Studio tour – Marlborough Open Studio 2020

Richard Atkinson-Willes

Richard is the owner of Talos Art Gallery and director of Talos Art Foundry.

Welcome to the studio of

Richard Atkinson-Willes

Richard is the owner of Talos Art Gallery and director of Talos Art Foundry.

panoramic of Richard's studio workshop
sketch of 'You' - wood and plywood

Sketches

These are some of my earliest experiments with aeroply – 1.5mm plywood made primarily for the pattern making industry and, presumably, for making aircraft.

As you can see, it’s very bendy, but I discovered that when laminated together in layers it actually takes on considerable structural strength. By using rapid drying superglue, I found I was able to form rigid structures with it very quickly – like drawing in thin air.

I used random elements to tie my laminated shapes together – these early experiments were built using wood offcuts from my studio floor. The idea of using ‘junk’ to create sculpture is hardly a new one, and I was interested by how easily a selection of completely random offcuts could be organised into a structure which looked as if it had been meticulously designed.

All of these were made in a few hours using whatever came to hand and are still in my studio to remind me never to overthink things and let the material lead the design.

Studio tour

panoramic of Richard's studio

Bronze waxing

Richard demonstrates how he makes the bronze sculptures shine to maintain their original patination (colour).

Richard looks up at his bronze sculpture

Richard works on his bronze construction in the foundry

The ‘work in progress’, that I was hoping to show visitors to my studio, was my attempts to translate the fragile aesthetic of my laminated plywood constructions into a more permanent material – bronze.

This might seem an unlikely process in an era when artwork is fashionably ephemeral, and artists spout endlessly about the ‘creative journey’ rather than the intrinsic merits of the finished artwork, but I think it’s appropriate to celebrate the worth of what we make and to stand by the validity of our individual statement.

I don’t share the terror of ‘craft’ that obsessed my tutors at St Martin’s, in the 1980s, and still stand by the defence of craftsmanship that I wrote back then:

“We treat the art of the past like chapters in the autobiography of civilisation, yet seem to care very little for the page we are writing for ourselves.

“We assume that history will repeat itself and that the tat of today will automatically become the treasures of tomorrow, like a tomb filled with junk to make us feel at home in the hereafter. This presupposes that art survives by luck alone, when in reality it has little chance unless it is also well made, well loved and as a result usually well hidden!

“If we don’t make art to withstand the maelstrom of history then our page will be blank and all the future will know is that we forgot how to make things and that we stopped loving ourselves.”

Richard’s favourite woodworking tool

Film maker Louisa asked Richard which was his favourite woodworking tool. The answer was full of unexpected inspiration, history and adventure.

Artwork

Woo-o'-the-wisp in wood and plywood

Will-o’-the-Wisp

Natural branches with plywood construction.
Height 145cms Width 70cms

It’s a good thing you can’t see this, because it has broken somewhere new every time I go into my studio!

It’s really difficult to control the wildness of the natural branches and get them to conform to the strict discipline of the engineered plywood.

In the end, they win, of course, and it all falls to bits! Even so, I love the way the plywood structure darts through the tangle of natural shapes, like the path of fireflies.

Ben

Wood and plywood

Me

Wood and plywood

Them

Wood and plywood

Morning Glory

Wood and plywood

Memories alarmed by the spectre of Alzheimers

Wood and plywood

Richard leans over the bronze sculpture and files the rough edge

Richard’s approach

I was very fortunate to be taught art at school by a sculptor from the Royal College of Art, who had specialised in traditional techniques like wood and stone carving, moulding and casting and hand building in clay and plaster

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that my work since has been led by materials and process.

This made me particularly unfashionable at St Martins, where the mantra was ‘form is the only thing that matters – (provided it’s made of cor-ten steel)’. My view was that while steel was certainly very suitable for certain applications, it was very limiting to assume that it was the best choice for everything – and downright blinkered to claim that it was the best and only material to express contemporary sculpture.

In hindsight, it appears that my views were conservative considering Damian Hirst was already making sculpture out of dead cows at Goldsmith’s, just a few miles away, but at the time, any interest in materials suggested ‘craft’, which apparently had no place in ‘fine’ art.

My interest in materials hasn’t progressed to dead cows yet, but over the years I have made sculpture from plastics, concrete, glass, plaster, ceramics, fabrics, bronze, wood, stone – and just about anything interesting that I have found lying about.

It fascinates me how often random selections of things and materials can come together to form something which then appears to be a homogeneous whole.

It’s exactly what they were telling me at St Martin’s, of course: if you select the right bits of scrap metal and arrange them in the ‘right’ order, suddenly you have a priceless artwork in the Hayward Gallery.

I just prefer to do it with lots of different materials; I think they make the dialogue richer.

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