Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A week of contrasts

It's been a week of contrasts.  I was up at the foundry in Wales for three days last week supervising the finishing touches to the metal work and then the patination of my two new works Solace (the standing figure seen in the first and third images) and Gathering Time (in the foreground of the first image).  I felt privileged to have such skilled people working on my behalf.  Then yesterday Niki and I were out collecting acorns from one of my chosen trees - again I feel lucky to have her support.  And now tonight, as I write, it is the private view of the Art London art fair and Aidan Quinn at Beaux Arts Bath is taking it out there to the public.  Solace is shown here in the garden area of the fair.

So, it feels as if all the of the 'timeline' of my work has been evident this week, from the gathering, through the foundry process and on to the final showing of the finished piece.  The week has also involved most the people who make it possible.  Perhaps I should have put a picture in of Giles washing up and picking the boys up from school when I was away in Wales, or the courier with his impeccably organised van, or Ali at the gallery typing out labels, or the six men at the Nailsworth foundry who loaded the van.  So although I refer to a 'timeline' of bringing work to fruition, there are many ways in which it feels more like a web than a straight line.

Friday, 16 September 2011


So it's 'that' time of year again for me.  The children have gone back to school, the studio has been cleaned and I am starting to look around for trees to scavenge under this autumn for beech mast and acorn cups.   I've returned once again to my trusty Beech tree which I've been scrabbling round under each autumn for about five years now.  This year it feels as if the mast is falling early - or perhaps it's just been blown off by the intense winds.  I am amazed how it can produce so much 'stuff' year after year just from sunlight and water and whatever minerals are left in the soil.  It's this kind of thought, this kind of connection, which makes this sometimes back-breaking, sometimes boring, sometimes frustrating activity so rewarding.

I have also decided this year to spend less time wandering hither and thither looking for oak trees and have settled on three trees all of which seem to have a fantastic amount of healthy looking green acorns sparkling out from the dull green leaves.  For my own reference I'm going to call the places where they stand 'churchyard', 'ditch' and 'lake'.

The tree in the photograph is 'ditch'.  It stands by an ancient wall in parkland and in front of it runs a kind of haha ditch which contains a simple iron fence in its depth.  The ditch, the wall, the fence, the gate, the earth worn under the tree by sheltering sheep, the nettle patches, the exposed oak roots, the dipping branches and bits of caught wool are all such familiar parts of our closely used and inhabited land.  Somehow this feeds my soul.  Anyway, I shall return now to this spot and to my other trees about twice a week - waiting to catch the moment when 'the fall' of precious bounty begins in earnest.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Printmaking on Dartmoor

Have just come back from a week long printmaking course taught by Kip Gresham as part of Dartmoor Arts Project's week of summer courses, lectures and general getting together with other artists.  The top picture shows us working in Peter Randall-Page's studio (I am on far right carrying paper) which he kindly converted into a temporary print studio for us.   The second image is one of the prints I produced using screen printing - something that was a first for me.  Both with the screen printing and the woodcuts I found myself wanting to get away from the marks most typically associated with each media, and with the help of Kip and his assistants found that that was quite possible.  The week flashed by so quickly, and producing series of monoprints can also be speedy, so I feel as if I have hardly absorbed what happened, what I learnt or what I feel about the images I made.  However, come September I shall get them all up on the studio wall and start to let them sink in.  There is plenty of fuel here and I know that some of it will cross over well into my drawing practice.  All good stuff.  Great once again to get away from the studio and play in a concentrated way.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Magpie's nest

Last week we had a big old fir tree in our garden cut down.  I was pretty sure there was going to be a magpie's nest in it and indeed that is why we waited until this time of year - when the young were sure to have flown - before taking the tree down.  We were lucky enough to have both skilled and sensitive tree surgeons come round and they hardly blinked an eye at my request to save the nest.   They couldn't just lift it out of its perch though as it was so interwoven with the tree and the creeper that dominated the tree, that the whole branch was lowered down on a rope for me so that I could unentangle it slowly on the ground.

Having known that the tree was coming down weeks in advance, and being convinced that we would find a nest, my dreams had been plotting a figure.  So, within a day of receiving the nest a little porcelain man emerged in the studio.  Here he is.

Now, this is a figure from the unconscious.  One of the figures that I consider a gift in that they just come to me ready formed from somewhere in the mind and then all I have to do is make them into a reality.  A few days after the figure was made a man, whose opinion I respect and to whom I am very grateful for the honesty of his opinions, came to the studio.  He felt the piece was sentimental.  I had felt that the fact that the figure was male and was curled in such a way that he was quite exposed, would mitigate against that possible accusation of sentimentality.  I don't have any answers here, but it is certainly a question that I find myself asking in the studio quite a bit at the moment.

