Suffolk sculptor Laurence Edwards says goodbye to Butley with figure in the landscape
The Suffolk landscape has both inspired and physically shaped the work of sculptor Laurence Edwards. As a new exhibition opens in London, arts editor Andrew Clarke discovers the artist’s world is undergoing a profound change
Suffolk sculptor Laurence Edwards is preparing to say ‘goodbye’ to one of the most inspirational locations in the county. His departure from his studio complex at Butley Creek coincides with the opening of his latest exhibition at Messum’s gallery in London.
Over the last three years Laurence’s iconic bronze sculptures have caught the eye and imaginations of the London art market and Laurence has outgrown his current studio facilities and is moving to a larger, more industrial complex outside Halesworth.
“It’s taken 25 years to be an overnight success,” he laughs, “But, it means I can pursue some of my more ambitious projects. Work on a much larger scale and for that I need space and sadly, although I love Butley, and it has fed my creative imagination for the last 15 years. It is time to move on.”
But, Laurence is not leaving without marking his departure with a suitably touching gift. His work centres around people and the landscape. His bronze figures are sculpted from organic material. Mud, twigs, brambles, branches and leaf-litter are woven together to create an impression of humanity being formed from the landscape and being part of the landscape.
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Laurence is ceremonially marking his departure by sinking a full-sized bronze figure into the mud at Butley Creek, so this organic looking figure will be beneath the surface at high tide and slowly be revealed as the water level drops.
Laurence’s work has always been about space and form. In the past his work has been very solid. They have been very human-looking figures striding across the landscape as The Carrier did at this year’s Alde Valley Festival, carrying a hefty pile of sticks and branches, or the spectral figures of The Creek Men wandering through the reed beds at Snape during the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival and Snape Proms.
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“If I wasn’t leaving Butley I would have never stuck a figure out in the mud-flats but I needed to create a book-end to The Creek Men which is all about survival and saying: ‘I am here’. This forms a link, it joins Raedwald and the Sutton Hoo burials and it’s very much a Suffolk thing. It’s made from the mud and the material from the earth. It’s about leaving. About respecting the past. It’s about saying goodbye before I deal with arriving somewhere new.”
As you walk around the foundry, you pick your way over a mountain range of shattered plaster as Laurence’s colleagues hammer away at the moulds revealing the still hot bronze inside.
The one element that remains a constant surprise is how organic Laurence’s metal figures remain. Leaves, twigs and wooden material still look organic even when you know they are cast in bronze. The texture and the detail fool your senses, even when your head knows they are metal.
I cannot resist rapping my knuckles on a figure formed from a convincing-looking pile of branches and am still surprised when I hear the inevitable ‘clang’ when bone hits bronze.
Laurence’s move to Halesworth coincides with a change in his approach to sculpture. His formerly very weighty figures are now looking more ephemeral.
Recent work has started to explore the space between matter. He has started to experiment with dissolution and dissipation of form.
Walking around his workshop at Butley, as he starts his removal process, he explains that he is intrigued to discover the point at which we stop recognising a figure as human. His figures are increasingly composed of leaves and the composition becomes looser. “I am starting to play with negative spaces.”
His work is also getting bigger which is one of the reasons behind his unexpected move to a Halesworth industrial estate.
“This studio has been fine but I need to make my sculptures in pieces just to get them out the door and then join them together. As the work gets bigger, I have to make more pieces and it obviously works better if I make fewer, larger pieces. A life-sized cast is made in ten sections. In my new place it will be made in two.
“Also I share foundry space here with my fellow artists and we need to stagger our pours and we need storage space and it can get a little crowded and our timing and scheduling needs to be spot on. Kiln space is limited and you may have a deadline but you can’t pull rank because someone else’s work is just as important as yours.
“Although I love it here, I feed on the landscape here, and I love the people I work alongside but I feel the time has come for me to move on. It’s breaking my heart but I need my own space. I’ve been here for 15 years and it feels very much like home to me.
“I had ten years at Laxfield before that. Life comes in a series of phases and this feels like the start of a new phase. The time feels right to make, not exactly a new start but to expand in new directions.”
He says his new foundry has a crane and roller doors to accommodate the creation of increasingly large pieces of sculpture. “I am very excited about the new space because it will make the construction of these large pieces so much easier.”
He says the current exhibition in London marks a point of transition. “It’s the third in a trilogy of shows and this is the big one. I think the work has gained in strength, I have a studio in Saxmundham where I can think about what I am doing. I can experiment, I can make mistakes, make a fool of myself, without anyone watching and I can learn and develop and the work has benefited.
“Normally if you are casting you are cautious and careful because the act of creation is an exhibiting process from the word go. You feel reluctant to take a chance because you don’t want to look an idiot if it goes wrong. But, it is important to make mistakes because you learn from things that don’t go right, sometimes more than if they emerge perfectly and you don’t fully understand why. So, having the privacy and time to go experiment is important – or as I say to go back and play as a child. Do something and see what happens.”
He says he also has to recognise and be willing to respond to happy accidents. “I was working on a piece recently, blow-torching the wax away when suddenly it caught fire and started to collapse. I put a fire extinguisher on it and once I was able to step back and look at it afresh, I realised that it only started telling a real story after it showed the effects of the fire.
“I find that mistakes or happy accidents add to the beauty of a piece. It’s all part of the creative process.” He says that time is an important part of his creative process. He says that you have to live with a piece of work to really understand it.
“There are times when I make something and I don’t really know what I have created. I have to live with it to understand it. I don’t want to immediately have to defend it. In art school you make something and you immediately have to defend it. You can’t say: ‘I don’t understand it myself’. Sometimes you can’t think too much and just let your hands take you on a journey.”
He says that months later he will look at a series of pieces and recognise a subconscious thread or theme running through a whole series of works.
Laurence is thrilled to have developed a relationship with London audiences. “The three shows have been very different. It’s been all about developing a conversation and then a relationship with people who didn’t know me or my work. They didn’t know Suffolk and the landscape which inspires my work.
“The first show was all about getting to know the gallery and my new audience and letting them get to know me. So I offered a real smorgasbord of work and seeing what they liked. I wanted to know if my passion aligned with theirs.
“I was pleased that they then bought some interesting work which meant that the second show was more of a consolidation. This latest exhibition is a real statement about who I am as an artist and what I am doing now. I see it as a statement of intent. This is the work that I intend to develop in my new studio space. This is the work that will expand and grow. I feel that I need to work on a bigger scale and the move will allow me to do that.”