Patricia Volk was recently made a Fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, confirming her position as an outstanding visual artist working in painted fired clay. It is a term she much prefers to “ceramics”: in fact, it was only in learning about artists such as Kenneth Price who used the term to distinguish their work from craft, that she realised an entire modern movement pre-dated the practice she had evolved for herself.
Now, her sculptures – strikingly colourful forms – grace the collections of the likes of best-selling author Anthony Horowitz, former BAFTA chairman Simon Relph CBE, Lord Carrington and the television presenter Mary Portas. She has also been distinguished by having her work chosen as a Southern Arts Prize, and been exhibited in solo and mixed exhibitions all over the UK as well as abroad.
Born in Belfast, Volk studied art at Middlesex Polytechnic and Bath. As a child she’d always dreamt of going to art school, but considered the possibility totally remote for people like her, not only having extreme dyslexia, but in a school where the very idea of studying art was laughed at. She nevertheless came to England with the idea getting in somewhere to train in art, but as a one parent family, her main preoccupation was getting enough money to live on. Then, one night after not painting or drawing for fifteen years, she lifted up a pencil and started to draw. After building up a portfolio and applying to Art College, she got in as a mature student in her thirties, which she says was the most exciting time of her life, though, ultimately, she felt like a square peg in a round hole. It was only in setting up her own studio on the border of Wiltshire and Somerset did she find her unique voice and begin to thrive.
Having been brought up in Northern Ireland surrounded by Catholic imagery (though from a Protestant background), such cultural influences provided the springboard for her interest in making what she called modern icons. Pieces that reflect on religious and mythic archetypes.
At this time, being obsessed by creating an ongoing series of sculptural heads, she learned to let the material dictate, to a large extent, and became fascinated by the fact that a difference of a millimetre can make a huge change to the emotional impact and the elegance of a piece.
She then took the bold step, after ten years, of abandoning any figurative or representational element and focusing on “pure form”.
“What excites me, I discovered,” she says, “is the abstraction rather than trying to create a piece that represents or illustrates an idea you have beforehand. Really, working in clay is like play, and, being dyslexic, I have trouble expressing ideas in words, so I chose a medium where words aren’t necessary. Or, you could say, it chose me.”
As with many painters she admires, it is, for her, purely about finding an instinctive juxtaposition that works in the heart rather than the brain.
“You just put one colour against the other in a way that is satisfying or dynamic. It’s purely visual and non-intellectual. If there is a deeper meaning I like to think that is brought by the viewer: I don’t like to limit their experience by giving a sculpture a set explanation or description, if I can help it – if I do, I keep it as loose as possible, just a hint or pointer. Sometimes (only sometimes!) I know what is going on in my head, but more often I let my hands do the “thinking”. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – far from it, because I take a very long time to consider the exact colours and weigh them up. Some might watch my activity and indecision and quite honestly think it’s the total obsessiveness of a mad person. But that’s okay! I’m an artist. And nobody said this was an exact science. It’s nothing if not completely subjective and completely immersive.”
The decisions, though, she admits, are complex to articulate.
“There are so many influences, sometimes imagining a beautiful line, or using as a start point a curve I’ve used in the past. I like the thought that the pieces look light, and float – a contradiction to the obvious physical weight of clay. I like the idea of uplift. I’m adamant they should be viewed at eye level, by walking around and looking at them from different angles. The surface texture can work to make the flatness of colour more nuanced and less machine-manufactured looking, adding a natural edginess on a vivid unnatural blue, for instance. I always work on a series of pieces at the same time because of the nature of the material (you cannot rush it), but the finished product is defined by the time it is modelled which can be affected by all sorts of things: weather, temperature, my mood, and so on. If you pushed me to say, I would like the combination of non-figurative form and colour combination to set off a series of ideas in the viewer’s mind – tranquillity, elegance, power, sadness, rest, action, conflict, a sense of movement… all these things triggering human emotions of some kind.
But the idea of clay work routinely being deemed “craft” is a contentious issue for Volk, and something of a bête noir.
“I think a sculptor can have craft and imagination and be creative but there’s also craftspeople who are superb at what they do, but do not have the creative level of input. There are artists who are highly creative who do not have craft skills – they can literally phone somebody to make what they want, and that’s fine: in that case, the craftsman is at the service of an artist. It’s all about understanding your individual role and not being arrogant, not having a pretence to intellectual depth if it isn’t genuine or honest. It’s no good called a piece Baudelaire just so that it sounds super-important. That is nonsense. It’s the finished artwork that defines itself and either has quality or it doesn’t.”
We might recognise an aspect of African or Egyptian art in her work, or the modern art of the Memphis group, or even Australian aborigine designs, but Volk doesn’t wish to be limited by such direct reference points. As might be expected, her influences are wide-ranging, from contemporary big names to artists from the history of art or even the ancient world. Not excluding the shapes or colours she sees around her in everyday life – a clipping from a magazine, or the colours of pebbles on a beach in Scotland.
“Modigliani and Giacometti influenced me a lot when I was doing heads, as did the sculptors of the Renaissance. I think now there are an awful lot of abstract painters who are having a huge impact on me, simply because of the pared down nature of their work and sometimes it takes my breath away. The Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern blew me away, and the stillness and rigour of her work was incredibly inspiring. I love Jun Kaneko. Enormous big things with spots on them, so they really appeal to me. I understand them and make a connection, although I could never begin to analyse that connection in words. It’s a soul-to-soul connection, if anything. As if art bypasses the conscious mind completely.”
Her recent sculptures have been quite different in both scale and content. The methodology being to make a number of components for several pieces without knowing at all how they are going to go together. These are small by comparison to earlier work, but in many ways could be seen as maquettes for potentially huge pieces many times human height. It’s in such inventive, assertive ideas that Volk’s abstraction ascends to a level of unalloyed joy and it’s not unusual to see people smile when they first encounter her work, moved by the sheer liberation and dramatic gusto they exhibit in capturing the human spirit. But where does that impulse come from?
“I clearly remember the very first drawing I did when I was in junior school, and a teacher calling another teacher in to show her what I’d done, and I felt enormously proud. It caused such a lot of interest from the teachers, and in a way I may be trying to recapture that feeling of wellbeing and pleasure. In myself, and in others.”
To Volk, her pieces also reflect the fragile relationships of human beings, informed as they are by issues of strength and weakness, power and fragility. “One of my dreams is to do a series of shapes like the ribs of an animal, so that you would have them in a line in a room, and you would look through them, and each one would curve this way then that way, until you see to a big wall piece at the end. But I haven’t quite worked that out yet!