I don’t often go on courses as group tuition isn’t my thing – too many bad memories of school, I think! However, I am all too aware that enthusiasm can only get you so far and that, sometimes, the guidance of an expert hand can make all the difference to the progress of your work. So, it was with mixed feelings of hope and terror that I signed up for a four-day course with Brendan Hesmonhalgh at The Sculpture Lounge, just outside Holmfirth.
I had been mulling over the idea for a couple of years, actually; ever since I first saw David Cooke’s amazing wildlife sculptures at Art in Clay and picked up one of his leaflets. And, having spoken to some people, I soon established that there is a well trodden path between East Anglia and this particular corner of the Peak District. In fact, when I arrived, I met another member of Anglian Potters, who had come up from Norfolk like me, and who has been on several courses with the Sculpture Lounge.
We spent our first morning familiarizing ourselves with the studio space where we would be working, and we were introduced to the mould-making studio, which is the domain of Martin Norman. Martin makes bronze and bronze resin castings for Brendan and David, as well as several other well-known sculptors, including one of my favourites, Paul Smith. It was a rare treat to watch him work and to be able to ask questions about the various moulding processes involved – and, I gather that Martin will be offering courses himself in the coming year.
After a good lunch we were each instructed to make one or several maquettes of our chosen animal. We had been given the brief beforehand and the suggested subject for this course was a farmyard animal, although this was not prescriptive, and those who had an entirely different kind of creature in mind were encouraged to follow their own idea.
Not having tacked any kind of animal standing on four legs before, I felt that a farm animal would be challenge enough and I plumped for a goat, for no other reason than that I think they have sweet faces. I came armed with sheaves of photographs I had taken at a local rare breeds farm and, as the week progressed, was grateful for the preparation I had done. My first attempt, however, was not a success: never having worked this way before, I think I tried to put too much detail into my model, with the result that I completely forgot to put it in an interesting pose or give it any ‘life’. I then spent a sleepless night fretting and fearing that I was going to be spending the next three days struggling and fighting to get anything out of the clay.
I buttonholed Brendan at morning coffee the following day and basically threw myself on his mercy, explaining that I hated what I had done so far and had no idea how to get back on track.
"There’s always one on every course!" he responded, cheerfully, before talking me through what I liked/disliked about my maquette and what I wanted to achieve from the final sculpture. He encouraged me to play around with the clay and make a few more studies; experiment with different attitudes and really look at the way a goat is put together in real life. He didn’t have to say it, but I knew how much I have neglected my sketch books in recent years, and resolved to get into good habits of life drawing when I got back to my own studio, since there is no more certain key to successful sculpting than to be completely familiar with your subject.
The majority of day two was taken up with making the body, which Brendan feels is the most important part and which enables the rest of a piece to come together more easily. There were three choices of clay on offer, all of which were grogged stoneware. One, which I didn’t try,(maybe next time!), fires to a rich chocolatey black and has almost the appearance of being wood-fired.
Brendan showed us a slab building technique to make a hollow structure, which is then pushed gently from the inside to build out the shape of belly, backbone, upper thighs, etc. I had seen Elaine Peto demonstrate something similar before at a show, so was familiar with the idea in principle – putting it into practice was quite a different matter, however, and I was surprised at how long it took to get my clay cylinder to resemble the body of a pot bellied goat.
We were taught by a combination of formal group demonstration and individual tuition and, with the Sculpture Lounge only taking a small number of students on each course, Brendan was able to get around to everyone quite comfortably. He is definitely a natural teacher and knows instinctively when to intervene and when to stand back and let you work something out for yourself. He is also good at pushing you to achieve just that little bit more than you thought yourself capable of. Over the four days I saw a variety of pieces take shape, from a pig to a hare, to an ambitious water feature involving a flock of guinea fowl, and a lively sculpture of the Musicians of Bremen – and each one was completely individual and reflected the personality of its maker, rather than being pale imitations of Brendan’s own work.
Days three and four were taken up with the making of limbs and head. Like the body, these are made from hollow slabs of clay and Brendan showed us how to create wrinkles, paw pads, and even fur texture, by scoring the clay from behind and then pushing it gently into shape. The most difficult thing to learn was how to do this without handling the clay too much and losing what he calls the “clayness” of the clay.
My goat came together quite quickly once I had got his back legs on and there was something of an end of term feeling on the last day, with everyone putting the finishing touches to their pieces. There was much hilarity and ribald discussion about the size of a boy piglet’s ‘bits’, which Brendan and the only male student on the course wisely kept out of!
I came on this course because I wanted to learn how to sculpt more freely and, having seen Brendan’s work before and admired his style, felt that I could learn a lot from him. I took away with me far more than I could have hoped for: a renewed confidence, a fresh perspective, and memories of an exhilarating week in the company of many talented people. I will definitely go back again and, next time, I shall take full advantage of the Sculpture Lounge’s facilities and generous stock of clay and make something really big… a life-sized water buffalo, perhaps?...