July/August 2007

'Horror at seeing the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral'

The Times   Body & Soul Saturday
July 14th 2007
'His life is like living in a film, frame by frame'

Eastern Daily Press

March 22nd 2002

‘everyone should be able to enjoy art’

Eastern Daily Press 

Thursday December 30 1999

'artist of the people'

Wood Carving  
September/October 2000 No 54 
'one of the most interesting wood sculptors'
Jan/Feb 2001
'we must talk about what we are doing to the forests and the sources of energy'
'he lets the shape, grain and colour of natural polished wood express movement'
'your brain has changed, the way you see things has changed'
JULY 2001
'much great art, music and literature is an expression of  mental suffering and a positive healing process'

Horror at seeing the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral

CHURCH BUILDING Magazine.  Issue 106 July/August 2007 £4.00

Lady Chapel. Ely Cathedral Horror at seeing carvings and tracery mutilated at the time of the Reformation
The Forest Stations wood carvings have been on exhibition in many Cathedrals, from Norwich to Wells and Ely to Lincoln.  They have been on show in the nave at Lincoln since 2001, write WILLIAM FAIRBANKS.

Many entries in the Comment Books express appreciation to the invitation to touch the sculptures and refer to the fine quality of the finish.  By trade I am a Master Cabinet Maker and ‘finish’ is at the very root of my craft and as a sculptor I am a communicator, communicating ideas and feelings through my work.  A finely finished piece sends out one message and an unfinished broken piece quite another.

When we enter one of our fine Cathedrals, one is so struck by the grandeur of the space and how the architects used the height and majesty of the pillars and carvings to show off the Glory of God.    Alec Knight, Dean of Lincoln until 2006, referred to this as the ‘wow factor’.

So, using a recent visit to Ely Cathedral only as an example, one enters the Lady Chapel.  Initially there is the ‘wow factor’ hit but that is immediately replaced by the horror of seeing the extraordinary panoply of carvings and tracery work mutilated at the time of the Reformation in 1539. 

Combining the same stone with modern glues, stone carving tools and copying techniques, the stone carvers of today could have a wonderful time restoring the Lady Chapel to its former glory. The new pinnacles on the north side of the chapel show the way but there remains enough fascinating work to keep a modern well equipped term going for many years.

In world terms we are way behind many other countries.  The Golden Temple in Amritsar in India has been completely repaired since it was so badly  damaged only twenty years ago.  

Of course these decisions are often political and that may well be why the Lady Chapel has not been repaired, even after 500 years.  However, on leaving the Lady Chapel, the craftsman in me was imbued with a feeling of embarrassment and sadness, which is hardly a good feeling to have when leaving a Cathedral.



His life is like living in a film, frame by frame

The Times   Body & Soul Saturday July 14th 2007

The accidental artist

 William Fairbank, 57, lost his short-term in a car accident 20 years ago that damaged his brain.  He was married with three young children, and he ran a successful carpentry business.  He lives in Norfolk.

 Fairbank likens his life to living in a film: ''I can visualise only the present, and so I live my life one frame at a time.''

  Although unable to return to his job - as well as memory problems he still has ringing in his ears, double vision, and he walks with crutches - the accident left him with the ability to feel powerful emotion, and to see images and shapes vividly.

  A friend suggested to Fairbank that he should apply his woodcarving skills to sculpture, and he quickly discovered that he had a passion for this art form.  He also realised that living in the present gave him an incredible focus, allowing him to devote total brainpower to his creations.

  He went on to exhibit his work at Norwich Cathedral, and then nationwide, and he entered a piece for the 2000 Turner Prize.

   Although his art has flourished since the accident, his personal life has suffered.  He divorced ten years ago and has never remarried.  Given the choice to rewind time, Fairbank doesn't hesitate. ''You wouldn't choose to go down this road,'' he says. ''No way. You just make the best of it.''



Eastern Daily Press

March 22nd 2002


It will be exhibited in major cities, and yet the first people to see it will be shoppers in the local supermarket.

