I am the youngest of four children; born and brought up in Devon, I grew up by the sea. My dad was a head teacher of a primary school and my mum was from a generation of women who were primarily mums, and for that I thank her. She painted and drew for pleasure, and was really good at making pretty much whatever we kids demanded of her. 25 years on, I found myself doing the same thing with my own children. My love of using my hands to make things definitely comes from her side of the family.
My first introduction to clay came at the age of 7, in Mr Smart's art class. For my first piece I made a swan. I absolutely loved working in this medium; there was, and still is for me, a touch of magic in this process; where the cold, grey, malleable clay turns into a hard ceramic, that can last a thousand years. Due to the specialist nature of working with clay (requiring a kiln), after school I only came into contact with this medium at evening classes. I didn't know any artists and never dreamed back then that earning a living producing art would have been possible for me.
Upon leaving school, I went to university in Edinburgh to study French, then embarked on a number of careers, starting with retail management at Marks & Spencers in Brighton, then working as a residential social worker in Hounslow, before deciding to study for a primary teaching qualification in Bristol. My daughter Alex and eldest son Peter were born in Bristol, and Stephen arrived a little later when we moved down to Exeter.
It wasn't until we moved up to Leeds in 2000 that I did some soul-searching about what I really wanted to do, and enrolled to do a BTEC at Harrogate College in 3 Dimensional Design, specialising in ceramics. My tutor, David Oxley, was inspirational; he instilled in me a proactive approach to create work in clay and gave me the confidence to push boundaries with this medium.
Supply teaching has allowed me the flexibility to earn a wage whilst developing my sculpture, but my greatest ambition is to be able to devote all my time and energy to my art.
Ideas & Insperations
I have always been drawn towards figurative art, particularly in sculptural work, as you can approach it from a different angle every time. For me it has always retained a particular freshness and excitement. I love sculpture that makes an immediate impact, from Rodin's towering statue of Balzac to Anthony Gormley's brave figures taking on the sea on Crosby Beach.
The strongest inspiration for my work however comes from 'The Beautiful Game' – football. Football in essence, is a fantastic celebration of the human form and all its possibilities. These sportsmen are blessed with extraordinary athleticism and balance; they push their bodies to the limit. In my work I try and capture some of that energy, spontaneity and wonderful movement which in reality is here and gone in a flash.
Across every level of this beautiful game comes a passion to push your body to its limits and above all a passion to succeed. I want my pieces to convey some of this passion and electricity that runs through all levels of the game and touches something fundamental in us all.
Making the human form from clay goes back a long way…the book of Genesis, in fact! It feels a fitting medium to work in. By the time a sculpture is finished it has been quite literally through fire and water; I want the creative journey the sculpture has taken to give a feeling of substance.
Glass plays a pivotal role in my work. In the pieces where glass is used, the figure remains airborne (due to the transparent nature of this medium), yet is solidified by its presence. In the pieces where the glass is smashed I want to capture the impact and sometimes aggression of a contact sport.
My inspiration for using the glass in this way came from my own experiences of living in an urban environment. The sight of smashed bus shelters, car windows or even shop windows always make me feel uneasy; I am extremely conscious of the moment when that pristine glass must have shattered. I too want my sculptures to capture a moment in time.
FROM PALLET TO PICTURE
My figures are made from paperclay, which as a sculptor is a wonderful material to work with; its excellent working qualities make it more versatile than clay.
I start with an aluminium armature, and in many ways this is the most crucial part in establishing movement in the piece, as the wire acts as the skeleton. I use the fantastic sports photography from the newspapers and sports related websites, which capture poses that would otherwise pass too quickly for the naked eye. Once I'm happy with the armature I build up the body with paperclay. They are then fired in an electric kiln to 1050 °c.
I consider where I think the glass will be placed, but it is not until the figures are finished that I can start smashing or cutting the glass and bring the whole piece together.
If I am ever unsure of musculature details, I use artist's anatomy books. Alternatively sport is a key part of our family life which gives me the opportunity to spend time with sportsmen and observe them at first hand.
To give the black and white crackle effect I use a raku glaze and fire them out of doors in a gas fired kiln. I heat the figures one or two at a time, until they reach around 900 °c; then quickly with long-handled tongs lift them from the kiln into a pit of sawdust. (This can be tricky because it's very hot; I've singed my fringe once or twice despite goggles, gas mask and leather gauntlets!) A lid is then placed quickly on top of the pit to cut out any oxygen. The bare clay is blackened by the smoke and the white glaze crackles. When they emerge from the pit they are covered in burnt sawdust; only when they are cleaned off do they reveal the beautiful surface texture that the fire has created. I love the random magic of it!
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF .......
I work a great deal on my sculptures at the weekends and during the week when I am not teaching. I'll work my sculpture time in around the family needs although these days my children are older and don't need my full attention. Depending upon what stage of the sculpture I am on, determines what I am doing with my day.
If I'm working on the initial stages of a piece, I'll tend to spend my day in our basement, listening to '5 Live' on the radio for inspiration, accompanied with regular cups of tea provided by my very understanding husband. Whatever I'm doing it's usually quite messy; making bucketfuls of clay slip or pulping down paper to make the paperclay, and it is quite hard labour! Actually making the figures, thankfully, is not!
I really enjoy the days when I'm raku firing outside in the garden. It's when I get to see the finished result of all the previous hours of work. I start early as the kiln takes about an hour and a half to heat up, then my morning consists of quick bursts of frantic activity tonging the red-hot pieces from the kiln into a pit of sawdust, and putting the next pieces in to fire. Time is of the essence at this stage, too slow and the effect on the clay is spoiled. The pieces come out of the sawdust blackened and filthy, so my job for the afternoon is cleaning them up. For me, this is like 'panning for gold' and is my favourite bit of the process.
We eat together as a family in the evenings, and when they've seen the state of my hands during the day, I often get designated to wash up rather than cook!!