The Business of Art, International Markets and Portrait Sculpture with Laury Dizengremel

Today, I talk to Laury Dizengremel, the international portrait sculptor, who is a finalist in the Emily Williamson campaign. Laury has had a full career and is the creator of many public sculptures including Capability Brown, Tony Byrne the Olympic Boxing medalist and Sir George Carteret in St Peters, Jersey. I began our conversation today by asking how sculpture first came into her life?

Laury: You know, you probably hear my American accent and yet I am the most American-sounding French person you’ll ever meet. So, when I was a baby, I was exported to the U.S. from Paris but then I was reimported to France when I was six. And from then on, of course, walking through Paris every day, going to school, growing up, age six, seven, eight, nine, etc., I’m in Paris and I’m seeing the most amazing sculptures everywhere. You know, in the gardens of the Tuileries, in the Trocadero, around Notre-Dame, whether it’s in architectural form – so, caryatids and columns that support buildings or that adorn buildings – whether it’s in reliefs that are on walls, whether it’s in carvings that are inside buildings, or whether it’s just in freestanding format, as in sculptures here and there. And of course, the huge amount of public art that there is but also the huge amount of collection art there is in the museums and stuff.

And I had parents who were incredibly inquisitive artistically and they would take me – drag me or take me but, you know, most kids, you have to drag them perhaps. A lot of kids you might have to drag them, but with me it was sort of definitely not a drag. I really, really loved going to museums. My mum was Dutch, so we would also go to Holland and visit museums there. And I was very fortunate in that…I’m sixty-seven now, so back in the day, I’m fourteen and going to places like Russia and visiting the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and in Moscow. Just art, here and there and everywhere. So, sculpture was always a part of it. And seeing it was a very important thing.

And then the other part of that was a book that I read, an amazing book by Pearl Buck, who was an American author. And she wrote a lot about Asia because her parents were missionaries in China. But one book she wrote actually was staged in the States, where a young woman discovers clay and becomes a sculptor. And the book is called This Proud Heart. And that book was just a total eyeopener for me. The way in which the relationship with this woman to clay and then to stone was just amazing. So that’s your answer. That’s how sculpture came into my life.

The doing came a lot later. I actually thought I was going to be a dancer, a writer, a playwright, a poet. There were so many different art forms that pulled me. And I had no clue that I would turn my hand to sculpture. And then one day, quite late really, I was not quite pregnant with my first child. I’m sort of twenty-four maybe and I am living in LA at that point, having left France to come to the States to visit the States and then having stayed a bit. And there I am and suddenly, my husband at the time said, “Hey, Laury, you’ve always talked about sculpture and how much you think it’s a wonderful art form.” And we have a sculptor who’s just hired a building that he had developed. There was an old firehouse, an old firehouse in Venice, California. And this was before Venice became a hip place. It was when it was not a hip place. And that was it, you know. I said, “Wow, that sounds interesting, a sculptor. Is she going to give classes?” “Yes, it’s going to be a school.” “Cool.” I went along. I put my hands on some clay and it was as if I were coming home.

Lucy: Gosh, isn’t it strange, that? You see it often with children, though, when they pick up music and they just feel like they’ve come home. That familiarity with something that they haven’t done before.

Laury: Yeah. I mean, Lucy, your life is also sculpture in a funny… You know, you’re a sculptor conservator, right? And you love all things sculpture and I love all things sculpture. And it’s my passion. I love all art forms. I find them all intriguing and interesting. But sculpture was where I found my happy place. And it literally was as if I had done it previously. You know, I don’t want to sound mystical or anything, but if one ever were to believe in past lives, then for sure it was as if I had done it before. That type of feeling, you know. And I very rapidly acquired a certain amount of proficiency.

I’m not saying that I became instantly brilliant at it or anything like that, but it was definitely something that didn’t take me long to pick up. And also because I loved it so much, it was sort of like it never is work, you know. Like, for example, I can’t imagine myself ever retiring from being a sculptor. I will not retire. I will die being a sculptor, you know. The only way that I would retire from being a sculptor would be if my hands got so messed up that I couldn’t continue making it. Then, of course, that would be limiting. But then I would probably start just writing poetry full-time instead.