Sculptor William Fairbank is putting his new work Fibre Optic Heart, up at Tesco’s in Thetford before it is added to the Picture of Health section of the Tree of Life exhibition touring the UK.

The three foot heart covered in fibreoptics represents the damage smoking does.

Self-styled ‘artist of the people’ Mr Fairbank, of Bridgham, said: “It’s about the blood supply and what can be done to someone’s coronary blood vessels when they smoke.”

The heart is one of many of his works to go on display at Tesco’s as Mr Fairbank feels that everyone should be able to enjoy art yet do not want to always go to galleries.

Shoppers were the first to see the three part sculpture, Time Line, which the former carpenter and joiner hoped would be entered for the Turner Prize two years ago.

Mr Fairbank turned to sculpture when he was left disabled and with a poor memory after a car accident in 1987.



Wood Carving

September/October 2000 No 54 £3.25     Latest new, product reviews and techniques for carvers

Extracts from an article on P 28 entitled, Any colour you want (including photo of Forest Station No 14).

Should carvers colour their work? Martin Turner stokes an already fierce debate.

'William Fairbank, one of the most interesting wood sculptors working in this country, completed a huge work entitled The Forest Stations.

This remarkable work portrays the Stations of the Cross using brilliant design and 139 different woods from around the world.  Station 13, the body of Christ is held by his mother, is carved and composed of nine different coloured woods.

Is this acceptable to those who do not accept painted wood?  After all it is unquestionably wood and unquestionably colour.'

Turner Prize

William Fairbank is using wood in a way which some carvers may not like but he is trying to get his latest work accepted as an entry for the Turner Prize (no relation!).  I don't think an entry in wood has been accepted before, but if it is, it can only be good for wood carvers -  what ever they make.'.............................................


FLAME Jan/Feb 2001

Artist of The People

William Fairbank is a carpenter-joiner by trade who since a serious car accident in 1987 spends his time making wood sculptures. In a recent issue Flame featured some of his work. As he sat over coffee with Katy Hounsell-Robert in the train travelling from Norwich to London, where he has been exhibiting at St. Johns, Waterloo Road, he talked enthusiastically about his faith and work.

How important is your faith to you?          Christianity has always been a part of my life and it all seemed very easy. Choir practise on Thursday - church on Sunday. Then at 37 I had this terrible accident which left me with head injuries and walking with crutches. Faith was very important to me at this time. The idea that there is an overall plan which is so, so much bigger than my problems really helped. Working on 'Forest Stations', my first big sculpture, also widened my views on spirituality. I wanted to get under the skin of every character - not just Jesus and Mary but the unknown person at the back of the crowd. Strangely enough when I was working on the figure of Jesus I never once thought of him as the Son of God but about the suffering of this amazing man and how some people especially his mother, were there for him. I also realised that my sculpture has to reach everybody.

Was it difficult to change from carpentry and joinery to sculpting?          I always wanted to do sculpture and I had studied it for a year at Ravensbourne College and made a crib for my local church. But to me everything I make is a sculpture whether people eat off it, sit on it or look at it.

Why did you choose to make a 'Stations of the Cross'?          The titles seemed to encompass lots of different sides of life and I felt the traditional Stations weren't communicating much to people and I suppose I wanted to make a personal statement of faith in parallel with a plea for the environment.  It was very therapeutic to concentrate on this enormous theme. It took seven years to complete.

How has 'Forest Stations' been received?          Thousands of people from all faiths have seen it and been very moved.  A woman stood in front of 'the body of Jesus being held by his mother' and wept and wept.  The Methodist Church in New Malden, Surrey was so impressed that it commissioned four sculptures called 'Ribbon of Life' to hang permanently in the Welcome area.

Are you very concerned about the environment?        Oh, yes. I'm not a 'Green' fanatic but I do think we must talk about what we're doing to the forests and sources of energy.

Have there been setbacks or disappointments?           I was disappointed that when I took 'Forest Stations' to the Lambeth Conference, no one seemed very interested.  I've been more disappointed about not being entered for the Turner Prize with my 'Time Line', three sculptures I made for the millennium. Three hundred people recommended this entry for the Turner Prize but I was not even short listed.