If a sculpture comes up from the unconscious does it have a validity even though it might be considered sentimental?  If it has a validity for me in the confines of the studio should I fight for its right to see the light of day in the sophistication of a gallery or simply accept it as a private work?  Is 'sentimental' necessarily a bad thing?

Lots more thinking to do on these questions but in the meantime I shall simply hang on to the nest and the little figure and let time do its work.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Gather To Me

I made this sculpture called Gather To Me just before Easter.  It's made out of wax and beechnut casings and here it is in the wax and mould-making room up at Castle Fine Art Foundry in Nailsworth.  I was there this morning putting the final touches to it before a mould of it is taken tomorrow.  The foundry will also be making a mould of the companion piece which is a life size standing man called Solace.  I find this moment, of leaving a sculpture in the foundry's hands, a bit tense.  It is the moment when I walk away and accept that the piece is finished.  I can do no more.  It is as it is.

The silicone rubber moulds for my two figures will each have at least four parts as the forms are complex.  The surfaces are complex too and the runny silicone will have to be brushed on to the surface, and then blown with an air line to get it into all the tiny and all the deep detail.  The beechnut casings present a particular challenge to the foundry in this respect.  A fibreglass or plaster 'jacket' will then be made for each part of the mould because the rubber is too floppy to keep its shape by itself.  Indeed, its very flexibility is its beauty as it can then be peeled off the complex shapes both of the original sculpture and then of 'the wax' that will be created later from it.  The different parts of the mould are constructed with 'keys' built into them which mean the separate parts can be fitted snuggly back together again.

The moulds of many other sculptures can be seen on the racks behind the figure.  What you are seeing  are the white jackets inside of which are nestled the flexible silicone rubber moulds.  The foundry keeps hundreds of these, of which you can only see a few here, each labeled with the artists name and the title of the sculpture.

Friday, 24 June 2011

A day at the beach...

Last week, at the rather inspired suggestion of Patricia Singh at the Beaux Arts in London, I took some of my new work down to the beach to photograph it.  My companions were Colin Hawkins, who takes most of my photographs, and my friend and studio assistant Niki.  Despite fearing the worst in terms of the weather, it turned into a magical morning.  Sunny and with only the odd threatening shower, it was also very very windy.  Apart from the 'official' photographs which can be seen on my website, this one is my favourite as it captures Niki and I using all our body weight to hang on to one of Colin's lights.  I feel it captures the reality of the daftness, hard work and friendship behind the final calm images.

As soon as Patricia came up with the idea I realised it was spot on.  And in some ways obvious too, to take the objects, most of which were found near 'the sea', back to 'the sea'.  Aesthetically it made sense.  But when I saw the objects in their 'natural' setting, something else happened too, something which I can't quite pin down yet in my thoughts.   Perhaps something to do with wanting some of the work to stay outside - to live in that vast space.  Interestingly, my aunt Elizabeth sent me a postcard this week of the day mark at Baltimore in Ireland.  A similar tall structure to the one in this photograph but I think about 20m high, whitewashed stone.  Beautiful.  And at a scale that no sculptor could help but covet!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


Spent the day up at Faber Pyropus foundry - run by Jason.  Jason does all my 'direct burnouts'.  I give him small wax figures that I have sculpted to relate in some way to a found object - usually rust or wood, but now, for the first time, bone too.   The wax is then covered in ceramic shell and then put in a kiln so the wax melts out literally leaving the shape of the sculpture behind inside the shell ready to be filled by bronze.  The resulting figures are solid bronze and 'unique' - ie one offs.  This is the ancient 'lost wax' method - the wax is literally melted out, lost.  Needless to say, it's all a little more complex than that but the basic principle is there and it is a truly ancient art.

Today then, Jason and I were 'fettling' - in other words kicking the metalwork into shape.  Jason does the bulk of this but then I bring the found objects to the foundry and together we painstakingly get the figures to 'sit' back on the objects with the same ease that they did in the soft wax.  This done, the next process is also traditional - tea and biscuits.

Then comes the patina.  Each little bronze must in some way relate to its own individual object, the thing that inspired it.  In some cases it is a simple job of matching the two objects up, and Jason does a fine job of making bronze look like the rust I place it with.  In other cases it is perhaps more subtle - the bronze and the object have to look as if perhaps they were found in the same place or have been marked by the same process of time.  Jason does the work.  I stand right by him all day humming and haarring and holding the objects next to the bronze until I 'feel' it is just right.  He is very patient!

I took at lot of pictures today trying to capture something of the glorious filthy ordered disorder that is his foundry - a bastion of practical skill, delicate craftsmanship, brute force and sheer hard work.  In the end I chose this one of him with his blow torch because I remember the first time I had something cast into bronze and saw it being put under a roaring blowtorch.  I was very moved.   Moved that something I had made could withstand that force.  Moved perhaps just by fire and its power to transform, and bronze with its power to endure.  Even today, when I am so much more familiar with the whole process, I still love it.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


I spent this morning at Castle Fine Art foundry in Nailsworth.  This is where most of my bronze is cast, and the picture here is of myself putting a few final touches to the metalwork on a piece called L'homme de Chene.   This piece of a curled and seated man was originally sculpted in acorn cups that my sister Sarah collected for me from a tree in France - hence the title.  A mould was then taken and a bronze edition started.