Lucy: Well, it is quite hard on the body. Especially large-scale sculpture.

Laury: Oh, yeah.

Lucy: You have to continuously maintain yourself, I find anyway.

Laury: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’ve already had double carpal tunnel surgery on both hands. And I have pain in my hands all the time but I think that at the age of sixty-seven, having made sculptures since I was twenty-four, that’s a bit normal really. Or I mean, I don’t know if it’s normal but it’s to be expected, shall we say.

Laury Dizengremel creating Virginia Woolf ©

Lucy: And so was it the sculpture school that you stayed at and continued to train at, or did you go elsewhere?

Laury: Well, so this was a private, small school, the Venice Sculpture Studio. And interestingly, the woman who ran that, Martine Vaugel, she was half-French and half-American. And so we had a lot in common immediately in a funny sort of way. Even though I wasn’t half-American, I wasn’t American at all, but because I had lived in America, there was an American sort of predisposition, shall we say. But the thing is that Martine said to me that she had been trained by someone who had been trained by someone who had been trained by Rodin. Well, that’s an amazing legacy, to think that I have been also trained by someone who had been trained by someone who had been trained by Rodin.

And I know that when I was doing my first public commission for a town in France and I was asked to make a portrait sculpture of Jean Jaurès who was a French politician assassinated in 1914. And so I’m taking photographs that I find in the National Library, and I’m taking all sorts of visual references as my guide to make the sculpture of this dead man. And basically, it’s a journey of discovery, isn’t it, when you’re portraying someone. You’re like, “Who is this person? Why do they deserve to be memorialized in sculpture format? And who is this and how should I portray him differently to how he’s been portrayed before?” and so forth. Here I am making this sculpture of this famous politician.

And at that point, all I’ve had is a few months of workshops back in California a few years before. I started then to be interested in acquiring more training. So, I was very lucky to be allowed to attend a metal studio at the Beaux-Arts in Paris for a year, which wasn’t really continuing on what I’d done before because what I’d done before was mainly clay work, although I had done a bit of foundry work also in order to cast some of my first pieces. I actually went and worked in a foundry for a very short period of time in LA. So here I am in Paris at the Atelier de Métal of Monsieur Perrin, and I’m learning to do welding and also exploring patinations on bronze which I found fascinating and useful in later work.

So that was a bit of formal training, but it wasn’t really that formal because I was already “a mature student” and I was not a registered student to the Beaux-Arts. I was just a student of Monsieur Perrin. So then it wasn’t until much, much later and I had done sculptures already all over the world as a guest of the United Nations etc., and I was often giving lectures in China, being invited to big symposia there and people kept saying, “So what’s your training? Where were you trained, etc.?” And I’m like, “I haven’t got a degree. I haven’t got a fine art degree at all.” And then I decided that I should go and remedy that really. And I went and applied for a master’s of fine art, international practice degree at the University of Canterbury. Not the University of Canterbury, sorry, but in Canterbury at the College…what was it called? It was called the Creative College of something. Anyway. University of the Creative Arts in Canterbury.

So, I applied for this MFA, two-year MFA thing. And I find it interesting because the only people there who could really help me further with sculpture were the technicians. There was no sculpture teacher, no sculpture professor. The person who led the class was a printmaker, and the only other person that we had a little bit of interaction with was this one single theory lady professor who, of course, was trying to get everyone into a little postmodernist format where sculpture isn’t really the done thing. Certainly not a figurative sculpture. And not the classical figurative sculpture. And I was encouraged to go anywhere but to figurative sculpture when I was doing that MFA.

