Play, Creativity and Wildlife Sculpture with Hamish Mackie

Today, Lucy Branch talks to Hamish Mackie , brilliant contemporary wildlife sculptor who has works all over the UK including Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, Cornwall and London as well as abroad. He recently won The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Fountains with The Goodman’s Fields Horses sculptures in London. His work captures the personalities of all kinds of wildlife and no animal escapes his interest from owls to tigers,  hares boxing to camels.

I began our conversation today by asking if he’d always been creative?

Hamish: Yeah, I have. I grew up on a farm in Cornwall so early in my life I was always outdoors doing things on the farm, which was actually quite creative and practical. I used to make endless camps in the hay barn and that type of thing. Always doing things with my hands, life on the farm was full of creativity. It was great fun.

Lucy: So it was a real outdoorsy, a kind of Gerald Durrell experience.

Hamish: Yeah. Mum used to have a bell that meant it was either time to eat or time to go to bed. That used to be rung outside when it was time to come in.

Lucy: That’s fantastic. I need one of those. Though my children would just ignore me.

Hamish: We’ve taken it up here. We’ve got one in the house instead of screaming at the children. It’s good.

Lucy: Brilliant. So was there a creative aspect like art or drawing that went alongside all the playing and things like that?

Hamish: There was to a degree. I was lucky to have a really inspiring art teacher when I was young. I’ve never been particularly into words and English, but I’ve always been creative and I’ve always loved making things. My art teacher at school was very supportive of that. To the extent that when I was about 14, I made a little cow head out of wax and cast it in lead myself over an outdoor fire. I don’t think health and safety would agree with it nowadays. So yeah, I had always enjoyed making things and I was surrounded by wildlife and animals on the farm so there was always lots of early inspiration.

Lucy: But it wasn’t your mum doing anything at home of that ilk? Or a family member that showed you the way?

Hamish: Weirdly no, not really. Dad was in the army and then a farmer. Mum isn’t a painter or anything. My grandfather was quite creative, he was always making things but that certainly wasn’t considered the norm. I think a lot of our great grandparents’ generation would have sketched and drawn and made things in the evenings when they weren’t watching telly. Other than that, no, there’s no history of it in the family. But my brother is also doing it so that’s another weird one.

Lucy: So that was something that just came to you. Was it sculpture that appealed to you first or was it another side of the arts?

Hamish: It’s always been sculpture but weirdly, I think from a making a living point of view, my parents certainly thought that it might be more sensible to do a degree. So I did a degree in furniture and product design because I think they thought there was more of a chance of making a living out of it. I think when I was leaving school, it wasn’t massively promoted and wasn’t really considered a way of actually making a living. There was certainly no set career path to follow, so to speak.

Lucy: So they wanted you to have something practical or something you could pay your bills with. Did the furniture design side appeal to you much?

Hamish: No, I really enjoyed it, but it was way too conceptual for my liking. Though it’s definitely been a really good string to my bow. I can talk an architect’s language and I understand technical drawing. So actually, it was really useful. But, I funded it by selling sculptures during my degree course which is a bit ironic.

Lucy: Yeah. Did you train formally in sculpture then?

Hamish: No, I was never formally taught. There were good teachers at both the schools I went to, but I’ve never been formally taught.

Lucy: Fantastic. So it’s really your eye that informs your sculpture more than anything else.

Hamish: Yeah. And I think being prepared to get it wrong.

Lucy: Well, clay is quite forgiving. Plaster and things like that less so, I think, as a material.

Fallow by Hamish Mackie ©

Hamish: Yeah, big time.

I think being prepared to get it wrong and also being prepared to hack it up to get it right.

Lucy: Yeah. Does it take you a long time to produce then?

Hamish: No, I work quite quickly. So I don’t really draw. I got slightly put off drawing as it was forced too much at school, which is a great shame. It’s one of my big regrets in life, not keeping a sketchbook going. I do have a sketchbook but I don’t use it as much as I wish I did. So what I do is sketch with my armatures. As I make my armatures I articulate the joints, so that rather than getting a pencil and rubbing out or moving a leg, I just bend wire around. I can build an armature and sort of overlook what I think the sculpture is going to look like. So armatures are really important to me.

Lucy: Yeah, it’s quite unusual though, to work like that. Because I often see sculptors starting with a pencil or some other aspect like that before moving on to shape an armature. It’s almost like you jump the first stage.

