Effects of Lockdown: Artists in Conversation

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Colin Hambrook talks with sculptor James Lake in the wake of a recent Project Grant from Arts Council England to develop his practice, properly document his artworks and have mentoring sessions to gain confidence and new skills. Colin wanted to gain an insight into James’ recent work evoking experience of lockdown and the passing of time.

Colin Hambrook: It’s great to speak with you James. I’ve long been an admirer of your work – ever since having seen your sculpture of your father ‘Sitting Without Purpose’ from 1998 – that was in various exhibitions in the early 2000s. And I’ve always loved the attention to detail and the aesthetic of the work with its clear intent: the transparency of the process and the environmental message it conveys.

Life-size sculpture of a young white male - seen from the front - standing against a white background

Effects of Lockdown. Image © James Lake

James Lake: A lot of the work that I do has originated from the fact that I have various disabilities, being a one-legged cancer survivor with dyslexia – all those things have become common features of why I make the work in the way that I do.
Recently the work has become more multi-layered as I find myself developing the vocabulary to address more than the immediate aspects of cardboard sculpture, with its more obvious references to recycling and climate change.

CH: Yes, I wondered, from taking a recent look at the work on your website – the sculpture ‘Effects of Lockdown’ in particular – where your research into environmental issues has taken you. I believe this sculpture is of your 16 year old son. Can you tell us more about the work?

JL: I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s been researched as such, I have an awareness of climate change, and the weather as processes, but mainly it’s about the way that I work. My sculpture is constructed like a painting. So I don’t have a definite idea of every aspect of the work and because it’s built in enormous three-dimensional brushstrokes it means I can change things as I go.
The tree became a key feature of the sculpture, but that evolved from the fact I wanted the viewer to be able to see through it as a way of highlighting that there are no hidden processes: it makes the base material more obvious and it also emphasizes this inherent essence of time that cardboard evokes, because you can see the marks and then imagine how long it would take to make the work.

CH: I thought it was quite clever in the way that the tree also resembles lungs.

JL: Well yes, that was the point. I had the space to fill inside this cavity I’d created and I wanted something that represented lungs. And that’s why the tree was placed upside down. I wanted it to represent the notion of lung health and COVID, climate change and deforestation. It was meant to symbolise the idea that when you start changing the environment it will inevitably lead to potential disease.And, obviously COVID has had such an impact on the life of a 16-year old teenager who wants to get on with his life, so I wanted it to encapsulate the frustration as he stares at his phone looking for answers as to where life might potentially lead. And so I incorporated a yellow brick road – it’s a path to somewhere, but you’re never quite sure exactly where it’s going. It also gave me a limited color palette, which gives enough colour contrast to lift it and helps to ground the work at the same time.

CH: Can you tell us something about the use of charcoal in making the phone within the sculpture?

JL: Yes I made some charcoal paste for the phone. Charcoal is burnt trees, so it was significant that I used a burnt substance. I wanted to suggest that the answers aren’t contained within this mobile phone. We’re all addictively looking at our phone as if it is somehow going to alleviate any of the symptoms or the feelings that we have about the pandemic. Things are going to happen anyway, regardless of the information we are presented with through our phones, whether or not that information is misleading. And I spent quite a lot the summer just trying to get my son to stop looking at his phone when he had the opportunity to just be outside enjoying the sun. All those sorts of issues seemed to naturally feed into what the work was about.

CH: I was just thinking about the role of the elements within your work. You know, you’ve got earth, air and water within the material of the cardboard, and with the charcoal you’ve got fire as well. I wondered if you’d thought much about the role the elements play within the layers of meaning within the work?

JL: I am in touch with the elements on a subconscious level. So, the latest sculpture I’m making is a life-sized standing sculpture of my mum that I’m calling ‘Time’. Within the back of the sculpture is a small hole through which you can see the top of a lighthouse. It’s actually a lighthouse on Bishop’s Rock, which is just off the Isles of Scilly and my mum’s great grandparent was the lighthouse keeper there. And lighthouses connect with metaphors to do with saving people from crashing on the rocks and the violent nature of the sea.

CH: Actually, I was thinking of the role that water plays within the growing of the tree that went into making the cardboard. So it is interesting that it evokes completely different meanings for you.

JL: The lighthouse relates specifically to the job that was my mum’s life’s work, running a local Family Centre before the days of Sure Start. Her role was about supporting families and their children in the heart of the community. And the top of this lighthouse is placed to indicate where the heart of the figure would be… and she’s writing a poem about time in the air. She is 74 now… and because she is coming to that age where mortality becomes more of an issue, I wanted the sculpture to capture an essence of her life – to sum up a lifetime of emotions and ideas about time

My mum’s an articulate woman. She’s written books that haven’t been published. So I’ve got her to write over the last year and I intend to use specific words of hers within this portrait of her. The sculpture will have cut-out sections where her actual handwriting is embedded within her head… writing that represents her ponderings about time and history and growing older.
I’m looking to make work that engages through extra elements and adds intrigue or investigation drawing from personal experience.

So, I didn’t set out with the intention of making this lighthouse… it literally came at 4am when I was thinking about the work and ways I could use the texture of the cardboard to add contrast.

Cardboard has a specific relationship to the environment. It can disintegrate in the rain, and it can be fragile in nature, but then also, if it’s looked after properly, it can last forever. The oldest piece of paper in existence currently is in China and it’s been dated to be over 2,000 years old. So the material has an extra layer of meaning in terms of care and attention. If you look after it, it will survive, which relates very closely again to the environment.

CH: I can see that there are meanings in the work that relate ideas of self-care and human relationship to the world we live in.

JL: I made a wire armature for the sculpture and was bending up a steel bar and cutting it with bolt cutters, but it didn’t fit into the base accurately. It was a happy accident really. I had this space of three inches underneath the feet that I didn’t know I’d have to fill. It made sense to use that space for a few family photographs.

I wanted to ground the figure in a way that makes it more universal, so although I am not strictly using a process that necessarily has disability connotations, I’m creating universal meanings out of the understanding that I make this work in the way that I do because of disability. I’m sure if I hadn’t have lost my leg, if I hadn’t have had cancer, then I wouldn’t have been involved in the arts full stop.

CH: It’s really fascinating hearing you talking about your work in these terms and in such detail. When you see all the elements in the work and understand the importance of why they’re there and all the little nuances that you would not grasp otherwise. It really adds to the richness of the experience of enjoying the work in its entirety – getting a glimpse into all the layers of storytelling that give the work depth and authenticity.

I really look forwards to seeing these sculptures in the flesh sometime in the future when we can travel to art galleries once more. Thanks again and good luck with your current arts development.


A film about James Lake’s life, work and family: ‘Paperman’ has been selected for this year’s Documentary Feature selection at Manchester International Film Festival 2021. The film has a runtime of 70 minutes, with the language in English and Italian (but with subtitles). It makes its world premiere at 7:45pm on Saturday 13 March. It costs £3.50 to book online to watch it. You can reserve your place here: https://www.maniff.com/paperman