This Cebu-Based Artist Makes Breathtaking Lifelike Sculptures Out of Driftwood
In 2016, Cebu-based artist James Doran-Webb wowed Filipinos with Mag-Anak, his driftwood sculpture of a family of Philippine Eagles. The piece was commissioned for Enchanted Kingdom’s Flying Agila Theatre, and depicts a mother eagle coming in for a landing while her partner watches over their young.
While conceptualizing his sculpture Mag-Anak, Doran-Webb made several visits to the Philippine Eagle Centre in Davao
The narrow beams they’re perched on represent the precarious position of the Philippine Eagle as the loss of its habitat threatens its existence. Doran-Webb made the beams out of molave dating back to the 19th century and placed Nephrite boulders around the base of the installation.
Doran-Webb makes sure to photograph each of his sculptures in Cebu before shipping them out.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Doran-Webb’s sculptures is the sense of movement. It’s easy to imagine that his animals were once alive and suddenly transformed into wood mid-leap. Check out this trio of racing thoroughbreds he made for Gardens by the Bay in Singapore:
Doran-Webb created three driftwood horses for Gardens by the Bay’s 2014 Chinese New Year display. Here he is taking them for a ride.
The nature park often commissions him to create sculptures for its various attractions. So far he has made monkeys for Chinese New Year, along with a gigantic tarantula crouching at the top of the Flower Dome’s lift shaft. He’s currently working on an oversize millipede for them as well.
Doran-Webb has always loved working with wood and repurposing old materials. After all, he grew up traveling with his parents in search of art and antiques, and learned to carve, whittle, and refinish wood in the workshops of their antiques restoration company in England and France. All of his sculptures are made from decades-old wood and second life material. He first started experimenting with animal forms as a teen and has been making driftwood sculptures for about 20 years now.
Tilt and The Dubai Cup, a piece Doran-Webb made for Princess Haiya’s dinner party on the eve of the 2018 Dubai Cup.
Ever since he moved to the Philippines in the 1990s, he’s been building up a large collection of driftwood. As he traveled around the country doing adventure sports such as mountain biking and kayaking, he established a network of locals who were willing to gather and sell driftwood to him. As part of his project called 80,000 Trees, he plants a seedling in the deforested areas of north and south Cebu for every kilo of driftwood he buys.
Doran-Webb’s repertoire extends to mythical creatures as well. He’s made some imposing wyverns (two-legged dragons), one of which is on display at Gardens by the Bay’s Baobab Forest at the Flower Dome.
The Guardian of the Baobabs at Gardens by the Bay’s Flower Dome.
Doran-Webb’s daughter Diana marveling at the wyvern before it left for Singapore in 2014.
Creating large sculptures is a laborious process that requires the help of Doran-Webb’s six assistants. First, he builds a metal frame to which he attaches the wooden pieces, fitting them together like a driftwood puzzle. Getting the metal skeleton of the animal exactly right is crucial.
Doran-Webb exhibits his sculptures at the Chelsea Flower Show every year. For the 2015 show, he created this piece called Wyvern’s Folly with a gazebo made out of recycled water bottles and reclaimed steel.
“One of my common mistakes back when I was less experienced is you'd always think that you can hide a mistake with the armature, which is the underlying stainless steel structure, just by compensating with moving driftwood left or right or north or south,” he explains. “But even a one-inch mistake on the armature is very, very hard to hide. And even now, I can never make a sculpture straight from conceptualization to completion without at some point cutting out a piece of driftwood or much of the driftwood and going back to the armature, revising the armature, and then reapplying the driftwood. I'll do that three or four times during the making of a horse even now, even after so many years of experience.”
For a piece as large as The Guardian of the Baobabs, he even had to raise the ceiling of his workshop and build a gantry system to lift and assemble the wyvern sculpture. Doran-Webb often documents the painstaking process of crafting his monumental sculptures in videos and articles posted to his website.
Before shipping out his art, he always makes sure to photograph the finished product in a way that does it justice. Believe it or not, this shot of an eagle snatching a salmon from the water wasn’t photoshopped. Doran-Webb takes great pains to shoot his sculptures in natural settings, and this photo was taken at the Bonbon River 10 kilometers outside Cebu. He and his team dangled the sculpture off a bridge and threw stones at it to get a splashing effect.
Doran-Webb and photographer Rolando Pascua never rest until they get the perfect shot.
