Sophie Ryder's world is one of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made from sawdust, wet plaster, old machine parts and toys, weld joins and angle grinders, wire 'pancakes', torn scraps of paper, charcoal sticks and acid baths.
These art objects are direct products of her working methods, and as such they have an inherent fascination - people are naturally intrigued by unusual processes. It is still necessary, however, to see beyond them and recognise that the materials are a means to an end: the communication of ideas. They lie at the centre of all the artist's creations, and they are fed by a spring that never runs dry. Indeed, the ideas emerge so quickly that she never has enough time to implement all of them. The ability to retrieve and develop an idea will depend not only on how other projects are progressing, but also on the resolution of any technical hurdles she may have set herself, especially in relation to her larger sculptures.
Working 'big' is a very significant feature of her work, and she enjoys rising to the constructional and creative challenges which flow from this aspiration.
Many of the people who meet the artist, whether in her studio, at an exhibition opening or an art fair, have already formed a mental picture of a six-foot Amazon with enormous biceps. How else, they think, could such larger than life creatures be brought into the world by a woman sculptor?
They have to struggle to hide their astonishment when they confront reality: Sophie is five foot five, slender, softly spoken, slightly dreamy (mostly she is thinking about work in progress) and wears her hair in long tresses. She is altogether more reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite muse than a prolific builder of potent images. Looks do deceive, of course, and in her case the evidence of her hard profession is born on the tips of her fingers. These have become so abraded by the materials she uses that she has virtually lost the capacity to make fingerprints. Commitment is all, and one sees the same quality applied to everything else that matters to her - family, daughters, friends, dogs, cooking and eating organic products, keeping fit with daily runs, playing classical guitar and watching no television. The only way she can maintain a healthy balance is to have a very disciplined approach to her work, and to pull in helpers on the strict understanding that they will deliver an equivalent level of commitment. She is not a prima donna, however, as anyone hearing her infectious laughter is bound to appreciate. She has an ability to see the funny side of things without 'making' fun, and much of her work expresses her desire to preserve her own 'joie de vivre' at all costs, reawakening ours in the process.
We might ask ourselves why it is necessary to work on such a large scale to communicate her ideas. Two reasons spring to mind. Firstly, a lot of her work is designed with public spaces in mind and has to compete either with large buildings in an urban context, or else the grandeur of nature in a landscape setting. Secondly, and more importantly, she is most fulfilled when she is able to immerse herself body and soul in the process of making, when the work is large enough for her to move around it and interact with it from every conceivable angle, watching it grow in front of her eyes. She describes the experience as follows, in the context of discussing other artists who scale their work up using mechanical means:
“I wouldn't be happy to have a piece scaled up that I didn't work on at all. Maybe when I get to ninety and I really want to make a massive sculpture, perhaps I'll want to scale it up, but I'll have to be there and tell them exactly how I want it. You know, I'll be sitting in my wheelchair saying 'No, I want that head made bigger, and can you put that eye three inches to the left?' After her laughter has subsided, she continues in a more serious vein: “I think it's important for me to actually physically work on a piece, that's why I like making big sculptures. …When I'm slapping on great handfuls of plaster and I draw my fingers down, the plaster oozes between them, so I have those three lines between my fingers that really make the texture… and I hammer them and I kick them and I knock the plaster off and I throw it from ten feet.”
For Sophie Ryder, making art is much more than a profession, it is a compulsion.