Hello Simon and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for In Focus. First of all, could you tell us about yourself, your background, and how you became an artist?
How do we become artists, a good question. Early childhood passions that never let go, carried through into early adult years where it’s not even a decision but an acceptance of what is you. My early memories of being six or seven year old, was to be an archeologist. At that age I think more of this was about the romance of exploring lost and forgotten history and a library of very old Middle Eastern history picture books my mother had. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where my back yard was the ocean. Not the technology of today, we had a tv, if it worked, but it was not a prominent part of daily life. Being outside in Australia there is a very strong association with the landscape, very much part of Australian culture. It’s a country of extreme geographic diversity and we spend a lot of time immersed in it. My growing up memories of being outside all the time is where passions are born, and it was before I was ten years old I wanted to be a painter. By the time I was 19, I had a studio in the city of Melbourne across the road from the Arts school, I was very inspired by the period of the Heidelberg School of painting. Like many painters I know, there is a transition to sculpture. I followed that path as well because I could not get close enough to the material, painting with brushes, then hands, sculpture was where I was headed. Looking back now as a sculptor I think the wanting to be an artist is in a way the same as being an archeologist but of art. For many sculptors we use materials from the earth. Some of these may be discarded manmade objects but we work with our ideas to fabricate images, a piecing together of information, something from the past transformed to something of today. Over the years the passion and faith of being an artist only gets stronger and this comes from the faith in believing in your work. Importantly for me, is that what I had then, as a young child, wanting to be an artist never wilted. Today after all these years, it’s stronger and I strive to be better, but it needs to have something to offer.
Drawing appears to be at the heart of your sculptural practice, and your drawings are extraordinary things in their own right. They look like prints from etchings or woodcuts – richly detailed and appearing to have already undergone a material process. Do you begin the process of sculpture with a drawing?
If so, are you exploring potential shapes to use in sculptures, or does the drawing process lead you to the form the work will take? Does the material and technique you will use emerge from this process of drawing, or do you already have it in mind?
Drawing I think is so neglected by many artists, for me it has been a way of thinking out loud but on paper. Drawing can be a quick doodle or a finished work of many hours and sometimes the doodle overrides the finished work and much of that is about the freshness of a quick sketch. The process for me, whether quick or time consuming, is always a meditational process, not necessarily concentrating on what I am drawing, but as I draw looking at possibilities for future ideas. Drawing can teach you a lot about yourself as an artist, keeps you spontaneous and fluid. I often need a “drawing fix” especially if I cannot get into the studio to work on a sculpture, but I do draw every day regardless. When exhibiting I normally have a drawing specifically for each sculpture, usually placed in a landscape. I always do some basic drawings prior to building a sculpture because much of the process of building a sculpture to the finish takes place as images in your head. It’s funny because I go through this intense thought pre-building process with every sculpture I do. So when it comes to the actual making, I have already moved on to the next sculptural idea. I’m not sure what triggers the material I will use for each work but I do go through phases of wanting to use a certain material like marble for example. Many of the past works where I use thread as the structural component with porcelain for example, tend to really ground me like a magnet back to the landscape. I do not want to be a sculptor who works with one material, inspiration comes from many materials, one I want to explore soon is cast glass. As a final comment on my drawing process, some sculptures can be just very quick lines on a sheet of paper. More recently I have been making small wax models, from these I use to do more detailed drawings that always lead to new ideas.
You draw, carve, cast, sculpt with clay and plaster, and work with assemblage. Does the decision about the material and process precede the form the work will take, or does the probable shape of the finished work dictate the material? Do you move between materials and processes consecutively, (eg carving has a monopoly on your interest for a time, then you feel the need to change) or work simultaneously in different materials and on different sculptures?
Interestingly, looking back over the years some decisions of the materials I have used, have been economic ones. I had a studio for a long time with The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in NYC that had 120 studios, but it was not logistically a place for sculptors. By that I mean, most of the studios were painters, so noise and dust from a sculptor was a big issue. When money was tight, I’d look for materials that could substitute – say marble with plaster. Many of the sculptures during this time I used with thread and if I worked with marble, I’d cut the stone somewhere else then finish it by hand in the studio. As I said before, the sculpture does not necessarily dictate the material, it’s more the headspace I am in and at the time. Today it’s cast bronze and marble, but I do have some work to make in porcelain soon. The personal challenge is to use a material that best enforces your idea at the time.
