Ian is a sculptor, conceptual artist and a very good mate. This piece covers his life, his art practice, the sculpting of my head and possibly a little bit more.
He starts the process with little balls of clay. To me they look soft and light. It’s disconcerting to think of the inside of your head as a series marshmallows. We decide that I should be two thirds life size. After all, I do have a very large head.
Experience tells him when he has enough clay on the frame and then he starts measuring my skull. The distance from ear to lip, chin to forehead, back of the head to nose. The measurement tools are metal and clunky and a little medieval.
I ask him to go back to the very beginning.
He was born in Billingham in what was then Co. Durham. His father was German and had arrived aged 13 with his mother and stepfather who was part of the occupying forces. His mother also has an unusual tale, Ians maternal grandfather got knocked off his bike by a bus and killed on the way to the hospital to meet his new daughter.
The family moved to Hertfordshire when he was two, Mum and Dad, an older sister and a younger brother. He has a very close relationship with his mother and siblings. He implies that the relationship with his father was more complicated.
He says he had a free childhood, roaming the countryside with his mates and his dog, only returning home for tea when it was getting dark. His parents divorced when he was 11 or 12 and a few years later after showing good academic promise he left school early at sixteen. The school did though let him back for his art A Level.
Ian took various jobs, the one closest to art was as a sign writer. He tells a story of putting up signage for a local curry house with three O’s in Tandoori, dyslexia is not a good starting point in that business. He moved to London and started working in recruitment, he thought it was money for old rope and started his own business at the age of 23.
I’m back in the hot seat in a metal chair, on a raised plinth in his studio in France. My bum gets sore after an hour or so, so we move off and do our own thing for a while. We play table tennis and drink coffee. My wife is in the studio sketching the scene, so I’m interviewing Ian who is recreating my head whilst Jacs is recording it all on paper. A creative circle of sorts.
My nose appears somewhere along the process, then my eyes. My ears have not yet arrived. At the end of the first day, a Sunday, I’ve probably been sitting for close to three hours. My doppelganger is covered in a plastic bag.
In the evening the three of us reconvene to a more familiar pattern; we eat, we drink, we joke, we solve the world’s problems.
I met Ian shortly after he set up his recruitment business, Eden Brown. I worked for him to start with and then we ended up in business together. There were about twelve employees back then, twenty or so years later that had blossomed to about three hundred. I’d well gone by then.
Between 1996/97 he sailed around the world on the BT Global Challenge. He says “I was interviewed by Chay Blyth at the Royal Ocean Racing club, he asked a couple of questions and then said, OK you can go. I had to ask him to clarify whether I could go on the race or whether he was asking me to leave”.
“It was a fantastic life changing, life affirming adventure that has given me enough sailing stories to bore people to death for the rest of my life”.
I know another side of this story, I ran the business that year in Ian’s absence.
I moved to New Zealand and he visited several times, the last time he visited was with his wife to be, the biographer Clare Mulley. I was best man at their wedding. We always catch up whenever I’m back in the UK and he’s one of the few friends on this side of the world that I regularly catch up with on the phone.
On the Monday my head is unbagged. Cocktail sticks are inserted either side of my eyes. Ears magically appear. I feel like a reverse version of Mr Potato Head.
Ian tells me he’s always kept up with the life drawing, even when he was at his busiest business wise. When he finally left the recruitment business he studied under Anne Curry a classically trained sculptor. He explains that she taught him that each section of a figurative sculpture is like drawing a horizon, once one is complete then you move around a few inches to a new horizon. He says because of the life drawing he took to figurative sculpting like a duck to water.
Of Anne he says “she’s an immensely talented, beautiful, but strict French woman in her early seventies, if she criticized me my heart would sink, if she complimented me my heart would soar. She was at the unveiling of my large figurative piece The Children of Calais – she was so proud”.
After working with Anne he went to university at the age of 45 and studied fine art. He loved the experience and came out with a first-class degree. He went to Anglia Ruskin, mainly because it was close to his home.
One of the best things, he says, was being able to have breakfast with his three daughters, something that business life with the obligatory commute, precluded. They range in age from seventeen to eleven. Ian and his wife enjoy a very close and candid relationship with the girls. They discuss stuff that doesn’t always get aired in families; politics, science, literature and art of course – all with a sprinkling of humour.
After my ears arrive, work starts on my eyes. Ian teaches some sculpture in schools and he says the students often assume that eyes will be easy and ears will be difficult. For him he says it’s the other way around. He tells me he often has to start again with eyes, but luckily for me, mine come out alright.
He decided early on that I should have a serious face. I would describe myself as light-hearted, but I suppose I might have a serious side. My wife definitely believes that by now Ian has captured this. Apparently I can look slightly intimidating and now I’m looking at myself – I see what they mean.
Hair has arrived now in a large clay Tintin tuft on the top of my head, my vain side hopes that he will give me a bit more where the ever enlarging solar panel is at the back . My hope is of course – in vain.
