To start this project, I reviewed my sketchbook looking, in particular, for ideas which I felt had gone unresolved and which would especially lend themselves to working in plaster.
One earlier piece which I felt could be developed and enlarged was my attempt at melting drinking straws. This didn’t create a form with interesting mass but the small details of textures offered opportunities.
The interest here, for me, lies in the twists, curves and angles created by looped bendy straws and by the open, irregular mesh created by melting the bend. I looked at how I might simplify this and create a bigger structure in plaster. Rather than using polystyrene, I ‘liberated’ an old extraction pipe and experimented with twisting it and supporting it in various ways.
I tried various ways of twisting and knotting the pipe, supporting it with wire. I then experimented with supporting it on a foam block base with a metal rod treaded through it.
I liked the three dimensional curves produced and the rounded volume of the hose but I couldn’t think of a way of creating stability in the structure. The block provides support and height and is a good contrast with the curves. In order to capture the essence of the melted straw, I would have to distress the hose, cutting holes in the plastic. I tried this out, but the hose lost all stability and I couldn’t see how I could progress to covering it with plaster. This idea was therefore abandonned.
Returning to my sketchbook work, I decided to develop my ideas based around a small piece of coral, part of a small collection of shells etc which lived in a drawer in my grandfather’s desk when I was very small. As a treat, I was allowed to examine these and was fascinated by the shapes and colours. The desk now lives with me and the contents of the drawer are unchanged. The small bleached coral piece also speaks to me of climate change and the bleaching of dead coral caused by rising sea temperatures.
I had already explored the idea in my sketchbook and in clay and looked at and drawn works reminiscent of coral by sculptors such as Hepworth, Arp and Eric Thommensen.
In my sketchbook, I designed a structure and then translated it into something that I thought I could build out of polystyrene.
Years ago, my husband had built a hot wire out of scrap for the kids to make Warhammer models, and I used this to cut polystyrene blocks into approximate shapes. These were then hot glued together and onto a large base block.
Gluing pieces rigidly, I found it difficult to get the angles I wanted, so broke the pieces apart and repositioned them using cocktail sticks. This worked much better, allowing me to adjust the positions and angles.
I played around with the structure with the objective of creating the necessary height for the remit, producing a piece with holes, curves and interesting negative spaces. I particularly wanted it to be interesting and different when seen from different angles, since this seems to me to be the strength of sculpture as a medium.
When I was satisfied, I moved outside to start coating the work in plaster. I was unable to get any fabric scrim, only plastic mesh, so I tore up an old sheet and dipped that in the plaster. The base needed to be weighted as plaster was added to the projecting pieces. The base was excavated to accommodate several lumps of scrap iron, and these were then plastered over. All work with plaster has been carried out outside wearing a face mask with filtration cannisters because of my concerns about working in a dusty atmosphere since I have asthma.
The polystyrene was intended to be merely the bones on which I would create softened, organic forms, but I found the hard cut lines very difficult to cover and disguise. The polystyrene was rather like an underpainting for a pastel drawing; surprisingly dominant and ever-present. I wasn’t able to create the sensuous curves I was looking for, particularly for the holes. This seems to me to be a fundamental lesson; don’t try to change the underlying character of your materials, they are what they are and you need to work with that.
Having build the sculpture up with plaster to homogenise the polystyrene shapes, I prepared to sand and carve the work.
I found that although I had added punds and pounds of plaster, I couldn’t sand the work very much without hitting cloth or polystyrene. I had invisaged very smooth rounded shapes but I really enjoyed the texture produced by the application of wet plaster. In the end, very little sanding was done in order to preserve these textures.
I drew the sculpture in my sketchbook so that I could copy this repeatedly and draw over different sorts of finishes. Inspired by the interplay of positive and negative, I also made a collage using painted tissues.
The lumps of iron in the base and made some rusty marks in the plaster, and I had rather liked these. One of my thoughts was to wrap the sculpture in some soft iron wire to see if I could purposely create rust marks. The wire was sprayed with a solution of vinegar and water. Here I have placed the work in among ferns so that the living green contrasts with the dead white. I feel that the iron is an interesting addition although the plaster just soaked up any rust marks and they barely showed. The wire also speaks to the effect that mankind is having on coral.
