Keith A Pettit’s new career as a sculptor and wood engraver

Keith Pettit works on his Elm sculpture in Lullington near Alfriston
(Photo by Jim Holden)

Keith Pettit works on his Elm sculpture in Lullington near Alfriston (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: JIm Holden

For years former signwriter Keith A Pettit’s main artistic outlet was building East Hoathly’s breath-taking annual bonfire sculptures. He tells Duncan Hall how his new career as a sculptor and wood engraver has taken off, both nationally and internationally – and why he has never been happier

Sometimes there’s a lot to be said for following your dreams.

From the mid-1990s Keith A Pettit had struggled to make ends meet as a traditional signwriter. But for the last five years he has refocused – working on UK and European engraving and sculpting commissions from his base at East Hoathly’s Village Studios.

His lettering work has taken off nationally following a wood-carved advert he created for a January billboard campaign by health food company Kallo. “Although I would never say no to a job like that, it’s the past and my future is print-making and sculpture,” he says. “That said, carving is not an unpleasant way to spend a day.”

Keith, 45, has lived in East Hoathly since his late-teens, moving there with his father after growing up in Hailsham. “East Hoathly was always an exciting place to go – we would go to the carnival and social events through the year.” He now lives in the village with his wife, primary school teacher Catherine Harrison, and their two children, who are currently studying for their A levels. “When I moved to East Hoathly I felt like I had moved home,” he says. “It enabled me to become myself and do what I wanted to do.”

He has worked at the Village Studios since he helped convert them from a former garage 20 years ago. He trained as a signwriter, dreaming he could get big enough to hire people to work for him. It never crossed his mind he could make a living from art. “My parents were from farming and tradesmen stock,” he says. Ever since his grandparents praised his doodling as a toddler he had held a fascination with art but for many years he expressed his artistic side through the inventive bonfire sculptures he made for the annual East Hoathly blaze which coincides with Remembrance Sunday.

“The bonfire sculptures began very organically,” he says. “The bonfire scene is very competitive – the societies are all trying to outdo each other.”

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The bonfire sculptures began in 2004, when East Hoathly marked their collaboration with Lewes’s Commercial Square Bonfire Society by creating a chief’s head out of pallets, representing the Native American costumes worn by the Lewes-based society.

Subsequent years have featured a giant version of Ted Hughes’s Iron Man, soldiers marching to the World War I trenches and St George and the Dragon built from wooden pallets and carved wood.

Keith’s own favourite over the years was a spectacular feat of engineering – a 3D cube standing on one corner, which was decorated by giant frogs in memory of his late sister-in-law who had studied natterjack toads. As well as the skills required to create the ambitious piece, Keith enjoyed the personal story.

“As a sculptor you have to create pretty things that will appeal to people,” he says. “But I love having a reason to do something. Those are the pieces which tug at your heartstrings.”

Now when he makes a commissioned piece for a location he will investigate the stories behind the area. One of his most recent pieces has gone to the town of Juziers just outside Paris to mark the 21st anniversary of its twinning with East Hoathly. “There was a painting of ripples in water overlapping and crossing over each other which I loved,” says Keith. “When I was thinking of the whole friendship and twinning idea it made me think of the circles of friendship built up after World War II across Europe. My sculpture reflects that friendship rippling out and overlapping to create a mesh or chain. It was conceived during the Paris attacks. The only way we are going to solve these problems is by reaching out to each other and realising we are just the same – we may belong to different faiths, but we still love our children and don’t want them to come to harm.”

Children benefited from another sculpture at Peacehaven – which marked the gateway to their playground. Keith reflected on the long archaeological investigations at Peacehaven and took inspiration from the UK’s earliest art – rock carvings in north-east Scotland and Wales. On the back Keith traced a contour map of Peacehaven. Each sculpture had a glass panel etched with early grains, reflecting the move from the hunter-gatherer to agricultural society. “I think the story is really important to me – if something doesn’t have a story then it’s just pretty, it’s a bauble.”

The story is at the centre of his biggest commission so far, marking the German village of Schmitzingen’s 750th anniversary. The sculpture, which is being created later this month, reflects the village’s annual bonfire celebrations and the river which runs through the settlement. “I spent hours going backwards and forwards researching the geography, history, geology and folklore of the village – I must have driven them mad!” Keith believes mainland Europe is much more receptive to large-scale sculpture projects. “Living a life without art is like driving along a motorway,” he says. “I would rather see something interesting on the back lanes.”

Although much of his sculpture is aimed at those with deep pockets, he creates more affordable wood engravings, having most recently completed a Sussex alphabet. “I invest a lot of time in my wood blocks, but they are not like a one-off oil painting,” he says. “All my prints come from the original blocks – and the vagaries of the blocks means every one is original.”

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