Hamish: Actually, to go back a step, I suppose I do much of my research, certainly for wildlife sculpture, in its natural habitat. I’ve been really lucky to travel quite a lot and look at elephants, cheetahs, rhinos and all the rest doing what they do in the wild. So quite often when I’m starting a sculpture, I start from a photograph that I’ve taken on a previous trip. Being there and taking that photograph and then going back and watching the animal in its natural habitat, makes you look properly and you get a much better understanding of what the subject is about.

Lucy: Yeah. There’s something about your sculpture that captures movement as well as just form.

Hamish: Well, that’s cool. Again I think a lot of that stems probably from early childhood, of being sent out on the quad bike to go and look at the sheep. When you’re looking at a flock of 100 sheep, the only way you can spot the sick one is by watching their movements and watching their stance. Is it standing there with a humped hooked up back? Is it touching its tail? Has it got maggots? Is it just looking sorry for itself?

Lucy: Obviously sculpture is static, so it’s not an easy thing to get that momentum into shape and portray it. It’s almost against the material. But when you look at your wildlife sculpture, you really feel like it might just wander off.

Hamish: That’s definitely one of the things I love doing with bronze. You know, bronze is inherently strong but it’s also inherently heavy. So to get any form of dynamics into a sculpture, you’ve got to think quite carefully about how it’s mounted because it’s not just going to stand on its own. Because bronze is relatively strong, you can have a cheetah on one leg or you can have a grouse attached by a wingtip. I love pushing the boundaries of what we can do with casting and the foundry which I use, Lockbund, is up for a challenge. Quite often we have to internally strengthen sculptures with stainless steel pins inside the bronze cast.

Lucy: Yeah. It’s been done like that for a long time, though is less and less common with contemporary sculpture. But, as you say, when you’re doing very difficult engineering-style sculpture, you have to have that extra strength. Otherwise there will be problems down the road, especially if it’s public sculpture, which people do very bizarre things to. They want to climb them and hang off them.

Hamish: Yeah, totally with you. I did a public commission for the Main Piazza at Goodman’s Fields for Berkeley Group and one of the leading Arab stallions is rearing. Of course, their tail wouldn’t normally touch the ground but I had to get the tail to touch to have three points of contact, so that it was structurally strong enough. I quite enjoy that sort of challenge.

Lucy: It is a challenge. My husband specializes in small bronze sculpture, whereas I work on large things. You would think there wouldn’t be much tension in a small feature, but actually it’s often the small sculptures that snap. Particularly horses, they have too much weight not quite in the right place. Because they’re smaller they must have thought, “Oh, it’ll be fine,” but those are the ones that end up needing to be repaired. We get so many coming to us for that kind of thing. So it’s really as important. They don’t even get the hard life that the outdoors ones get, with people wanting to take their photographs and things like that.

Hamish: Yeah, with you on that one. Definitely the small ones do get quite thin and delicate, don’t they?

Lucy: Yeah. So you’ve learned quite a bit about foundry work, what about casting?

Hamish: I’m lucky that Simon at Lockbund Foundry, where I do my casting, was a great supporter and encouraged me to get involved with it. I learnt how the process works and find it really interesting, I actually do all my own patinas, which is something that not all sculptors do.

Roe by Hamish Mackie ©

Lucy: Very few, yeah.

Hamish: I’m not saying I always get it right, but I think it’s good to be part of the process. Patinas are a little bit like handing over a paint by numbers. I think it’s important for an artist to have a big input.

Lucy: Yeah. I think the surface is as much of an art as the form really. You get some patinated finishes that you can lose yourself in, because there’s such a range of colours and they can complement the sculpture, when they’re done well. I’ve always felt like the patinas used, particularly historically, were like a lost voice in the art world because some of them were genius. But I think it’s lovely to see sculptors getting involved with it and getting their sleeves rolled up.

Hamish: Yeah, definitely. I would love to know more than I do. I only use about four or five different chemicals. What you said about patinas having a life of their own, is hard to achieve with a lot of texture because it’s so deep and coarse. A chemical patination often gets lost within the texture. Whereas if it’s a really smooth, tight surface, you can start playing around with splatters, brush marks, stippling, spraying, and all the rest of it. Which I can’t do very often.

