The tactile art of sculpture

2008-01-11 00:00

Maureen Quin is one of South Africa’s best-known sculptors, her work ranging from major public commissions to small intimate pieces and from the realistic to the abstract. Perhaps less well known in KwaZulu-Natal than in other provinces, her work can now be seen in her daughter Lucy du Plessis’s Senses Gallery in Hilton.

Having a daughter here is not Quin’s only connection with the province — she studied at the then Technical College in Durban under Mary Stainbank, who Quin considers to have been a great sculptress, underrated in her lifetime. From Durban she went to Goldsmith College in London on an Emma Smith bursary to concentrate on her sculpture.

When I ask why she chose sculpture rather than painting, she laughs. “I was brought up on a farm in the Free State, and played with clay and tools rather than paints on a flat surface. I’m more of a tactile, hands-on person. And I didn’t like the painting lecturer in Durban. It’s terrible how those things influence you, but they do.”

But it was a good decision — and the grounding Stainbank gave Quin while she was avoiding the painting lecturer continues to stand her in good stead. “That sound basic training means I can do portrait busts, figures from life, all kinds of realistic pieces. They are easy for me. Accepting commissions is a good discipline — it’s back to the basics of sculpture.” And there is always the research, which Quin finds fascinating. Even if a commission may sound dull initially, something in it will inspire her for her more abstract and personal work.

One example was being asked to do a sculpture of an impala — not a hugely exciting subject. But when Quin came to study the animal’s long, lyre-shaped horns, she was intrigued, and went on to use the shape in her extraordinary and moving work, The Hunt. This is a series of bronzes, coming from Quin’s sense of disgust at human behaviour towards other humans, and the destruction of the environment. “I do not want to prescribe to the viewer what to see or experience, but I have tried to express the horror I feel,” is how she explains the powerfully moving works which are housed in a special gallery at her home in Alexandria in the Eastern Cape. “You don’t see them all at once, but you go round and end in front of the Ultimate Sacrifice. We have had people coming out in tears; others cannot comprehend it. But everybody has some emotional reaction — nobody is unmoved.” That is deeply gratifying; it makes Quin feel she has achieved something.

Ask Quin to name favourites among her works and she names the Hunt series. Even though it was emotionally exhausting work, she followed it up with another series, of bronzes of dancers. “I wanted to do something expressive and joyful after The Hunt,” she says. Rather than being realistic representations, they are expressions of movement.

“One dancer said to me that she wished her arms were that long, but when dancers dance, that’s how they think they are,” says Quin, who admits that, even in realistic pieces, while she is accurate, feeling comes from small alterations — an elongated neck on a bird, or a slightly exaggerated movement.

One of her most recent works is the one-and-a-half-times life-size bronze sculpture of a rearing Arab stallion for the Gold Souk in Dubai. The architects commissioning the piece had already used Quin’s group of Cape Minstrels for the Grand West Casino and Entertainment Centre in Cape Town, but she tendered for the Dubai commission against sculptors from all over the world. Quin’s work was chosen after she submitted a maquette, which she has now scaled up 27 times. The armature was covered with polystyrene foam, and then with plaster, allowing Quin to create details of muscles and hair.

The 73-year-old sculptor worked on the enormous piece from a scaffold, wearing a mountaineering harness and with just one helper. The bridle and harness, complete with swinging tassels, were sculpted directly in wax, then cast in bronze. It meant three months’ work, from 8 am to 7 pm each day — and Quin loved it. “It was such a challenge — lovely working on that scale,” she says.

When the piece is shipped to Dubai, Quin will go to put it into position, although she will not to be an honoured guest at the unveiling. “We are just the workers — it brings you down to Earth,” she says. “You are just the provider of an item and the reaction is: ‘That’s fine — you’ve done your job to our satisfaction’.”

But it does worry Quin that people go into galleries and look at paintings but not sculptures — they seem to be attuned to seeing art in two rather than three dimensions. “If you have space for a vase of flowers, you have space for a sculpture,” she says. “You can move it around your house without having to hammer nails into walls. And if you put it with a mirror behind it, you can see it from various angles at the same time.” And, of course, unlike paintings, sculptures are tactile — they cry out to be touched.

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