Vanessa Pooley FRBS (Fellow of the British Society of Sculptors)
Looking back, I can see the route that led me to be a bronze sculptor.
I’ve always been intrigued by the shape and symbolism of the female body. I remember at nursery school doing drawings of female figures again and again. The figures were wearing those fabulous triangular-shaped dresses that symbolise ‘female'.
I loved doing these drawings - and looked forward to nursery each day until the teacher banned me from doing any more drawing and insisted I do ‘proper’ work - maths, writing and reading.
Later, at about 10, I dug raw clay from the beach at Walberswick in Suffolk. It was rough and pocketed with small stones and sand, none-the-less, it was malleable enough to sculpt. So I took it home to work with. I formed rather stylised female heads with long straight noses and nice hair! They were 'cooked' in the top oven of the Aga and then painted. Painting them was a bit like getting my first hands on make up…
I put my best one up for sale at Walberswick’s summer fete. It was an odd sculptured head, with no sense of a neck. It had black hair that curled up circling the head almost making an ashtray opportunity.
I was thrilled when a sweet old lady bought it. Her name was Mrs Gold and after that we became friends. It was exciting to go alone to visit her low thatched cottage on a side road I had never been down before.
She must have been very cultured and her house was a contrast to our no frills family home. She had numerous dark oil paintings on the walls each with a light above and also possessed a grand piano. Not long after we became friends she told me she was ill - she had stomach cancer - and she only allowed me to visit her once more in hospital before she died.
Looking back I can see how kind she was. I met her first disguised as a fortune teller at that same village fete. She was one of the stand out people from then who I felt took me seriously. The memorable thing she said at the fortune telling was that although there was a ‘black cloud’ at that moment, it would pass. I suppose she could see that I was feeling lost and lonely. I wonder if she realised the power of her encouragements.
Somewhat later I went on to make standing female figures. One, an odd figure in a long fluted bright yellow dress with flowing hair. My older brother bought it. Small events I suppose but they really did boost me in a difficult time.
An influential teacher
The Hewitt School 6th-form head of art was Mr Forward. Huge, approachable, and wonderfully unshockable, Hugh Forward was gentle and kind with a prominent sense of humour.
My twin sister had just left home and I was very lonely and lacking in confidence. Mr Forward invited me to his adult education ceramic class, where all sorts of students would work away quietly at their private obsessions. A sullen bearded psychiatrist made fantastical boats of intense invention. A charming dainty woman made tiny figures which she 'protected' from the dangers of the kiln by skewering them through and through so that no air was trapped.
At that class I made a number of autobiographical sculptures, working out some of my personal issues in the clay I suppose. Some were of groups of figures, as I thought about the various relationships around me.
I was disappointed when I found someone else would be getting the annual school art prize, but then Mr Forward gave me a book, The Primal Scream, in which he wrote “The Hewett School Art Department Prize 1976”, and told me that it was the 'real’ prize.
After finishing school I went study Sociology at York University. Sociology seemed a safer and more respectable an option than going to art college.
But after only a term I realised sociology really wasn’t for me, and meeting up with an old friend I bemoaned my fate about not going to art college. He asked WHY didn’t I go - if I was serious why not find a way? I am so grateful to him for asking the question. With the help and encouragement of my old teacher Mr Forward I managed to change course -- and thus began a Fine Art foundation course at Norwich Art College.
I can’t have been the most popular student with the staff there because I spent very little time in the foundation department and more in the liferoom with the painting degree students.That’s where I had my first life drawing experience and I spent the rest of the year continuously drawing from the model, an important stage for anyone who wants to work figuratively.
After that year I managed to get a place on a Sculpture degree course, again at Norwich Art School. At that time, the style of work encouraged in most sculpture courses was not figurative but working with abstract forms. I was in a rebel group of students who organised a model to work from, and the college eventually generously paid the modelling fees.
Although I honestly did try to do some work unconnected with the figure, in the end my degree show was all figurative sculptures.
Going to London
Next I found a place on a postgraduate course at City and Guilds of London Art School, then run by Sir Roger de Grey. There the attitude to sculpture was a contrast to that at Norwich. The main sculpture studio was really the life-room and all the sculptors were expected to work on life size figures directly from the model.
At City and Guilds I learnt many of the skills I would need as a bronze sculptor - how to make armatures to hold up the clay or plaster, how to measure and balance the figure and how to make plaster moulds for casting.
Following the postgraduate year I found living in London tough financially. However I was delighted to find there were colleges like the Sir John Cass, in the East End, which ran cheap classes and where there were clay facilities and models to work from. I continued to work there on sculpture in a small way, making ceramic figures and firing them at the ceramics department whilst doing part-time jobs to keep going.
In 1984 I organised an exhibition for myself in Southwark Cathedral. I worked hard for this, my first exhibition, and with the encouragement of an older and more experienced artist I learnt the arrangements necessary to create a functioning exhibition.
The show at the cathedral was a watershed. For the first time I sold work - since those two tiny sales in my childhood, that is. It astonished me that people were prepared to exchange my sculptures for real money. It gave me an enormous boost of confidence and helped me see it might be possible to keep working professionally as a bronze sculptor.
From then on
Gradually the exhibition opportunities have grown and a number of galleries have invited me to show with them. I have exhibited widely from London, Milan, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, San Diego, Zurich, Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Sherborne and of course my home town Norwich.
I continue to get a thrill when people buy my sculptures because to me its means the work is really appreciated.
I returned to Norfolk in 1997 and strangely have ended up in the old house I grew up in, but now with my art therapist husband and our two boys.
The local interest in my work has been fantastic and continues to grow. I now exhibit regularly through several galleries, organise my own exhibitions and occasionally have invitation-only open studios. My work as a bronze sculptor continues to develop and sometimes I have to pinch myself that being a sculptor and being free to do exactly the work I want to do is not a dream - I never thought it would be possible and can't imagine doing anything more enjoyable.