Several months ago Shape Artist Angela Edmonds had a conversation via Instagram Direct Messages with Sculptor Tony Heaton about his sculpture ZEN GIRLS, carved directly from Carrara marble. They talk about the artistic process and the thinking behind the work, which consists of two figures sitting back to back on a bench.
Angela Edmonds: Good to see your sculpture Zen Girls coming along. I like its sense of weight and the gravity defying seat. It certainly resonates with me as someone with chronic pain and no sitting tolerance.
T.H: Thanks for your kind comments… glad the sculpture speaks to you. It’s often difficult to try to explore ideas concerning invisible impairments.
A.E: Absolutely. I love the paradox inherent in the piece.
T.H: Thanks I do like a paradox!
A.E: I’ve been thinking about the labour you are putting in to smooth the surface and erase the hand made marks. Humans are not perfect so why endeavour to make the sculpture ‘perfect’? I can’t help thinking of some of the marble sculptures by Marc Quinn, so devoid of human touch or energy. Just a thought.
T.H: I agree. I am not looking for perfection though, its more about the rhythm of the form, tension and trying to make it flow rather than enhancing the figurative aspect. I suspect that might sound a bit artsy bolloxy! I also wanted to square up the bench they sat on, which is rough!! And underneath is hardly worked yet at all.
A.E: You’ve explained it perfectly. I first saw the sculpture of Zen Girls online in an earlier state when it was shown at the Art House. Loved the marble dust under their feet as if they had come to life and moved their legs. You explained to me that it was the result of a ‘happy accident’ after you moved the sculpture from its base for the Art House exhibition. Do you think it’s something you might incorporate in the future?
T.H: Yes, I have a bag of marble dust from Carrara just for that eventuality! Though not sure how to make it as authentic as at the Art House! I also loved it when we moved Zen Girls and discovered the marble dust footprints! The idea that they could have just simply moved by themselves. It was just one of those happy art happenings – serendipity; important to have kept it and not cleaned it up! Always good to be taken by surprise! Often the ideas come from accidents.
A.E: Yes! They are the best. The work has a strong formal representation but still has an enigma about it. Can you tell me more about the title?
T.H: Well, I made an earlier piece called Zen Men; two blokes seated sideways on a bench that had no legs and I thought I should have another go at it but with two women… I also made a similar earlier piece called ‘You Laugh’ … with five seated figures, also hand-carved from marble.
A.E: Ah, I ‘m not so familiar with those pieces but they do seem relevant to Zen Girls. So would you say that Zen Girls is part of a series or the final outcome?
T.H: Not sure! I suppose they have become a set in a way, Zen Men; a mix of male and female forms in You Laugh, and finally Zen Girls. I didn’t plan to do a series, the exhibition ‘Altered’ at the Art House in 2019, was exploring how I return to ideas, a cyclical exploration of sorts.
A.E: I see. I’m interested in the concepts of ‘altered’ and ‘cyclical’ as being integral to your work. They’re also relevant to your series of images of abandoned and broken bicycles which you photographed on your travels. The association with mobility and fitness creates an interesting cognitive dissonance. The wrecked bicycles are no longer traveling hopefully. They’re a powerful evocation of abjection. Talking of travel were the two marble sculptures preceding Zen Girls made in Carrara as well?
T.H: Yes, all three started life in Carrara.
A.E: Quite well-traveled sculptures. And a literal and creative journey for you too.
T.H: Yes! I like to start carving near to the source of the stone, a sense of place about it. I then usually bring them back to the studio to finish them.
A.E: So why Zen?
T.H: It’s about the art of Zen I suppose. Focussing on positive thoughts and actions. Zen because the figures are seated on a bench which has no legs, so it’s an impossibility of sorts. It just seemed like a Zen-like thing that they were doing … of course in Art you can cheat and lie as much as you like!
A.E: Yes. Also the figures look strong and it’s the bench that has any perceived ‘lack’. The figures look powerful. They have a lot of gravitas and yet they seem to be sitting on a precarious bench that is suspended in air.
T.H: That’s exactly the point! It’s not the ‘people’ who have the ‘deficit’ – like my neon work ‘Raspberry Ripple’ with the ‘P’ missing in Raspberry. There is a deficit but they still function and ‘pass’ – few people ever notice that the bench has no legs or that the ‘P’ is missing, or that the ‘I’ in my carved wood sculpture ‘Split’ is literally a split’ or that in another work it’s not ‘Polo’ it’s ‘Loop’.
A.E: I can see the connection with Zen Girls and I think we’ve touched on an important common thread in your recent work. Any sense of the abject lies outside of the human form itself, just like in the Social Model of Disability. I would like to ask you though, if there was a conscious subtext of disability in making the work?
T.H: Well, disabled people are excluded from so much so I often try to have an ‘in’ joke for crips that the non – d won’t get. I think there’s both a conscious and an unconscious disability subtext in almost all of my work. Sometimes it’s just more overt such as in my sculptures ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’ or ‘Shaken Not Stirred’.
A.E: Yes, it’s the same with my work. But it’s complex. It’s certainly complex for me to navigate as a disabled artist. At the beginning of our talk you described creating the rhythm of the form. I would say that Zen Girls is more resolved than its two predecessors. There’s greater economy of form which makes it more powerful. There’s also a greater sense of intimacy between the two figures who appear to be holding up the bench as it floats underneath them. They are supporting each other.
T.H: Yes, all your observations are correct. I think that when you make a piece, and Zen Men was the first of these works, then you become absorbed into the making process and direct carving is very Zen-like. You spend time looking at it, absorbing it, this informs the next piece which was ‘ You Laugh….’
A.E: I’m not so keen on You Laugh, I guess I’m a less is more person haha.
T.H: I think for the viewer it’s an object, but for the maker it’s an explorative process, it informs the next piece, which in this case was ‘Zen Girls’.
A.E: That’s true Tony but I hope I’m an explorative viewer too. So given the time it takes to hand carve a marble sculpture do you think that hand carving in marble is one of the last bastions of deferred gratification in Art making?
T.H: Wow … not sure how to answer that ..? It certainly goes against the grain of ready-mades and the ordering of trash objects, which seem to be mainstream. I think I’m just an awkward bastard who likes to go against the tide and engage in possibly the most unfashionable art-making. And a bloody difficult art form for an old cripple lugging around lumps of rock that take years to make something out of! It also takes patience and I am usually totally impatient. But it’s what I enjoy.
A.E: So I guess you could say it makes you Zen …