I also wanted to consider other surface finishes and was prepared to carry on altering the work to destruction. To experiment, I made some small plaster casts using the fingers of a rubber glove, and tried various finishes, Brusho, applied tissue, boot polish, pigment inks, paint over polish etc.
I thought the most effective of these was produced by painting plaster with Brusho and the wiping it off the high areas with a damp cloth. The texture of the work would make painting difficult without leaving deeper area white, so Brusho was sprayed on. Of my sketchbook versions, I decided to pursue multicolours at the base of the work, leaving bleached white at the top. I hoped that this would visually weight the work at the bottom and would evoke a richness of life lost by climate change.
Although I liked the idea of the colours in my sketchbook, I don’t like them on the sculpture; I think they over-complicate and distract from the shapes. Since I had used waterbased colours, I was able to try again. This time I used a single colour so as not to disguise the shapes and chose ultramarine because of its association with the sea and also as a complimentary colour to the rusty wire.
My ideas for this work developed as it progressed. Initially, I was interested in producing a pleasing form referencing nature, but as I worked, I became increasing involved with trying to express a political view about climate change, pollution and destruction induced by humans. During the project I have been looking at how other people have used sculpture as protest against these issues.
Many sculptors use discarded material, for instance Tony Cragg in ‘New Stones’ or Noble and Webster in ‘Dirty White Trash’ but these aren’t intended as direct comments on pollution or waste. Other sculptors have used rubbish in a much more political way, wittily by Francisco de Pajaro who creates ephemeral, quirky and satirical pieces. To coincide with a climate change conference, Isaac Cordal created a whole miniature landscape in ‘Follow the Leaders‘ where he depicted be-suited men up to their necks in water or decay, oblivious to their plight. These amusing and unpompous sculptures seem much harder hitting than the more obvious ice sculptures of polar bears or melting icebergs. Ice is an interesting material; translucent and brief, transforming itself over time. Ice sculptures are now a feature of every winter holiday destination and posh restaurant. This overuse means that any work in ice has to transcend a table centre-piece, either by its relevance, content or location. Nele Azevedo’s many delicate figures, gently melting on the steps of a public space in Berlin have a completely different sensitivity to the general run of ice sculptures. Their number (c1000), small scale, public location and timing (to coincide with a WWF report on climate change) all add to the work.
During my researches, I came across a sculpture who has turned all this on its head. Jason De Caires Taylor has created an underwater sculpture park where corals have been encouraged to populate the figures and forms. Thus, instead of coral being the subject, it becomes the living medium. Surrounded by water, lit by diffused sunlight from above, features obscured and changed by corals, the sculptures have an other-worldliness. The human form seems quite alien in this environment. Although we generally see sculpture in art galleries, it seems to me far more powerful when conceived to be placed in the environment or a public space. I have tried photographing my work against a plain wall, but I much prefer it placed in the garden, where it is made, or some other outside space. I do feel that environmental context is important.
This sculpture has evolved far away from my original concept. I had been working towards a tight, rounded form inspired by coral but not a model of it. I have arrived at a much more open form, following the materials, which is as much about absence as presence. The negative spaces are as important as the positive, and the bleached plaster is a presence which speaks of the absence of life.
Technically, the sculpture is crude. I really struggled learning to use the materials and to cover the large and complex surface area of polystyrene with sufficient plaster to then be able to smooth and carve. After my initial efforts, I have tried to embrace rather than fight against the materials. It is what it is.
Experimenting with surface treatments was largely unsuccessful. The original white plaster wrapped in wire resonates most clearly with the intent. The final blue treatment is the most dramatic. I think the rusty wire adds visual interest with both texture and colour and is relevant. The relative scale of the wire against the plaster is an issue; it would be better in a bigger gauge.
People who have seen the sculpture have generally pickup the connection to coral and some have remarked that it looks ‘spoiled’ which I guess is a success of sorts. I would have preferred it to be less literal.