FEEDING THE MIND, SOLVING A PROBLEM AND SEMI-ABSTRACT SCULPTURE WITH SIMON GUDGEON

Lucy: Hello Sculpture Vultures, and thank you for joining me for another interview with an incredible sculptor of large-scale outdoor bronzes. Simon Gudgeon is based in Dorset, and he and his wife have shaped the land that they bought to give his semi-abstract sculptures the backdrop that they truly deserve.

Take a look at sculpturebythelakes.co.uk if you’d like to take a virtual tour of his work. He manages to fuse figurative sculpture with abstract, landscape with fantasy and otherworldliness. He’s the kind of sculptor that surprises you with every new work he does. And so in order to get to know the real Simon Gudgeon, I began our conversation today by asking him if he’d always been creative.

Simon: I think so. Yes. I mean, as a child, I used to like making things, and that’s primarily what I love doing. I mean, I’m a sculptor, yes, but I just love making things. So all the pieces in the sculpture park, pretty well I’ve made. And that carried through…I mean, I did law at university and actually qualified as a solicitor, but retired the day I qualified because I hated it too much. And from there, I went into landscape gardening, garden design, and gradually became an artist in my 30s, painter initially, and then sculpting when I was 40. So I suppose, yes, pretty well everything I’ve done has been fairly creative. And even when you do something like the law, you’ve still got to be quite creative.

Lucy: Definitely. Just in a different way, perhaps not so much with the physical things. And was it something that you felt was missing from the law? Did you need to do something practical to feel fulfilled as well as sort of mentally creative?

Simon: I don’t know. I just didn’t like it! I mean, I did three years at university, I went to Law College then I did two years’ articles. I did six years in total to qualify. I think one of the problems with law is that you’re essentially always dealing with somebody who’s got a problem. And people aren’t always at their best with the problem. So it just wasn’t being a nice environment. Also, I was brought up in the countryside, and being in an office all day really wasn’t for me. I didn’t like that side at all.

Lucy: And so was there anybody at home who had that creative urge as well, that sort of “making things” urge that inspired you?

Simon: My grandfather always had a lovely workshop. All his old tobacco tins were painted on the front with all the sizes of screws and nails. And yes, his workshop was wonderful. And he was initially the one who said come into… you know, if we went to stay with him, he would take us into the workshop to make things and show us a little bit. He was mainly woodwork, which I’m not actually. I don’t really do much woodwork at all; metal for me now.

Lucy: Yes. Well, bronze is such a beautiful material. I’m a little bit biased. But the thing is that I always look at the other materials and think it hasn’t got quite such range.

Simon: No, I mean, although I do love rusted steel as well.

Lucy: Oh yes.

Simon: I love working in mild steel.

Lucy: Difficult to restore. I don’t like it so much. And so when did sculpture itself come into your life?

Simon: In my 30s, my mother bought me some paints and I started painting. I’d done O Level Art. But at school, Art was really a sheet of crumpled cartridge paper and six blocks of poster colour, and a horsehair brush. So when I started painting again in my 30s and suddenly you had fantastic stretched watercolour and sable brushes and beautiful paints, that was a revelation. I think if I’d gone to a school that had a wonderful art department, I might have actually stuck with it far more.

Lucy: So it sounds to me like the accessories around making things. So you’ve talked about your grandfather’s workshop and how appealing all the boxes and things were, but also the brushes and things like that, that that draws you towards it.

Simon:

I’m definitely a tool slut.

I love, yeah…I love getting different tools. So what I love is a problem. I like to think of something I want to make and then work out how to make it and then what new kit I need to actually be able to fulfill that. And so that’s the excitement, it’s the planning. Once I’ve made something in a certain way, I almost get a little bit bored with it and then try and find another way of doing something.

Lucy: Yeah, I always find it’s really easy for me at Christmas because I always can give my husband another tool for our workshop.

Simon: Yeah. Absolutely.

Lucy: I think he got a new circular saw at Christmas, which…it’s not very romantic, but you know, we both like it.

Simon Gudgeon ©

Simon: Well, no, I think that’s the best thing. It’s the best thing by far.

Lucy: And so was there a point where you went to study how to sculpt, or is this something that you really taught yourself?

Simon: I’m totally self-taught. Initially, it was when I was painting and I’d gone professional as an artist. And I was in an art shop in London and I saw some clay and I thought, “That might be quite fun to try sculpting.” And so I bought the clay and took it back and put it away in the studio – put it actually in one of the cupboards and didn’t do anything with it.

