Barbara Hepworth, Dyslexia and Dynamic Abstract Sculpture

Lucy: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining me. It’s really such a great pleasure to be able to share my love of sculpture with people, and I just know that you’re going to be excited by the work of the artist that I have for you today. If you’ve ever been to Canary Wharf in London, you will know that there is the most magnificent outdoor sculpture collection, which I’m very proud to be able to say my conservation company has the great privilege of working on. And that’s where I first came across Hugh Chapman’s work. Though we’ve never actually met in person, he and I, I feel, have become friends over many of the conversations that we’ve had about his work. And the more I know him, the more I can see his personality, his voice in his abstract sculpture. And they really are incredibly unusual, and I encourage you to go and have a look at the blog post, which has lots of his pictures in it.

Lucy: I began our discussion today with asking my favourite question, which is if he’d always been creative.

Hugh: Yes, I have been ever since I was a boy. I always was very interested in painting, drawing, and making models, and that sort of thing. I was very fortunate in the sense that my parents always encouraged creative activities as much as academic ones, which gave me a great breadth of experience.

Lucy: What did your parents do?

Hugh: My mum is a retired specialist in pediatric dentistry, and she’s currently a visiting fellow in School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln. And she does a lot of research into dental phobia and occupational stress to do with the treatment of patients on behalf of the dentists, and that sort of thing. So, it’s a pretty…

Lucy: Interesting.

Hugh: …pretty interesting career for her. And my father, he’s just retired. He was a research and development software engineer in the world of heating and control systems, which is a bit more exciting and varied than it might sound. I mean, Mum’s quite creative at sewing and that sort of thing, which she was taught by her mum. And my dad has painted watercolours and that sort of thing for a lot of his life, and he was designing mobile aircraft as a boy and a young teenager. And we, in fact, still, to this day, fly them together.

Lucy: Sounds cool.

Hugh: Yeah, yeah. It’s good until you crash them. But it’s a useful skill as a young boy to learn that when you do crash your model, it is possible to put it back together again. But, no, they were very good. And, in fact, they sacrificed a great deal for me, because, well, I am severely dyslexic, and at school, I was basically…it was resigned to the fact that I was thick. And they remortgaged the house to send me to private school, where education in the arts and creative subjects was actually more prevalent anyway. So, I was very fortunate to go to schools where it was understood that academia wasn’t everything, although I did struggle with the feeling that…you know, my brother, he’s very academic as well, and in my early life, I struggled with the feeling of I needed to do something academic. And I would have been much better off had I, at an earlier age, established that being a creative person was a good thing and equally as merited as being highly academic.

Lucy: Isn’t it funny, though, how we resist our natural inclination just because of the situation around us. I think my father was the same. I mean, he was a real genius as an artist, and became a restorer. But the thing is that the art part of it, he said, saved his life, because his dyslexia was so severe that he felt inadequate compared to everyone around him who could do all sorts of things that, to him, were virtually impossible.

Hugh: Yes. I mean, it’s a deeply difficult position to be in, particularly when you’re told that for your GCSE English and Maths, accept you’re not going to have a life unless you succeed well in those subjects.

Lucy: It’s madness.

Hugh: It’s a lot of pressure. And I think that certainly, in previous times, people were fortunate enough when academia wasn’t everything. People at quite a young age, I believe, were recognised for their ability and taken aside and been like, “I think you should look at doing this.” Which, if I’d applied myself solely to my creative outpouring at an earlier age, I don’t know where I’d be today, but I should imagine at a more advanced place than I stand today.

Lucy: And so did it change for you? Did you suddenly think, “This is it. This is for me”?

Hugh: It took me a long time to fully break off from the idea of academic subjects. I think it must have been sort of in my early twenties that I fully realised that I had something really to offer and to put myself in a position to forget about that and move on. And I did that initially with photography. I’d self-taught myself photography at thirteen with my grandfather’s old single-lens reflex camera.

Hugh Chapman, Regeneration-Original ©

Lucy: Completely different to digital. These days, it’s a whole lot.

Hugh: It’s a painful learning process. When you can only afford one film a month, it takes time. But it focuses the mind. I think digital is too easy.

Lucy: No developing.

