Last year I was visiting the National Museum of Scotland on a day out in Edinburgh when I came up against one of Gerard Quenum’s sculptures for the first time. I find that art produces several different types of positive effect in me if I like it. Sometimes it’s a technical appreciation, sometimes it’s a sense of connection with what the artist is representing or trying to say. And sometimes there is something deeper, something where the visual elements of a piece of work combine to create messages, messages which touch our own visual memories which are connected to experience. These are the pieces of work which you can never forget, which can even come to superimpose themselves over your own emotional memories as a kind of synthesis of all the things which that piece connects for you.For me straight away the sculpture brought vividly memories of my childhood home Nairobi and the city’s copious rubbish dumps, bits of coloured plastic, broken toys, and mangy dogs, but also of the many traditional tribal dolls which as a backdrop were ever present images when I was growing up in one way or another. L’Ange is a towering wooden structure ( a reclaimed upended drum) with one of Quenum’s trademarks, a dolls head, blackened and damaged. The piece if also unique in that the eyes of the doll are actually made out of a wasp’s nest, which happened by chance in Quenum’s studio whilst he was creating the piece. (You can read about the conservation efforts in relation to this aspect in an interesting article here: http://blog.nms.ac.uk/2013/08/12/for-your-eyes-only-repairing-gerard-quenums-lange/) I remember staring up at this piece and feeling the sensation of fire burning, charring the wood and the plastic, and knowing that this was a piece of art and an artist that I was not going to forget in a hurry. Quenum was born in 1971 in Porto Novo, Benin and is part of a movement of francophone African artists now starting to receive international recognition for their work. Quenum’s work has risen from a form of street art springing out of Porto Novo and Cotonou where spontaneous exhibitions are organised in the city streets. This “Boulev’art” (Art on the Boulevard) is beginning to gain international popularity and Quenum now has a considerable list of joint and solo exhibitions on the national scene under his belt. As well as exhibiting in Benin and other African countries such as Senegal and Togo Quenum has also exhibited in London, France and Brazil. It isn’t hard to see why Quenum’s work has enjoyed some success. Whether you love it or hate it there is no denying that these altered dolls are both striking and memorable. I suppose on some level it saddens me that the first reaction people seem to have to the pieces is “that’s weird” or “freaky” or some such thing. Whilst it is obvious that these pieces are meant to have some unsettling effect, it is a shame to see so many people dismiss the work as an attention grabbing gimmick when there is so much behind this work. Quenum’s work is produced almost exclusively using reclaimed and repurposed materials, most notably wood and bits of old dolls. The dolls, almost always originally white baby dolls, then undergo a transformation process, usually using fire to blacken their skin and to frizz up their hair. These alien baby dolls, given to African children, are being transformed into something which resembles to a greater extent these children. They are also being transformed into something which many times resembles traditional African dolls or masks, whilst always at the same time retaining something incongruous. It is this incongruity which makes people uncomfortable but it is also what makes Quenum’s work so hauntingly beautiful. There is a disturbing lost innocence about these reworked dolls, something which makes them both comforting and potentially terrifying. I suppose another thing that they brought immediately to my mind were child soldiers, innocent faces, scarred and marked by the histories of war torn countries. Can innocence exist where situations of extreme exploitation of the human being exist? La Vendangeuse (The Reaper) above perfectly illustrates this for me. The doll here is joined by another familiar childhood figure for Europeans, a stuffed Disney Tigger toy, but it is totally out of place. The elongated hooded figure reminds me of the many nomadic herds people who are so common a view in many African countries, and the children who are so often occupied with looking after their livestock, carrying their blankets around with them to sleep with the animals. However there is a darker side to this, The Reaper, is also death. The face of innocence in conjunction with the concept of the Grim Reaper calls to mind again for me child soldiers, agents of death hiding behind unexpected guises. Quenum’s work is well worth a look at and if you happen to be travelling through Edinburgh go and see the real thing. At the least its something totally different, at the most it might be a new obsession. Fiona MacHugh
Fantastic Animal Sculptures
Nick Mackman produces some truly wonderful animal sculptures which we love to share on our Facebook page. Read about what influences and inspires her on her blog and you can also check out the website on her gallery while you are there. http://nickmackmansculpture.co.uk/blog/background-influences-and-technique
Sophie Gackowksi of Just Miniature Things (Small Curiosity Shop?) is our first interviewee in our new art profiles series which aims to introduce local artists and their work to our readers.
"A vibrant artistic spirit."
Having started at Art College at 15, Dundee resident Sophie undertook a year of fine art and a year of interior design before making the decision to not continue with a formal art education and to do a degree in literature and philosophy instead. “So I’ve got two degrees, but nothing arts based” she laughs. Sophie now makes 1/12th scale miniatures of normal life size things; amongst the examples she has brought along to show me are a tiny pack of tarot cards, tiny erasers, tiny chocolate bars, tiny everything… She first became involved in this nano-world through dolls house miniatures. A collector herself she was motivated by the prohibitive prices of many pieces to begin making her own. From there she moved on to making miniature scenes in an attempt to attract interest from outside the dolls house market. These little sets, as seen in the pictures below can be bought as little ornaments. When asked how she sees herself as fitting into the dolls house market which got her started, Sophie feels her position is confused at the moment. Top end items of the dolls house miniature market she tells me can cost up to £700 or £800. A lot of the people who make miniatures, like furniture, also make the life size equivalents and so are coming to the table with a very high skill set. However Sophie doesn’t see this as a problem. Rather than being boxed in to the dolls house market she is trying to take the concept of miniatures and seeing how they can be developed.
Sophie uses all kinds of craft materials to create her mini curiosities.
