An interview with the UK's foremost wildlife sculptor
HAMISH MACKIE ( b.1973)
Interview by Kerry Betsworth
Photography on site at the foundry in Oxfordshire by Dan Stevens
“Sorry, can I call you back I’ve got a tractor just arrived who’s delivering a horse”. It turns out later that this is one of his spectacular, bronze sculptures of an Andalucian Stallion which is going off to be placed at Stowe House. When he calls me back, we clear up the confusion – no not a real live horse - and laugh about how every artist needs a tractor. The quick-speaking, energetic and affable Mackie then begins to shares his thoughts on taking part in GOOD NATURE.
Hamish Mackie is an artist who doesn’t skate on top of nature, he is deeply rooted in it, experiencing and in contact with it on a daily basis. He grew up on a farm in Cornwall and has the practical knowledge of what it is to be part of and survive in nature. He tells me of early memories of a cockerel’s death where he became mesmerised by the anatomy of the bird, and was moved to sculpt it at school. He tells too the tale of a calf with a twisted gut that his father gave him responsibility to care for and rehabilitate. The 12 year old Mackie remembers fondly how the calf would follow him all over the farm, even up to the top of the hay stacks – ‘besties’ he says.
Later, his fascination with wildlife grew and became the major influence for his work as sculptor. Since 1998 he has travelled widely to observe, draw and sculpt wildlife in some of the world’s most remote landscapes. He lists Africa, Australia and Antartica as continents he visits to observe a vast array of wildlife. He is a 21st century explorer with an aim to capture a moment of a wild creature’s existence in its own environment.
This is something Mackie considers himself lucky to be able to do. Artists in the past would have to go to the zoo but now he can observe animals in the raw, living and responding to the natural world around them. He sees the landscapes as fundamental to how an animal exists and survives. Both co-exist and when it is correct “Nature is nature” he states “It is neither good nor bad, it just is”. The essence of his work is capturing this honest, if fleeting, moment.
He is not apologetic in that he believes there is a need to conserve the wildlife and natural kingdoms. He talks about his long and deep interest in the elephants he has observed in Liuwa, Africa. He comments that huge strides have been made in environmental practice from the days when he first travelled there over 20 years ago. Then they were unreconstructed cattle farms, driven by commerce. Now those farms have become environmentally focused, empowered to conserve and protect. TUSK is an organization that he has always supported, driven by his experiences and observations of human and wildlife in conflict there.
The natural world outside our shores may seem spectacular with its powerful tigers, lions and rhinos but he comments that there are wonders close to home too. We talk of his recent trip to the Isle of Ulver, where he took time to study deer.
His piece for GOOD NATURE is a pair of boxing hares. For him, hares are an enduring and much loved image of the English landscape and one that is as important to him as the elephants in Lowea.
He tells me that he regularly re-visits the subject, attracted by their dynamism and athletic shapes. “I use my interpretations of hares as a benchmark for my artistic development and technical scope”. This piece has provided him with an opportunity to ‘take bronze casting to its structural limits’. The light-footed hares are mid-kick with limbs only contacted in two places.
I ask him if the he thinks artists have a role in bringing nature to our attention and highlighting its shifting affects. “Yes” he simply states. Artists have long taken inspiration from nature and the natural world and without it there wouldn’t be a channel through which to create. He feels they have a duty of care to reveal its beauty and fragility. In doing so the next generation too can find inspiration - “It would be criminal to let it go on our watch” he says.
He does though hold out some hope for the future and thinks that the human race is slowly waking up to the realities and consequences of preserving nature. For him, the demands of his studio and the making of work in the foundry have meant that he cherishes his time in the wild all the more. In his view there’s too much rushing today and it can mean we miss out on what’s going on in the environment. Humans need to get back to the place they originated and take stock.
27 May - 17 June
Touched by the pathos of humanity in the world we inhabit, here is a body of work deeply felt and observed. ‘Yearning’ is a word that resonates with nomadic artist Pippa Blake, and it’s not hard to see why when you view her soulful, touching paintings. Her work often lingers in the darkness, as small pools of light appear and illuminate or ignite a curiosity about her chosen subject. Blake is constantly searching as she investigates and explores her vision of the world.
