“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence.” Pablo Picasso
To the west of Winterborne Houghton, and rising to over seven hundred feet above sea level are the chalk downs and woodland haunts of owls. According to folklore, a villager was lost in these woods and, calling for help, mistook the answering calls of owls for human voices; so residents came to be known as “Houghton Owls.” Behind the road to Higher Houghton and nestled at the end of this valley in a magical garden, I found the Open Studio of Jane Shaw and Polly Cazalet.
I was intrigued to know how these last few months under lockdown had changed their creativity, for the summer could have been one of lost incentive. However, freed from regular school runs and with fewer distractions, they’d both found the luxury of extra time. This they felt was the greatest change, giving them an increased focus. Indeed, Jane found her sculptures have begun to take on a more literary meaning; so the first piece she completed during this time, is appropriately titled “Isolation.” It is of a horse with its head drooping down, its pose exhausted – but its form supported by a rock. “Ugly can be beautiful. There is a great beauty in sadness.” And this sculpture conveys that beauty in the strength of the horse on its strong foundations.
Jane then demonstrated how each piece begins with armature which she then covers in wax or clay and continually adds and takes away – and how the ‘Jane energy’ that is obvious in every one of her sculptures is conveyed. By fluid, spontaneous and strong gestural strokes with any material she uses, she portrays the power and character of individual animals. “When building up in wax or clay or any material I use, its all about the ‘line’ and creating lights and darks as well as the overall balance, just like a painting. I look at how to make the sculpture work first, and then the subject matter comes second. I want the materials to be seen, and simple imprints from my hands, my thumbs and fingernails.” Even when working on a commission, her work evolves, for there is “no point in creating only a replica of the subject in front of me.” Drawings and photos will be done in the field from direct study and then continued at home in the studio as she continually builds her knowledge of the subject matter, understanding movement especially through intense observation. The finished piece will not necessarily be a portrait of the animal. The sculpture changes as she searches for the essence of the animal, focusing on the hidden emotions of her subject matter. “Covid has given us time to reflect and turn in on ourselves….there is now more expression, more of a narrative in each piece.”
She also wanted to express optimism about the future, especially for the next generation, so a second new bronze, “Love and Hope,” shows two horses sensitively inclining their heads towards each other, the ears of both disproportionally bigger, symbolising their method of communication; and soft eyes gave out messages of love and kindness for she wanted to capture the support and bond between them.
A stunning third bronze of a Mongolian eagle hunter and his horse demonstrates the same message; however, here it is not only the bond, but also the trust between all three which is paramount. The hunter sits astride the strong form of a horse, trusting it to carry him and responding to his every move; whilst the eagle, its wings outstretched, perches on his hand. The hunter must trust not only the horse but also the eagle: he has to let the eagle go – but the eagle will return. The symbolism of a trinity cannot go unnoticed.
In their combined Open Studio, Jane’s sculptures and paintings provide a powerful backdrop for Polly’s sensitive ceramics. Polly has also found these last few months have given her a new clarity, a clearer focus – for her, the actual process is all important: “When I have the chance to get a big piece of clay, I am totally absorbed with the process of throwing and being in the moment. Porcelain doesn’t let you work on it for long as it distorts; so I let it evolve on its own.” Indeed, in the kiln each piece takes on a life of its own.
Polly showed me some bowls to demonstrate this technique; and in particular, a beautiful Japanese-inspired tea-set of little bowls caught my eye. Drawn to the ritualistic, slowing-down that their Tea ceremony represents, she has blended practicality with beauty. She uses natural products such as poppy seeds to create her delicate patterns, for porcelain “picks them up in subtle ways.” Her use of colour is simple and calm, the aqua blues, pale translucent greens, silvers and light greys creating a tranquil gentleness; so it was no surprise when she told me that she practises and teaches yoga. Indeed, working with porcelain seems, in itself, to be a meditation.
As well as teaching yoga, she helps adults in local Farm Workshops to create hand-crafted articles which they can sell to create a small income. She has also been asked by villagers to start pottery classes and hopes to start these after lockdown. She believes that pottery is good for the soul and is certain that most people love to be creative. “The actual process is important, for it becomes physical and meditative. So many people have suffered during the pandemic and not just through physical ill health…..Art is such a lovely therapy.”
These two complementary artists, strongly rooted in the local countryside, are passionate about capturing the overall essence of the material in their work.
Afterwards, wandering around the garden I noticed that Jane has also developed an ever expanding array of powerful outdoor sculptures which are placed sympathetically with the stunning backdrop of the green hills and woods around me. These large sculptures of life size goats, hares, horse heads etc all have a contemporary twist to them – primarily because of the way Jane has sculpted them using plaster and scrim to accentuate the flow of energy and movement. My lasting image is of the sculpture underneath an overarching tree, of a small child with its arms stretching up in hope towards the sky is appropriately called “Reaching for the Stars” – Jane believes that we should let children feel ‘anything is possible’ – A lovely optimistic thought as you leave the garden!
The studio will be open by appointment during October: