Ceramics Monthly’s Working Sculptors issue is coming up in January, so today I thought I would give you a sneak peek at one of the sculptors in the issue. In this excerpt, sculptor Paul Day shares the path he took to a successful art career. Paul started out in the working world as a bank manager trainee, but quickly realized that the world of “serious” people was not for him.
So he went back to art school and never looked back (except maybe with a little amusement when his first major commission was for the president of a bank!). Read on to learn about the lessons he has learned along the way – including one piece of advice you probably wouldn’t expect to see on a ceramics website! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Before becoming an art student I spent two years as a bank manager trainee. This early taste of working life in the office was sufficient to inoculate me against further flushes of desire to penetrate the world of business and commerce. My one undeniable strength at school had been with art and so, was I to leave a “serious” employment to study art, there was no question that art would be the way for me to make a living and thus avoid a return to that other world of “serious” people.
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I have made sculpture for a living practically from the day I left art school. My degree show sold well, which gave me some confidence in my ability to survive as an artist, and I had won a private commission while studying, which meant six months paid work to make a large relief sculpture. The client was so pleased with the result that she simply doubled my fee on delivery. The satisfaction of producing my first serious commission was only surpassed by my surprise at this act of deliberate generosity on the part of my client. The commission was followed by a local museum exhibition where my work again sold very well—at very low prices, of course. However, the museum sales were sufficient to enable my wife and I to buy a small house in France and start from scratch, but under our own roof. Twenty odd years later and I seem to be able to continue selling reasonably well, well enough in fact to pay a full-time employee who makes molds for me and does odd jobs.
There doesn’t seem to be a profile for my buyers. People sometimes buy because they stumble upon an exhibition or upon one of my public monuments. My galleries do not sell very well; in fact, I need to put together a group of galleries that will really work hard and will market the sculpture, actually tracking down potential buyers. Most galleries, it seems to me, just wait for people to walk in off the street and this is insufficient—particularly in the current climate. I have been immensely fortunate in being commissioned to work on large public and private sculpture projects that have kept my workshop alive for the last 12 years. Without these commissions, the gallery sales would have been insufficient and so I would have pursued other outlets.
While at art school, I believed in hard work and spending long hours in the studio. I knew that I only had a modest ability but felt that practice would make up for that weakness. I was lucky to find a direction for my art very early on in my career. Relief sculpture became my central interest 21 years ago and it remains my chief concern today. That has allowed me to make a name for myself in an artistic niche. I still work long hours and struggle to find inspiration for my modeling. I have never had difficulty in coming up with ideas for sculpture, it’s more the problem of lazy execution that bothers me most. I tend to rush things. My life as a sculptor has taken me to places I never dreamt of visiting, not so much distant places, but audiences with the Queen of England and banquets with Lords and politicians. Oddly enough, having started out a lackey at a bank, my first major commission was for the president of a bank. Being an artist has moved me into a bizarre social space where I am not really in any form of hierarchy at all. I can be grinding bronze on the foundry floor or sipping cocktails with the Prince of Wales and it’s simply all part of the same job.
The biggest challenge I have faced in my work was due to my own obstinance and not the scale of the work itself. I had decided to fire all the original clay work for my Battle of Britain London Monument. This included a group of life size running pilots sculpted in the round and surging out of the relief surface. I could so easily have built a standard armature and then wasted the clays after casting but instead of this, I worked out a suspended system of wooden armature that could be dismantled during the hollowing out process, thus enabling me to support the figures during modeling and allowing me to saw up the armature during dismantling. The figures developed like puppets as I added limbs and suspended new sections of armature from the ceiling of my studio. The flaws in my system only became apparent when I started to remove the figures in bits for hollowing and firing.
Arms and legs posed no problem but bodies were a different matter all together. They required a great deal of cosmetic surgery after hollowing due to the inevitable distortion as they had their innards removed and after firing were still impossibly heavy to lift. Next time I will simply accept to destroy the originals. The trauma was too great to want to repeat.
After having suffered from a stiff neck and trapped nerves (quite painful) due to over working in a fixed position, I became aware of the necessity of moving and maintaining some other form of physical activity to keep up muscle strength and exercise those neglected parts of my body. To this end, I try and run or cycle several times a week. I now heat my studio during winter and generally look for comfort in what I do. I also manage several acres of countryside, which in turn keeps me exercised.
My advice to anyone interested in pursuing sculpture; don’t limit yourself to ceramics but consider editions in bronze and resin alongside the clay work. Ceramics has a limited appeal. I am not a ceramicist though. I trained in sculpture and I know nothing about glazing and firing etc. What I see is that many people do not want to spend money on an object as fragile as fired clay. If the image and idea is good, the material is practically irrelevant.
Paul Day lives and works in Sainte Sabine, France. To learn more about Paul and his work go to www.pauldaysculpture.com.