Your work explores some shapes and structures that you keep returning to. Can you give us some idea where your imagery comes from (if you know!)? The marble works are very sensuous, and suggestive of body parts and intimacy.
I have never wanted to be an artist who is known for one style and one sort of sculpture but in saying that there are shapes I use that can be repetitive. It’s curious how we are all drawn to certain shapes. Most of the time I can see them early in my drawings but if I look back over portfolios of work throughout the years they do pop up as frequently being used. I can only assume we all have shapes that sooth us, inspire us. Look at artists like Henry Moore, or Noguchi, they are full of repetitions but done as if it were the first time. When working with a really good block of marble, the final finishing process does reveal a smooth velvet skin like quality, the very magic that has hypnotised sculptors throughout history. We make reference to the ocean being female and I think it’s the same for marble, the softness of the final finishing stages is through the female form.
Are small pieces usually models for larger objects? You paint some of your wooden pieces, and your piece ‘Guardians’ is covered in very colourful ceramic and with recognisable imagery of natural forms. Can you tell us more about colour in your work?
I have always admired sculptors who have the tremendous skills to produce life like human forms in marble. It’s not just a technical process but an understanding with the stone. In a way as much as I envy these skills, I do not want to be a figurative sculptor, abstraction is where my work lays. There are times though with certain works like Guardians I want to include some semi figurative elements. Many of my past works I have used different materials in the one sculpture. I knew that mixing coloured ceramic tiles with large white marble sculptures was a gamble but it worked. Public sculpture can be a difficult task sometimes only because the audience who passes it every day will be your best art critic. Guardians for example sits on a Promenade by the Yarra River in the city of Melbourne, some 25,000 people walk past it every day. The client for this specific commission set some tough guidelines and I didn’t just want two abstract blocks of marble sitting on top of two huge very plain pedestals. The main reason I used handmade ceramic tiles for the pedestals was for children and for colour, there was the opportunity to introduce new energy. With raised images that can be recognised, children touch them, walk around them and look up at the white marble sculptures. In a recent small marble sculpture, the abstract elements become in a way very figurative without providing any identity, the smoothness becomes a very human in form.
Tell us how you spend your day, what is your routine? What is your studio like?
I have been fortunate, given we are in a Covid times, where many artists have been separated from their studios, my current studio is in a double garage where I live. The only downside is that the garage is not insulated and today it’s -2C in there. My plan in the coming weeks is to build a dividing insulated wall in the garage as a separate space where I can work through winter and run my kiln. I also work for myself as a carpenter, it’s a bit like the ocean swell, one feeds the other, sculpture always takes first place.
You’ve recently been elected President of the Sculptors Guild in New York. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with this organization?
I was accepted into the Sculptors Guild late 2018 and just recently became a Board member. Getting into the Guild for me was a very humbling experience given the history of the Guild. It’s 84 years old, some of the past members have been Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, David Smith but many, many more serious accomplished sculptors passed through the Guild. A situation presented itself and I became the new President of the Guild. My desire to be in the Guild was based on wanting to meet other sculptors, have those contacts. As sculptors, we are generally a solitary bunch, we are in our own worlds so it can be at times very isolating. The Guild, for me filled all those vacuums I needed to fill. My challenge now is to lead the guild in a way that not only promotes it but offers continual opportunities, basically the sort of opportunities I wanted when first applying. The membership is not just for American sculptors, there are quite a few from around the world who are also members.
Is there anything new in the pipeline which you’d like to tell us about? What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any plans for the next couple of years.
We all had plans in 2019 that were abruptly cancelled or postponed, my solo show in Australia and a group show in NYC disappeared and we were all left wondering what to do. My focus went from showing in a gallery to now, how do I get my work out there. There are lots of possibilities such as public spaces, it just requires a different tactic to make it happen. It’s also a good way to push ourselves as sculptors to think in ways we either avoided or had not thought of before.
This year I have nine sculptures to build; one is for a submission in cast bronze, through the Sculptors Guild as part of a group of sculptures for an open area in NYC. Two in black and white porcelain will be for an important group in NYC for this coming September. Finally, six in Australia for the Melbourne Art Fair in February 2022, I’m thinking two in marble, two in porcelain and two in cast bronze.
The important thing is regardless of what we are all going through, is to keep turning out the work, opportunities will always come up and you need to be ready.
To see more of Simon’s work visit his website. Follow him on Instagram