Sophie's Diary

“The wire sculptures start off in a similar fashion to the bronzes. I begin with an armature – which is the basic structure around which the sculpture is built. For a simple figure I would create an armature that is like a stick-man in a quite strong wire. Obviously the bigger the sculpture, the stronger and more complex the armature. When the wire pieces become very large then the steel rods I use for the armature become an inch thick and I have to weld extra pieces on to add strength. I then cover this armature so that you won’t see it in the end. I start with thick wire and then build up with different thicknesses of wire that I use and then add my ‘found’ objects. I am well known by the local scrap metal dealer who provides many of the parts that I need both for my wire work and for my bronze sculpture.”

“I am often asked how I mould and bend the wire. Generally I use my bare hands and pliers and when I need more power I will use a hammer. On the very large pieces I will use my whole body and jump and stamp on the work to get it into shape. It’s a very physical job and I get filthy dirty, covered in rust and cut to pieces!”

“Once they are complete I will sometimes paint or spray them. The outdoor pieces need to be protected against the weather so I galvanise them. This means that the sculpture is dipped into a huge tank of boiling zinc that leaves the work a silvery colour. Some of them I colour with car spray as I did with the Aussie Earl. I would actually love to leave the wire rusty – I do prefer it, but unfortunately they wouldn’t last if they were left outside. I do leave the smaller, indoor pieces rusty.”

“As the wire is pliable I can rectify most mistakes. However, if I am very unhappy with the development of the piece I can always unravel it and start again. It is a marvellous material to use for sculpture.”

So your interest in bronze developed after you had started to make wire pieces?

“Yes, but when I first started making bronzes I didn’t realise how different they were to my wire pieces. So I would create a wire piece, fill it with plaster that would then become the mould for the bronze. But the media are completely different and I have changed my methods totally now.”

“I make the armature and then cover it with plaster and sawdust. I tend to slap on far more than I need because I prefer to chisel away at the plaster with a little hammer to create my sculpture as opposed to building it up layer by layer. For a large sculpture I go through bucketfuls of plaster. For the Minotaur and Hare I must have used over 30 sacks of plaster.”

“I am always intent on creating a textured surface and I do this by using a wire brush and adding elements like springs, car parts for the large pieces and watch parts for the smaller works. As with the wire pieces, I would be lost without the metal parts I find in the local skips and scrap merchants.”

“At the stage where most people think a work is finished I tend to review the piece and I’m afraid I often go back and make changes. You shouldn’t really be thinking of making alterations at such a late stage because changing a bronze armature once the plaster has been applied is very difficult. However, I have a tendency to knock the whole thing to pieces close to its completion and start again. With the large Minotaur and Hare I cut all the legs off with an angle grinder just before it was to be finished and began re-welding. I don’t suppose this is a working method to be recommended!”

We have spent a long time talking about finished sculptures but what process takes place to create the end result? Do you make drawings or any maquettes?

“I don’t actually do either. I have a very clear idea of the sculpture I am working on in my head and I go from there. It is amazing, but generally the piece comes out as I visualised it. I have only made a maquette once and to be honest the end result bore little resemblance to it. The small versions of my sculptures have generally been done after the large pieces. For example, I made a small Minotaur and Hare after I made the large piece and in fact, they both took me the same amount of time – one is over 9 foot high, the other is 12 inches.”

The large version is very large indeed. How are you going to get it out of the studio? I don’t see any opening that will take it.

“I know. We are going to have to cut it right down the middle. Legs off – everything. It’s terrifying. I’m going to take a thousand photographs of it before they chop it up. Every single angle, to make sure we get it back together exactly right when we get it down to the foundry.”

Is this the largest sculpture you have done?

“No, Rocking and Rolling is the largest and most complicated. The complexity of the large Minotaur and Hare has nothing on the constructural problems of Rocking and Rolling.”

“I had designed Rocking and Rolling for a sculpture competition which I had been invited to enter. I wasn’t successful, mainly because the engineers couldn’t understand how it was to be constructed. However, I loved the piece and had really worked myself up to do it, so I decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I had initially conceived it in bronze which would be far too expensive for me so I chose instead to do it in steel. I drew 20 different birds out onto cardboard and sent them off to a factory to be profile cut in different thicknesses of steel. I then started welding them together. Of course, my greatest problem came when I had completed it. I had designed it to dismantle, but the re-assembly was more complicated than I had anticipated. I numbered all the pieces, drew on them with chalk and photographed them from every conceivable angle. These photographs became my assembly bible. When I showed it at Winchester Cathedral it took nearly 3 days with three people to put it up.”