Hugh: No developing, and you really have to be technically skilled with film, because you can’t see the result. And I fear that a lot of people aren’t learning photography properly, because they’re just looking at the back of screens and saying, “Well, that’s worked.” But it did actually turn into being quite pivotal later on in life, because I specialised in printing in the darkroom, which is all about light, of course, which is, I mean, absolutely crucial to where I am today.

Lucy: And when did you start using your hands?

Hugh: Well, every time my parents took me to an art gallery, I would come back and I would do a painting. And we went to St. Ives on holiday when I was about twelve or thirteen, and we went to the Tate there, and we went to Barbara Hepworth’s house. And I was just…I can remember it being like, “I’ve just walked into a whole different world.”

Lucy: That garden is fantastic.

Hugh: It is astonishing. And the sculpture just belongs there. They’re one and the same thing, and I was moved. And I had my sketch pad with me, and I drew sculptures the whole way home, back in the car. So, on the way back from Cornwall, I began to draw sculptures.  I came home and my dad took me to a woodyard where we went and saw this nice, old guy and I said, “Can I have a piece of oak?” And he sort of pointed at this bit on the floor and said, “Oh, you can just have that.” And so I made my own rather naïve Barbara Hepworth, broke two of my grandfather’s chisels in the process. And with seasoned oak, which was like concrete. And I can’t help but feel that…I was thinking about this only earlier, that maybe the experience of carving a piece of oak that’s sat around for fifty years put me off because I think concrete was probably a more forgiving medium.

Lucy: And especially when, as you say, it’s aged to such an extent.

Hugh: Yeah. I mean, if you tried to put a nail in it, you’re not going to manage. The nail is just going to bend. And you can see why sculptors carve green wood, because, otherwise, you’d be there for eternity. But…

Lucy: Barbara Hepworth was probably laughing her head off.

Hugh: Yeah, probably is. She probably is. And it’s funny, because it kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier about relinquishing things.

I wish, at that point, I’d realised what an impact that it had on me and focused more attention on maybe that this is what I should be doing. Because I don’t think anything has had such a bearing on my young life as that visit.

Lucy: And so, when did you start creating again?

Hugh: I started work as a commercial photographer. And I was earning quite a lot of money, but it was awful. And I thought to myself, “I can’t deal with this life.” It was too stressful, taking photos of products, factories, that sorts of thing. It really wore me down very quickly. And I thought to myself, “I don’t want this to be my life. I can go on earning five hundred pounds a day or whatever, but it’s not worth it.” And when I was at school, most of my frustration…because I wanted to be an architect, so drawing was important, I was forced to do ceramics because I was really good at it. And I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll just go back to the ceramics.” And got a kiln and everything like that, and pug mill and everything.

It didn’t take me very long before I became completely frustrated with the properties of the clay, its lack of structural strength, its inability to make very, very controlled surface. And a lot of the time, its dullness and it didn’t take me very long, probably a year of that, before I got completely fed up with it, if less than that. And, at that point, I got a welder off a friend’s dad and made my first steel armature and started using concrete. And then after that, that’s where I really sort of…everything fell into place. And the materials that I started using, the ability to make armatures. And that’s when I really found that’s my thinking and where I am today in the work that I now make.

Lucy: What’s your process now?

Hugh: Well, 50% of my work has been made with a steel armature, which has its benefits. Obviously, you can get a great amount of structural strength with it. But it takes a very long time. My biggest armature had 140 metres of steel bar in it.

Lucy: My Goodness.

Metal-armature, Toby Goodyear©

Hugh: It took me two and a half months. So, I used that as a framework. Either that or I use polyurethane foam these days, which has its good points. But I don’t really like the petrochemical side of things. But I haven’t yet found a material that is a better substructure. And then, yeah, I use a sort of polyurethane on top of that, yet again, which worries me. But most sculptures, the surfaces are all so fine and the lines are so fine that it really…anything else just doesn’t hold them. Plaster, I gave up on years ago. It’s just too soft and powdery. I’d love for someone to come up with something that has exactly the same properties but is organic. I mean…

Lucy: A big ask, I think.

Hugh: Yes, yes.

Lucy: It has to suit your hands. It has to suit the way that you are putting those ideas into that material.

Hugh: Yes. I mean, I think one of the things that is…well, one of the most important things about sculpture is its structure and that you can do things with it using raw materials. That means that you can create structures that might not exist in other places like architecture or functional design, because it has no use. And lots of my work has to deal with large, cantilevered weights, which, obviously, things like clay are no good for because they’re very heavy and the strength for the weight is almost nonexistent. Which is why, you know, having a very strong underpinning to your work is important.