So I tried all sorts of other stuff, but of course I came back to sculpture when it came to doing the final coursework and the final degree work and made my Artists of the Silk Road which were portraying the unknown artists who created all the amazing artwork on the Silk Road in China. So, when you go to caves and see cave upon cave full of buddhas and bodhisattvas and other types of sculpture, and when you see one huge fresco mural after another, you wonder who made those artworks and you don’t know. And my degree coursework ended up being focused on portraying imaginary artists.

Lucy: It’s such a funny thing, isn’t it, how you were already doing it. You were already being a professional sculptress, by the sound of it, and yet, because of that lack of formal training, we kind of think, “Oh, no, I must need that.” But it sounds like really you didn’t. It sounds like it was a good opportunity to explore things, perhaps that you wouldn’t have explored but actually, there was no teacher that could teach you to be a professional because you were one.

Laury: Yeah, I was definitely a professional and I felt also that within the context of academia…I had to put food on the table my whole life. I’ve had to put food on the table from the time I was out of basic high school and I did my baccalaureate. And after that, I had to put food on the table for myself. And when I started to put food on the table solely with sculpture was in 2001 or about that. Actually just 1999, 2000, 2001. And from then until now, that is how I have put food on the table. And I continue to have to put food on the table with it because, you know, you have to live and…

Lucy: And life is expensive. Let’s face it.

Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel ©

Laury: Yeah. And what I found very interesting is that in the context of academia, fine art academia, it’s a bit dirty to talk about being professional and making money. You know, it’s very interesting because it shouldn’t be that way. You know, I feel like it’s quite really wrong to train people to be in the fine arts with a view to, “You must only research and you must only contextualise your practice, and you must only think and mentally masturbate about your work.” And thinking about making a buck with it or a pound or a euro is wrong. And actually, that is not so. It should not be so. Artists who end up never making a piece of art after they’ve left art school abound.

Lucy: There’s no other field in the world where that applies and yet, it does somehow in arts and art-related fields.

Laury: It really does.

Lucy: And you can tell that your success is because you have an entrepreneurial spirit. Something has burned inside you. Maybe it’s the fact that you had practical things to do. You had to feed the family and you had to make ends meet. But that has opened doors for you and given you opportunities. And that’s the thing I find utterly bizarre, how artists who haven’t been taught to think like that don’t realise that actually thinking like that is what can make you more successful.

Laury: There should be nothing wrong with being…you can be an artist and you can make money with it. And there’s no glory in being an artist behind closed doors where no one knows where to find you.

Lucy: Tell us a little bit more about China because this seems to feature heavily in your career and it’s quite interesting. It’s not just about the money. It’s not just about it being cheap, I can tell.

Laury: Yeah. Well, far from it. I mean, I actually use one of the top foundries in China where Ai Weiwei casts his work, his stuff that he did for the UN in New York and stuff like that, it was all cast at this foundry that I use. And I have a great relationship with the foundry manager. I mean, I actually stay with him and his wife. Their daughter calls me Aunt Laury in Chinese. But he was an interesting character because he had nothing to do with sculpture and foundries, was working at the American Embassy, I believe, for many years in Chengdu and his father had a foundry. And his father died and he was called upon to succeed at the foundry. So he came from being sort of an interpreter or whatever he was at the American Embassy to now being partner in a very large foundry, very successful foundry. I mean, they do gigantic as well as very fine, small pieces. They cast my Lancelot Capability Brown and they cast a few other pieces that I’ve done for various places.

You know, I will cast wherever I can. I’ve cast in Montana, I’ve cast in Dublin, I’ve cast in Paris, I’ve cast in Toulouse recently. Because of the pandemic I was stuck in France for part of the time which was not a bad thing, but I’m just saying I had to then adapt and I’ve adapted to whatever foundry I have to. But when I first was invited to China to a sculpture symposium in 2001, I met an amazing young woman who was quite a bit younger than I. There were five women sculptors and forty-five male sculptors. Not an unusual ratio at a sculpture symposium. And she and I became friends and that friendship then led me to that foundry etc., etc. And I have spent over three years in China if you put the time together. Here a month, here a month, there two months, etc. Since 2001, I’ve spent over three years in China.

