The Defining Shape and Form of Patricia Volk
The human brain is amazing. It allows us to see the world in so many different ways and have numerous experiences. Experiences of colour, of form, of shape, of touch, of feelings and of sound. These experiences help us understand, help us connect, genuinely connect, to the world around us.
Patricia Volk's sculptures are beautiful, colourful, explorations of shape and form. The curves, colours and line weights guide our eyes around each piece, draw us in and hold our gaze. Our conversation with Patricia showed her to be a lady who is just as strong, colourful and engaging, as any one of her pieces.
You were born in Belfast and you studied three dimensional design in Bath, graduating in 1989. Belfast must have been a very interesting place to be at the time just before you moved. Can you tell us a bit about your personal journey from growing up in Ireland to deciding to leave and go to art school?
I left before the start of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and then there was no going back. At school I always dreamt of going to Art College, but the possibility was totally remote for people like me. I had and still have, extreme dyslexia, so all the way through school I had a horror and dread of words, which didn’t help. Also, anyone interested in studying art would have been laughed at where I came from. So, I came over to England with the idea getting in somewhere to train in art, fashion interested me most at that time, but then everyone wanted to do it back then. Bearing in mind I was a one parent family, my main preoccupation was getting enough money to live on.
I got a job in an advertising agency and there I started meeting people who had gone to art school and they encouraged me to go for it. One night after not touching painting or drawing for fifteen years I lifted up a pencil and started to draw. I took year off to go to adult education classes, and from that built up a portfolio and applied to Art College, and got in as a mature student in my thirties. Which was the beginning of the most exciting time of my life. It was wonderful. Every day was a new discovery and it was fantastically exciting.
Some of your work demonstrates stability through partnership, with one weaker piece supported by a stronger one. Can you tell us about what it is that interests you about this relationship and the piece you have made, which you feel, best demonstrates this.
For the series where I had the strong and the weaker, I was definitely thinking about that during the making process, the idea of “leaning on” or one person being supported by another, the fragility of the tipping point where an object or person might fall… But it’s mainly about pure form. It’s the abstraction I’m interested in, rather than making a piece that illustrates a rigid idea you have beforehand.
That’s not to say the parallels with human emotions aren’t in my mind all the time. As a particular example, I have made a big piece resting on a smaller piece, like a prop, which gives it drama but also delicacy. I like the visual contradiction. To an extent, working in clay is like play and, being dyslexic I have trouble expressing ideas in words so I chose a medium where words aren’t really necessary. Or, you could say, it chose me.
There is an element of synesthesia with some of your work, in so much as colours seem to have their own textures and shapes their own feelings. Do you ever think about your objects as having any kind of displaced element of personality?
No, it’s purely about seeing a balance of colour, like a Mondrian, you just put one thing against the other to get a balance. If there is a rhythm it’s purely visual and, often, if there is a deeper meaning I like to think that is brought by the viewer: I don’t like to limit the viewer’s experience by giving a sculpture of mine a pat explanation or theme, if I can help it – or if I do - I try to keep it as loose as possible. Sometimes I know what is going on in my head, but more often I let my hands do the thinking. That doesn’t mean it is easy, because I do take a long time to consider the exact colours and balance, and it isn’t scientific, it is purely instinctive.
Tell us about how you decide to shape your pieces and how you want your audience’s eyes to explore your work through colour and pattern.
There are so many influences, sometimes imagining a beautiful line, or using as a start point a curve I’ve used in the past. I like the thought that the pieces look light and float – a contradiction to the obvious physical weight of clay.
I like the idea of uplift. They should be viewed at eye level, by walking around, looking from different angles. The surface texture can work to make the flatness of colour more nuanced and less machine-manufactured looking, adding a natural edginess on a vivid unnatural blue for instance. I work on a series of pieces, but the finished product is defined by the time it is modelled which can be affected by weather, temperature, my mood, and so on.
I would like the combination of non-figurative form and colour combination to set off a series of ideas in the viewer’s mind: tranquility; elegance; power; sadness; rest; action; conflict; a sense of movement… all these things triggering human emotions of some kind.
What is craft as opposed to art, aren’t we, as artists, all makers, all creative? Do you think it’s time we stopped defining these things by materials used, after all, the last thing fine art needs is another elitist category. What are your thoughts on this as a sculptor?
I think a sculptor can have craft and imagination and be creative but there’s also craftspeople who are superb at what they do, but do not have the creative level of input. There are artists who are highly creative who do not have craft skills – they can literally phone somebody to make what they want, and that’s fine. In the last case the craftsman is at the service of an artist. It’s about understanding your individual role and not being arrogant, not having a pretense to intellectuality if it isn’t there. It’s no good called a piece “Baudelaire” just so that it sounds super important. That is nonsense! It’s the finished artwork that defines itself.
There is an influence of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in your work. Who are the top 3 biggest influences on your artistic work and why?
Modigliani and Giacometti influenced me a lot when I was doing heads, as did the sculptors of the Renaissance. I think now there are an awful lot of abstract painters who are having a huge impact on me simply because of the pared down nature of their work and sometimes it takes my breath away. I have just been to the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern and the stillness and rigour of her work was incredibly inspiring. I love Jun Kaneko. Enormous big things with spots on them. So exuberant.
What do you like to listen to while you work?
Radio 4. Talking, plays.
Tell us about the biggest piece of sculpture you would like to make, if time, space and money were no object.
A lot of pieces I have been making recently from components are quite small, table scale really, but I think of them all as maquettes for potentially huge pieces. I imagine that they could be twenty or thirty feet tall if money were no object, or if I win the lottery.
As a little girl I was constantly drawing but I do remember, distinctly, the first drawing I ever did that genuinely felt like a piece of art to seven year old me. Can you tell me a bit about your first experience of feeling like you had made something which felt like a real sculpture to you?
I remember the first drawing I did when I was in junior school, and a teacher calling another teacher to show her what I’d done and I felt very proud. It was a picture of a wedding, a bride and groom, but I was so delighted that it caused such a lot of interest in the teachers. I suppose I’d always been told I was good at drawing and working with my hands and it was only on my Foundation Course that I discovered clay. I was encouraged by one of the tutors who told me I was making something beautiful and I shouldn’t be so self-critical – that was a real turning point for me.
There are a lot of artists who really struggle with self-criticism, which can be a big problem creatively if you let it. How do you deal with your own self critic now?
I don’t think you can ever completely overcome criticism, and perhaps that’s a good thing, unless you let self-doubt completely defeat any pleasure in doing what you do. I know I’m very critical after I make a piece.
There is the passing moment of satisfaction, but in time I only see the imperfections, which nobody else would see. But, in a way that spurs you on to create more pieces. Not to make the "one perfect sculpture", that would be silly, but to attempt something new that, this time, might get closer to what you are trying to achieve. You have to push yourself in terms of ideas and technique all the time, but equally importantly you have to allow yourself to like your own work. I think it was Brancusi who said “If you don’t like what you do, how do you expect somebody else to like it?”
Absolutely. Tell us what you're working on now?
I think they are almost like slides, slab built and very simple. They are curves, arcs in fact, purely abstract but lying almost like the timbers of a boat’s hull or the ribs of an animal, and they would roll away except for a kind of prop under them. My dream is to do a series of these so that you would have them in a line in a room, and you could look through them, and each one would curve this way then that way until you see to a big wall piece at the end. But I haven’t quite worked that out yet.
You can keep up to date with Patricia Volk's work by checking out her website: http://www.patriciavolk.co.uk or follow her on Twiiter: @patriciavolk