Each bronze requires quite a bit of involvement from me even after the original has been delivered to the foundry.  I travel up to check at the wax, metal and then patina stage.  In fact, this process is one of the pleasures of my work.  What this picture doesn't show is the many craftspeople who got the bronze to this stage  - each of them so skilled and patient - so that I can check it and add some finishing touches.  It's working with them that makes each trip to the foundry so satisfying, as well, to be honest, as a welcome change from the solitude of the studio.  I often wish, as people stare at a price on a bronze in the gallery, that they could see the hours and hours of work that goes into each one by these craftspeople, and the hours and hours of training and experience that took place even before that to make the work possible.

So there is that pleasure - of the people and the timelessness of the craftsmanship.  But there is also a pleasure just in the bronze for its own sake.  So heavy, so durable.  A material that humans have worked for millennia.   Transforming the impermanent  - wax or acorns - into the permanent.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Thank God for the British Museum......

I was up in London yesterday checking a wax at the Bronze Age foundry.  All went well so I had time to see a couple of exhibitions......

Firstly I took myself off to see Women Make Sculpture (really?!) at the Pangolin Gallery in Kings Place just near Kings Cross station.  Some of the work was interesting, but with the only criteria for the show being that women had made the work there was of course not enough to hold it together - apart perhaps from the rather forced idea that if it's women then we must have some 'domestic' materials - cloth and pins preferably, and of course some disembodied penises.

Kings Place itself is huge with a massive open atrium with coffee bars strewn around.  The whole thing is given a cultural edge rather than a corporate one by the presence of The Guardian offices, a couple of galleries and a conference centre.   But scattered round this ultra modern building were many, far too many, large scale sculptures - 'placed' presumably to be sold, but so badly 'placed' and crowded out that each lost its meaning and power completely.

I moved on to the massive (and NY based) Gagosian Gallery - also up near Kings Cross.  Here the opposite ethos reined.  Seven pieces of very similar - and admittedly rather beautiful - assemblages of scrap metal by an American artist John Chamberlain stood with no competition.  This is a high cathedral of pure white cubed gallery space.   The only interruption to the white space was the two impeccable and imposing black security guards in beautiful black suits.  I had the feeling they were there not to guard the work but to add to its sense of value by the apparent necessity of their being there.  Nobody acknowledged me - not even the man whose job it was to specifically open the door to the gallery.   In my boots, and with my cheap rucksack, I was of no significance.

And so, on to the British Museum.......and what a relief.  Partly to be amongst so many objects that were not for sale and which had been made for practically every other reason under the sun.  But my overwhelming feeling yesterday was relief at being amongst a human race of equals - every language, race and nation seemed to be there.  The objects on display also come from the corners of the globe and so belong as much to the non-British visitors as to myself.  And it seems that wherever we come from on the globe, and whatever the historical period we lived in, we as humans like to make things, we like to decorate things, and we like to make representations of the human form.

Not one single person looking around was more or less important than any other regardless of what language they spoke or how much their shoes cost!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Pina Bausch

This week I have seen the new film about Pina Bausch twice and have been inspired and amazed both times.  The film is called Pina.   A German dancer and choreographer, she seems to have been a woman of few words, expressing herself instead through her own body and that of her dancers.  The body is used to express that which is beyond words, underneath words.  Surely a connection here with something I'm attempting to do in the studio with my figures.  But she is a master.  As she said to one of her dancers: you've just got to get crazier.   See the film and you'll know what she meant.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ai Weiwei

Today is the first real day of my blog.  Yesterdays postings were simply about me learning the mechanics of how to post things with my ever-helpful designer Kevan.  And so now I'm up and running I have to give some serious thought as to the purpose of this blog.  Am I simply adding to the stream of e-verbiage that it is so easy for all of us to spew out?

Perhaps, but I also know that this technology is changing the world and the way we relate to each other; the way politics is conducted.  So I am using this first posting to remember Ai Weiwei.  Here he is - free and on my studio wall.  But where is he now?

China - you will find that many of us artists, and many others too, will not forget him easily.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Walking in Mull

Walking in Mull - many beautiful things to be found.  

Getting the first image up and running!

This was the studio about five weeks ago before my show at Beaux Arts Bath.  It's just so different now....completely empty!

Setting up a blog...

The lengthy process of educating a craftsperson in the wonders of the modern world begins today.

Kevan Attridge struggled manfully to try and get the finer points of webbiness across to Anna. Did it work?