“That’s the fun of it,” she says, “because you get to work with wood, you get to work with metal, you get to work with sculpture…all kinds of mediums but just sort of condensed. I use a lot of everyday things which you would just find around the house, cocktail sticks are invaluable, but yeah, Fimo. I spend a lot of money on Fimo.” She also uses a specialised set of tools, including mini fretsaws and chisels. These items are also quite expensive she tells me; another reason which can make it quite costly to get involved in this area, and which has to be factored into the price of the work. Sophie is trying however to create a more accessible range of miniatures price wise, the kind of thing that students could buy as gifts, “Because not everyone can afford to spend £50 on something small.” After half an hour of speaking to Sophie and seeing her work it is clear that Sophie has a strong creative ethos and a vibrant artistic spirit. So what was it, I ask, made her decide to abandon her arts degree and go into the humanities and what was it which brought her back to art? The short answer was competition she says, “Realising there are some fantastic artists out there and seeing yourself perhaps as not as capable, not as talented….and also money. At the time, when I was sort of sixteen or seventeen I was thinking about getting a job and having money and being able to live a comfortable life, and I thought it would be easier to do that with a degree in literature than in art which is ridiculous. I think everybody has that idea, and I think a lot of people go into the humanities who are actually quite creative. So that was what put me off and it took a few years but now I’m finally getting back into it, because now I know that money doesn’t actually matter that much, you just need what you need to get by.” “I had a bit of a strange time last year. I was diagnosed with cancer in August, and had my arm amputated. So before I had two, which made it a lot easier to do miniatures. And that completely, completely shifted my perspective. I thought, no actually I’m going to do the miniatures because I enjoy it and if I don’t make any money out of it then I’m still doing what I enjoy. I realised that I don’t want a nine to five and I want to do creative things and do arts things, and do what I love. So I guess that’s what’s happened with regards to going back into art.” It is quite simply nothing short of awe inspiring to be in the presence of such a positive attitude of determination not only to not allow this experience to limit her creativity, but also to actively use it as a way to re- embrace her artistic practice. Sophie’s philosophy should be an example to all.
Being creative is a therapeutic thing
“You don’t have to make money out of it [art]; it’s such a therapeutic thing. Being creative is the closest thing you can get I think to nurturing your soul and your spirit. It’s just being kind to yourself. I think more people should just sit down and scribble drawings if they fancy scribbling a drawing. It can be a kind of diary. But people don’t often see it like that, and they compare themselves too often to people who are extremely talented artists, who might have huge galleries and exhibitions and make loads of money, and that’s fantastic for them, but its important I think that people don’t perceive it as so elite.” This is often such an unusual attitude to encounter in the highly competitive art world that it is extraordinarily refreshing to see this democratising attitude to creativity.
So how, I wanted to know, does Sophie choose the things she creates?
“When it was more hobby based,” she tells me, “I would always make things as gifts. I started out meaning to make things for my own dolls house, and then ended up usually making things as presents for people because that was a good point of reference I suppose. Like a fiddle workshop I made inside a full- sized violin. Whereas now I would say I’m less picking up things and thinking I would like to make that and more thinking about what people might be interested in in miniature. In terms of the dolls house market, I like making curios, because people are very strict about the period their dolls houses are in and the things they put inside, so most people go for Victorian. The Victorians were massive collectors, so making tiny butterflies, or tiny death masks, things related to palmistry and tarot and things that Victorian people would have had as little knickknacks. Because the furniture is taken care of, and the glass and amazing food and things that people can make who are absolute experts at doing that, but there’s not a lot of people producing curios. It’s fun. It’s really fun. I’m thinking of branching out into tiny taxidermy….” It’s unusual enough to find somebody who creates life size taxidermy, let alone mini-taxidermy these days. This is too intriguing an idea not to follow up, how exactly does she intend to create mini taxidermy? “ I guess it would have to be sculpture. My father’s an antique collector and he’s got lots of taxidermy and he has a beautiful parrot under a bell jar. Whenever I am making things I like to use things that I have around me so I can actually get the scale right, because I’m quite particular about that. So I suppose I would have to sculpt it out of Fimo, and carve into it the feathers and things…” So where do all these diminutive creations come into existence? “I have a Victorian table in the living room, which comes out and gets covered in things. Because its tiny things, I don’t have to have a huge amount of space, and then in terms of storing the things, I don’t need much space either. So there wouldn’t be much point in getting a studio. Unless I was to be doing this full time. So I just work from home at the moment.” Would she like to be doing this full time? “Absolutely, but I’ve never been particularly good at marketing myself. It’s quite a difficult thing to get set up in and work out “Who are you publicising this to?” Who are your audience and your customers, and I think I need to figure that out first. If I were to get a stall at the Kensington dolls house show next year I might think about getting a small space. It would be lovely to be somewhere where I was working with other creative people doing things in arts.” With such a positive outlook on what she is doing and why, I wanted to know if Sophie had any advice for those people (potentially our readers) who want to get involved in art? “I would say to go into things for the right reasons. Do it because you love it, and do everything you can to carry on with what it is that you love doing. For people that don’t necessarily have any experience in the arts you just have to give it a bash. Its like my background is writing and the first dozen stories that I wrote were awful, but you have to get the bad stuff out before any of the good stuff can come out, and its practice. Every skill and every kind of art takes practice. It’s taking that first step of actually putting pen to paper or paintbrush to canvas, or scalpel to a bit of wood and just giving it a go.” Sounds like good advice to us. Fiona MacHugh If you want to see more of Sophie’s work, or are interested in commissioning some of your very own miniatures you can go through either her Etsy site: www.etsy.com/uk/shop/SmallCuriosityShop Or contact her through her business e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org