I am regularly contacted by students and teachers who are doing a project on my work as an animal sculptor and who want to know more about my background, influences and technique. So here is an article I wrote recently that should help you with your studies.
I will never forget cradling my first dog, surely the most beautiful puppy in the world. ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ I announced, with tears rolling down my cheeks. It seems dogs were always destined to play an important role in my life. It was only natural that I would go on to draw them with a passion bordering on obsession. My inspirational art teacher, Mr Oxley, noticed my work and encouraged me to take up art. I must have made an impression; twenty-five years later he still comes to my solo exhibitions.
Captivated by Clay
Most children enjoy modelling with clay and most of us probably have happy memories of clay work at school. But it wasn’t until I attended Art College in Wales, that I started working seriously in clay. I was immediately captivated by the feel of clay, the possibilities of modelling in three dimensions and the presence sculpture has in a space.
I enjoyed exploring the rich history of animals in sculpture and how different cultures have captured the essence of their subject. From simple voluptuous horses from thousands of years ago to the rounded rumps and aesthetic curves of a Tang Dynasty horse. Rembrandt Bugatti is probably my favourite animal sculptor; with effortless confidence he captured his subjects with bold shapes and sketchy detail, never over-working.
With fellow art student, Robert E Fuller’s help, I secured a summer placement as a rhino keeper in Chester Zoo. The only accommodation I could afford was the local campsite but nothing could dent my enthusiasm for the animals. Where else would I have been allowed to play with leopard cubs and cheetahs? I was able to interact with the animals, touch them and observe their behaviour at close quarters. I still remember the surprising softness of the black rhino’s prehensile lip and the startling roughness of the elephant’s trunk. I learned that every animal has it’s own unique personality. The realisation that I must somehow capture this in clay continues to inform and inspire my work to this day.
When my time at the zoo came to an end I continued my studies in Cardiff, completing a degree in Ceramics. Whilst honing my modelling skills and improving my knowledge of animal anatomy, I started supplying a number of galleries. This was an enormous boost to my confidence as it proved there was a market for my work. Even so, it took a great deal of determination and hard work to establish my business. It was a couple of years before I was selling enough work, particularly meerkat sculptures, to enable me to work full-time as an animal sculptor.
These days I sell my work through a select number of UK galleries. I also market my work and accept commissions through my website and social media. With each passing day the internet claims an ever-increasing chuck of my time. I am fortunate that my husband has the necessary skills to photograph and promote my work online. Even so, with the advent of social networking, I have to spend more time posting photos of Facebook and responding to questions and enquiries. It is all part and parcel of running an artist’s business and I enjoy the immediacy and interaction of online marketing.
Wild and Wonderful
Before starting a piece I think about what it would be like if I were that animal. I tend to subtly exaggerate the features that I particularly like. For example, if I were a warthog I would be especially proud of my expressive tail, battle torn ears and dainty feet. My favourite animal is the wild dog. They have wonderful proportions and form themselves into truly beautiful shapes. They also have very striking, penetrating eyes, they are predators after all and demand respect.
My work is inspired by a behavioural observation, a beautiful shape or some other aspect of an animal’s personality that has enthralled or amused me. On a wildlife trip to Zambia we came by three hyenas with the most bloated stomachs I have ever seen. The animals were rolling on their backs, like clockwork toys, in an effort to get comfortable. They paused briefly on our arrival, as if embarrassed by their gluttony, before resuming their efforts. I was struck by how one of the hyenas seemed to be trying to maintain her dignity, paws carefully posed in a ladylike manner. Back in the studio, I sought to capture her expressions in the subsequent hyena sculpture.
Whether immersed in the intense observation of wild animals or simply out walking my dogs, I find that I am always studying animal behaviour. It has become a natural reflex for me, like breathing. I am endlessly fascinated with how animals communicate, a subtle glance here, a tilt of the head there, or a lick of the lips. There is such rich body language in the animal kingdom and I always try and install this into my work. I have no time for crude anthropomorphism that some artist’s employ; it is disrespectful and betrays a failure to understand and relate to the subject.
Tools of the Trade
Most of my animals are made with T’Material, a fortified porcelain to which I add paper pulp for it’s strength and light weight. I roll out slabs of clay, place screwed up newspaper inside and seal them up like Cornish pasties. Newspaper gives immediate support and combusts in the firing. I use this technique for the body, legs and head. I start with the basics, especially the ears, which provide a strong indication of how the animal is feeling. I draw a line down the middle of the face and backbone to help with symmetry. The animal begins to take shape quite quickly and, for me, this is the most exciting stage. Click here to see a time-lapse of this stage. I refer mostly to my own photographs but I will research on line to help me with particular details.
During the initial construction I constantly rotate the piece on a whirler to check detail, balance and composition. I use just three tools for modelling, supplemented on occasion by various found objects, such as shells and rocks. I have been known to use plastic tubes from my paint brushes, which are perfect for scales on armadillos. The eyes are very important and I am regularly asked if I put them in afterwards, which I don’t! However, it’s the eyes which bring a piece to life, so it’s vital to get them right. Herbivores, for example, have softer, more vulnerable eyes than a predator. And as always when modelling an animal sculpture, I aim to convey what the animal may be thinking and feeling at the time.
Once the piece is finished and dried it goes into the first (bisque) firing with about five other animals sculptures. I fire over night. Afterwards I apply glass to the areas I want coloured. The Raku glaze firing is rapid, reaching 980℃ in just thirty minutes. My hand-built Raku kiln is made of ceramic fibre and welding mesh. When I can see the glaze has melted I turn the burners off and lift the kiln. With very thick gloves I pick up each piece and place it into sawdust. This creates a reduction, enriching the colours in the glaze and imparting a smoke-black finish to any glaze-free surfaces. When the piece is cool it is scrubbed and cleaned. At this stage I sometimes incorporate other media such as bristles, wire and wood.
A Labour of Love
I seem to have forged a reputation for making rare and endangered animals in a less traditional format and, perhaps because of this, I find myself accepting more and more commissions. My involvement with the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is a case in point. For sixteen years I was commissioned to make trophies bases on the animals featured in the winning photos. One year I was asked to make a trophy depicting leaf cutter ants, which certainly proved a challenge.
In 2015 I was delighted to win DSWF Wildlife Artist of the Year with my baby warthog sculptures Sleepyheads. On a previous occasion my category winning warthog Bad Hair Day was bought by celebrated wildlife artist David Shepherd. It now lives with David at his home and has been named Tina (after Tina Turner no less). I look forward to submitting work to the competition in future years. I’m also keen to continue donating animal sculptures to wildlife conservation charities, such as Painted dog Conservation and Animals Asia, who auction my work to raise funds. It’s a way of giving something back and supporting the wild animals that are such an important part of my life and my work.
Looking back, I can’t believe I have been making animals for twenty three years now! My children ask me whether I will stop working when I get old ‘like Grandma’ to which I say, why would I stop doing what I love?