Lucy: The projects that you make happen – because I know you’re quite an unusual sculptress in the sense that you don’t always just do commissions that are put out there; you make commissions happen by saying, “We need a portrait sculpture for this” – do you choose to do it in China?

Laury: Sometimes I choose to do it in China. Sometimes I’m told… there was a committee in Wales a few years ago who said, “Well, we need you to make it in Great Britain. We don’t want it to be made in China.” And also, frankly, their timeline was so quick. It was one of those situations where they called me in January and said, “We have to have the money spent by March.” I’m not quite sure how that works, but you know how there’s financial years and all this other stuff and I suppose, if you have raised the funds for a public artwork and it somehow needs to come out of the public purse before the financial year is over or something like that. And I’m not quite sure how that all works, but that’s kind of how they explained it to me.

And the sculptor that they had planned on using had fallen through. I was actually their second choice. And I’d been informed a few months before: it was one of those competition things; we’d been three shortlisted sculptors and I had been informed that I hadn’t made it. You know, this other guy had made it. But then this other guy raised his price at the last minute so terrifically that they were like, “Whoops, we can’t do that anymore because that’s not how much we’ve got.” So they then remembered that they had liked me as well, as much, but also that I had said that I could do it more cheaply regardless of where I made it, whether I made it in England… that one I ended up casting in the Midlands. It’s not just in China that I cast. I cast wherever it is right for me to cast.

Lancelot Capability Brown by Laury Dizengremel ©

Lucy: Tell us a little bit, Laury, about how you make these projects happen because I think that’s a really interesting business model.

Laury: Well, I’ll give you an example. A few years ago – about eleven years ago – I decided that I wanted to possibly do a PhD that would be focused on artist-led initiatives. So, me as a sculptor going and drumming up work basically, getting work to happen. And interestingly enough, I was about to start doing that PhD. I was going to start with an MRes leading to a PhD at the University of Lincoln in the Midlands. And then I was like, “You know, this is silly. I don’t need to be doing another degree. I just need to be doing this.” And I literally called five stately homes in the Midlands and offered myself to each one of them as somebody who could give them free advice to create a sculpture trail on their grounds.

And the sculpture trail wasn’t going to consist of just my sculptures. It was going consist of sculptures by a whole bunch of sculptors from around the world or from around the UK if that’s how they preferred to play it. And so, I made those calls and I left messages on some occasions because there’d be a mail, voicemail thing. And interestingly, out of the five stately homes that I called, I got five calls back within 24 hours. So that was an example of me initiating something.

Now out of those five, the first one that I went to see was the Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle. And she likes to tell her story that I came knocking at the back door. I didn’t come knocking at the back door. I called, left a message. And one of her PAs picked up the message, went and told Emma, the Duchess, “Your Grace, this sculptor has called and is offering to meet you and give you some free consultancy perhaps about a sculpture trail.” And Emma said, “Make an appointment for her.” So, I had an appointment. You know, 48 hours after that first phone call, I was on my way to meet the Duchess of Rutland.

And I arrive there and she wasn’t interested in a sculpture trail, not really. What she was interested in is me creating the busts of her five children and then later probably a bust of herself and of the Duke. I ended up doing the five children, I ended up doing the Duchess, I didn’t end up doing the Duke’s portrait. But they all are another layer of art in that amazing venue which is laden with history and has portraits by Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs on the walls. So, you know, I’ve added another layer of history to that castle and of art to that castle which is really cool.

Lucy: And all by being brave, actually.

Laury: Yeah. I mean, I just decided years ago that I had to be that kind of brave in order to survive, if I wanted to survive as an artist. And that it was okay to do it, that it wasn’t “dirty” to promote and to seek work. And through that residency – because I’ve been artist in residence; I thought it was going to last a year, the artist residence at Belvoir Castle, and I’m still at it, you know. I give Her Grace 5% of my time a year, no more. I do lots of other work, but I continue to do sculptures for her for the estate. And I made a pair of gigantic steel horses. I’ve done a life-size stag and life-size horses, several horses. And I’ve enjoyed it tremendously and it’s been fun. And I’ve also had occasion to meet a lot of her guests. She has guests who are from all walks of life, who come to visit the castle or shoot on the estate or whatever they do for various reasons. And, you know, people commission me to do their wife, their wife’s portrait sculpture, or to do their girlfriend’s dog portrait sculpture or whatever. And I’m grateful for the work.

