Coming back to sculpture

For months and months, maybe even over the entire pandemic and lockdowns I’d been on-off thinking in a very low-key way about sculpture. Nothing deep or important, just that sort of mind-wandering stuff. Like a little thing tugging at my sleeve from time to time saying “I’m right HERE! Pay attention!” For a while I was unaware of it’s voice niggling at me, but eventually I heard it. If you don’t know this, I got my degree in Fine Art/Sculpture in England in 2004, and it’s how I worked (part-time) for many years while I raised my children.

But why did I stop? Was I bored? Frustrated? I know I was struggling to balance the intense nature of a process that demanded a lot of physical and mental energy with being a parent, and running a home while neglecting my own well-being. Of course, since being diagnosed with ADHD that now makes perfect sense. On top of that I was working from a dark and cold basement, suffering from exhibition pressure, feeling a bit overwhelmed and a little burnt out. So I just stopped. That was September 2013.

I spent the next few years doing all sorts of stuff. I studied under a master printmaker, learning intaglio techniques from him and working with relief printmaking at home. I studied herbal medicine and created a apothecary garden. I made a lot of artist’s books. I’ve been a long time film photographer, so I started going to darkroom workshops and set up a home darkroom in the basement. I threw myself into this, primarily working in black and white film and thus worked for a couple of years as a photographer.

Then in 2017 I was diagnosed with cancer. To say it stopped me in my tracks is a slight understatement. Facing my mortality, the realisation that I actually controlled very little, let’s just say I gained some perspective while also feeling completely lost at sea. All I had power over was my little daily sketchbook routine while I hoped the doctors could get me well again.

And recover I did. I had my second chance and I didn’t want to pursue things that had no meaning for me anymore. I didn’t know exactly what I needed, but I didn’t want to be in a dark basement, breathing in toxic chemicals that was for sure. I needed light, joy in my days and a sense of balance. We created a new, bright and airy studio for me, and I spent time working in my sketchbook or on paper. Cancer had taught me to be patient, and so I carefully observed what was going on inside and around me, following my curiosities and seeing what came up organically while I had the help of disability benefit.

So to go back to the start of the story and the little niggling voice. It was very subtle and quiet to begin with, but then I dreamt one night I was wrists deep in gooey plaster, slapping it onto a large wooden armature. I think that was the point when I heard how loud the voice was and how much my heart was calling out in reply. I’d been away too long. And during that time away I’ve become almost a different person through experience, trauma and healing.

The next day after my dream I went out to the DIY shop and bought a bag of plaster, some metal wire and a bucket. Honestly I was so glad I was wearing a facemask as I was beaming like an idiot as I walked to the checkout.

Long story short, in comes the power of routine. For the next 6 weeks I deleted Instagram off my phone and got stuck in. I dug out and cleaned up all my old tools, found long lost materials and books. I reconnected to the things I remembered, allowing knowledge to come back in an organic and unforced way, researching when I needed to fill in the gaps in my memory. It’s still been a challenge, not many sculptors use plaster these days, but I love it. I worked in communion with my ideas, the materials, the process while disconnected from distraction. I have so much new to say and sculpture is MY language. During this time my days became bound up in routine:
• Finding driftwood at the river or lake to serve as the starting point of the sculpture once a week.
• Every day, light the fire in the studio, make some tea, put on some music and allow my hands, plaster and wood to form until my fingers were dry and wrinkled from the plaster and I would have to stop.
• Go get some fresh air.
• Lather, rinse, repeat for 6 weeks.
In that time, I created 4 great sculptures and 3 garbage ones. I had not been this absorbed and happy in my work for so long, I can tell you. Harnessing my resilience, experience, pain, joy and rampant curiosity to provide the energy to move beyond my lack of aptitude, to steal a phrase off Nick Cave ;)

>>>fast forward>>>

Since then, another year has gone by. I’ve made a lot more work, from tiny to life-size and many in-between. I’ve participated in several shows, sold a few pieces, but more than all of that I’ve found a sense of purpose. It feels like the thing I was searching for was hiding in plain sight all along. I realise the reason I gave up was that my own self-limiting beliefs, unrealistic goals, poor organisation and multi-tasking very badly were all conspiring to hold me back, not the actual sulpture making itself. No, now I feel the work deserves to be made and I’m the right person to do it. I’ve got more clarity as I simplified and the meaning, joy and balance I crave is now within my grasp.

I made a little video on my YouTube channel about coming back to sculpture after an 8 year break.This post is an expansion on both the video and a newsletter I wrote a while back.