Birdman perfects art of inner peace on marshes

The Independent Archive: 22 September 1990; In the lonely marshes of Essex, a hippy survivor of the Sixties has at last found the serenity in which to carve out his livelihood. Oliver Gillie reports
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GUY TAPLIN sat in the lotus position on an island in the middle of Regent's Park, central London, meditating on a Zen mantra.

His job was to feed the wildfowl on the lake, but in the afternoon he was free to empty his mind of material preoccupations. Sheltered from the rain by an old punt, he expanded his consciousness, searching for the key to another reality.

Alone on the island, no one could disturb him. But the hum of the city and the movement of the tame ducks and geese swimming just in front of him often distracted his mind from the mantra. While he searched for the meaning of Zen phrases such as "the sound of one hand clapping", he found it difficult to avoid watching the birds on the lake. His ambition was to go to Japan and become a Zen monk but the birds invaded his consciousness and eventually took over his daily thoughts.

Now Mr Taplin has found solitude far from the city, in the Essex marshes. He spends several days a week in a lonely shack close to the sea, carving models of the birds he loves - an interest which began when he was the birdman in Regent's Park. A three-week show of his work starts on 3 October at the Andrew Usiskin Gallery of Contemporary Art in Hampstead, north London.

"I began making decoy ducks when I worked in Regent's Park," Mr Taplin said. "The best decoys are exquisite, although they are made solely to get birds within range of guns. I used to rough out the shape with an axe, work on it with files and then paint it."

As Mr Taplin told his story, a swan flew past within yards of the window of his marsh shack and a gull hovered, dropping shellfish on to stones to crack them open. From here, Mr Taplin can see Brent geese pause in their annual migrations while, on the foreshore, godwits, curlew, plover and snipe search for food, and colonies of terns nest in the dunes.

When he works at his bench in the shack he can see the tide come and go in the creek in front of him. At its height, the water washes round the piles of the shack cutting him off from land. "These marshes have the spirit of place. You can really commune with nature," he said. "I might be working on a model bird at my bench and there is one on the mud in front of me.

"Most of the species of ducks, geese and swans of the world were represented in the collection at Regent's Park," Mr Taplin said. "I began by carving these birds. But I never sensed I could make money out of it until I met someone who sold folk art in the Portobello Road."

Mr Taplin, who was born in east London, began his adult life as a Teddy boy with a long drape coat; he later became a hippy, and still is. His first job was as a post office messenger boy. He then worked as a lifeguard in swimming pools, as a ladies hairdresser and selling ribbon in London markets.

During a holiday in Spain during the Sixties, he saw a leather belt he liked but could not afford. When he came back he carved a large buckle in wood and had it cast in brass, then made up some belts and sold them to fashionable boutiques. Helen Gurly Brown, the American editor of Cosmopolitan, bought one. The hippy fashions went out but Mr Taplin continued to search for truth through Zen.

"I was prepared to sweat white beads and endure the unendurable," he said. "There was an enormous fear, like the fear of drowning. The only way I could come to terms with it was sitting in the lotus position. But then I found I was clinging to Zen for security rather than insight and I decided to cut myself off from it."

One day he was eating out with Robina, now his wife, when a chandelier crashed on their table. He believed he was over-producing energy and that he must change his life. "Part of being receptive is that you go through times of turmoil," he said. "My Zen teacher told me that he would not guarantee that I came out of my training alive or sane."

Mr Taplin now finds the serenity he once sought from mental discipline in the creeks and mudbanks of the Essex marshes. He often goes out in a dinghy, looking for flotsam which he can use in additions to his collection.

"I like the fact that the wood comes from the sea. It has had a life before I get it - other people's lives are involved. I have one piece, for example, that comes off the back of a ferry. It says licensed boatman, fully insured. I found it is good for making the beaks."

From the Home News pages of `The Independent', Saturday 22 September 1990