This February I was fortunate enough to win a £15,000 Project Grant through Arts Council England to produce a new series of sculptural and 2D work, exploring ancient and modern myth. This blog documents the production process for MYTHOMANIA, including the creation of several large-scale sculptural pieces made from industrial materials such as Dibond, Perspex, stainless steel, vinyl and corrugated cardboard. The exhibition opens on 6 July 2019 at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe.
With the end of the Mythomania project upon me (it finishes today). I’ve decided to make this the last official post. I’d hoped to chronicle much more of the project, including the production of the final work – but time has just passed so amazingly fast.
One thing I’ve discovered with this project is that new, experimental work takes far, far longer than expected. Something can make perfect sense in your mind but if you’ve never done it before then it can often prove to be much tricker than you imagined – or involve hidden steps. This is definitely the case with my fabric sculptures…I honestly had no idea what I was in for!
At the same time, it’s been the most rewarding artistic experience I’ve had in years. I’ve been itching to have some time to just create my own work (i.e. work not constrained by somebody else’s brief) and to try out some new ideas. This project, and the Arts Council England funding that came with it, has been a transformative moment in my practice – sending it off in a whole new direction.
There have been two immediate positive outcomes of this project that have happened already. The first is that MYTHOMANIA is going to become a touring exhibition, and will be on display at galleries around England over the next year or more – the first happening this Spring (details to be announced soon).
The second outcome of this is a new major commission I’ve received involving the production of a large piece of ‘sculptural furniture’. Because I’d successfully produced some cloth-based work for MYTHOMANIA, I was able to effectively propose to do something similar for this new commission. But this time, it also involves wooden elements and foam – things I’ve never worked with before, and which I’m excited to engage with.
One of the real joys of being an artist is getting to challenge yourself – and propose to achieve things that you don’t even necessarily know how to do. And when you get the project, you have to learn everything, and experiment, and push yourself beyond your comfort limits. That’s what MYTHOMANIA has been all about for me. For this reason I’m very sad that it’s finally coming to an end – but I’m really excited for the future things it’s made possible.
In conclusion I just want to say thanks so much to Dominic Mason and Janine Parrish at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre, who invited me to exhibit in their gallery – and who supported me through the Arts Council application process. I would also like to thank all of the other staff at 20-21 for all their incredible help with administrative, technical and logistical issues – before, during, and after the show. I would of course like to thank Arts Council England for their funding support, without which I couldn’t have done any of this project (their telephone support staff has also been amazing in terms of helping me at various points in the process). Finally I would like to thank my wife Sara, who has supported me the whole way and has been incredibly patient during these many stressful days and weeks and months. Thank you all so much!
Although much of the new work I created for MYTHOMANIA was fabric-based (as described in my previous posts) I also created one of my more familiar large-scale sculptures for the exhibition. The curators had asked me to create a big piece that could be placed in (or near) the café area of the gallery – and so I did some research into large sculptural figures from history that might provide some inspiration. After looking around a bit I stumbled upon images of protective statues that guard Thai temples; I loved the colours and detail – and I especially liked their squatting poses, which make the sculptures appear bigger than they actually are. I then used Photoshop to place one of the statues in the gallery’s café – to serve as a kind of guide when creating my own artwork:
I wanted the sculpture to similarly be a “protective” kind of figure – inspired by famous heroes from across history (including contemporary comics and sci fi). I wanted to reference everything from Hercules to Transformers and Iron Man.
For some reason I was also interested in the pose of Louis XIV (the so-called ‘Sun King’) and wanted to find a way to reference this in some way. I did a bit more research into the period’s colours and styles, and found other interesting designs associated with the ‘Sun King’:
I then produced a sketch that retained the original temple figure’s pose, but incorporated some of the other elements:
Once all of this was done, I began to realize that the figure I was creating wasn’t so much a ‘hero’ as such – but something more ambivalent related to the role of protector or leader. I’ve always been interested in the way many ancient heroes (including ones such as Hercules, Gilgamesh, and Troy) and modern ones (like Batman, Wolverine, etc.) are often as destructive and bloodthirsty as the villains they fight. This can extend to world leaders such as Donald Trump – who, as President of the United States, should be a ‘protector’ figure – but, like Louis XIV seems more focused on retaining power, boasting about his importance, and flaunting his personal income. So by the time I’d refined the sculpture, it was more of an incarnation of power, strength and wealth than anything else. Rather than calling it “Hero” (the original title) I titled it “Sun King”.
As usual, I began my making a maquette version of the sculpture. This helped me identify any problem areas so I could modify the design accordingly:
I didn’t have time to finish the maquette…but I built enough to know where the problem areas were – then I fixed the designs accordingly. After that I added the surface designs so it looked more like this:
Then I sent it off to get printed onto corrugated cardboard. A couple of weeks later I received the sheets of card, then sliced them up with a scalpel and folded them up – then assembled everything into the final sculpture:
After my helmet sculpture was finished, I felt more confident about building more ‘soft sculpture’ designs. The next piece I created was a large eagle-shaped artwork. Unlike the helmet, which only had a few embroidered patches on its surface, the eagle would have dozens – and was going to be massive in scale. It would be supported by a large steel rack, similar to the kind they hang clothes off of in department stores, but much bigger. Here is a sketch of the concept design:
Although this piece didn’t have quite as many tricky shapes as the helmet (i.e. no curved elements) it proved to be far more intensive to build. Firstly, I had to translate the cutting pattern onto giant sheets of artificial leather – about 16 metres of it. Then I had to sew on the ‘applique’ elements – all of the stripes of colour and such that created the key design elements…plus things like zippers which I had never worked with before. Then I had to add all of the embroidered patches – which had separately taken me a couple of weeks to stitch. Or rather, it had taken my embroidery MACHINE a couple of weeks – while I stood ready to change threads, fix jams, prepare hoops, oil the machine…and all of the other things that make it a full-time babysitting job. I’ve been nothing but happy with the embroidery machine …but it definitely takes a lot of work to run! And that is in addition to all of the time it takes to convert an artwork into a stitching pattern in the first place (not to mention drawing the artwork in the first place).
