When you first enter sculptor Josef Lang’s workshop, you are overwhelmed by the wooden sculptures standing up to 5 metres tall. They depict human beings and are big, colourful and powerful. Josef Lang saws the figures out of the trunks of large oak trees. We met the artist and asked him a few questions.
About Josef Lang:
As a child, Josef Lang discovered his interest in three-dimensional art and started making sculptures out of modelling clay.
After completing his business training, he started working as an industrial management assistant. Later, he trained as a stonemason, before studying sculpture. Since 1986, Josef Lang has worked as a freelance sculptor.
Mr. Lang, how did you first get interested in sculpture?
Josef Lang (J. L.): Whenever I would draw a picture as a child, I was always disappointed. If you turn the picture around, you don’t see anything on the other side. I always wanted to know what things look like from different perspectives. The art of sculpture lets you see the end result from various points of view.
Why are your sculptures made of wood? And why are they so big?
J. L.: I’ve been working with wood for a long time. But up until my first big sculpture, I had only made life-size figures at the most. My first big piece came about more or less by chance, when I found out that a large oak tree had toppled over nearby. I drove out there, took a look at it, and bought it. I sawed my first really big sculpture out of it.
Why wood? Why not some other material?
J. L.: I think that wood – unlike stone or metal – is warm and alive. It simply has a different energy. When I am asked to make sculptures, the clients usually explicitly request wood.
How do you get the wood for your work?
J. L.: At first, I always used to call around and ask forestry authorities, owners’ associations, highway departments and private individuals if they had any tree trunks lying around. But a lot of people know me now since I looked all over Europe for a tree trunk for a major project. Now people call me when they have a tree trunk. Today, I have my own place where I store wood here in town. The tree trunks first have to dry for three or four years. They’re ready to use when the bark falls off.
Do you buy every tree trunk you can get your hands on?
J. L.: No, I go there and inspect the material. It has to be in good shape, technically speaking. There can’t be any heart rot or frost cracks in the growth rings, and it shouldn’t have any ingrowing rotting branches. Often, you can’t see it from the outside – you have to start sawing it first. Such damage can cause pieces to splinter and fall off. I try to avoid that kind of thing and change the concept of the sculpture if I notice it in advance.
What is your approach to creating a sculpture?
J. L. Before I start cutting into it, I spend several days walking around the trunk to find out what’s in it. Then I start to get an idea of the pose, the position of the head, how the figure is holding its arms. That’s when I get a picture of it in my mind.
I place the trunk on a wheel in my workshop and work with a forklift to which a wire-mesh box has been attached. That’s where I stand. That way, I can move up and down and turn the tree to get at each side. I have the concept in my head; it’s inside each individual trunk. So I don’t make any models. Instead, I just sketch the basic cuts on the wood – and then comes STIHL.
You have a variety of STIHL saws in your workshop. Which one is your favourite to work with?
J. L.: My favourite one to work with is the MS 441 with a 70-centimetre cutting length for diagonal cuts. With a smaller saw, you can’t always see where you’re making the cuts. It’s good to be able to see where the tip of the guide bar comes out. Once I’ve made an important cut, I have to get down off the forklift and walk around the trunk to see how it looks from the other side. Every perspective is important, after all.
How long do you need to complete a sculpture?
J. L.: Depending on the size, anywhere from four to six weeks. You can’t work on such a sculpture for eight hours a day. There comes a point where you just can’t go on any longer: You have to be able to concentrate fully on the task at hand when you’re working with a saw with a 70-centimetre guide bar. I make diagonal and vertical cuts, with the grain, against the grain. That’s a lot of different movements, and it demands the utmost concentration.
Is there any way to see your works?
J. L.: Yes, at the art fair ART in Karlsruhe, Germany from 18 to 21 February. Or look for one of the sculptures on display in a public space. You’ll find a list on my website at http://www.joseflang-bildhauer.de/vita.html