AN INTERVIEW WITH POLLY ANDERSON
Theo Megaw is a recluse. He lives and works between the slumbering mountains and the wide skies at the southern tip of the African continent. Follow the ragged thread of road that is Prince Alfred Pass and you come to his place. The cottage is built of earth and rough brown stones from the mountains. It was a ruin when Megaw first came to it. Using pine from the coastal plantations he put in a floor, ceiling, doors and windows and put in pipes for water from a mountain stream.
His studio stands a little way from the cottage. It is whitewashed inside with good natural light. In the summer I can really work each day. In the winter the days are too short. A fine cloth of plaster and marble dust lies over everything: finished pieces, pieces in the making, clay bins, stands, tools, sacks of plaster of paris and ciment fondu, mixing basins and odd bits of farm machinery rusted ochre and red unrecognizably into frilly patterns.
A bitch that looks like a jackal suckles a mass of writhing puppy shapes outside the door. Two ginger cats sidle in; they keep the rats and mice away. Megaw is a man of medium build, blond with beard close cropped. He is dressed in farm laborers overalls, spattered with plaster of paris. His hands are surprisingly small for a sculptor’s, yet there is strength in his handshake.
I understand you don’t like talking about yourself. May we talk about your work?
Personal details are so boring. Just about everyone is born; just about everyone is sent to places where they are supposed to learn. And everyone these days is a world citizen. So what can possibly be of interest except their work?
Why do you sculpt?
I just do. It comes out of me, through my hands. I suppose if I think about it I could say I like being in the presence of solid form. It has a grounding effect. My hands like making. And I like moving while I work. I like bending and reaching and hammering and lifting and being on my feet all day. There’s a lot of movement needed to bring about the stillness of a piece of sculpture. Creating form for me is an organic process. I strive to evoke feeling. If it does not express feeling, any art form, music, painting, writing, sculpture, to me is nothing. I don’t want you to think about my sculpture. It’s a gut reaction I want. You like it or you don’t like it. If you like it, it’s a good piece. If you don’t like it, it isn’t. It’s simple. You don’t need a lot of yammer about a piece. After all, there it is, in front of you. It is what it is.
I see pieces in bronze and stone and wood and steel. Which is your favourite medium?
My favourite medium is the one I’m working on at that moment. Each medium is right for a certain mood-of-work, a certain feel, a certain tempo. Clay is right for fast, fiery work. Stone, on the other hand, is right for a slow, ruminative approach; shall I make this a little more concave? Shall I make that a little more convex? With steel you work everything out - you calculate and cut and fit. Wood - you fall in love with the sensuousness of colour and grain and the feeling of longness - the tree wants longness. Squatness belongs to stone.
There’s nobody for miles around here. Who buys your sculpture?
There is a very good gallery in Knysna that has my work.
I thought artists have a rather jaundiced view of galleries?
A gallery that you have a good relationship with, that promotes your work, sells your work, is part of your whole artistic endeavor. You can’t do all that as well as make your sculpture. Most artists, including me, don’t know how to sell their work. No. The two go hand in glove - the making and the selling. And you’ve got to sell to go on making. Sculptures of mine have found resting places across the globe - from Canada to Australia. A piece of sculpture needs a resting place - a very physical, spatial environment to be in.
You do commissions?
Yes. I always wonder while I’m working on a commission - will there be another after this? Luckily, in a way, sculpture is a slow process, so that when I finish one, another arrives.
When you do a commission, don’t you feel you are compromising yourself trying to satisfy the client?
What about great achievements of painters and composers and sculptors in the past - when they created for popes and archdukes and city councils? No. It’s a challenge. You have to satisfy the client and yourself. In a way it’s the other way round; you have to satisfy yourself first, then the client. If you don’t satisfy yourself, your client isn’t likely to be satisfied either. No. There’s nothing wrong with a satisfied client provided there’s a fulfilled artist. Often a commission causes you to exercise your artistic ability in a way you may not have done otherwise. Also, you are not only sensitive to the environment in which the sculpture will be - you are sensitive to the person for whom you are making the sculpture. And out of that can come good friendships.
And what of Turner Prize winners?