And I used to find, with painting, that I used to go through stages, and I would get better and better and better. And then you’d hit a mental block and everything you produced was actual rubbish. And initially, I tried to push through that but latterly I found that the best thing to do was to take a few days off and get refreshed, get inspired, and go back and start again.

And so I always used to…before taking those few days off, I used to just tidy the studio so it was immaculate to come back into. And as I was tidying it, I found the clay again. And I thought, “Oh, well actually, I’ll spend a bit of time sculpting.” And I started and it was magical. I always thought there was some strange alchemy in producing a 3D object, but actually, to me, it’s far, far easier than doing a 2D painting.

Lucy: I think lots of people are actually drawn to painting…maybe it’s because there’s more materials, there’s more ease of access to painting materials, but I think you need a certain kind of mind to think in three-dimensional ways.

Simon: Yes, very possibly. I mean, I find it very easy and I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t do it. I’m sure that must be a lot of competition out there waiting to start and put me out of business.

Lucy: No, not at all. And so it was figurative form that you started with straight away?

Simon: Yes, my paintings were essentially wildlife. I grew up on a farm in Yorkshire and you know, that’s what I knew. And essentially, you paint what you love, what you know, you’ve got to know your subject. So as soon as I started sculpting I carried on doing more wildlife and then started developing other ideas as well because actually just depicting a bird or an animal is actually reasonably easy. It’s then to actually start abstracting that form, and that’s what I love doing. So I do quite a lot of abstract bird sculptures, which are loosely based on a type of bird, but actually they’re very, very abstract and very smooth lines, flowing lines and linking other things in with those sculptures as well.

Lucy: That’s one of the things that I really like about your semi-abstract sculpture, actually. It always surprises me. I always think I know what you’re thinking and then suddenly you do something else with it that makes me think, “Mmm, maybe I didn’t quite get that!” But I’ve got to just go back to the Yorkshire thing. So which part of Yorkshire are you from?

Simon: I was born just outside York. But then we rented a farm just outside Scarborough on the East Coast.

Lucy: I’m from the North as well. Not quite as far as York. I’m closer to Bradford, which is not known for its most beautiful parts of the world, but actually is gorgeous.

Simon: Once you get out in the countryside there, it’s all…it’s stunning. Although, where we lived, we were quite close to the coast and so we used to get the sea frets coming in. And we were in a valley and the wind used to come up the valley. So from a very, very early age, I thought I want to move down South. I’ve never been down South. I just wanted to move down South.

Lucy: Gosh, that’s funny because usually, I find people from the North want to stay North.

Simon: Good lord, no. I wanted some warm weather. I mean, I went to university in Reading and, you know, I used to leave Yorkshire in September in thick heavy jumpers and everything and go down South, and you used to be in shirt sleeves for another month or two.

Lucy: But then it’s wet in Dorset.

Simon: It’s not that wet, actually. I mean, we get a little wet period and we had a very wet winter, but then we all went into lockdown and had ten weeks of the most fantastic weather, which was a saving grace.

Lucy: And down in Dorset – was it somewhere that you went to because of the sculpture, or was it part of your life’s journey, and then the sculpture just fitted into that?

Simon: It was purely accidental. We were living in Wiltshire on the edge of the New Forest and renting a cottage. And my studio was an old Nissen hut, an old piggery, which was freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer, and only had a ceiling that was seven feet high.

When it comes to studios, I think any artist is like a goldfish in a bowl.

You sort of grow to the size of your bowl, and artists grow to the size of their studio. And I’ve changed studio quite a lot. And every time I’ve moved studio, my work has changed quite dramatically.

And I wanted a bigger studio, we wanted to buy somewhere…we wanted preferably an acre of land so we weren’t too close to any neighbours.

And we started looking, and everything in our budget was the other side of Exeter. And this place came up, and it was double our budget, massive, I mean, it’s 26 acres, loads of buildings, unbelievable. And we thought, “There’s no way we can afford that”. And then we looked again, and it was actually a commercial fishery in those days. And then we looked at the figures from the commercial fishery and thought maybe we could just about afford it, and the fishery would help pay for the mortgage. So we took out a massive mortgage in 2007 and bought it. But we didn’t know this area at all, didn’t know anybody here. It was just purely the property.

Enlightenment Heads by Simon Gudgeon. Image: Kevan David CC BY 2.0 ©

Lucy: Wow, it just drew you. It must have been a lovely property.

