Making work: The US experience

Posted on Sunday May 06, 2012

One advantage of being away from home base is that an artist can try something different, free of the expectations that the work will follow on from his or her ‘usual style’. For me, the four months in the US late in 2011 provided this freedom. In fact, it almost guaranteed I’d do something different, because of the materials and tools available (or not available, which was more the case for me: going from a fully-equipped workshop to a studio with a few hand tools, an electric chainsaw and a drill does test your resourcefulness.)

My initial plan was to make work using fur and timber – both materials with a strong historic association with the New England area. The first piece I started, using a 50 kilogram lump of maple and an old rabbit fur stole, steadfastly refused to ‘work’ properly. But it did leave me with buckets of woodchips.

Buckets of woodchips

Frustrated with the slow progress on my magnum opus, I resurrected an idea from several years back – low-relief figure-inspired forms, padded and covered with hessian (or as they call it in theUS, ‘burlap’ – “Hey Hank, mah burlap is hangin’ right out over mah belt these days. I cain’t see mah feet for it.” “Well Chuck, yo better stop eatin’ all them burgers ‘n fries, or yo burlap’ll be draggin’ on the ground.”).

I borrowed an electric jigsaw and cut out the first plywood backing board, and began tacking the hessian and stuffing it with the woodchips. Instant recycling of waste sculpture materials – another brownie eco-point for me! Once I’d finished stuffing the form and tacking down the hessian, it was already showing promise. Then when I tied it with twine, it really ‘worked’.

Stuffed Figure 1

These works excited some interesting responses from fellow students and teachers. Many saw a strong connection with (sexual) bondage, and I think that some of them felt some discomfort or even distaste for the work because of this. It made me aware, once again, how strongly the thread of Puritan prudishness still runs through the nation’s psyche. Perhaps that’s why so many US films and TV programs feature ‘in your face’ sexuality, as a way of countering their discomfort with eroticism.

I ended up making six works in this ‘Stuffed Figures’ series. Interesting in themselves, they became the springboard for something even more exciting.

Next: The ‘Rendition’ series