Lucy: Patination really is an art. In conservation we’re often trying to rectify localized damage. So it might be that the majority of the sculpture is in perfect condition, but there is a disfigured section, which is starting to unbalance the whole sculpture. So we try and patinate a small section without touching any of the original finish. But also, we’re working on something that has aged and changed, because obviously the original finish will have oxidized and matured whilst being outdoors in its environment. So we end up using a lot more cold patinas, because of their controllability, rather than hot patinas. But the fashion these days seems to be hot patination, I feel like the cold patination is dying out as an art. But I’d encourage you to have a go at that as well.

Hamish: Yeah. That’s really interesting. So if you put a sculpture, or bronze, outside for a long time you get, what I would call leaching. Sometimes there might be a little bit of ceramic shell left in at a low point, where water then gets in and it gets damp. Then you get the calcified leaching coming out. Do you know what I mean?

Lucy: Yeah. Well, ideally, to keep activity very minimal with a bronze, every single trace of the core has to be removed. Because over time, the core can migrate outside. You often get that at the low points because they’re the hardest bits to get out during the casting process. It can lead to a much bigger problem. But a lot of the environmental issues we have are just surface damage. There could be a certain path that water takes and you may end up with a very hard line all the way down, say, the face of the sculpture. That may begin to make it look slightly demonic. You work with fountains and they have a whole load of problems because of limescale and all sorts of other things.

Hamish: Yeah, and not using bromide, or using whatever it is that they use in swimming pools. I think my answer to that is making the client very aware that the sculpture will change color, because there’s not really much you can do about it. I also drill holes in the lower points so that water can actually move out of it, which does help a bit. But of course, if you stick any bronze in water, it’s going to change colour.

Lucy: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about your creative process. Do you have any routines? Do you go out walking in the morning before starting to work, or do you just get down to it?

Hamish: No, my routine is a bit weird. When I finish the sculpture, before I start the next one, I always have a really good cleanup. Which is extraordinary because I was very untidy as a child. So I always start with a really clean studio and all my tools where they should be. As for my daily routine, I normally deal with emails first. I like to have a clear head before I get into sculpting, so that I can properly concentrate on what I’m making, rather than who I should be emailing or whatever else. I also drink several cups of tea in the morning, then a good strong cup of coffee, and then I’m ready to go.

Lucy: Very good. So coffee is a strong part of the creative process.

Hamish: Well, certainly one strong cup but not after lunch, otherwise I’m awake all night.

Lucy: Okay, so you clear out all the things that could distract you. Then you are able to just get into that flow state and carry on from where you left off the day before.

Hamish: Yes, and I think by spending lots of time looking at the animal – because of modern technology, and good cameras, and rapid exposure, and video, and all the rest of it – it’s now quite easy for me to bring my subject back to the studio. So I’ve kitted out my studio so that my photographs are up on a MacBook, which gets projected onto a big screen. Then if I’m working on a wildlife sculpture that’s really big like the horses, I can use the projector to zoom in on ears, and eyes, and feet, and muscles, and tendons, and all the rest of it, to see how the thing is put together. That helps me to get into the head of my subject, which sounds a bit weird, especially when you’ve been sculpting turtles. So I’ve been holding my breath for about two minutes while making these turtles. It sounds really weird, but actually, it gives you a better understanding of why animals are the way they are.

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Lucy: Yeah. They must have to be in front of your mind to be able to get into their head. So you would have to be reminded of them continuously. It’s like method acting, don’t actors become their characters while they’re playing the role that they’re in?

Hamish: Yeah, I didn’t know they did that. I suppose it is. Also, it’s a bit like putting together a jigsaw. You come back with all sorts of little snippets of information that come from the visual memory, photographs, videos, life, and all the rest of it and it’s putting it all together.

Lucy: Yeah. So actually a big part of it is using media of all descriptions. Because you don’t really think about an artist or a sculptor studio as having all that tech in it. I mean, we’ve got lots of machines, but that’s because we’re doing a different thing. I don’t envisage the tech part so much, but it is essential for what you’re doing, when the animals are miles away.

Hamish: Yeah, it is. I mean, it’s not massively techy. It’s a slide projector and a television, but it’s good. It’s a massive privilege that I’ve got over sculptors from the 18th and 19th century, who would have had to go to a zoo to look at their subjects.