Simon: It’s stunning. And actually, it just gets better with time.

Lucy: Well, the pictures I’ve seen do look…I haven’t actually been down to the sculpture park, but every time I look at photos, I just think, “That is special”. Or whether it’s a very clever camera, I wasn’t sure.

Simon: No, no. Again, when we first moved here it was very sort of…it was quite bland. Everything was mown like a golf course. We’ve planted thousands of trees and shrubs and created lovely wildlife areas, dug a few more ponds and just, yes, just slowly wilded parts of it and developed the gardens and other parts.

Lucy: And I wanted to talk to you about the way that your career has developed. Because, you know, you’ve done some incredible commissions, you’ve had some really serious success really. And that’s not an easy thing, especially when you come at the career a little bit later. Has there been any wisdom you can pass on to artists on their way up?

Simon:

I think, “Do what you love. Don’t do anything for commercial reasons.”

I actually don’t do commissions. The one in Hyde Park, that was the only commission I’ve ever done. And that was very loose. That was, “If you could put a sculpture there, what would you put there?”

Lucy: Well, that’s where I came across you first. So I presumed you did do commissions. But…

Simon: No, I’ve got quite strong feelings about commissions. Unless it’s somebody who wants a painting of their house, their dog, or themselves, I really think that commission is more about prostitution than anything else, because you’re essentially doing something somebody else wants without full inspiration of creating a piece that you’re passionate about.

And there’s also the time element. One of the most common questions is how long does the sculpture take to make? And actually, the making of it isn’t that long. It’s actually the thought process, the inspiration, the ideas behind it, that can take sometimes days, sometimes weeks, months, sometimes even years.

I mean, the one in Hyde Park took me six years to get to the stage, when that’s the piece I wanted to make. And the end of that six years was just the time when they said, if you could put a sculpture there, what would you put there, and I’d just spent six years thinking about this sculpture.

And so again, why would people want to commission an artist? Because if you really want the best the artist is able to produce, let them just create things out of passion. And wait until you see something that artist has produced and you can’t live without it. That side, both parties are going to be very happy.

Commission can be produced and the people commissioning it can be slightly disappointed. The artist is probably going to be slightly disappointed as well, and it’s a compromise.

Lucy: And where do you draw the inspiration for your semi-abstract sculpture from?

Simon: Oh, everything, all over. Everything I read, everything I see, travels. Travelling is wonderful. Travelling is, I think, one of the greatest sources because you move into different cultures and see different cultures. But also when you’re outside your studio, and you can’t create work, your mind moves into a different plane and starts thinking about things in a different way.

So every time I’ve travelled then, yes, I come back with lots of ideas. And it’s sort of cultural things as well. I mean, a lot of the abstract bird forms are shaped by Egyptian culture. And the idea of the Egyptian gods. And yes, there’s just elements, everything absorbs, everything goes into the mind and it can be a massive combination, like the dancing cranes there. It’s part crane, but it’s also based on the South African flower, the strelitzia, which is known as the crane flower. So it’s combining different elements into a sculpture.

Lucy: I think it’s quite interesting though, that your environment is so formative as well, with your semi-abstract sculpture. So something like lock-down might have also affected your creativity. Not just physical environment, but also what’s going on around you.

Simon: Yes. I mean, lock-down it was quite interesting because none of the foundries were open, so I wasn’t going to get anything cast anyway. So I’ve had quite a lot of bits of steel, and I started just making things out of steel, from scrap. So I did a ballerina made out of the old type of flooring nails. I did some giant four-metre high swallows made out of bending 20-millimetre metal steel rods, and then there was three swallows flying across the lakes. And that was fascinating.

I think the biggest influence, certainly, since we moved here has actually been the landscape here, and that once we started developing a sculpture park, I didn’t want to have all the same type of sculpture here. And I also had ideas for…you know, a certain area might want a figurative piece and other areas might want an abstract piece. And so I tend to not stick to any particular genre. I just see an area and think, “I would love to have, say a ballerina in that particular area.” Therefore, I will make a figurative ballerina, sometimes out of bronze, sometimes out of mild steel.

Leaf Spirit, by Simon Gudgeon. Image Author, Andy Scott ©

Lucy: Well, I was just thinking how incredibly expensive bronze casting can be. And that’s why I suppose many artists do commissions because it enables them to get their larger pieces, particularly, made without having to bear the brunt of all the foundry bills. But on the other hand, I suppose that if you’ve got people visiting the park and hopefully buying from you, that’s a really good business model as well.

