What jobs have you done other than being an artist
I studied music at university and began my working life as a peripatetic clarinet and piano teacher in various schools in Cardiff. I did this for 15 years during which time I had my two sons and I fitted my teaching around looking after them and accommodating their various activities. Then I retrained in Arts Marketing and went to work at Welsh National Opera as their Marketing Officer and then the Administrator of their Education Department. I was with them for 12 years and then I became the Administrator for a charity working with profoundly disabled adults through the medium of music and dance. I now work part time for a charity offering vocational training for adults with learning disabilities which allows me to spend most of my time sculpting.
I loved art at school, but was forced to choose between art or music....it wasn't possible to do both which seems completely ridiculous to me! So I did music at university and went on to a career based on music. But I always retained a need to follow artistic pursuits and was always drawing and painting and making jewellery in my spare time. As I got more and more into administration in my career, the less I was able to follow these pursuits and I really missed them. I never seemed to have the time or the energy by the end of the day and I really felt the loss. When I had the chance to work part time, I took it and was able to get back into my art again and it was like a missing piece of a puzzle being put back into place. And when I discovered papier mache, I really felt that I had found the thing I had been looking for and could express myself artistically in a full and meaningful way. I am totally obsessed with sculpting in papier mache now and can't imagine life without it.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I am extremely fortunate that I am always getting lovely comments about my work. The fact that it is a relatively unusual medium catches people's attention and when they know that the pieces are made almost entirely from paper, that always causes a positive response - and some incredulity! I made a piece called The Gardener (pictured above in this article) which was of an elderly man grimacing and stretching his back after digging his vegetable patch. I exhibited the piece in an exhibition and received so many comments about how it made people feel and how they identified with this character. So many people saw in him themselves or someone they knew! I sold the piece and could have sold it several times over! Another memorable response was when I asked a friend of mine if I could sculpt the head and shoulders of her son who has Down's Syndrome. He has the most beautiful face and I was really drawn to have a go at sculpting him. I left the piece in its natural form - no colour - because I wanted my friend to be able to project her own interpretation onto the piece as she knows him better than anyone. I was quite anxious when I showed her the finished piece as I didn't want to upset her or cause offence by depicting the very specific features of Down's Syndrome. Her response was very memorable. She was quite emotional about it and thrilled that someone had found beauty in her son's face. I found that very rewarding.
What do you dislike about the art world?
I have found there to be a certain prejudice in the art world towards papier mache and art that is considered 'craft' in general. To many, papier mache is still seen as classroom craftwork and looked down upon rather than seeing it as art on a par with painting, sculpting etc. It has become my quiet, private quest to elevate its reputation in the art world! I think that art that is classed as craft generally receives a raw deal in the art world which is obviously a terrible generalisation on the part of gallery owners and promoters of art - and extremely narrow minded. There is so much work out there in the craft world of extremely high quality and to my mind, the best examples should be celebrated and promoted. Anyway, papier mache is such a versatile medium in which to work, and my own personal aim is to produce the best work I can to show it off!
What research to you do?
When I have an idea for a piece of sculpture, I use the internet extensively to find references. I have a file on my computer called 'body parts' into which I put any photos I find of arms or legs, or hands or facial features or people doing various activities or in different situations - anything which I can reference when I'm sculpting a human form. I also have a wonderful book with anatomical drawings of the body and the skeleton. I find this extremely useful and I refer to it often to get a feel for what is under the skin of my subjects and how various parts of the body actually fit together! I recently went to a class given by a woman who makes models of the human body in wax for forensic purposes! It was absolutely fascinating. We concentrated on facial features and learnt a lot about how the various muscles of the face work to change facial expressions and we sculpted a face in wax. I found that really useful research.
What is your dream project?
I don't think I have a dream project... every piece I do is special at the time. I only take on projects that inspire and interest me. I think I'm always striving to produce the best work I can do and I still feel I have a long way to go - so I guess my dream project would be one that turns out perfectly. But I don't think you ever feel something is absolutely perfect. No matter how hard you try, there's always going to be something you think you could do better next time!
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
What a tricky question! Obviously it would be wonderful to be compared to any of the great sculptors but that would be ridiculous! But in my world of papier mache, there are some amazing sculptors at work - like the American sculptor Will Kurtz who makes wonderfully observed life-sized sculptures of real people he sees around his home town of New York. He makes no attempt to disguise that they are made of newspaper and captures their attitudes and characters perfectly. Another beautiful papier mache artist is the French sculptor Melanie Bourlon who has created a magical world of imaginary creatures in human costume, and then there's the completely zany, off-the-wall work of German artist Dunja Schandin. Will and Melanie are established, well respected artists who I would say have conquered the prejudices within the art world and have a reputation for beautiful art and show their work in galleries and exhibitions. Dunja's work is perhaps harder to appreciate, but her reputation is growing and I think she is about to break through onto the art scene in Germany in a big way. I hope so anyway, she deserves to. I would be thrilled to be compared favourably to any of these artists.
Favourite or most inspirational place?
I love Venice. I've been a few times and I find it a magical place. Apart from all the architecture, art - and particularly the sculpture - that is there, it also has a wonderful heritage and reputation for mask making in papier mache. When I was there last year, I visited the studio of a man who has been making papier mache masks for years....and his family before him. It was fascinating to see him at work and very inspirational.
Closer to home, I love the Pembrokeshire coast in west Wales. I spend a lot of time there with my husband, and it is our bolt-hole from the madness of everyday life. We love walking there and relaxing, but we also take our work there and find it easy to transfer that aspect of our lives there.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I carry a little card around with me in my purse which has a quote from one of my heroes of the past, Coco Chanel. It reads: 'how many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but to be someone'. I think that is a great piece of advice - especially in the world of art. It is easy to get carried away with wanting to be 'an artist' and wanting people to see you as such. I don't consider myself to be an artist... I love being able to do my work, and I work hard to improve and grow as much as I can. But I follow my own path and stay true to what I like and enjoy. I would never work on something that I didn't find pleasurable. I know that I'm never going to make a living from my work because I can't produce enough of it. But I'm happy that so far, people have liked my work and asked me to do things for them. If they consider me 'an artist', then that is lovely, but I would do what I do anyway because it gives me great pleasure.
Professionally, what’s your goal?
I've been extremely fortunate so far in my work with papier mache. I've been involved in some fascinating projects and I've met some lovely people who have given me amazing opportunities. I plan to continue like this and see where it leads me. Ultimately, I'd like my work to be seen by as wide a range of people as possible and for papier mache sculpture to be seen as fine art and not classroom craftwork. I'd love my work to be recognised at some stage, but I'm happy to keep working and striving to produce better and better pieces and keep pushing the material as far as it can go.
(YOU CAN SEE MORE & BUY DEBBIE'S WORK HERE)