“Although you are best known for your sculpture, you have been working more and more consistently on other media such as collage, wire drawings and etching. Do you like moving in different directions?”

“I love experimenting with different materials, different colours and various techniques. When I pick up a theme in one medium I generally take it through to the others – they all relate to one another. At the moment I am doing quite a lot of collage and etching.”

“With the collage I paint the paper first of all because I don’t like using pre-coloured, factory made paper. So I use acrylics on different papers and then tear them so that they develop a texture of their own. I then create a picture by laying these on, layer by layer and using more paint.”

“My wire drawings are similar to my early experiments with wire when they were more 2-D than 3-D. I enjoy these because they have a narrative quality that the sculptures don’t possess. I have done one that is 100 feet in length. It’s both funny and rude. Last year I left it up on the wall when the children had their birthday party – I’m not sure what the other mothers thought of it!”

“I am doing a lot of printmaking at the moment. I always used to enjoy etching when I was at art school and it is something I have neglected while I have been concentrating on my sculpture. I take some lino or an etching plate with me everywhere I go – just in case I get bored. I get very frustrated if I am away from work for too long.”

Looking around the studio, I also notice stained glass and mosaics. Are these other interests you are pursuing?

“Yes. I am just completing a large window for one of my collectors. I find the colours you can get are amazing and the light that comes through them has influenced my collage work recently. I love the theatrical effect that they create. My greatest problem with them is that they are very, very time consuming and I am afraid that I am very impatient and they do get me frustrated because I want to see immediate results. You can do three firings with a stained glass piece and on each occasion something can go wrong and you have to go back and work it through. Luckily I have a marvellous assistant who makes it less frustrating for me.”

“My mosaic work started because I was unable to show my collages outside and I wanted to put coloured work outside with my sculpture. So I used mosaic-like pictures. I have now decided that I prefer to use it as a way of adding colour and interest to my sculpture bases – hence, the base of the Aussie Earl.”

Where do you get your mosaic pieces from?

“Well I suppose I am a bootsale-aholic. I buy plates, glasses and other crockery and smash them up. I must admit, they are not only marvellous for my mosaics because I have found some great things at these sales that I have added to my sculptures as well.”

Earlier, you disappeared for two months to Mexico which I must admit sounded idyllic and made us all at the gallery very envious. What led you to that and has it made a difference to your work?

“Well, we decided to take the children out of school and go to Mexico in order to avoid the English winter but also to give me a different perspective and the girls an experience they would never forget. It was an amazing place.”

“One of my greatest problems with working there was that I had to work quite small – anything too large would be impossible to bring home. We stayed in this beautiful Indian town within an extinct volcano crater. The area was famous for its clay and pottery works and so I spent much of my time at a local pottery. For the first time, I made clay figures as this was the only material I could get hold of. Some of the clay I bought from local peasants who make it by grinding rocks from the mountains with huge stones and leaving it to soak for two weeks in water. I have bought a kiln for the stained glass, so this came in handy to fire the figures. I have used these as a base for the small bronze figures I have made recently.”

“The trip did make me look at things differently and it forced me to change my methods of working and the material I work with. However, when I got back home I still wanted to make minotaurs and hares but I think I have absorbed a lot and over time you’ll see influences gradually coming out in my work. I would definitely like to do something similar each year, perhaps next time we will go to India or Africa. I want to travel as much as possible with the children while they are still young because they found the trip as exciting as we did.”

So, in quite a short space of time, you have achieved a great deal and your work is in great demand. What is your ambition now?

“Well, I have been incredibly lucky since I left art school. I have had my work shown all over the world and am delighted that so many sculptures have ended up in private collections both in this country and overseas. Now, I think it would be great to have an exhibition in America. I would also love to exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery as I think it’s the best public gallery in London, with the ability to show work both indoors and outside. That appeals to me because I always like to exhibit all aspects of my work.”

“I would also like to make something so big that I’d be looking up at it like the little lady in my collage. There is something about working big that I find really exciting. It’s more physical and you get a much better feeling of the space that the sculpture occupies. When a sculpture is complete and you stand back and look at it, if you get that tingly feeling that you get when you hear a beautiful piece of music, then that is when you know you are getting somewhere.”