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Sculpting Lives: New Podcast on Women Sculptors

Jo Baring, photograph by Phil Adams

By MELANIE FURTADO, April 2020

There couldn’t be a better time to dive into a new podcast, especially one as relatable and intriguing as Sculpting Lives. Created by London duo Jo Baring, director of the Ingram Collection, and Sarah Turner, director of the Paul Mellon Centre; the podcast gives us insight into the careers and lives of women making sculpture in a completely fresh way. I met with Jo Baring over Zoom to discuss the ideas behind the creation of this podcast in more depth.

Listen to the Podcast: https://audioboom.com/channels/5014385

Follow @sculptinglives on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sculptinglives/

MELANIE FURTADO: How would you describe Sculpting Lives?  

JO BARING: Sculpting Lives is a podcast about women sculptors. The first series is made up of five women artists and each episode is biographical but we try and weave in other issues about being an artist, being a woman, how you combine family and career, ideas of success, visibility, the importance of exhibitions, how you navigate your own career, and also definitions of sculpture.  

MF: How did you select the artists to feature? 

JB: We are shining a light on people who haven't had as much visibility as they probably ought to have had. We also included a variety of women from different backgrounds. So Rana Begum was born in Bangladesh and came to Britain as a child in the ’80s, and she talks about racism and identity and how that feeds into her work, and also her religion.  

We also wanted to cover different reputations. We didn't just want to choose women who everyone’s heard of like Barbara Hepworth; we wanted artists who’d had very different career arcs. Elisabeth Frink was hugely successful as a younger artist. The Tate bought her work just after she’d left her degree show. Then she had a lot of problems with the critics; she didn't get the museum shows that she wanted to have or that her early promise might have suggested she would, and we wanted to explore that.  

And then someone like Phyllida Barlow goes the other way. In the episode, we say that up until about 10 years ago she was the greatest sculptor that no one had ever heard of. We asked her about her increased visibility and the impact that’s had on her work. 

We wanted to get a really good spread, so we looked at the work they’re making, materials, reputation, age and race.

Portrait of Rana Begum

MF: How did you come to collaborate with Sarah Turner, and what inspired you to start this?  

JB: Lots of people had said to me, you must meet Sarah Turner; you’d get on really well. And people had been saying that to her; you must meet Jo. We went out for lunch and everyone was right; we just got on brilliantly. It was like a blind date. 

It was kind of extraordinary because we said, listen, we both really want to do a podcast – why don’t we do one together? And it just kind of happened. We felt that in our professional lives we’d both come across really interesting people - museum directors, curators, artists, artists’ families, and had conversations that we felt were interesting. And wouldn't it be great to put all that together and disseminate that in some way? The podcast is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and they were also interested in this idea of disseminating new information.  

MF: What was it that inspired you to focus specifically on women and on sculpture?

JB: Well, I'm a complete sculpture geek and so is Sarah. On our first lunch, we were talking about how much we loved sculpture and how it’s kind of fascinating that some of the most visible British women artists are sculptors. For example, Phyllida Barlow who’s represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. 

Phyllida said when she was a student at Chelsea there was a sign up saying “No ladies in the welding room”. It’s extraordinary that it was only 40 years ago that you could do a sculpture course and yet you’re not allowed to handle those heavy or dangerous materials. 

Also the idea of sculpture fed into lifestyle because you have to have a physical space to make this work. People say sculpture is a hard choice; it’s expensive to make. It’s ambitious. And then all the other things about kind of being a woman, potentially having a family, it was something that we wanted to explore. 

There’s a really good quote in these new-found letters from Hepworth where apparently she was just crying all the time; she found it so hard. She said “I have to do an hour’s work every day to keep me sane”. I think we can all relate to that, can't we?  

Anne Barlow, the director of Tate St Ives, talks about that in the Rana episode and said these are all issues which she’s aware of as a museum director – that mid-career women artists are dealing with all this and it never gets spoken about. Well, it gets spoken about when everyone is having a glass of wine at the end of the day. But never openly.  

Elisabeth Frink with Soldiers Head, courtesy of the Frink Estate

MF: Were there any commonalities in how gender affected the approach of the artists?

JB: The only thing that they had in common, particularly the earlier subjects, is that they don't want to talk about gender at all. Absolutely shut down any conversations about it. That is particularly relevant to Barbara Hepworth and to Elisabeth Frink. 

Phyllida talks about an incident at Chelsea when her tutor said to her “because you’re a woman I'm not going to bother with you”. But she takes that as almost a challenge and becomes more determined. And then you go to Rana, who was very happy to talk about gender, she’s also talking about race, she’s talking about religious prejudice she’s encountered, and she’s also talking about balancing children, whereas earlier on it was just judge me for my work, nothing else.  

MF: What’s your perspective on the idea that focusing on gender can almost be a disservice, for example saying a woman artist instead of simply an artist?

JB: I do feel that the sculptors that we’re talking about should just be considered as sculptors, as artists. Even when I do the Sculpting Lives Instagram, I don’t use #womanartists; I just use #artists. I totally see why Bridget Riley famously says, “I'm not a woman artist; I'm an artist.” 

So we were really aware of that, but there are issues involved in being a woman and being a sculptor that we wanted to explore.  

MF: During your research, did you discover anything that really surprised you?

JB: What really surprised us was the fact that there are 80 works by Kim Lim in public collections in the UK and yet no one’s ever heard of her. Hammad Nasar, the senior research fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre, had done a lot of work on visibility of people from different backgrounds and he had come to the conclusion that if you were in public collections, that’s how you enter the narrative. So it was a huge surprise to him and to us because it changes your ideas about how you enter the canon, and become part of the story.  

MF: What do you hope that your audience is going to take away with them after listening to this podcast?  

JB: Inspiration from the artists that we’re talking about. I was really surprised by the number of women who message us saying “I have this on when I'm working in my studio”. It’s actually contemporary artists who are really engaged with it. 

We were careful with the podcast so it wasn’t just an analysis of form and traditional art history. We’ve weaved in biography and the places where they worked and really practical issues about money, studio space, dealers, and how you navigate the demands on your time. So those practical things were important issues that we raised and I hope that other people listening don't feel alone in negotiating those.  

MF: What does the future hold?

JB: As soon as lockdown is over, we’re going to do some Sculpting Lives shorts where we’ll be going to exhibitions and interviewing curators and maybe artists. And we’ve already started planning series two. We’ve got lots of contemporary women artists that are on our list that we would like to talk about.  

MF: That’s fantastic. I can't wait. WM 

Melanie Furtado

 Melanie Furtado is a contemporary sculptor from the Westcoast of Canada. She is currently artist-in-residence at Jour et Nuit Culture in Paris, France. You can find her on Instagram @melanie.furtado and at www.melaniefurtado.com

 

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