Here are some shots of the Eagle sculpture in process:
The final photo is the finished (but un-stuffed) sculpture…looking a bit like it crash-landed out of the sky! Actually I quite like the artwork in this mode – floppy and kind of melted-looking…the physicality of the materials really comes through. I almost contemplated displaying it this way (i.e. saggy & very ‘bag-like’)…but in the end I decided to stick with the plan and give it a ‘skeleton’ of sorts. As per the designs, I built an inner cardboard support to make it rigid – not unlike the cardboard they stuff into shoes and handbags when they go on display, to make them look as perfect as possible.
The stainless steel support was manufactured and shipped separately to the gallery, so I didn’t really get to see the artwork in its finished state until right before the exhibition opened. Thankfully there were no problems and it all fit together as per the plan. Here’s what it looked like at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre (note I moved it around to different areas in order to take the portfolio pics):
In my last post I described the process of making a maquette for one of my new cloth sculptures. The idea for the sculpture came about as a result of seeing some running shoes in a display case in a boutique store. I’ve long been intrigued by the way certain mundane consumer products have been elevated to the status of art objects – for example luxury handbags and running shoes displayed on plinths in glass cases:
I wanted to create something that would allude to these kinds of objects, but still be its own unique sculptural form. I then had the thought of creating something that was a mix between a fashion accessory and an ancient artifact…and an armoured helmet came to mind. I did a Google search and found the following image (note: it’s not a real artifact; it’s somebody’s recreation of a Norse Helmet):
I really loved the shape of this ‘artefact’, and envisioned my sculpture being a mix between a similar Norse/Viking helmet and something more sci-fi, like Darth Vader’s helmet. Here’s the original sketch I made of the artwork:
I then refined it in Adobe Illustrator and came up with the following:
From here I calculated the fabric pattern required to make it:
Then I made a maquette version out of paper (described in my last post) – and afterwards I finally built the real thing out of artificial leather. I was quite pleased with the effect it achieved – conveying that mixture between luxury product and ancient artifact that I’d set out to create. This was intensified during the exhibition when the sculpture was displayed on a plinth within a cube of Perspex – making the artwork ‘untouchable’ in the way that we reverentially display both artifact and luxury products. I like that strange way that things that we are theoretically meant to wear or touch (i.e. armour, handbags, shoes, jackets) are paradoxically made inaccessible – either via the physical form of display, or via the cost associated with buying it. The result is a curious ‘sacred’ space that such objects occupy in contemporary life (regardless of how mundane they actually are) – and generating an interesting ‘aura’ which is partly what I want to achieve in my work.
Here are some images of the final artwork, including some shots of it in its display case at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre:
By mid April, I had sorted out the technical and material issues related to the new work I wanted to make for the Mythomania exhibition – but the actual designs were still in need of figuring out. The nature of my work means that I spend ages designing the shapes and surfaces of my pieces – then the manufacturing & assembly process is a bit like building a ‘kit’…in other words, there’s not much ability to deviate from the plan once it’s created. Moreover, there’s very little room for error once the manufacturing begins.
In the case of my cardboard artworks, I’ve established a process that generally weeds out most of the problems: I create a maquette, which helps me identify all of the problem areas – then I fix them & after that I’m confident the actual sculpture will come together OK. Here’s an example of one of these typical maquettes:
But with the new fabric artworks I was creating, I wasn’t sure how to create the equivalent version of a maquette. I suppose I could have sewn miniature pieces of the cloth together…but (unlike with the cardboard sculptures, where – even in small form – slight measurement problems are apparent) I was worried that my (nonexistent) skills at sewing would mean I couldn’t trust what was an error in the blueprints, and what was simply an error in the assembly.
It should be noted here that I hadn’t actually sewn anything by hand since I was about 20 years old (i.e. about 23 years ago!) – and hadn’t used a sewing machine since I was about 10 years old. So first I needed to train myself how to use the machine – a Husqvarna Emerald 118.
Due to time constraints, I had to learn “on the job” while making a maquette. As mentioned above, I wasn’t entirely sure how to make a cloth maquette…so in fact I made it out of paper. I printed a full-scale version of the sculpture design onto thin (80gsm) A3 paper – then cut out the individual shapes. I then crumpled each of the pieces up repeatedly until it was soft and “cloth-like” – then sewed it together with my Husqvarna. The process served two functions: 1) to determine if my sculpture pattern worked, and identify any problems with the pattern, and 2) to learn how to sew using a machine.
One of the main difficulties I found with sewing was making turns, and keeping the speed of the machine under control. I was often feeling like the needle was “running away” from me, resulting in wonky lines and overshot curves. It honestly took me until the end of the project to learn to control the foot pedal better, and importantly to have the patience sometimes to do one stitch at a time – readjusting the fabric stitch by stitch in order to accurately follow a complex shape. This was especially important with the patches, which have intricate contours and have to be carefully stitched around the edges.
Anyway, here is a shot of the maquette:
Once it was done I hand coloured it to help me see better what the final piece would look like. To be honest, I hated it until I added the colour – at which point I could begin to visualize what the real (leather) version would look like, and I started to feel like I was on the right track. Importantly, however, the sculpture actually WORKED – meaning the pieces all fit together and produced the desired form. I’ve never worked much with curves before – my other sculptures all use flat planes, which are easier to calculate – so thankfully it wasn’t a total disaster!