Art for the People - Robert Hesketh talks to Somerset sculptor Jeff Body

PUBLISHED: 15:18 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013

Jeff Body at work on a new stone sculpture

Jeff Body at work on a new stone sculpture

Jeff Body's iconic sculpted sheep graze happily on Cannards Grave roundabout in Shepton Mallet. These sculptures have almost become his hallmark and have been bought by visitors from all over the world. It was a black day in 2005 when the Cannards...

Art for the People - Robert Hesketh talks to Somerset sculptor Jeff Body

Jeff Body sculpts in stone, plaster and concrete, often using moulding and casting to create multiples and variations. He's proud to be able to see the whole process through himself from start to finish. "Art for the people, something affordable... that's my aim, which is why I use concrete a lot, replicating castings in a really sturdy material," says Jeff. "I use a very strong mix, part sharp sand and part Doulting stone, on a 4:1 ratio with white cement. It produces concrete with a durable, smooth finish that darkens and weathers well.

"I also use polystyrene to make larger original models. I made my 'Sheep' for Cannards Grave roundabout near Shepton Mallet with polystyrene slabs, cut to shape and covered in plaster, which I then carved. I use waste stone and industrial rather than art materials."

Jeff's sculptures are made primarily for the outdoors. He usually exhibits them outdoors and often makes them outdoors too, enjoying the social contact this brings. Every July he spends a week working at Glastonbury Abbey.

"I wear a medieval costume made by my wife, Teresa, and sculpt stone, Doulting stone that's been used at Glastonbury since Roman times and is still being worked. I love that sense of continuity. Anyway, I always encourage visitors to have a go with the hammer and chisel. My 'Monk' sculpture took three days to work at Glastonbury."

Jeff was working on a plaster relief carving for Motcombe School in Dorset when we talked at another of his regular outdoor exhibitions 'Art in the Field', near Wrington, which he organises each June with painter Pip Gillman and other artists in various media.

"The children started it and I'm finishing it. The idea is to give them a finished piece in concrete that will last a long, long time, and the mould will enable them to raise some extra revenue for the school. Another school project I did was the school sign for Yetminster School. Like the Motcombe project, it was sponsored by the arts-based educational charity NADFAS (National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies).

"I do a lot of youth club teaching and work with schools, usually sponsored by North East Somerset Arts (NESA). Plaster is an accessible material for carving with kids. It's cheap and we can get results in a day. I take them through the whole process of carving, mould making and casting so they can replicate what they've done.

"These are skills that can be transferred to industry. When one of the boys from Peasedown St John youth club took photographs of his green man carving into a mason's workshop in Bath they gave him an apprenticeship directly."

Jeff understands this story because it has parallels with his own. He did not take the conventional art school route and spent 25 years in industry before turning full-time to sculpture in 1997.

Having found Midsomer Norton Grammar School uninspiring, he was happy to leave at 16 to start his printing apprenticeship in Bath. "I was the last of the five-year letterpress apprentices, essentially using the same techniques as Caxton. Hot metal was cast on the premises and set by compositors. As soon as I'd completed, I had to retrain as a lithographer.

"My art started with my apprenticeship. I spent my first week's wages on the moulds for a set of chessmen and later used my craft skills to make affordable ornaments for my house and garden that I couldn't find elsewhere. Relief carvings are just like printing plates - you could ink them and print with them," Jeff explains.

"I started painting in my spare time and those early paintings were the basis for my early sculptures. I've always been a great doodler; it's amazing what comes up subconsciously and later takes form as a sculpture.

"Not all my sculptures begin with a drawing or painting though. Sometimes I start chipping away at a piece of stone until an idea takes shape. At Glastonbury Abbey I once put my coffee cup on a lump of stone and drew round it in random places and let people carve around. That was the start of five sculptures; I simply call them my 'Coffee Cup Cycle'. That's fun - it excites and empowers people."

Jeff is particularly inspired by 20th-century art. "Picasso has been a strong influence. I'd name the Surrealists generally and a Romanian sculptor Constantin Brncusi in particular. I like Pop Art too, including Andy Warhol," he says.

Gradually art overtook industry in Jeff's life. "In my late thirties I gave up overtime at the print works and began looking for a new direction in life. I went to Shute Farm Studio at Downhead on the Mendips on Saturdays to learn about stone carving from Laurence Tindall, a master mason and sculptor who's worked on Wells Cathedral and Bath Abbey. Laurence gives very freely of his time and skill and has become a great friend.

"I made a whole new circle of friends. Shute Farm was inspirational and I feel very grateful to have been there. Although it's a working farm, Fran Britten, the owner of Shute Farm Studios, has also made it a centre of artistic excellence, opening new doors for people like me."

Finally, Jeff was able to make the break to full-time artist. "When I was forty I left printing. I was losing interest in the printing trade and the new technology didn't interest me. I've been sculpting ever since, 11 years. I love my work. I try to practise the Zen idea of becoming totally immersed in the artistic process. Children are like that with their art. That's what I really live for.

"In short, I like art and culture. It's what is remembered and what we're judged by in history because it's what's left when we're gone. They'll be digging up my Shepton Sheep a thousand years from now wondering what was that all about." BY ROBERT HESKETH

For more information on Jeff Body's work call him on tel 01749 345644.

Latest from the Somerset Life