Lucy: Yeah. So has there been a commission that has been particularly difficult for you? Or is it that each one has its own individual challenges?

Hamish: I think each one has their own challenges. I actually don’t do very many commissions nowadays. I try and make what I want to make and then sell it, which gives me more freedom. There’s always a degree of having your arms tied when you’re doing a commission, but for a really good commission, the client will give you a free rein. When we were doing the horses for Goodman’s Fields, I had a totally free rein over what we did with the horses. I think if I was going to advise anyone commissioning art, giving the artists free reign is really important. When they’re free, they can do what they want and you can change things as they go along.

For this recent turtle commission, I had a really wonderful client who had a small, not very suitable area to put a sculpture in. Her original idea was that she didn’t want it beyond the wall height. I persuaded her that it was going to go massively above the wall height. I really enjoyed it and I think she really enjoyed the process. Nowadays, going back to technology and because of COVID, I’ve started doing video calls like we are. So you can show people what you’re doing, which is great.

Lucy: Yeah. That part of the process when it is being born and how it is developing. But hopefully, as you say, it is not restrictive. It’s pretty difficult if you’re being pushed in a certain direction, that you don’t feel is the right way. Because that’s why they’ve hired you, isn’t it? The creativity that you hold is really what they’re after. So if it’s something that’s being overly restricted or directed, you’re not going to end up with a great result, I don’t think.

Hamish: Yeah, I definitely agree. I think any commission, whether it’s public art or something smaller, it’s always a slight leap of faith, isn’t it? The person commissioning the work doesn’t really know what they’re going to end up with. We’ve all commissioned things that haven’t worked, I’m not gonna give any examples, but paintings and all the rest of it. I think it’s part of the fun.

Lucy: So you’re creating a lot more now, your own ideas first, and then finding a home for them. Is there a place where you would like to see one of your sculptures? Or have you already seen them where you want to?

Hamish: That’s a tricky question. I mean, I’m lucky to have sculptures in some really cool places. I’ve got one or two public things, lots of things in nice gardens and lovely homes. I would love to do more with museums. To get into a museum collection would be the ultimate appraisal.

Lucy: Yeah. I wrote a piece a while ago about how if you look at the footprint of museums all over the world, they’re getting larger. So they’re extending. There’s been the most incredible boom of building projects relating to museums, particularly in America, but around the world as well. So the spaces that they’re creating are capable of taking large-scale sculpture in a way that these traditional buildings weren’t. So I can see that the market is going to be bigger, because they’re going to need to fill these massive spaces, which is always a good thing. I think we’ll see more large-scale sculpture come indoors.

Hamish: Great. I’m ready.

Lucy: Also, bronze has a much easier life indoors. So I’m all for that as well.

Hamish: Yeah. We’ve started casting into stainless steel as well, which is quite cool.

Lucy: Have you noticed any differences with that?

Hamish: Yeah, at the beginning it was a nightmare. I mean, for one, if you try and melt stainless steel in a normal bronze furnace, you melt the furnace. So we had to build an induction tilt furnace. Then we were pouring stainless into the normal ceramic shell and it was turning the ceramic shell into lava. It’s just a whole different animal, but I think Lockbund have cracked it with their casting. I’ve cast an ammonite, which is a sort of an ancient fossil, into this bling, shiny stainless steel, which is really cool.

Ammonite Sculpture by Hamish Mackie ©

Lucy: Yeah. Do you quite like the material then? Even though you can’t patinate it in the same way you can with bronze.

Hamish: Yes, I do. I think on the ammonite sculptures I’ve recently cast with it, they look really cool. Because it’s stainless they’re not patinated, but they pick up on the colors of the surrounding. So in a garden environment, it will pick up some of the colors of the plants, flowers, trees, grass, sky and all the rest of it. Again, in an urban environment, it picks up some of the colours of the buildings. So it almost sort of patinates itself perfectly for its location.

Lucy: Yeah and it’s much more forgiving in terms of change. It’s much more stable. So it would take a lot of headaches out of sculpture, when people don’t have to worry about it quite so much.

Hamish: Yeah, with you on that one.

Lucy: Yeah. So, if you were going to be creating something for yourself in the next few months, is it something you’ve already thought about? Or is it something you’re thinking of right now?

