Carving wood from the trees with Gary Field

Voices from the past, carved into the future

“From hot type to cold type… from desktop publishing to the early introduction of the Mac, through to production management I have seen enormous changes,” says Gary Field who has been in the printing industry since 1972.

“But running parallel to my life in the printing industry has been my love of woodcarving and sculpture,” says the Brisbane-based wood carver, talking to Clare Kennedy.

“Some carvers just look at a piece of wood and start carving but I like to be organised before I get started. That way I know I’m headed down the right path and don’t end up with a whole pile of sawdust and chips,” says Gary Field, who begins each piece with a series of sketches or a model made from clay or plasticine.

Seed pods, leaves, feathers and bones provide inspiration for this experienced wood carver and sculptor, a well-known figure in the Brisbane woodwork scene. He draws on nature and the landscape for his sensuous and tactile works of art including bowls, jewellery boxes and sculptures, some inset with opals, amethyst, shell and striking timber inlays.

He also draws on the visual images he gathers bushwalking and bird watching, with his wife Michelle. They live in Alexandra Hills, around 25 km south east of Brisbane, in a house filled with “baskets and baskets” of things collected during excursions to Brisbane’s eastern beaches and the hinterland.

Field, a member of the Queensland Wildlife Artists Society, says he and wife Michelle were ecologists who started recycling way before it was popular. Talking by Skype, he holds up a sculpture that illustrates one of his more literal sculptures, and his ethos – a seed pod with curved open lips and a wizard inside. “The whole idea of that is the spirit of the forest,” he explains.

Old timber, modern artworks

The master woodcarver, who is in demand as a demonstrator and teacher, has a passion for abstract pieces and is recognised for his signature organic style. At the time of our interview, He has just been invited as one of twelve artists to exhibit in the running for the Wootha Prize, so-named after the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the Maleny district in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and Fields’s voice betrays his excitement about the project. “It’s a stunning piece, I’m really happy with it. The timber would be well over 200 years old,” he smiles.

The work is an organically shaped box, made from “a beautiful piece of recycled burl”, ornamented with silver. The shape of the box represents the tendrils and buttresses of a rainforest tree. “It will be a relief when I get to the end of that piece because I’ve only got one piece of timber and I need to get it right,” he says.

“I used to salvage a lot of timber myself, but this was salvaged by someone in Dorrigo. Just by the size of the burl, it must have been an absolutely massive tree.” A burl is a large growth on the side of the tree, which mainly grows on eucalypts, he explains.

“Inside the burl is a wonderfully patterned timber. It doesn’t have a distinct grain direction like most timber. On a burl, the grain is going in all directions. It’s swirled and mixed up together.

“This is the burl on a red cedar tree, which is really very, very rare. This is the only piece I’ve ever come across in 30-odd years. I’ve spoken to some gentlemen in their 70s and 80s, and they’ve never come across it. Just gauging by the size of the burl – it’s about a metre long by 800 mm in diameter – the tree must have been logged by early settlers and left as waste product.

“They were only interested in straight logs they could send off to a saw mill. This must have been lying in a paddock for all that time. Yeah, it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece.”

The final piece, titled “Tribute to Reclamation” won the First Prize and was also selected for the Design Excellence Award at the ‘Open and Shut’ Wootha Prize feature exhibition at the Maleny Wood Expo in May.

Field’s favourite piece is one he has named ‘Almost’. “My wife and I were travelling in north Queensland up near the Daintree area at Gordonvale. We called into a sawmill and there were all these big lovely pieces of timber hanging out of the fire pit. I asked if I could take it, and I named it ‘Almost’ after I carved it, because it was almost lost forever.”

“I just like to rescue timber and show the beauty, because so much of it over the last 200 years has been thrown into the fire pits and burned. Fortunately at the moment there’s a movement to reclaim timbers and not waste it all.”

The family tree

Reclaiming the past is something Field can relate to. He never knew either of his grandfathers, and was astonished, late in life, to discover a hitherto unknown connection to both of them.

“My maternal grandfather was a compositor who worked with the Townsville Bulletin, and I never knew that until many, many years after I’d got into the printing trade.” His paternal grandfather was a wood worker who made wooden furniture and boats.

“I didn’t have any influence from either of them, but somehow the universe has aligned so that I’m doing what both my grandfathers had done.”

Gary’s work is on permanent display at The Australian Woodwork Gallery, Hunter Valley NSW and Manly Gallery, Manly Qld. His work is also held in collections in Australia and overseas.

To see more of Gary’s sculpture, visit

Photo supplied by Gary Field.