Eleazar Galea is an artist who works mainly with olive wood, creating practical pieces but also beautiful sculptures that are sold locally and internationally. He has exhibited in England and Spain. For commissions and to see his work, visit The Olivewood Shop Facebook page
How did you develop a passion for olive wood?
The national sculptor of Malta, Anton Agius, lived next door to my grandmother, and from a young age, about eight years old, I was fascinated by sculpture and art. Often I would sketch or model clay under his watchful eye. Anton worked in many mediums, and one of those was olive wood. As I grew older he would ask me to clean the roots of an olive tree, remove the bark, soil and stones, so he could carve them. He taught me to look at the
wood and see how it was naturally shaped, and not force a shape from it. He always said, “Let the shape come out”.
By the age of 11 I was attending the Malta School of Art in Valletta; I then continued at the Art Academy Malta in Mosta. Throughout this time, I was always collecting pieces of olive wood and practising my sculpting on
them. By the age of 16, I had already started to be commissioned for my olive wood sculptures.
I never stopped sculpting but coming from a family of business people, as I started my working life I set up a successful property maintenance business but quickly realised that my passion for art had to become my lifestyle not my hobby, so I sold everything and became a full time artist.
What is it about olive wood that you have made it your principal medium?
It is an extremely hard wood – some pieces are twice the hardness of oak – and has a close grain which achieves a really nice finish. I got hooked on it when I was a child. The grain of the wood excited me, the smell of the wood, the temperament of its structure, the way it suggests to you what form you should carve out. To this day, every single piece of olive wood I cut, regardless of whether it is to make a piece of kitchenware, a craft piece or a large beautiful sculpture, gives me so much satisfaction unlike any other material I have ever worked with. Even when I lived in the UK with all those beautiful woods available there, I would still choose olive wood and would drive from the UK to Malta to collect some special pieces and return with them to the UK to work on.
How do you choose the piece of olive wood that you want to work with?
With commercial products, it is first selecting the right kind of wood for the object you are going to make. If it’s a chopping board you want a nice, straight grain; if it’s a mortar and pestle, you want a swirly grain. For an
artistic piece, I let the wood dictate what has to be done with it – follow what is already there and the end result will be the best. Another consideration is colour – this varies depending on the age of the tree. If you want something to have a really deep grain with a reddish colour, the wood has to have come from a tree that’s very mature, a few hundred years old. A juvenile tree is more white as it has more sap wood than hard wood. I do, though, use the sap wood as a contrast.
What inspires you?
What is around me; I might, for example, see something in nature. One of the last sculptures I made was inspired by reeds – how the leaf folds over and trying to put that into a piece of olive wood. Sometimes it is the
simplest things in life that inspire me to make a sculpture.
How do you work?
When I have selected a piece of wood I will study its form and decide if it’s going to be a hand-carved sculpture or even a piece of artistic wood turning. With a carved sculpture, it can be a process of many months as it is rare that I start and finish one piece on its own – I often have a few pieces on the go. But the most satisfying part of the process is always applying the oils at the end to make the grain stand out.
What are the pieces that stand out for you?
I have so many – asking for a favourite is like asking which of your children you love best! One piece, though, that is close to my heart is one that was a very simple thing – looking at a vortex. It did not take that much time to create because it was nearly there in the wood. It’s close to my heart because of the simplicity of it.
At the moment I am working on a piece that has taken me very long time – figures of fish carved in the wood. I like it because it takes me back to the kind of sculpture I used to do with the master.