Simon: Well, the park initially we set up to be able to show clients monumental sculpture outdoors, because as soon as you take a large sculpture and put it in a gallery, it’s out of scale. It’s out of context, and it looks massive.

One of the early pieces I did was a big piece called Thoth, which is an abstract bird form, 2.1 metres high. And I’ve seen it in a gallery in London, and it looks huge. And yet the first time it was exhibited outdoors, I had it as a temporary sculpture in Berkeley Square. And I was waiting in Berkeley Square for it to turn up on the lorry and I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be massive, it’s going to look really good here.”

And I just remember the lorry driving into Berkeley Square and this sculpture looked tiny, because the plane trees in London are massive, and the Berkeley Square ones just dwarfed them. And that’s what really brought it home to me about scale and context and location. And you know, it’s finding the right scale of sculpture for a particular location. If you’ve got a huge sculpture, you’ll be able to see it from long vista. If you’ve got something small, you’ve got to have it in a more intimate space.

And that’s again, what we’ve been doing here, we just create lots of little areas. And because the sculptures are here pretty well permanently, that means that we can actually landscape an area for them and they become part of it, which is a luxury most other sculpture parks don’t have because most of the sculptures are on temporary. So they essentially have to just sort of put them in the middle of a bit of grass or something. They can’t really make the landscape work with the sculpture quite as much. And that’s what the outdoor sculptures should do. Outdoor sculptures should enhance the landscape and the landscape should enhance the sculpture. The two have got to work together very closely.

Lucy: Yeah, the only problem is I can see a huge failing if it was me owning the sculptural park, because I wouldn’t want to sell anything!

Simon: They’re all in editions you see, so you sell the editions. And actually, as an artist, I think you’re a bit of a tart anyway. You want to sell because every sale facilitates the next piece of sculpture. I’ve got ideas for sculptures which will cost hundreds of thousands to produce. And you know, if I can sell you that sculpture, then I’ll be able to produce them.

Lucy: Yes. So, I suppose, there is motivation there for sure.

Simon: Oh, yeah. And actually, once you’ve created a sculpture, you’re slightly bored with it. You know, it’s done, it’s the past. You know, everybody says, “What’s your favourite sculpture?” It’s normally the one I’ve just finished.

Lucy: Yeah.

Simon: And then once I’ve seen it for a while, I’m only thinking about the next one.

Lucy: Yeah. Are you working with a foundry very closely? If somebody wants to have something that you made a long time ago, I mean, it’s quite hard to get back into the mindset of what that was.

Simon: The foundry do all that. We’ve got the molds, so actually, yes, I will make the initial pattern for a sculpture and then make a mold, and then it’s cast using the lost wax casting process. So we’ve got a massive store of all my molds. Well, actually most of them. In, I think it was 2012, one of the foundries I worked with had a serious fire, so I lost a huge number of molds. So that was the end of all those editions.

Lucy: Devastating.

Simon: Yeah. It was quite devastating.

Lucy: So patination and things, you leave it to the foundry, they know what you want?

Simon: Yes, I work very closely with them. I mean, the casting process is probably about six specialisations. And I can do all of them, but I can’t do it as well as the guys in the foundry who do that particular specialisation all the time.

Lucy: Sure.

Simon: And I don’t really want to. I mean, when I first started, the first foundry I used wasn’t very good at all. So I think it was the second sculpture I produced, it was a grouse, a bronze life-size grouse. And the foundry wasn’t doing a good job, so I thought, I’ll just do all the chasing and the patination. And then I had an exhibition and I sold out the edition straight away, so all twelve. So I had to chase and patinate twelve grouse. And by the end of it I thought, “I never want to do this again. I never want to even see all this chasing and things again.” It’s exciting the first time you do it, but after a while, it just gets really dull.

Lucy: Yeah, well, the thing is, especially when your mind is probably as you were saying before, on to the next thing.

Simon: Yes.

Dancing Cranes by Simon Gudgeon. Image Oliver Dixon ©

Lucy: It’s already left that project. You work with a good team, they can reproduce your work, and you’re confident in them. So that works quite well, frees you up. So if I ask you whether there’s been one that you’ve stood back and gone, “That’s it. If I never work again, I’ve done it.” Has there been one like that?

Simon: No, there’s ones I stand back from and think, “Yeah, I’m quite pleased with that one.”

Lucy: That’ll do.

Simon: But there’s so many new ideas that I want to do and fulfill that I don’t actually, I don’t get emotionally attached to them.