Lucy: That’s a quite unusual way of working, though.

Hugh: It is quite unusual, and I think that maybe that’s partially because of my unusual arrival into sculpture, having had no education in it. No one told me what was a way of doing things, so I had to find out what worked for me and then also, you know, my own life. So, there’s a lot of things that came together through my earlier life of doing various things that really all add up into the knowledge that I have to do what I’m doing. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time with…I had a Land Rover for seventeen years, which was very, very special. It was a mixture. So, I was permanently having to make things to go from metric to imperial and that sort of thing. So, I’ve learned a lot about all manner of things before I arrived.

Lucy: Sounds to me like you’re a frustrated engineer, as well.

Hugh: Yes, probably. Certainly a frustrated architect.

Lucy: Oh well, you can do that in the next life.

Hugh: Yes. Yeah, well, I suppose, you know, had I ended up as an architect, I would probably be more frustrated than I would be not being one, because I probably would have ended up making this factory-fed box standard architecture that is going up all over the place.

Lucy: Either that or maybe we would have had some of the best sort of sculptural buildings that we desperately need around the world.

Hugh: Yes, Zaha Hadid is a hero of mine. I think she’s contributed more to the world of architecture in recent years than certainly a lot of the men have. And, really, it’s sculpture that people live in, isn’t it?

Lucy: Tell me how you would describe your sculpture.

Hugh: Well, my sculpture is really an abstract, dynamic expression of my interpretation of the natural world. So, it’s never a direct representation of anything, but it’s a representation of thought based on what I see and admire within the natural world. And, increasingly, one thing I’ve come to realise is that the South Downs has played a role in that in the sense that the South Downs has got a very beautiful architecture. Its typography is very curved. It’s often being related to the female form. But the beauty of it is that the farmers have drawn lines all over it with fields. And I commonly end up going up there to find that I’ll look at a field because it is paired in a different colour because of where the crops are. And I think, “That looks exactly like the surface on this sculpture.”

So, it’s a sort of representation of feeling about things. And I’m very interested, at the moment, in creating work that is of a very sort of light-weight, transient feeling. So, more about the things that aren’t seen, the air currents, the sort of drifting, transitional qualities of the natural world and the seasons and that permanent state of change. And one of the kindest things that anyone has said about my work is that, “You make bronze look light.” Which I thought was about as good a compliment as I could ever have.

Lucy: So, tell me about ideas. When do they come to you?

Hugh: Dreams, being the worst one. It’s really very unhelpful, because a dream, when you start to think about it, it seems to crumble away. So, it’s like a ghost of an idea, if that makes sense, in the sense that you can’t actually pin it down. But I think the most annoying time as well is when you’re actually…you know, when I’m working on something else, that I get an idea. Because when it takes you a very, very long time to realise one idea from start to finish, to act on every idea one has is almost impossible. And one of the problems I have, as well, is that when I perceive an idea, commonly represented as a 3-dimensional model in the mind, so I can visualise it and I can sort of rotate it, and I’m able to get a very clear idea of what I’m actually thinking of realising in the physical world. But when I draw to try and recall that idea, in doing so, a bit like the dream, I’ve broke the 3-dimensional model that’s in my head, because I’m trying to…my brain is thinking in three dimensions, but then, ultimately, as much as you can make a drawing appear 3D in a 2D way, you’re putting it onto a flat surface.

So, the idea thing is quite frustrating, because you can’t keep up with time. So, for every one thing that I realise, I can only…for, let’s say, every hundred ideas I have…it might be more than that, but I can only ever achieve one of them, which is very, very frustrating.

Song by Hugh Chapman ©

Lucy: Well, the only thing I can say is we’re going to have a lot of really good abstract sculptures by the end of your lifetime, though, because at least you’re not running out of ideas.

Hugh: How great would it be if in some way, the digital world could be more connected to one’s brain and physicality. Because, of course, if you were using rapid prototyping or CNC machining or something like that, if you can get the idea very fluidly through the computer, you could be making ideas every day.

Lucy: I know AI puts a lot of people off, but I also think it’s going to open up a lot of opportunities for us all to have, like, an assistant. If it was just your kind of ideas assistant, you are, obviously, the creator. But, still, having something that can process at such speed that is beyond human capacity…

Hugh: It would be…

Lucy: Yeah, that would be something incredible.