Ian has won prizes for his work. The first was whilst he was still a student when he won the Sustainability Art Prize for Lest We Forget, a political piece commenting on climate change denial that consisted of a constructed memorial that had oil running down its face to be recollected and returned to the top. It was mentioned in several of the dailies and one of the climate change deniers mentioned on it got all silly about it in his Spectator column. Quite a coup for a graduating artist, if not exactly a young one. Another, Lord Monkton, threatened to sue and arrived at the gallery intent on destroying it.
Art Schools in the UK don’t teach students to paint or sculpt – though the corresponding institutions in France still do. They teach students to interrogate their work and Ian went deep with busts, looking at their history and meaning. He tells me that there are more public busts in the UK for men called John than there are for named women who aren’t Queen Victoria. A reflection of the patriarchal nature of public sculpture, men rewarding men, by awarding themselves immortality.
He thinks of himself as a conceptual artist. The next prize that he won was in the Video Art and Performance Category at the Arte Laguna in Venice. This was for a purely conceptual artwork entitled The Holy See Gets It. It’s a choral piece. He commissioned the music from Chloe Evans, the words themselves come from a UN report into the Vatican’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse of children.
The jury’s statement probably summed it up best; ‘ability to analyse and deal with a current social issue in an original and brilliant way. The performance turns out to be a complete research work in every aspect: the music, the text, the critical use of a sacred element.’
The latest prize was at the Rome Biennale where Ian combined his figurative sculpture in a kinetic conceptual piece called The Ectoplasm of Self Delusion.
“It came straight out of my investigation of figurative art. This idea that largely its men doing their bid for immortality. The men in that position have risen to the top in their sector, business, politics, whatever. They’d say they were first amongst equals. They’ve had every possible advantage, male, white, not discriminated against, money, recipients of this considerable advantage, and lets face it I was one of those people. I was aware I was one of those white males”.
The latter part of the statement I was pleased to hear before I asked. Ian acknowledging that he occupies that space, but is still able to see it. In fact because he is there, he is perhaps more qualified to take the piss. He certainly can’t be accused of appropriation – cultural or otherwise.
It is a piece he is pleased about, it uses figurative heads of course and about 200 kilos of Vaseline, rising from busts one on top of the other, it continually oozes out. Representing he says “their own nonsense and them believing it”. He adds that it is innately funny working with Vaseline!
At some point in the afternoon he got the measuring calipers out and decided my jaw line was too narrow. That was quickly fixed with the smooth application of more clay. My father was a potter and every now and then I’d pick up pieces that have been discarded and rub them between my finger and thum and smell it. It took me back nearly fifty years to the family business.
Ian and Jacs have life models booked daily and this afternoon Dominique is back. I head off to the other side of the property to get on with my writing before we reconvene for dinner.
Tuesday is our last day and we’re due to finish. We each faff around for a while before I’m instructed to sit. My nostrils are evacuated, my hair is finished, the furrows on my brow are examined and inserted – and then we’re done. I think I sat for approximately seven hours.
I ask Ian about where he’s going with his film making. He’s made a few very short pieces and one longer one where he commissioned and worked with an experienced director. He’d like to do more but acknowledges that he has an awful lot to learn. He’s keen though.
We talk about what success to him as an artist is. He readily admits that he’s not commercial, that his work is more political. “And also, lets face it” he says “who wants an enormous tub of Vaseline churning around in their living room”.
He acknowledges that on the one hand he’s lucky because of his business career he doesn’t need to be making sales. On the other side though he had thirty years of business when he could have been making art. He’s still the chairman of a company and says he has actually enjoyed working more closely with that business more recently. The figurative work enables him to keep his hand in. The conceptual side needs more time investment.
Sailing has taken a back seat lately as has running and cycling. He’s just too busy, though this man doesn’t like sitting still. There’s a current project to get 16,000 trees planted outside Saffron Walden, the number chosen because it’s the number of people that live there. The town is also the site of his figurative piece the Children of Calais. A response to the refugee crisis and made in the image of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. This life-size piece depicts six children, one of whom holds a lifejacket rather than the key in the original.
He talks about other potential businesses, artworks to be made and his fascination with figurative heads and how he just loves making them. I get the feeling that the heads provide a glue of sorts that join the rest of his worlds together. Then I see it from the other side, they’re not a glue, maybe they’re a buffer that somehow keep his disparate worlds from colliding. Head space perhaps.
We photograph the head with and without Ian and myself in shot then we take a picnic lunch to Lustrac. We swim in the river and enjoy the early autumn sun. The two artists sketch and I write. In the afternoon we return to the house and studio.
Lucas is the model this evening and I take on the kitchen duties, cook dinner, open a bottle of wine and light a fire; for when they’ve finished.
Ians website click here.
He is available for figurative commissions.