Jonathan Baldock Taps Into the Spirit of Trees

WAKEFIELD, England — Why do we knock on wood for good luck? As common lore goes, this dates back to the ancient European pagan belief in tree-dwelling spirits who can help protect us from bad luck. But according to Rosemary V. Hathaway, a professor at West Virginia University, this origin is likely apocryphal. People knock to avoid bad luck, which “puts knocking on wood in a category with other ‘conversion rituals’ like throwing salt over one’s shoulder: actions people perform, almost automatically, to ‘undo’ any bad luck just created.”

And yet it’s also true that many cultures believe spirits reside in the trees, these magical, ancient beings that have inspired many a fairy tale and myth. In Jonathan Baldock’s Touch Wood, on view at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), the spirits of the trees come alive. Baldock takes inspiration from three medieval wooden carvings from the nearby Wakefield Cathedral — that of the Green Man, a sphinx, and a misericord — creating ceramics, textiles, and basketry that capture an earth-based imagination.

The Green Man shows up in a variety of beautiful ceramic works, emerging like a flower out of a jar or peering from a smooth blue cylinder with his tongue and ears sticking out. In another stunning cylindrical piece, he appears through what looks like foliage, the textures of the leaves blending with his beard and mustache. “The Green Man is a symbol of rebirth and resurrection,” notes Baldock in an interview with YSP Senior Curator Sarah Coulson that accompanies the exhibition, “and as such is in a continual state of transition. I believe we are all going through this: we all adapt, change and alter. It’s part of being human.”

At the center of the exhibition are four textiles, each representing a season, its colors, and sacred geometry inspired by patterns from nature and medieval symbols. According to Baldock, these symbols were found scratched onto many church surfaces around the United Kingdom. Along the perimeter of the textiles, he’s sewn the words “You Enrich This World,” such that one word appears on each piece. This references a line from Shon Faye’s book The Transgender Issue: Trans Justice of All (2022): “your existence enriches this world.” In the center of the textiles is a basket that looks like a mummified body, with a flower emerging where the face might be.

Combining queerness, the natural world, and paganism, Baldock’s expressive, quirky works expand on the very nature of earth-based spirituality, accessible to all and yet out of reach in a world that disconnects us from our day-to-day relationship with nature beyond value extraction. Human hands, butts, and feet emerge from the sculptures in surprising places, maybe a reminder of where we come from and where we’ll ultimately return.

Speaking on the symbols he’s working with, Baldock noted in his interview with Coulson why they resonate for him: “As a person from a working-class background, I am connected to how they represent the voice of a regular working person from history and not the voice of authority.” He adds, “As a queer person, I see them as objects that don’t fit within the traditional teachings of Christianity, yet here they are nonetheless.”

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Installation view of Jonathan Baldock: Touch Wood at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Jonathan Baldock, “Becoming Plant (a hop)” (2023)

Jonathan Baldock: Touch Wood continues in the Weston Gallery at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (West Bretton, Wakefield, England) through June 30. The exhibition was curated by Sarah Coulson. 

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