Hugh: We’ll have to see how we go, but I kind of suspect that I may be not here when we get that far.

Lucy: I definitely intend to be around to see my… well, you can already get voice-doubled. I mean, there’s already quite convincing ones, so I kind of think AI is moving at an incredible rate.

Hugh: It is pretty frightening. I mean, that leads to a whole…I mean, the debate over AI is…

Lucy: Yes, it’s one can of worms.

Hugh: It’s never really befallen humanity before, I think. And I know that some of the greatest minds are…Stephen Hawking, for example, is very, very, very anti-AI, you know, or was very…you know, because I think it’s a dangerous unknown.

Lucy: But they would have said that about the internet…

Hugh: True.

Lucy: …and all sorts of things. So, I think it’s going to be a tool. I hope that’s how we’ll use it, anyway. So, Hugh Chapman, tell us, what does it take to be a professional sculptor?

Hugh: It’s quite complicated, I think. You have to be practical, but then it’s philosophy. Firstly, stubbornness is absolute.

Lucy: Tenacity.

Hugh: Yeah, I mean,

unless you’re completely committed, there’s not much point in bothering, I’d say.

Ultimately, the worst thing about it is if you’ve got a problem, it’s a problem that only you can solve. And that’s a very lonely place to be, you know. You know, sometimes I can ask people, like if I’m struggling with things, what they might think. But, quite commonly, as much as that’s helpful, it can be detrimental because they don’t fully understand the complexity of everything. So, you can look at something in an idea and say, “Well, I don’t like that, how that is. But that might be like that because of everything else.” And that can be, you know, a bit like what I was talking about dreaming. When you’ve got a problem, you know, working through it on your own is challenging. And some of the decisions that one has to make are irreversible, which is tough, because let’s say I decide that I’m going to…well, I might decide to cut something off. That’s something that I may cut off that I might have spent months working on, but I can’t be absolutely sure that cutting it off is the right thing to do until I’ve done it. So, there’s a sort of anxiety there.

So, I think an ability to deal with a fairly heavy mental load is pretty important, because, ultimately, being a sculptor, I think, is a lot of problem-solving but a sense of sort of philosophy, as well. I spoke about him earlier, but I’d like to think my grandfather could see what I’m doing. He used to call me his little philosopher. And it’s a shame, because he was an amazing artist, and he was never able to fully apply himself because of his job teaching, and his wife wasn’t particularly keen on it. And I think sometimes it’s a struggle to become a sculptor if there’s too much around you. I’m quite fortunate in the sense that I’ve been able to dedicate myself to abstract sculpture almost entirely for over ten years now.

Transcending original, Hugh Chapman ©

As we were talking about earlier, I mean, honestly, the support of my parents has been crucial, because it’s been…you know, as I sit here today, I’ve become…

my work is not a job. It’s an existence. And I think part of me battled that for quite a long time.

But I’ve come to fully accept that now, you know. In fact, you know, I’m perfectly able to admit that I’ve received psychological help over the past couple of years, and that’s helped me tremendously. Because I think, as a creative, you are so prone to self-criticism. And, naturally…you know, if Beethoven had written a symphony and he was like, “Oh. Well, that’s it. That’s marvellous.” If there wasn’t that thing in his head that sort of said, “Well, I’m not sure about that. I need to write another one,” the self-criticism can be beneficial. But it’s learning to understand to what degree one listens to that. But, naturally, dealing with that is quite a challenging thing.

Lucy: Yeah, there’s always, like, a saboteur, isn’t there, in our head, that’s always saying, “It’s not good enough no matter what you’ve done.” I mean, my struggle, I always find, is that I want to change everything. So, you know, I’ve finished a book. It’s done. And then, in my head, I’m still thinking, “Oh, maybe I should have given that a different ending.” Or “Maybe I should have,” you know, “tweaked this character or that.” But the problem is that, you know, at some point, you’ve got to leave it alone and move on to the next thing. And even that can be to a situation like a relationship with a person, or I might have to, you know, get on and deal with my children, or something. But it’s really hard to deny that part of your brain that’s dragging you back there to that thing that, in its own little funny dimension, isn’t perfect.