Do you have time to do other things besides sculpting?        I'm on the committees of Christian Arts and of Headway, an organisation helping people with head injuries.  I'm also a qualified masseur, which I took up after the accident primarily to relax myself.  And I love teaching wood sculpting.  I look after my youngest daughter Alice who is still at home and my dog Humphrey Bogart.

What about future projects?       I'd like to exhibit my work in hospitals.  But my next project is creating a web site not just about my sculpture but about my writing and films as well because I'm a multi-media artist.  But more than anything I'm a questioner.  I'm looking for the truth.  It's a lifetimes work but that's what I'm moving towards.



Gloucester: William Fairbank's Forest Stations of the Cross are on view for the fourth year running over Easter, now in Gloucester Cathedral nave (until 21 April), writes Katy Hounsell-Roberts.

These wood sculptures took Fairbank seven years to complete, struggling through his own journey of mental and physical suffering. A carpenter-joiner by trade, and amateur wood sculptor, he was halted in mid-career by a car accident that left him with serious head and body injuries and unable to work again.

Because of his injuries he could concentrate on only one Station at a time; but the first, "Jesus, a Man of Truth, is condemned to Death" sets the impressionist pattern developed in the later Stations. Like Henry Moore, he lets the shape, grain and colour of natural, polished wood express movement. He also uses myriads of tiny veneer inlay figures rather like gingerbread men with only hints of hair or gown.  Yet it is clear what each is feeling.

In "The body of Jesus is held by his Mother", instead of the crucified body we see only the arm of Jesus cupped in his mother's hands. The grain of the lime wood represents perfectly the bruising to the arm.

Overall, Fairbank used 139 different woods from all over the world, including the huge forest wood yard near East Harling, where he wandered on crutches for hours with his dog, searching for the right piece of timber.

He has made his Stations highly accessible, encouraging people to feel them, and drawing a parallel between the way we crucified Truth, and 2000 years later are destroying creation.




An English man is seeking Otago people with head injuries to appear in an educational film to talk about their experiences.

William Fairbank, from Norfolk, was a successful joiner until he was in a car accident in 1987, receiving a broken pelvis, eye damage and serious head injuries.

"Head injury patients go into rehab for the first year, but after that it really depends on how pushed you are," he said in an interview.

"You're brain has changed. The way you see things has changed."

Generally, head injury patients conditions did not improve, but they were able to get better at handling what happened, he said.

After the accident, Mr. Fairbank had to give up his joinery business but was able to become a sculptor, working with wood and other materials.

He plans to make a 45 minute teaching film, aimed at people who have received head injuries and their friends and families which will feature people talking about their experiences.

Mr. Fairbank (50) is in New Zealand for two months and will spend about a week in Dunedin seeking people willing to share their experiences of coping with head injuries.

The film would aim to help people understand what it was like living with a head injury, he said. It would cover topics common to head injury patients, such as self-confidence and frustration.

"We talk about it among ourselves, because we are the ones who know what it's like to have a headache all the time and no memory. My values and how I look at life have changed because my memory is so hopeless. You have to live in the present all the time."

Once completed, the video should be available through head injury support groups around New Zealand, he said.




Extensive head injuries left William Fairbank with no prospects, but he still had a lot to express, as Katy Hounsell-Robert discovered.

One of the most inspiring days I have ever spent was when I went to see an exhibition in a church of wood sculptures by William Fairbank. On the plain white walls hung fifteen Stations of the Cross superbly crafted (using 139 different woods) and very, very moving. By the door I noticed a collection plate in aid of Headway.

‘It’s an organisation helping people with head injuries,’ the verger explained. ‘William was a carpenter-joiner with a very successful business. Then a terrible car accident left him with head and other injuries and he wasn't able to work again. That’s when he started making the sculptures.’

A tall cheerful looking man with dark hair and glasses moved towards me wielding crutches like ski sticks: William had apparently been a keen sportsman before the accident.

