Burning desire

Laura Cartledge meets an East Hoathly artist who has finally found his calling.

Keith Pettit has always had a burning desire to be creative.
“I’ve always loved art,” he confesses, “but I wasn’t the best so I didn’t consider a future in it really.”

Keith Pettit in his studio

Keith Pettit in his studio

However it seems his natural talent wouldn’t let him give up that easily.
Driven by not wanting to work ‘on a building site or in an office’ Keith went into signwriting, but technology meant it wasn’t the crafty career he had hoped.
“I was frustrated and unhappy for so many years,” he admits. “I remember thinking ‘if I died now I would be really annoyed because I haven’t done anything’.”
Thankfully a present from Keith’s partner provided the spark he desperately needed.
“In the mid ’90s I got into wood carving, my partner brought me a book on them and I fell in love,” he recalls. “For the first time in my life I just took to something.”
Keith’s interest led him to a group of like minded artists and notably Diana Bloomfield, who spent time with him sharing her skills.
“I found out in my late 30s that I might be an artist,” laughs Keith, “but that is a word which still sticks in my mouth – I think it is for other people to label you like that.”
One of Keith's bonfire sculpturesWith an ability to transform wood into both expertly carved engravings and magnificent bonfire masterpieces there can be no doubt Keith has found his calling.
“I can look back with hindsight now and see there is this thread through my life,” says Keith. “I don’t see myself as a wood engraver or a bonfire builder.
“I just have a head which I have realised over the last ten years thinks very differently to almost everyone else I meet.”
This alternative perspective is something Keith applies to everything he does.
His design for the Friends of Lewes Christmas card manages to combine traditional skills and scenes, but make something fresh.
“What I like about it is that it is very graphic,” explains Keith. “I don’t know if I set out for it to be very different.
“It’s just at Christmas everything is so over-tinselled – as a country we have a design aesthetic which is usually quite stripped Keith's Friends of Lewes Christmas designback, but at Christmas we go overboard,” he adds “but wood engraving is about the bare bones.”
This is not to say Keith’s work is about making things simple as his version of a village gateway proves.
While many of us would think of a simple sign, bearing the place name and perhaps a note of thanks for driving carefully, when Keith was tasked with creating something for his beloved East Hoathly in 2008 he opted for a living sculpture instead.
“I hate picket fences, I think they are horrible and I would rather burn them,” he reasons, “and I don’t like signs littering the roads.”
His strong views meant, when the parish council approached him, Keith said he would be happy to help but asked that he could have free rein.
“I hate being steered,” Keith reveals. “I said ‘you can take my designs or leave them I won’t mind. But I can’t spend days on end moving a leaf slightly to the left’.
“When I went to the meeting I expected them to splutter into their cups of tea or say ‘that is nuts’,” he confesses, “but they were just so lovely.”
The designs were then put forward to Wealden District Council as part of the ‘Cleaner, Greener, Brighter Wealden’ campaign and won the competition for funding.
Six years on Keith still gets comments about the Village Gateway, but there’s another way he expresses his passion for the local

Keith working on the Village Gateway

Keith working on the Village Gateway

community and that is by putting on a bonfire show with a difference in East Hoathly.
During the last 11 years Keith has created everything from St. George and the Dragon, to a globe and a replica of the Victory warship to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
The challenges of the project include communicating Keith’s vision to his helpers, who he describes as being like ‘human hands’, and not knowing what materials will be available.
So after all that doesn’t Keith mind that the work will be set alight?
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he replies. “They’re built for that reason – I have the photo so it existed. I also love the fact it makes it so transient, it only becomes ‘whole’ as it is destroyed.
“I guess there’s an ownership thing as well. It is uniquely mine, and my village’s, no one else can have the kudos of ownership other than us.”
Community and place are two strong themes in Keith’s work, something he credits to being Sussex born and bred, while the range of work is ‘highly rewarding’.
“I have a lot of time to make up for – I am driven by my head, which is full of ideas,” he says simply. “Now I am shattered, I am happily tired all the time. It just feels like what I am doing fits me perfectly.”

To find out more about Keith, visit www.keithpettit.co.uk, the Friends of Lewes cards are available from the
Charity Christmas Card shop (Lewes House) and the Tourist Information Shop.

All pictures apart from the dragon are by Jim Holden,  NUJ/BPPA www.jimholden.co.uk

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admin December 15, 2014 Culture and Events