Hamish: No. Actually, I’ve got this weird reaction to lockdown of wanting to make something. Fundamentally, I’m a wildlife sculptor and I’m sort of known for dynamics, but I’m always trying to de-pigeonhole myself.

Lucy: Challenge yourself?

Hamish: Yeah, I enjoy a challenge. I’ve recently done some live sculpting of the female form, which has been a totally different experience to wildlife. I’ve made vessels that look to be ancient or modern. I’ve got this wacky idea at the moment to make something which is undefinable, so you’re not quite sure what it is or why it’s there or whether it’s modern, old, alien, manmade, or what. I actually started on a cat, which I’m looking at now. It’s about two-foot high, but I’ve slightly scrapped it because I think I need to do it about 10-foot high. But I’m not sure if I’m brave enough.

Lucy: Well, large-scale sculpture is expensive. So, unless you know that you’re going to get the money back on it, it can be a bit daunting, I think.

Hamish: I think that’s a big part of a sculptor’s life. Casting into bronzes, especially in England where you get really good quality castings, is horrifically expensive. I think that’s why so many of us produce things at the scale we do. I would love to do big work, but I just can’t afford to. It needs to be a commission.

Lucy: Yeah, that’d be a huge bill. But it’s good that you have your identity as a wildlife sculptor, so you’ve got an audience hungry for that work. So it’s quite daring and good for your creativity to be doing something completely different. Because I think it freshens you up a little bit when you have an alternative. But still, it’s quite hard to do something different when you’ve got people that want what you always do.

Hamish: Yeah, and especially when I exhibit through one or two galleries that want to exhibit the stuff that I’m automatically recognized for. Again, it comes down to de-pigeonholing. I think it’s really important for artists not to get stuck down one particular channel. I can think of lots of people who concentrate on one subject and after a while, you know, great it’s one of those, it’s another one of those. But move on, it’s boring. In the creative world, I don’t think it matters if you get it wrong. I’ve got it wrong on lots of occasions, but I’ve quite enjoyed the creative process of trying to get it right.

Lucy: Yeah. You see it with books as well. You get a series of books and maybe they make a film, then there’s one after the other, after the other, and although the originality was there, after 35 books, the originality is not quite there anymore. Because there are only so many ways to present that formula. But I think it’s different with animals because you’ve got the uniqueness of their personalities, as well as the fact that they’re always doing things that are unexpected. Which is why everyone loves looking at cat videos and things on Facebook.

Hamish: Yeah. For me, until recently for obvious reasons, traveling to go and look at something gave me a fresh energy about the subject. I had a commission years ago, or potential commission, to do 80 life-sized camels for somebody in Dubai. It never happened. It would have been the sculptor’s dream and I got really fired up about it. I worked out how I was going to ship life-sized camels to Dubai. I got so fired up, I ended up going to Dubai and making a life-sized camel. Which is still here looking for a client. But I really enjoyed that process, and okay I got it wrong because I haven’t sold it, but is that getting it wrong, or is that all part of the process?

Lucy: Absolutely part of the process. If I had the huge sculpture park of my dreams, I would want 80 camels. I would commission it immediately.

Hamish: It would have been funny. They’re good characters.

Lucy: Yeah. Okay, so thank you so much for talking to us today. Would you just tell us a little bit about where people can find out more about you?

Hamish: Yeah, of course. I have a website that I try and keep up to date, which is www.hamishmackie.com. On social media, Instagram and all that type of thing, I think it might be and I’m slightly guessing, Hamish_Mackie. People might have to have a bit of a dig. I can’t quite remember.

Lucy: Sure they’ll find you. Have you got a preferred medium that you like?

Hamish: Social media, Instagram. I love Instagram.

Lucy: Oh, okay, so that’s probably where you spend more time than any other place.

Hamish: Yeah, Instagram can actually be quite inspiring. You can see as you were talking about the cats doing funny things. I’ve definitely had the odd idea inspired from social media.

Lucy: Oh, that’s interesting because people are always very down on social media to say things like, “Oh, it’s a waste of our time.” But actually…

Hamish: No, it can be quite inspiring. You just have to keep your eyes open.

Lucy: Yeah. Well, sculpture’s always what inspires me. So that’s where I get my ideas, all my best ideas, I think. So keep working.

Hamish: Thank you, Lucy. Thank you.

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