Interview With The Sculptor And Painter Mark Smalley

Mark Smalley is a painter, sculptor and he also makes ceramic works. His art has fantasy references, and also the archetypal feeling of ancient cultures. Beyond trends, his art has a classical and eternal aura.

First of all, thank you very much Mark for this interview.

It's my pleasure, Emma, thank you for this opportunity to talk about my work.

- What artist influenced you most?

- Certainly, many artists have inspired and influenced me, but it was seeing Van Gogh's painting "Starry Night" when I was a kid which ignited an early interest in art. My love of his work has grown over the years and I find his life story and the artistic period in which he lived endlessly fascinating. I was lucky enough to see the real "Starry Night" in New York a few years ago, and was utterly mesmerized by it. It was much larger than I expected and the colours and textures were very different from the photographs I'd seen. I suddenly felt a powerful, emotional connection with the artist and the experience had quite a profound effect on me. I think his honesty and humility as an artist have greatly influenced the way I approach my work.

- What is your favorite artistic discipline (painting, sculpture, ceramics) and why?

- I can't say that one discipline is a favourite, as they are all equally important to me as means of expression and exploration. Having said that, I do tend to focus on each discipline in turn as the studio gets too chaotic if I try to work on ceramics and painting at the same time! At the moment I'm concentrating more on ceramic art as my creative ideas are leading me in that direction.

- And what technique is harder to deal with?

- Oh that's easy! I find sculpture and ceramic work generally much more challenging from a technical viewpoint. Working in three dimensions requires intense and prolonged concentration and I often find that a piece can look completely different each day I come back to it. The other thing is that the process of firing clay is fairly unpredictable; it involves hundreds of variables, all of which can affect the final appearance of the work. Because the glazes change colour dramatically in the kiln, you have to envisage from experience how the piece will look after the firing. You can't correct and add to a piece as you go along, in the same way you can with an oil painting, so opening the kiln is fairly nerve-wracking. It can be an elating or heart-breaking experience! Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but I enjoy the fact that I'm not completely in control of the result and that serendipity plays its part in the creative process.

- What is your source of inspiration to make your artworks?

- Inspiration can come from so many different things; memories, good and bad emotional experiences, friends, nature, a stunning view...pretty much any aspect of life can spark ideas or provide elements of a work.

My early sculptural pieces, such as the owl jars, were greatly inspired by the Martin Brothers potters who worked in Fulham, London from the late 1800s. They are often considered to be the first studio potters in England and they produced a wide range of functional and sculptural work in salt-glazed stoneware. Robert Wallace Martin became famous for making lidded jars in the form of grotesque, anthropomorphic creatures which were either conjured up from his imagination or inspired by fantasy literature of the day. The first time I saw his work I was captivated by the originality and superb craftsmanship of his creations.

I've always enjoyed travelling and each time I go to a new country I try to soak up some of the culture and history of the place. I'm drawn to ancient sites and buildings and love to look at worn and battered artefacts which have that wonderful patina of age developed over millennia. There's often a sense of mystery when looking at the damaged and decayed surfaces of such objects, thinking about the journey that they have been on through the years, the people who made them or used them in their daily lives.

Recently I've become very interested in contemporary Japanese and Korean potters and their traditional methods of wood firing in anagama kilns. Some of these artists use the natural textures of the clay to create stressed and fractured surfaces, which imitate the cracked and split textures found in rocks or the bark of trees. Their work is inspiring me to create more natural, abstract forms and to experiment with some of these unconventional techniques.

- Do you plan carefully your works, or you let your imagination flow?

- This varies a little according to my mood and the kind of work I want to make. For some pieces, like the bird-man sculptures, I have a rough, mental concept before I start to make the armature for the sculpture. Then as I begin to model and sculpt the clay, the work may take on a life of its own and the character of the piece emerges organically from the clay. With more abstract work, I might begin with a vague idea or direction and then see where my imagination takes me. Occasionally, the work changes completely from the original idea and as I become absorbed in the process, form and decoration become almost unconscious. I believe that often, the best art comes from simply playing with the materials and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Playing means letting go of convention and this allows us to become more instinctive and emotional in our self-expression.