QUEST, seems an apt title for her solo show, which takes a look at a body of work from the last ten years. Her subjects are inspired by dramatic geographical and man-made features; from gorges and wastelands to figures glimpsed. Her enigmatic paintings evoke a sense of mystery and mood and for her they “are outer expressions of her inner feelings”.
Blake’s work is immensely atmospheric, perhaps melancholic but there is something always exquisite in the moment or scene that she captures – a soulfulness. Her work is able to suspend us in a place where reflection and stillness can happen. “I have always felt deeply. Light and dark is integral to my work. I look to the horizon and am fascinated by what might be beyond”. Many of her pieces are observed from a distance, often on travels – in cars, aboard planes, on walks – the world Blake shares with us is one that is seen to be going on about us but one in which we only watch, peripheral, not disrupting, hidden.
This is in contrast to the way in which Blake makes her paintings. She comments that she “loves the physical process of gestural mark making”. She tells me that she puts her whole body into it – left to right, up and down - the larger the canvas the better. For her painting is a very visceral and immersive act and this commitment remains vital to her practice. Music too fuels her creativity and she has a passion for blues, jazz and Bach. Her current obsession, in the studio, is Wagner’s overture to Tannhauser.
Art has always been part of Blake’s life. Her grandmother and mother were both potters and artists and she was encouraged from an early age to be creative. Her childhood on the shores of Chichester Harbour was spent messing about in boats, walking on the South Downs, and today remain places that fuel her work. She attended both Camberwell School of Art and later West Dean College. She sites Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn as influences and her early abstract art school work was influenced by an exhibition of Islamic art at the Hayward Gallery.
A critical moment came for her when her then tutor squared off an inch of wall “and made me sit and paint it”. I suddenly realised I was making a painting and that it was totally valid as a piece of work”. Later, her MA tutor Dr. Ed Winters was pivotal to her artistic development as she began to move towards an aesthetic inspired by words shared with her “The landscape can be but a metaphor for the mind and its contents”.
Blake is something of a rover and adventurer so it was no surprise when life found her criss-crossing seas and continents, at times living on boats and making other lands her temporary home. In this time, she experienced both deep personal joy and pain, which has sometimes spilled into public life, with the tragic death of her much admired husband, yachtsman Sir Peter Blake.
Throughout her life though, she tells me that she has always felt drawn to the darker side of the human experience. She was much affected by the poetry of the war poets, particularly one of her literary heroes Wilfred Owen, at school. A line from his poem Strange Meeting has long resonated with her and war is a theme to which she continues to return. She was recently appointed artist in residence for Chichester Festival Theatre to respond to the play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me that explored a hostage experience. Today she continues to watch, collect and remain fascinated with the images of conflict in the Middle East and the response and reaction of the people it affects and the adversity they face.
Journeys are also a repeating theme for Blake. Her Road series, was inspired by drives at night to and from West Dean College. She was touched by the loneliness of travelling in darkness. Recent travels have led to the creation of her newest series Flightpath. She comments that so often “we zoom past the world but for me, when I’m in the air, I am acutely aware that there is a whole world down there and people getting on with their lives and dramas”. The poignancy of this thought, and the unknown circumstances or conditions of the people below, are what she feels moved by and is expressing when she paints.
Blake’s mastery of mark making, gestural strokes and the suggestion of form and line are evident across the work. She tells me that she has a sheer love of paint, always oil, for its “…quality, richness and texture” and intuitively mixes her colours to get the tonal effect that helps to give her work such mystery. For her painting is not easy and she comments that “I constantly question why I do it. People often say it must be relaxing to be able to paint but for me it is a struggle but one that I can’t help doing’.
This show may be something of a crossroads for her as she contemplates where she will go next, not just in the world but also with her painting. She sees it as a wonderful opportunity to overview her work and is curious as to what questions or answers it may draw out. So, just for a moment, we shall suspend here, somewhere between the light and dark, and take time to see what might be revealed before this remarkable painter continues on with her quest.
In Seven Days... & The Dance of Colour
We are delighted to welcome back to the gallery Nicola Green, a contemporary artist with a unique eye focused on the movements and people that lead and represent us in modern times. She is forensic in her observation, questing in her curiosity and unceasing in her commitment to creating and gathering vast visual records on each of her subjects before she enters her studio to create the portrait, or series, that she seeks.