“The river is actually small. You know, it's amazing with photography, you can make things seem quite different from how they are. And then my photographer, he's a wonderful chap, a very close friend called Rolando Pascua. [We] went down to the water, and he put his camera almost touching the water to get that shot. And so the body of water looked a lot bigger than it actually was,” Doran-Webb says. “We've had this kind of partnership for the last 20 years. He's the most amazing photographer, he's not happy until he gets a perfect shot. I mean, I thought I was bad the way I will go on with my sculptures. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, but he takes it to the next level.”
Doran-Webb does smaller sculptures as well, including adorable Petal the Piglet.
Doran-Webb is currently preparing to show his sculptures at the 2021 Trinity Exhibition in Jersey, an island off the coast of England. Mr. Moonlight Fox is just one of the pieces he’ll be exhibiting in August.
His most challenging piece was a trio of giraffes for the 2019 Beijing Horticultural Expo. With a height of 11 meters, it’s the largest driftwood sculpture in the world. Doran-Webb received the commission while looking after his brother, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. The sculpture was to be displayed on a 20-meter high roof deck, in a highly exposed area of China just below the Great Wall. And he was only given a year to complete the sculptures.
Molly and Her Family had to be visible from the top of Vanke’s Botanic Garden.
“It was very, very tense and I was working long hours,” he recalls. “Engineering-wise, it was a very difficult project because I had to make sure that it was earthquake-proof, lightning-proof, snow-proof, wind-proof, and the climatic conditions where the sculpture was installed were horrendous. I mean, very, very high dry heat in the summer, and sub-zero temperatures in the winter, snow storms and lightning every year. In terms of areas of China, I think this area was hit with the most lightning strikes. And when you're building a sculpture out of metal with wood on top, it's a huge lightning risk. So for all for those reasons and many more, it was a really difficult installation.”
James Doran-Webb poses with the largest driftwood sculptures he’s made so far.
Doran-Webb made sure his giraffes would be able to withstand the elements with the help of engineering software. It wasn’t easy, given the software is normally used to calculate the strength and durability of linear forms like 50-storey buildings. He entered the specifications of the armature of his giraffes. For the largest giraffe alone, he had 4,300 different cuts of stainless steel in different thicknesses and gauges welded together. He had to enter every single piece into the software, including the type of welding, length, angle, and thickness.
Doran-Webb needed the help of over 20 artisans to complete Molly and Her Family.
“It was a huge task, just to enter all that information into the engineering calculations. And then afterwards, you invariably came back with red flags,” Doran-Webb explains. “So the engineering software would tell you you’ve got a problem here or there. And then you'd have to go back and rework that and possibly go with a stronger gauge of metal or weld, an extra supporting structure there. The engineering software will normally just say that what you've made is okay, but you rely on your own kind of instinct and knowledge and experience to over-engineer, and the over engineering is what gives you the strength. And the engineering software just validates that.”
In the end he was able to complete the installation in time and show it to his brother before he passed away. “It was a very, very sad time,” Doran-Webb recalls. “But he got to see the sculpture before it left and he was so happy to see it. So that was a beautiful thing.”
Doran-Webb’s exhibit at the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show. He prefers that his pieces be displayed outdoors rather than in galleries, since the natural setting helps bring them to life.
Today Doran-Webb is working on his first human sculpture called Spirit of Sanctuary, which is to be installed in Sillon Marine Sanctuary on the east coast of Bantayan Island. The piece will be a tribute to fishermen who protect their environment by using sustainable fishing methods. It will depict a swarthy fisherman with wings holding a stainless steel oar, standing atop a 6-meter column while looking out to sea. A donation box will be installed at the base of the sculpture, along with a plaque explaining the meaning of the sculpture and the plight of the sanctuary.
A concept sketch of Spirit of Sanctuary
“This is a personal project of mine funded by me in cooperation with the Municipality of Bantayan, Barangay of Sillon, DENR, and BFAR. The target for completion of the Spirit of Sanctuary is December 2021 provided we can get the stakeholders agreeing on the principles of free access to all and tethering the project to the benefit of the community and principles of sustainable fishing,” Doran-Webb explains. He hopes the installation will help support the local community by encouraging more tourism within the area and providing alternative livelihoods to the families that eke out a living by fishing.
Gone Fishing, a sculpture Doran-Webb made in 2018
From the way he sources his materials to the subject matter of his pieces, Doran-Webb’s lifelike sculptures show a great love for nature and deep concern for the environment. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next and we hope visitors will not only marvel at his creations, but become inspired to protect our wildlife for future generations.
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