Solitary figures

German born sculptor Verena Murtagh spoke to Frances Noble
about her unusual techniqueand how
she looks to nature for her aesthetic.

How did you come to East Anglia?

I grew up in North Germany and first came to England when I was 14 years old to learn English. I lodged with the Adams family in Lowestoft, and fell in love with them and with England, returning every year. Then I met my first husband and settled here.

How did you develop your unusual technique?

I never went to art school, I am entirely self taught. So I have been free to find my own way. My technique transcends all the usual rules. In order to create hollow forms most sculptors cut their completed piece in half and hollow it out before rejoining the two halves for firing but I find that too brutal. I work completely differently, my pieces are built from the bottom up in sections which are each allowed to dry before the next section is added, perhaps 15-20 cms at a time. I noticed how aircraft wings are given strength despite the thinness of the outer skin by including a framework within the wing cavity, and I use that technique building cross members within the piece to give it rigidity and strength. So the form holds itself up I have to be very clear about the demands which I will make of the base of each piece before I move on. It is a rough energetic process, and I take huge risks with each piece as it is made, but I firmly believe that the making process determines the physical and visual outcome. For example at the moment I'm working on a torso and I must visualise the finished piece as I work so the base will be adequate to support and balance the spread. I am always conscious of the thickness and strength of the clay I am working, and my aspiration is that the inner strength of the piece should be apparent the perception of that strength is what I aspire to communicate. Communicating through my work is what drives me, I feel that human beings are alone from birth and that only literature, music and art can transcend that essential isolation. My greatest pleasure is to be understood.

Photograph © Derek Jackson 2000

What made you choose sculpture when I can see from your clothes and your house that you love colour?

Well sometimes my works are coloured, even though they just show the colour of the material or of the natural glazes I use (copper-oxide, manganese-dioxide or cobalt) which give a metallic bronzy look. I see my glazes as a 'glove' fitting round the shape. Some of my more recent pieces have been refired inside a barrel of sawdust which burns 'toasty' colours into the surface and makes the colour part of the structure of the work. My glazes and firings can give a range of gratuitous colours and shades. One of my recent pieces 'The Four Humours' is of four figures representing the four humours of the classical world: choleric is yellow, sanguine is red, phlegmatic is green and melancholic black. Mostly I am concerned with shape and I draw a lot of my inspiration (and my colour palette) from pebbles and from rock forms.

Photograph © Derek Jackson 2000

In fact I find colour difficult and rather off-putting. I was talking to Deborah Ardizzone the other day (she paints on silk) and we agreed that if she could 'borrow' my ability with form and I could 'borrow' hers with colour both our work would benefit! Your work seems to be poised between representation and abstraction, do you see it like that? I like to think of my forms as like a short story using as few words as possible to convey the whole picture to their audience. I think my aesthetic comes from a love of nature and nature only represents itself. My father married a Finnish woman and when, as a girl, I discovered Scandinavia and its landscapes and style I knew that simplicity of line and connection to the earth and nature was right for me. It's all wrapped up in the natural I couldn't possibly work in bronze resin, it would be against my aesthetic, everything in my work must come from nature. That is why I love the Irish islands so much.

Photograph © Derek Jackson 2000

You often visit Ireland what do you find there?

I have an Irish name Murtagh my first husband was half Irish and I found that in marrying him I had married half of Ireland! I have a deep need for the isolation and beauty of the islands. Jay (my present husband) and I visit Inismor . We know the captain of the ferry so we feel that we have connections there. Literally a link! The curse is that there is no clay on the island, no soil, the islanders had to break the rock and fill the hewn spaces with seaweed to grow potatoes. There were abbeys there and I feel a sense of religion still. The island is small with 60 foot cliffs onto the Atlantic, and on the other side a sandy foreshore, which looks as if it is lit from beneath. The grains of sand are black and white and they sift and separate themselves you can draw on it. Nature has done it perfectly here; every rock, every pebble on the island is a piece of sculpture.

Photograph © Derek Jackson 2000

I am dumbfounded by the beauty of each rock, and I bring pieces home with me to inspire me with their colour and texture.
I love the way an international community has grown up on the island and integrated with the islanders so successfully. There is a Swedish fiddler, an Italian architect, a woman from New York, a Canadian, and a German girl who has married one of the islanders. And as well as all that there is a feeling of remove from England. One feels closer to Boston and New York than to London.

I know you exhibit your work as part of the Berghapton Sculpture Trail tell me about that.

The opportunity to exhibit at Berghapton is wonderful. The first year I was so lucky to be able to place my pieces in a beautiful garden with water. One piece was displayed on a bridge over the pond, the figure gazing down into the water, 'Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies.' I love working with titles. It brings me out of myself and challenges my thought process. The second festival was much more difficult for me, the pressure of living up to the standard I had set myself the first time was enormous.

Do you prefer to exhibit in this country or in Germany?

I do exhibit in my birth country once every two years, but more often here in England. It is a strange thing, a genuine difference between the English and German sensibility the English seem to feel that the proper place for sculpture is outdoors, while the Germans are much more comfortable to display pieces indoors. The Germans like to seem educated and cultured in their personal environment, perhaps this is a very North European thing. I don't place my pieces on a plinth they are in contact with their space directly so the English outside spaces can be quite difficult for me, but very rewarding.

What is the most exciting commission you have completed?

