An interview with Laurence Edwards
PUBLISHED: 10:00 19 September 2016
Laurence Edwards is the talented sculptor who gave Suffolk The Creek Men and inspired so many young artists. Liz Ferretti talked to him as he prepared to leave his Butley studio for a new space in Halesworth
Out in the reeds is a bronze sculpture. It’s a recognisably human size and shape, but it’s been deconstructed, leaf-shaped pieces cut out of it. The green–brown bronze reflects the colour of the mud and reeds of Butley Creek on the Suffolk coast, the light from the sky flickers and shifts through this gently exploded man.
They are the work of sculptor Laurence Edwards, who after nearly two decades working from Butley Mills Studios, is leaving for a bigger space in Halesworth.
“These sculptures start as hollow waxes,” he explains, as we stand by the figure.
“Bronze gives an illusion of gravity, solidity and density, but it’s always an illusion. I wanted to draw attention to that, so I started to cut shapes out of the wax to see what would happen. This figure has become a conduit for the light, even while we’ve been standing here; the light has changed in so many ways.”
He goes deeper into the process of making his deconstructed figures. “I cut out more and more shapes. Once you’re happy with that process, it gets addictive and becomes a transcendental, creative act. There’s a moment when the keystone in a figure disappears into its environment. The further apart the pieces become, the more they start to fragment and become ethereal.”
In Carrier from 2013, a man struggles with a pile of unwieldy sticks. As this series of sculptures progressed, increasing amounts of natural materials accumulated on the backs and shoulders and into the arms of the male figures, until finally they were submerged in a chrysalis of bubble wrap.
The reed, mud, water landscape of the Suffolk coast has been such force in Edward’s work. Now he is leaving to go to a bigger studio I wonder how that will affect him. “When I first started at the new studio I thought ‘I’m missing the marsh, missing being in that landscape’, then I realised nature is already here. There are vast plants and creepers coming through the roof, and the scale of the building is giving me room to think, sit and read.
For the past two decades years I’ve absorbed the landscape at Butley to the extent that it could become a crutch. In a funny way, I’ve needed to move away from it, to see what’s inside me and find what I want to make next.”
I ask if the decision to go to another studio has influenced these new, technically challenging, cut-away sculptures, which feel caught in flight.
“The move to a bigger, more facilitated studio does feel like an opening, a liberation,” he says. “The sculptures are always one step ahead of you, you’re not sure what they mean at first, but they’re about mental states. They end up reflecting what you’re thinking and feeling. Some people see them as morbid, but for me they’re about hope, the hope of freedom.
“I’ve been reading Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s reflections on living in a cabin in the middle of a wood. In it, Thoreau speculates what it would be like not to be contained in a body. What would our nervous system look like? How would it interact with the world? It’s a wonderful image. I love the idea that you could spool out and bury yourself, evolve.”
In the centre of the studio at Butley, a naked man lies on his back, supported by a thin scaffold of bronze. He’s raising his head, straining for a glimpse of his feet, his gaze going beyond those feet into the unknown.
“To me, he feels like a man going into an MRI scanner, almost yielding his body like he yielded his body to me,” says Edwards, “but he’s nervous about it, unsure of the future, and the future is down below his feet.”
As one of his final acts at Butley, Laurence Edwards has cast this man, without his gurney stand, and taken him out into the river on a raft to be lowered into the mud where, over time, he will sink to become archaeology of the future.
“I want him to be aware of water coming up and leaving him with each tide,” Edwards explains. “I’ve deliberately left the core pin holes open so there will be runnel marks down the sides. I will always know that he’s out there. It’s a nice end to nearly 20 years here.”
Early Butley figures, the Creek Men, appeared defiant from the mud. To me, their striding stance felt like a statement of arrival.
“I digested this place for five years, then I was able to make the Creek Men. Now that journey is complete. I’m offering a work, throwing it in the water and with that the fear of being subsumed into this place. That fear is being replaced with the challenge and excitement of a new studio with a crane, large furnaces and a ceiling twice as high as this.
The scale will allow me to make each sculpture in two pieces rather than 20. Liberating the potential of what I can achieve and that confidence which I hope will feed into my work.” I ask if he feels he’s been brave in his work. “I love post-modern art, but if you start to deceive yourself and try to be something you’re not, then you’re on a hiding to nothing. I just could not not do what I do.
“There is bravery involved in that because you have to realise these are your tropes, this is you. It is very difficult to be true to you, the stylistic temptations and opportunities offer themselves in different directions, but you have to stick to this journey. It is a long, long journey, but I hope there are benefits.”
You can see an evocative film of Laurence Edward’s final months at Butley, with the lowering of the man bronze into the river on YouTube: Laurence Edwards – A Thousand Tides