would be created from the landscape. It would look like a giant fell asleep 1,000 years ago and everything has grown up around him.
There would be a large field with a pair of boots sticking out of the ground at one end, a hand half the field away and then a huge head sticking up out of the ground at the other end of the field. I’m really looking forward to the possibility of doing that.
Lastly, what project are you working on next?
Aside from The Beatles during August, I have a single piece I’m doing over four Saturdays in Chester Cathedral. I also have an entire sculpture trail to make in Great Sutton. I’m going to write a children’s story and then illustrate the sculpture trail with characters from the story.