Lucy: So do you think, then, creativity is a bit of a muscle? The more you use it, the more it flows, and the stronger you are?

Simon: Totally, yes. I mean, it’s the 10,000-hour rule. There’s a rule if you do anything for 10,000 hours, you’ll actually be pretty good at it. And you look back at say, sportsmen, tennis players, most of them started around, sort of, four, five, six years old. And by the time to get into their teens, they put in 10,000 hours of solid tennis playing, and they get very, very good.

And that applies to most things. There’s extra elements which help as well like a certain aptitude and naturally for art it’s the creatives, the inspiration, and the ideas and the creativity. But the physicality of painting or sculpting, you become very good if you put the hours in. And then the actual inspiration, the ideas, you’ve got to keep feeding the mind because your brain doesn’t stop working even when you’re asleep.

So if you feed a whole load of information to your brain before you go to sleep, it’ll work away through the night. And then in the morning, you’ll wake up with a fantastic idea then you’ll go, “Where did that come from?” But it’s all information you’ve fed into it.

Lucy: The more you’ve sculpted, the more you’ve wanted to sculpt, the more you’ve produced.

Simon: And the better you get. Yes.

Lucy: Yes. So if you could name your place, is there somewhere other than your sculpture park that you’d like to see your work?

Simon:

It is lovely having your work in public places,

and I’ve got two pieces of the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal. I’ve got a piece in Kew Gardens, as well as Woburn Abbey. So, yes, it is rather…it’s just lovely. It justifies what I do. You feel that it’s there, a lot of other people can see it as opposed to going to a private garden as well.

And that is nice because, you know, not everybody can afford a monumental sculpture, but you’ll be able to come out and see them and get the pleasure of them and see how they can uplift people’s spirits. I think is very important.

Lucy: Yeah, and again, different contexts do bring something different to the sculpture, I think. You can place it in more than one place and actually, it’s a different sculpture almost, depending on its environment.

Simon: Yes, and quite a lot of the sculptures here we’ve moved a few times. And every time we move them, they become almost a different sculpture. So it is the environment that really helps. But I think it’s very important for people to see art. I mean, art is a non-utilitarian object. It doesn’t serve any practical purposes, but it uplifts people’s spirits.

People have an emotional response to it, and I think that’s very, very important. And that’s what is the most important thing about art. If you have a house with nothing on the walls, and it’s a very, very bland environment, I mean, it would be quite depressing. But art can uplift, it can transform people’s lives.

Lucy: And so there isn’t a spot that you’ve got your eye on that you think, “I’d quite like to have one of my sculptures there”?

Simon: Not specifically but I’ve got an idea for a huge sculpture, which I would just love to do and yeah, put somewhere very prominent.

Lucy: Would you be able to tell people where they could find out a little bit more about you, if they’d like to look at more of your work?

Simon: Yes, if they want to go onto my website, which is simongudgeon.com that’s got all my current pieces in it. If they want to come and see the physical sculptures, then Sculpture by the Lakes, in Dorset. I’ve got over thirty of my monumental sculptures dotted around the park, a 26-acre park. And I’ve also got a gallery here, which should have got another thirty or so sculptures in it as well. So that’s the biggest concentration of my work.

Lucy: And so you’re having to look after all of that as well, I was going to say the grounds must be quite something. It’s bad enough with fifty feet of garden.

Simon: Yes, but no. Well, luckily, my wife is the gardener. So she tends to the green stuff. And then we sort of have little fighting over in the area of things, she wants to plant a tree there and I want to put a sculpture there. So…

Lucy: Who gets there first?

Simon: Who gets there first, yes. So I put a rope off there and say, “No, that’s going to be for a sculpture.” Yes, we’ve got a team of gardeners here, 26 acres takes quite some looking after.

Lucy: Yeah.

Simon: So we have quite a lot of people working for us.

Lucy: And so is there any social media you prefer if people would like to get in touch with you?

Simon: We do Instagram and Facebook and a little bit of Twitter. I don’t really do Twitter very much though. But in fact, Facebook is probably one of the bigger ones, but Instagram as well.

Lucy: Great. Have you got a handle at Instagram?

Simon: I think everything is just Simon Gudgeon. I was quite early on in social media, so I made sure to nobble Simon Gudgeon for pretty well everything. Apart from Skype!

Lucy: So thank you very much for talking to me about your semi-abstract sculpture today, Simon. It’s been a real pleasure for me and I hope to speak to you again soon.

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