- When did you start to be interested in art?

- As I said earlier, I enjoyed art from a young age, but even though I showed a little talent for drawing and painting as a teenager, my parents discouraged me from practising regularly. So for a long time, I suppressed a growing hunger for art and simply pursued a conventional career path. Actually, it was probably a relationship in the early 1990s which rekindled my desire to start making art again. At that time, my girlfriend was training to be a potter and I began to learn a little about ceramic art and the techniques involved.

- Do you have some favorite artwork of yours that you specially like? And what is it?

- I don't have a specific favourite but the Crocodileman is a sculpture that I really enjoyed creating. It was quite challenging to combine human-like qualities with those of a crocodile and to make it as a standing figure. I also remember it was a very tricky piece to model in porcelain, so I was delighted when it came out of the kiln in perfect condition. I like the sinister expression on the Crocodileman's face and I tried to imbue the figure with a certain mystic darkness.

- Many of your artworks are very expressive. What do you try to transmit to the people that watch them?

- Well, I see art as an adventure, a kind of journey of self-exploration which is inseparable from the journey of life. So when I make art I'm trying to express something about my inner world whilst also seeking answers to eternal questions. I am amazed how often my paths in art diverge and then rejoin through chance events and discoveries. Every piece is different but there are themes which I keep coming back to, such as life and death, impermanence, growth and decay. Fired clay is a material which is strong and enduring but at the same time fragile and vulnerable, so to me, it evokes some of the paradoxes of the human condition. It's my hope that people will find my work interesting and they will create new meanings and narratives in relation to their own lives.

- What is the most fun and the most boring of each one of the disciplines that you master? If you have some anecdote about this, tell us.

- I must say, throwing pots great fun and moving soft clay around on a spinning wheel can be quite relaxing and therapeutic. There is something about the immediacy of throwing which is instantly gratifying. It takes a very long time to become proficient, but it's refreshing when you throw a good pot and see the result of your creative efforts in less than five minutes!

Many ceramic artists will say that glazing is the bane of their life! It's messy, time-consuming and very difficult to master. I wouldn't say it's boring but it requires great concentration and one careless mistake can easily ruin a piece. The other problem is that glaze ingredients often look similar, so you have to be extra-organised when mixing and storing glazes. I once made a huge batch of glaze and spent all day glazing pots. When I opened the kiln I was horrified to find that I'd used the wrong container of ingredients and all the pots were the wrong colour, blistered and over-fired. Those are the days when you want to go back to doing painting and nothing else!

With oil painting the fun parts for me are mixing the paints and watching colours merge as they are laid onto the canvas with a brush or palette knife. As with ceramics, I enjoy experimenting with textures and mixing different materials like sand or marble powder with the paint to see what effects can be achieved. I often like to apply oil paint thickly and build up impasto surfaces which catch the light. As for the boring part, well it has to be cleaning the palette and brushes. Oil paint has a tendency to get everywhere and I can really recommend not getting it underneath your shoe and treading it across every carpet in the house!

- Do you have some special artwork or artistic project that you dream to do?

- One thing I've never done properly is to paint "al fresco", so my ambition is to travel and take the oil paints and easel with me rather than just coming back with inspiration for new work! I have a great love of Greece and the Greek islands so one dream is to spend a few summers there painting landscapes. With respect to ceramics I would like to make larger, outdoor sculptures and experiment with gas- and wood-fired kilns. It's another dream of mine to some day design and build a kiln from scratch.

All the images in this interview were courtesy of Mark Smalley, and are copyrighted.

-Emma Alvarez-

© 2008 by Emma Alvarez. Link to this post without copying the text.

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Unknown said...

All the sculptures shown in this post are excellently fantastic and a very good work of appreciation....
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