Lucy: So, the Emily Williamson competition, tell us a little bit about your entry for it.

Laury: Yeah. I was approached by the guy who spearheads the project, Andrew Simcock. He’s a Councillor for Didsbury in Manchester. And he read an article in a national newspaper at the time when there was the furore regarding the Mary Wollstonecraft statue, the Maggi Hambling. And there was an article in which it was discussed whether it was questionably in good taste or the right thing to do to portray a woman of achievement such as Mary Wollstonecraft as a nude. And one of the projects being made at the time was my sculpture of Virginia Woolf seated on a bench. And, you know, she’s got clothes on. She’s got clothes on!

Lucy: Excellent.

Laury: Which is very seemly actually and quite right. You don’t portray a feminist icon with no clothes, I think. That was in my opinion. You know, Maggi made a choice and it wasn’t, in my opinion, the right choice but that’s fine. I’m not dissing her work as a fellow sculptor generally, but that was, in my opinion, just not the right call to portray a feminist icon.

At any rate, with Emily Williamson, it was a very interesting request from Andrew because he asked me would I take part in the competition and I was like, “Oh gosh, really? I hate competitions!” I think competitions are great when it comes to sports and things like that. When it comes to art, yeah, I’m not feeling it generally. I don’t like it, you know, because you look at the four entries for the Emily Williamson portrait sculpture that have been made by myself and the other three sculptors, Clare Abbatt, and Billie Bond, and Eve Shepherd. And every one of them has merit.

And my money’s on Eve but that’s just because I think that she really was so clever with her concept of the skirt dissolving into cliff faces and in the folds of it all these birds that are either endangered or not endangered, but either way birds. It was so clever. You know, every one of us portrayed Emily with a bird in some way, bird in hand or bird close to, you know…but putting that many of them in her composition was absolutely brilliant. So, of course, I still nurture some hope that it could be that I might get picked because, again, I’ve got to put food on the table, but I think Eve’s is remarkable. But I also think that every one of us put a lot of thought and research and all that stuff into it. They all portray Emily Williamson. And this is another opportunity to redress the imbalance of female and male statuary.

Emily Williamson Campaign, Bronze Maquette by Laury Dizengremel ©

Lucy: Was there a particular aspect to the story that inspired your entry?

Laury: Well, I think that for me, I just wanted the simplicity. The brief was it had to look like her and there is only one picture. Now having only one picture isn’t the end of the world because, you know, with Capability Brown there were two paintings, and I had to choose one. There was one in the National Portrait Gallery and one in a private collection. With Emily Williamson, there’s just one photograph. So, it’s got to look like her. That’s a given. And then, the main reason why she is being celebrated here is for her work to enact the Plumage Act which had to do with getting rid of the despicable trade of having to kill tons, and tons, and tons of birds solely for their feathers.

We’re not talking about birds that you have lunch on afterwards and the feathers are occasionally used on a hat. We’re talking about birds of all types. Exotic birds that you would never dream of eating, tiny ones, etc. So what she did was a remarkable thing. And she deserves to be portrayed and what I felt was that I just wanted to show her as I saw her from that one photograph and then showing a relationship. The communication is quite simple. The communication is between her and that bird, and hopefully then the viewer is intrigued and goes, “Ooh, what’s this about then? You know, who’s this and why is it here?” And then they learn more about the history and so forth.

Lucy: Oh, Laury, you’ve been really, really fantastic to talk to today. I appreciate it so much. We wish you all the best with the campaign. Who knows who’s going to get it? It’s going to be really interesting to find out!

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