From early on it was established that the forest itself was the main subject of the project, the leading player, with the sculptures as the supporting cast. They were to act as catalysts for our imaginations, releasing new ideas in us about our relationship to nature and the environment, and prompting a sense of awe and wonderRupert Martin, 1990
The beginnings: land art and magic walks
The Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, one of the first installations of its kind, came about through the shared vision of three people: Martin Orrom (then Forestry and Environment Officer for the Forestry Commission), Jeremy Rees (Founding Director of the Arnolfini, Bristol) and Rupert Martin (Curator at the Arnolfini).
Orrom, Rees and Martin were motivated, in large part, by the land art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, in which landscape and artwork were seen as inextricably connected. Another major inspiration was the work of artist Jamie McCullough, who sculpted more than a dozen works for Beginner’s Way (popularly known as ‘Magic Walk’) in Haldon Forest, Devon. Beginner’s Way, though small and elusive, was extremely popular with the public, attracting up to 1,000 visitors a day at its peak.
The Forest of Dean, with its diverse sites and environments for artists to interpret, was chosen as the site for the new trail. Speech House Hotel in Beechenhurst became the base from which groups of artists, in early 1984, began exploring the site and proposing new works. The brief was simple: artists were to interpret the forest for the public, encouraging exploration on foot and imaginative engagement with the environment and its history.
The trail’s first sculptures, under the collective name Stand and Stare, opened to the public in June 1986, alongside two exhibitions held at the Arnolfini. Among them were works by David Nash, Magdalena Jetelová and Ian Hamilton Finlay, some of which can still be seen on the trail today.
The second phase: stone and iron
The first phase proved popular with the public, but the founders felt that there was scope for further work, and so a second wave of commissions took place in 1988. At the time, this was intended to conclude the project.
Most of the works from phase one employed wood, and so the focus for the new commissions was to use other materials from the forest, including coal, stone and iron ore. From this phase came works by Bruce Allan, Miles Davis and Cornelia Parker.
It was also in 1988 that the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust (FODST) was set up to oversee the trail and commission new works, both permanent and temporary. The Trust continues to operate in the forest. It aims to stay true to the vision of the founders, while reflecting current movements in sculpture.
The new millennium: creation and corrosion
Between 1988 and 2000, things were a little quieter at the forest, although the commissioning of new sculptures did not stop completely, with a sculpture by Carole Drake appearing in 1995. The year 2000, however, brought with it a particularly lively chapter in the trail’s history.
The first work of this third major phase of commissioning was Neville Gabie’s sculpture, Raw, alongside an associated programme of temporary works curated by Gabie. This was quickly followed by an illumination event, Lightshift, which featured 25 artists responding to the Foot and Mouth epidemic. Over the following 20 years, works by Erica Tan, Annie Cattrell, David Cotterrell, Pomona Zipser, Andrea Roe, Henry Castle, Onya McCausland and Natasha Rosling joined the collection.
In the mid-2010s, it became apparent that some of the trail’s oldest fixtures were beginning to deteriorate and needed to be removed for the safety of the public. In response, the FODST ran a project called Memories of Place, for which members of the public were invited to submit their own recollections of the sculpture.
Magdalena Jetelová’s Place, affectionately known as the Giant’s Chair, had become emblematic of the trail and so its 2015 decommissioning was a momentous event.
2021 and beyond
Today, the trail responds not only to the forest’s past, but also to its contested present. Kristina Veasey has been artist-in-residence since 2019, creating work which uses basket weaving as a means of amplifying the unheard stories of people living in and around the forest, especially women and disabled people.
In summer 2021, a new area of the trail opens, bringing to the forest eight temporary sculptures by artists including Baker & Borowski, Michelle Cain, Seyi Adelekun and Edith Meusnier. Entitled Forest to Forest and focused on accessibility and playfulness, the works collectively celebrate the gifts of the natural world in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A new sculpture by Khady Gueye and Zakiya McKenzie, meanwhile, entitled Soil unsoiled, will explore contemporary issues from another perspective. The work celebrates diversity and draws inspiration from the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
I hope it adds nuance, beauty and wonder to people visiting the trail. I also hope it brings more people out who then discover a lifelong love with forests, that is the dreamZakiya Mckenzie on Soil Unsoiled, 2021