Well, I see man as a spiritual being (woman is even more spiritual) and art is an expression of that spirituality. And, how shall I put this? - it is to the extent that an artistic impulse expresses that spirituality that sculpture, say, is art. Making a mould of a dull suburban house and casting a replica in concrete is a banal and trite activity - not art. Neither is a dead sheep in a glass box. Neither is a soiled bed and filthy knickers. Trite gimmicks, yes. Poor Turner. Poor Tate. Poor judges. Poor mankind.
Does a client say ‘I want this or that’?
People come to me and say – we’d like something for our garden. Then one day, I go to their garden and we walk around and sit in it and talk. Perhaps something there or there; light, to contrast with the shadows of trees. Or dark, to blend with the shadows. Nobody knows what it will be yet. I have a feeling though; the piece should be squat and rugged or it should have a sense of upward movement. I go back to my studio and make crayon sketches on large sheets of paper - just a few lines with a shadow here and there - just enough to suggest an idea. Maybe ten or twenty sketches. For one client, their living room floor was covered in sketches; we had to do a kind of hopscotch between them. After a week or two, we reach a point in our discussions that satisfies us both. Sometimes the process is quick, sometimes it’s slow. Then I start work.
By making a maquette?
I avoid making maquettes. I like working direct. All your energy, insight, feeling for form and texture goes into that first creation. Then copy it, only bigger? I’m bored even before I start.
A while ago a client thought she would like a modest waist-high figure on one side of the garden. Slow metamorphosis took place over weeks as we talked. The finished piece was a kind of fantasy-tree over three metres tall, in the centre of the garden. The unveiling took place one evening. There was champagne and modern dance and a string quartet and Russian poetry. It was touching. Sometimes you put up a piece and it stands there and you think the owners have forgotten about it.
Portraits. Do you do them?
Now and again. When I am about to do a portrait I talk to the person several times informally. Not in the studio - that is inhibiting. Strolling, standing, sitting. I try to get the feel of the person, what they are like. I don’t draw. I don’t model. I don’t try to memorise features. A day or so later, in the quiet of my studio, alone, I model in clay, fast. I work fast for an hour, maybe two. Then I stop. I don’t touch it again. I’ve created an impression; I’ve created an expression. It’s not pedantic. The nose isn’t a copy of the person’s nose – it’s an impression, an expression of the nose. The eyes are not a copy of the eyes - they are an impression, expression of the eyes. The portrait is alive - it is that person. Pedantic portraits are dull. It takes a courageous client to accept a portrait that is alive. That is why there is so often controversy over painters’ and sculptors’ portraits.
Can that apply to other subjects too?
Yes, in a way. It’s pointless making an otter, say, showing every eyelash and toenail - they are already there on the real thing. If you do that, then, though it looks like the real thing, it is dead because it cannot move. So, the thing to do is to capture the life in the otter through its gesture of form - portray less than the real thing visually, portray more than just a piece of wood or stone essentially.
I see what Megaw means. In a corner stands a bronze figure, almost lifesize. It is simple and quiet, slim and vertical with just a suggestion of the tip of the hair and the edge of the long dress being flicked by a light air.
By contrast there is his group of four lifesize otters - low, squat. There is movement in the simple, sleek forms, the patina grey-green to suggest the watery element which is their home.
Your inspiration - where does it come from?
A mass of cloud, a wisp of cloud. Breathing fresh mountain air. Sunlight on a rough tree trunk. The curve in a neck between shoulder and ear. A Brahms clarinet and piano sonata. It doesn’t have to be visual. A particular woman’s body. An impala. Allowing myself to be inwardly quiet - to make my...call it my connection with the universe. Sometimes the period of quiet is a day, sometimes it’s a week.
How do you set about making a large piece in clay?
With stone and wood you chip away what you don’t want. With clay it’s the opposite. You start with nothing and add until you have what you want. For a large piece you have to make an armature - a wood and metal and wire structure to support the mass of the clay. You have to do a good job. Your armature must be strong. I made a piece recently, the mythical tree, and there were seven or eight black garbage bins of clay suspended in the air. I once spent three weeks working on a piece. I arrived one Sunday morning and the whole mass of clay was on the floor in a heap. I hadn’t taken enough trouble with the armature. Then there’s the moulds and the casting; either ciment fondu or bronze. I don’t do the bronze casting myself - it takes skill and time, neither of which I have.
May I ask, how old are you?
Old? See this (he tugs at an eyebrow). It used to be ginger. And this (he tugs at this beard).
What would you like to be doing in the next few years?
I’d like to become a Formula One driver. I think I’d be pretty good.