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Meet Somerset Sculptor Anna Gillespie talks to Robert Hesketh about the journey to find her artistic

PUBLISHED: 16:29 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013

Sculptor Anna Gillespie (photo by Catherine Lloyd)

Sculptor Anna Gillespie (photo by Catherine Lloyd)

Sculptor Anna Gillespie, known for her emotional representations of the human form, talks to Robert Hesketh about the journey to find her artistic expression.


Sculptor Anna Gillespie, known for her emotional representations of the human form, talks to Robert Hesketh about the journey to find her artistic expression.


Natural form, especially the human figure, is the mainspring of Anna Gillespie's sculpture, as well as her drawings and prints. Expressing the physical strength of natural form, its subtlety and variety, her work also reveals the emotional vulnerability within; the result is truly beautiful and evocative art.

"If I could say all I want to say in words, there would be little point in sculpture," explained Anna when we met at her studio in Larkhall, Bath. "As a sculptor you can, with practice, control surface and form consciously. But the connection with the unseen, the feeling element, is the alchemy of sculpture. Sometimes it develops subconsciously. When sculpture really works, people will project into it, animate it imaginatively for themselves.

"Creating figurative sculptures makes me feel very connected with past sculptors. The human form has its own language that goes beyond words, borders, cultures and time. Its universality appeals deeply to me; it isn't just for the initiated; people may react to it both intellectually and instinctively.

"Dad was a sculptor and Mum was an artist. When I was very young Dad said to me 'You're a sculptor', and to my sister, Sarah, 'You're a painter'. Indeed, Sarah has made painting her career. Now, I am a sculptor, yet first I rebelled.

"I went to Oxford and studied philosophy, politics and economics, but I carried on drawing in the holidays for pleasure. Later, I went travelling and then got my dream job, public relations work for an overseas development organisation. Although I really appreciated the field work in Africa, I hated being in a London office. Aged 28, I realised I'd taken the wrong direction and I was going to try to be what I'd always wanted to be: a sculptor.

"I moved to Bristol and learned to draw and carve with two inspiring teachers, before going to Bath to study stone masonry for two years. I then worked as assistant to Nigel Konstan at his Centro Verrocchio art school in Italy. He also was a great teacher and taught me a lot.

"At Cheltenham, where I took my MA in Art, the current ran strongly against my natural inclination for figurative art. We seemed to spend a lot of time debating French philosophy!"

Having graduated, Anna mainly carved natural forms such as seed pods in stone, but these were heavy and the material restrictive, so she moved on to lighter, more flexible media. 'Taste the Rain', a slightly larger-than-life-size human figure in bark, marked a seminal development. It not only affirmed the human form as her main theme, but showed the versatility of natural materials. It also expressed her growing environmental awareness.

"'Taste the Rain' captured a moment when I no longer felt separate from the natural world. But alongside this romantic conception of humankind's relationship to Nature, I'm now exploring our separation from the natural world, and exploration is what pushes the work forward.

"The reality of what we, the human race, are doing to the planet has hit me very forcibly. I took a course at the Schumacher College, Art in Place. It was transformative. I saw I could put my politics as well as my feelings into my art. My environmental series stems from that realisation.

"While on the course, I discovered the rusty base of an oil drum, which became the first in a series based on pieces of found metal. In 'Hanging On', the round base of the drum symbolised the Earth, to which I added the bronze figure of a man just hanging on by his fingernails."

Similarly, Anna used a discarded rusty grid in 'Dreaming of a Way Out', brazing the lonely and perplexed human figure between the rusted prison-like bars that bear down upon him.

"'Icarus' is part of the political strand in this environmental series, expressing my distress. Despite knowing the damage burning fossil fuels is doing, we continue to fly, reaching for the sun and burning our wings like Icarus in Greek legend; so I sculpted 'Icarus', a human figure in the form of a plummeting jet plane - using wax and Airfix, ironically enough."

Anna is also an active member of her local Transition group. Transition Larkhall is part of a new but rapidly growing movement to address the twin problems of peak oil and climate change through readily achievable local action, as Anna eagerly explained. The Transition concept was pioneered by Rob Hopkins and the community of Kinsale, County Cork, in 2005. Moving to Totnes, in Devon, Hopkins found fertile ground for his environmental message and the list of Transition Towns is growing rapidly.

"The struggle to survive on this planet is our responsibility. There's always been a part of me that's been politically engaged. That's what took me to Oxford. Working in the studio is a very big part of my life, but I don't want to be isolated from what is happening in the world around me. I hope sculpture can be my small contribution to the radical changes we all need to make. We have to learn to love nature, to acknowledge we are part of it. This calls for a new, co-operative spirit to replace the old, exploitative relationship, which was the corollary of feeling separate from nature.

"Even speaking of 'nature' as something distinct from the human race suggests an artificial separation. We are all part of the natural world. Collecting beech nuts and acorns for sculptures, made me realise that every one is the same and yet different...just like us. Nature is so prolific.

"I feel I've got a long way to go personally in drawing closer to nature. Art for me is an approach to that, a way to fuse with where we have come from and what we rely on, what sustains us."

Anna Gillespie will be teaching 'Sculpting the Human Form' on 26 and 27 March and 'Life Modelling' on 7 and 8 May. You can contact her at Shute Farm Studios, near Shepton Mallett. 01749 880746, www.annagillespie.co.uk

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