‘What are you supposed to do?’ he said to me cheerfully, ‘You wake up in hospital and hear them telling you that you’ll never be yourself again. I’m really supposed to be sitting in a corner watching T.V. with my carer. Less than 1% of people with my head injuries achieve anything again. But I decided I needed to do something with my one talent.’

His faith always there with him helped him cope spiritually with his condition. It gave him that bigger picture so that he felt that whatever was happening to him personally and however awful he felt, this was irrelevant to God’s overall purpose and he just had to get on with what he had without resentment.

Once home again after the accident how everything had changed for both him and his wife and three children and how difficult it was for all of them to cope not so much with his physical disability but with his mood swings, depression and loss of memory. ‘On the outside’, he observed, ‘you may seem perfectly normal but it is as though you are in a film. Nothing is quite real. And then you’re confidence hits the floor. You’re right down there’.

But when he limped into his old workshop he felt safe and at home and while he could not attempt major pieces as before, he wanted to do something – anything – to express his frustration and suffering. He had studied sculpture for a year some time before, and had been put forward for a church commission to make a ‘Stations of the Cross’ but hadn't got it. It hadn't bothered him at the time but a few years after the accident he thought of it again.

He and I stood in front of the first station of the cross. Jesus is condemned to death. There was the calm head and shoulders of Jesus and a large hand condemning him supported by a crowd of small people on a backwood of sweet chestnut. The figures were veneer inlaid and the piece seemed intricate and laborious.

‘I had nothing else to do’ he said. ‘I had a constant headache and several eye operations to repair the nerve damage and it was a terrible worry having no money and the insurance claim taking years. But there was nothing else I could do so I put all my love and feeling into it. The innocent Truth was condemned by us, the people, and suffered. And yes, in a way I relived being condemned myself and suffering through an accident caused by people.’

He involved his friends and family so instead of talking about his injuries everyone could concentrate on this station. It gave a reason for living. His father who had recently retired from being an eminent orthopaedic (bone) surgeon came to stay several days at a time to help because he and William’s mother, who had been a nurse, understood what their son was going through. When it was completed after several months and lovingly oiled William felt a great sense of achievement. He showed it to friends and the education officer at Norwich Cathedral who all praised it and encouraged him to go on. He began on his next station but it took seven patient years before all the stations were finished.

He was prescribed drugs to cope with the mood swings and depression but he hated the side effects and he went to a class for relaxation which included aromatherapy and massage and found that with these natural aids he could achieve a sustainable calmness. He became a qualified masseur and now helps other people with head injuries by massage.

I reached the fourth station were the hand of Mary reaches out to hold her Son’s hand. ‘He is getting support from her’, said William, ‘and she is getting support from him.’ Now he wanted to express emotion, gratitude for the support his family, his friends and complete strangers had given him as Mary, Veronica and Simon of Cyrene gave to Jesus. But by the time he reached the eighth station where Jesus tells the women of Jerusalem ‘ Weep not for me but weep for yourselves and your children’, he wanted to communicate that not only do people despise spiritual truth but destroy the natural resources given to us.

Norwich Cathedral was the first to exhibit the Forest Stations. After that many churches and cathedrals took up the offer to have them free as long as they paid for the transport. Local people and visitors from all over the world with different faiths appreciated the clear visual message and the title in many languages. Blind people enjoy being able to feel the scenes and carers of disabled groups say their charges have felt uplifted by the experience.

As William says, ‘The truth must be the truth for everyone.’ His own views on spirituality have changed since the accident. He is interested in finding a point of unity and not dissention.

William belongs to Headway, the head injury organisation. He is on the committee and encourages people to express themselves artistically as occupational therapy. He also exhibits his sculptures in hospitals. ‘It’s good’, he says, ‘for people to know that the guy who did these is disabled. Society writes you off and if you can do something where you get feedback from people, it gives you hope.’

It is acknowledged that much great art, music and literature is an expression of mental suffering and a positive healing process as well as a form of worship. Not everyone can be a Van Gogh or William Fairbank but in centres where people with special needs are given encouraging art facilities some beautiful work is created.