That grew out of the Berghapton Festivals. The village commissioned waymarks from some of us who had exhibited there, and I thought about Janus the god of the gateway but in the end I made a piece I called 'The Burghers of Apton.' It is of three figures one on each side of a triangle. They represent the talents of the village: the gardener, the intellectual and the artist. It is now a bus-stop with a seat around it so that the people waiting for the bus are added to the appearance of the piece! That gives me great delight. It is a great privilege to make public sculpture which is used, where the experience of the piece can be shared.

You teach in your studio do you gain from that or are you just concerned to spread the pleasure of working with clay?

I love my teaching but it is truly difficult for me. Because I have struggled alone to find my technique and my style I find it hard to give away so easily what has been so hard won for my own work. It all began when a group of women, all of whom had some sadness in their lives, asked me to teach them to work with clay. Watching them unfold and share the joy of making with one another and with me has been wonderful. The studio is a cold dusty environment, but here they are able to unleash their ability to express themselves, they are freed into the process of making. There is no need to work figuratively, the abstract gives them the sense of being able to do it without the need for complex technique, the piece 'becomes' itself. To see them find their freedom in the material even when they won't or can't listen to my advice is the reward. My main joy is in having enabled other people to do it that reinvigorates me. And of course we have fun together with tea and cakes and conversation.

At Kentwell Hall you have taken part in re-enactments of life as it was lived in a great house in the seventeenth century. Can you tell me how was it to live so completely in the past, and how has it influenced your work?

Kentwell has been a very profound experience for me. Of course the house is beautiful and the opportunity to spend three weeks isolated from the modern, no cars or electricity, shows me that things don't have to be the way they are today. By the exercise of individual will we can change our way of living. Coming away, and back to the ugliness of the everyday modern world is terrible for me for a while, but the experience helps me to go back to the essential truth of the materials I use in my work. When you book to visit you are given a list of characters to choose from, and a description of the role that character will play. There is a complete range from the upper classes (who will need to do lots of homework so that their behaviour and conversation is authentic) to the housekeepers, bailiffs and last of all and humblest the potter! Of course I chose to be the potter! I had to chop 1.5 cubic metres of firewood to fire my kiln, no sophisticated temperature gauges and thermostats, just a construction of mud and straw which had to picked up for each firing it was a monster but the process was fascinating. I return so grateful for my own studio and kiln.

Tell me about your studio and kiln you use.

It is hard enough to deal with the cracking and warping of pieces when they are fired at the best of times, so I do have a very modern kiln to minimise the problems. I use a top-hat kiln which is round I need to use the space in the kiln and a square shape would leave me with unfilled corners and a great discomfort at the waste. With a kiln, size really does matter. To make something great it must have size, I think Schiller said that! I don't need to be limited by the size of the kiln. I used to use a kiln which was only 57cms high very squat but now I have a kiln 90cms high, which is good, but I still feel limited by kiln space. It is really hard to lift some of my bigger pieces into the kiln. They can weigh as much as 50 kilos. The top-hat kiln helps of course it is in two pieces and the lid can be lowered over the piece once it is inside the kiln. The first firing to a biscuit glaze the kiln temperature is 1000ºC. The clay is then really absorbent and when the glazes are poured over all the liquid is immediately drained away leaving a powdery coating. Moving it back into the kiln for the second firing is terrifying. Every contact with the work will be recorded in the glaze. It can't be done alone like making babies, you need help! The second firing at 1260ºC is what turns earthenware into stoneware, impervious to frost. Facing the object after firing is never easy, only then do I know if I have made something beautiful.

Does your house carry on the same aesthetic as your work?

In my house although I use electricity I try to be as authentic as possible in my decorations and the materials I use. I will only use organic paints I want as few modern chemicals as possible in the spaces where I live. When I need something for the house I always try to make it myself. Even in the bathroom I have made all the fittings, except the bath which is copper. Even the lavatory cistern is based on a seventeenth century fired clay original. Where I can't make something myself my husband, Jay, helps me.

Do you work every day, and for set times each day?

Oh yes, I do. I have to be in the studio by 9.00am every day. I need real self-discipline to work. You may think that sounds very German but really it comes out of an awareness of how un-German my life is, recognising that difference between my background and the life I have chosen. I am very driven in my work I have a never-ending drive for creativity, I must always be making something, cooking, knitting, sewing, but always and mainly working with clay. Even on holiday or in front of the television I am watching forms, seeing shapes and patterns. If I wasn't a sculptor I would be a writer. I am planning to walk from the south west extreme of England to the north west extreme of Scotland and to write of my travels. I am amazed and excited by the wildness of the west coast. I will meet all the Celtic races of Pitain and explore their different ways of expression and illustration.

You are very outgoing and sociable, I think people are important to you, so why do you live in such an isolated part of East Anglia rather than in a city with an exciting cultural and artistic life?

Well, I grew up in a city and hated it, I couldn't wait to get out. I counted the days to our visits to Austria and an environment where buildings were on a human scale less than three stories high. I fantasised over the existence of nature that nature which had been the birthplace of my parents. My stepmother's home country Finland was my ideal environment. In my work process I need to shut myself off from the world. I don't need company I don't even leave the studio to make coffee or walk across the room to change the radio station. My need for solitude in my working life and my need for an audience for my finished work are a paradox which I find hard to solve. But I know this life on the borders of rural Norfolk and Suffolk is right for me. I have a recurring dream, I am in an English meadow with an oak tree standing alone and central, nothing more. This is my place.

Sadly Verena died in 2002 only a few months after her partner Jay Hobbs had died.
He had been her oak tree.

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