April 30, 2024

Exploring the art of human nature

Exploring the art of human nature

Jimmy Söber, otherwise known as Formbark, is a Swedish artist whose paintings, sculptures, and characters evoke the mystery of the natural world and blur the boundaries between natural and unnatural. 

Struck by the resonance with ESC’s mission to help reintegrate humans into nature – and the fact that he was already modelling Vivos on his characters! – we asked Jimmy if he would be open to creating a cast of five ESC characters, one for each biome. We’re delighted that he said yes. To hear how he’s getting along and learn more about his work, we spoke with him as a cold, snowy winter turns into spring.

Snow Covered Trees, Bruksvallarna, Sweden - Jaanus Jagomägi

Formbark’s characters don’t just cross the natural-unnatural divide; they blur it until it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends – and what, precisely, the resulting creature is.

This ambiguity has always guided Jimmy’s work, but he doesn’t have a neat explanation. “You know, I've been trying to figure that out myself,” he confesses. “I really don't have a specific thought or agenda with the work; it just tends to get drawn into that. But I guess everything you do is a self portrait, right?”

He has long enjoyed spending time outdoors, and that’s part of the answer. But this relationship morphed into something deeper when he left Stockholm. “I moved out into the country and got more connected with nature and the seasons and the local woods,” he reflects.

“You can go out and really get to know a place, and see how it changes with the seasons and from year to year. And when you get that intimate, grounded relationship with your environment, you can start to understand how changes in it also affect you. I started to realise how important that was for me in getting to know myself, and my relationship to the world, better. I think it would be to everybody, whether you realise it or not.”

The possibility that Formbark’s art emerges from a feeling of nature connection – a feeling that resists rationalisation because it just feels … natural – resonates with the barefoot perspective. In an ideal world, should it need explaining?

The simplest and perhaps most beautiful reason this theme runs through his work is that it reflects Jimmy’s own life. He enjoys hiking and mountain biking, but stresses that his relationship with nature isn’t about big trips or dramatic vistas. “The part I want nature to play in my life is to be ever present,” he says. ”Not just something that's experienced once in a while really intensely, but something that's always there.”

Another way of putting it, he says, is to relate to nature as a “participant more than a spectator.” It’s not about observing what a landscape looks like, but feeling how it changes with the seasons, and how it affects him as part of nature.
This is reflected in his creative process: a constant cycle of scavenging, returning, assembling, and heading back outdoors to fill gaps. “With that process, indoors and outdoors gets even more blurred,” he says. This extends beyond his art, especially as spring germinates. “Over the summer the house is just open, the windows and the doors. The cats run in and out and I run in and out and drag all this stuff inside. It looks like outside inside.”

“Over the summer the house is just open, the windows and the doors. The cats run in and out and I run in and out and drag all this stuff inside. It looks like outside inside.”

Given that humans are nature, perhaps Formbark’s characters are simply humans? Or, mysteriously humans.

Sometimes they are born with a striking branch, rock, or natural element discovered in the forest. Other times an idea or project like ESC offers a lens through which to find and frame elements. Either way, Jimmy leaves his cabin attuned to creative possibility. “When I get into this process, it's not something where I go to the studio, work, and then go home,” he says. “It's a constant process in my mind, whether I'm asleep or awake, sitting having dinner or out in the woods.”

Artists sometimes marvel at how characters ‘they create’ take on a life of their own, beyond the artist’s control. Jimmy relates to this. He recalls a recent character that started life as a shallow being designed primarily to carry a log in an artful way. But the log was heavy. While shooting in the studio, Jimmy got sweaty, hunched, tired, annoyed, and cut by the straps. A personality began to emerge. 

“When looking at the photos later on, I often see things with a character that I haven’t intended to put in there, but that I can read afterwards and start to speculate,” he reflects.

“That's the kind of thing I really, really love with all my work, whether it's Formbark stuff, painting, or whatever: that I don't have the answers. I can still be mystified. ‘What the hell is this person doing? And why!?’

It can evoke these questions in me, and hopefully that's what others experience as well.” We are never masters of nature.

Formbark Jungle ESC character

This evolution happened with both Formbark’s Forest ESC and Jungle ESC characters – the two he has completed so far, and the two that feel most similar to his previous work.

The Jungle character, he says, is rooted in “the philosophy that we are nature; we're not just in nature or experiencing nature. We always carry it with us, whether we're out ‘in it’ or not. It's within us, it's in our DNA.” It’s one of his favourite characters ever, he says. But it doesn’t convey this message in the way he intended it to. Likewise with the Forest character.

Formbark Forest ESC character

Formbark’s characters emerge from the forest around his cabin. Creating characters for five biomes – forest, jungle, aquatic, desert, and tundra – therefore presents a new challenge. He’s appreciating how the project is pulling him beyond his comfort zone and expanding his horizons, he says.

The most obvious question with the Hydra was how to mirror the bright orange with natural materials. Then there is the name. Hydra: a mythical creature with many heads. “Maybe that will play a part, but I don’t know yet,” he muses. The aquatic biome also presents a biomass challenge. “In both the jungle and the forest, it's a bit easier to use moss and plants,” he says. “I found that to be much easier than the Hydra. I can’t wear water … can I?” 

These considerations all inform the character’s attributes and personality. “It's supposed to be aquatic or amphibious, but I don't want it to be a fisherman. It's a sporty shoe, but how to illustrate that? I still haven't gotten to the core of the character.”

The same is true for both the desert – the biome most removed from his local landscape – and the tundra. He has some initial ideas, but no clear direction. Both will require a fresh take on his “toolbox” – the forest. “The materials and the substances I have, or that are available, determine what I'm able to create,” he says. He appreciates the deep relationship this cultivates. “You realise that there are lots of possibilities with what you have to hand. But having other stuff available to me would open up completely new doors, of course. It would be really interesting.”

The biggest challenge is creating in harmony with a biome that feels unfamiliar. “I'm so in tune with the landscape around me, and how plants grow together and how things look and how things change over the seasons,” he reflects. “So to me at least, my work feels believable, because I make stuff that goes together.” Just existing in the landscape, feeling and building understanding, is all part of the process.

“Sometimes I just go out, stay three hours in the woods, then I come back and say, ‘I've been at work!’