Hugh: Yeah. One of the things…I don’t know how you find it, with the things, at the time, that you don’t like about something. But one of the funny things I find is that the things that I’m commonly most critical of, once that thought’s kind of gone, like, “Oh. Well, that’s not very good,” and you look at it with fresh eyes some time down the path, I commonly find the things that I’m, at the time of making, quite unhappy with, once the negativity’s gone and you look at it with a different pair of eyes, I actually find they’re commonly the most interesting parts. And I don’t know how that quite works out, but there’s some cruel irony in it.

Lucy: Has there been a piece of work that you’ve done where you’ve stood back and thought, “Do you know what? If I never make another abstract sculpture in my life, I’ve done it”?

Hugh: Well, certainly, the Growth Form at Canary Wharf is a huge honour to be in that collection of work. And to have it positioned where it is, particularly in my very early stages of working as a sculptor, to have that there is an incredible thing.

Lucy: It is an incredible sculpture. It’s one of these pieces that, every time I go there, it just says something different in a different light. And because of all the beautiful planting they’ve got around there, as well, I think it changes every day.

Hugh: I always think about it…the sculpture and the location are both amplified so much by that, by their mutual engagement. So, that sculpture was on loan for a few years before Canary Wharf actually bought it. And I was told the reason why they actually bought it was because of the public response to it.

Lucy: If you could have a shout-out now to someone who’s commissioning, is there a place you’d like to see one of your sculptures?

Hugh: I struggle to think about answering this, because I’m so far away from where I’d like to be, in a lot of ways. I have such a desire to make genuinely monumental sculpture that is able to engage with enormous faces. I guess an example for that would be Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”  But, obviously, very few people ever get there. But I suppose, in a way, it’s a sort of social idea in the sense that it can benefit the public. Everyone, whether you have an interest in art, whether you’ve never been to an art gallery at all, you know, whether you’re looking out of your flat window, for example, that sort of thing. I would be really honoured one day to have an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. That place is, I think, one of the best places in the world to see sculpture with, you know, the landscape.

Lucy: I completely agree, yeah.

Hugh: I went to see a Tony Cragg exhibition there, and it was just mind-blowing. That was the most recent one. But that would be a great honour. And then, for me, one thing I’m very interested in is my work being installed, strangely, in a cathedral.

Lucy: Are you religious?

Hugh: I’m not. I’m an atheist.

But I think that beauty is integral to religion.

Lucy: The amazing art that has come out of faith, all sorts of faiths.

Hugh: Absolutely, and the music, as well. It’s been the breeding ground for almost all of our culture today, when you think about it. And I don’t think that something needs to be a religious icon or a direct representation of something to mean something spiritually. One of the greatest moments for me in my life, I think, was when my mum showed one of her friends, who’s a nun, my work. And she broke down and says, “That, to me, is probably more important than any…” It’s the reaction.

Lucy: I know exactly what you mean. Art is a spiritual thing, even if you take God out of the equation, which is a bizarre thing to think of. That’s precisely why, because it speaks so deeply to you and to kind of the core of us.

Hugh: Absolutely. I mean, if I may quote the…forgive me if the quote’s not accurate, but the late Roger Scruton, philosopher. He said,

“In beauty, we find both amplification of our joys and consolation for our sorrows.”

Lucy: That’s a great quote.

Hugh: Which is what I live my life by. I genuinely hope that my sculpture can have a positive psychological effect.

Growth Form, Canary Wharf

Lucy: Hugh Chapman, just tell everyone where they can find out more about you.

Hugh: So, you can visit my website, which is www.hughman.co.uk, or my Instagram, which is @hughmanstudio, which is one word. Yeah, those are the two best places, really.

Lucy: And do you quite like Instagram? Do you spend a bit of time on there so fans can talk to you?

Hugh: I was terrified of social media because of people portraying their lives as perfect on Facebook and so on. But when I joined Instagram, the response to my work was amazing. And I feel like I’ve joined a little community of like-minded people, and it’s great to see…

Lucy: You found your tribe.

Hugh: Yeah, yeah. It’s really great to see…you know, I work at home, alone in a world where I’m isolated from anyone like me on the whole of, you know, a few people that I’m fortunate to know. And, you know, just seeing other people doing their things is a great joy.

Lucy: Great. Well, thank you very much, Hugh Chapman, for the time you spent with us today, and I hope to speak to you about your abstract sculpture again soon.

Hugh: Thanks very much.

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