Jennifer Hall: A life in bronze
PUBLISHED: 10:26 26 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:26 26 May 2015
Artist Jennifer Hall has literally poured her love for her family, and the pain of loss into her work, discovers Lucy Etherington
The work of sculptor and printmaker Jennifer Hall is hugely influenced by her relationships, particularly with her family.
A lot of it is about loss and what we can create from it, either capturing in a resin sculpture the all too brief time when a son still holds his mother’s hand, or a bronze cast of her late father’s driving glove to preserve it before it disintegrates entirely, a beautifully designed print of her aunt’s button collection, and three huge slices of oak decorated with bronze leaves, representing herself, her mother and her daughter.
There’s a lot too about the break-up of her marriage, which although devastating, set her on the road as an artist. Although personal, it touches something in all of us, perhaps because it’s so honest, looking at things we generally avoid, and holding them, preserving them in solid form.
As I am shown around her home near Woodbridge, which is overflowing with wonderful art by friends as well as herself, Jennifer explains how her life as an artist came through a total breakdown of her former existence as a wife.
“In a way, I felt the divorce was a huge learning curve,” she says. “Even though it’s difficult because it had such a negative, almost devastating impact on me and the children, you do learn such a lot from things that are painful. My children, who constantly inspire me, suffered too but have grown into wonderful, brave people, who live life to the full. I see people go through similar things, and I think, just hang in there, because if you can get back on your feet, you might find life is better.”
Born in Africa, Jennifer originally worked in advertising in Edinburgh when she met her husband. They moved to Germany, then out of the blue he left her for someone else. She came back to Suffolk “in a complete state.” But with three young children, she knew she had to get herself together. In the midst of her despair she made a life-changing decision.
“I decided I wanted to go back to college and do a degree in fine art,” she tells me. “It was the best thing I ever did.”
Naturally sociable, she started to meet people in the Suffolk artist community. One was sculptor Laurence Edwards, whose giant Creek Men placed along the coast made the headlines in 2008, another was Gareth Jones, who runs the Sudbourne Park Printmakers.
Both welcomed her into the fold of their artistic communities. The Sudbourne Park Printmakers are in a romantic outbuilding in the grounds of a stately home in Orford, while Butley Mills Studios rest on the edge of red beds that stretch out to the coastal estuary.
As we drive there to see Jennifer’s workshop on the first hot day of the year, I almost laugh out loud, the scenery is so ridiculously gorgeous. This, she tells me with a grin, is how she feels every day.
“I did evening classes at Butley for two years,” she explains as we pull up outside an old barn at the end of some winding, twisty roads. “Then one day Laurence said to me, ‘Oh, I hear you’re joining us, Jennifer.’ And I said, ‘Am I?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s your studio.’ I’ve been here ten years.”
We enter the huge space filled with old farm machinery and weird and wonderful sculptures all covered in an eerie white dust, like the props department of a film studio after a nuclear accident. It’s magical, eerie, but essentially a hard working space with lots of artists roaming around, stopping occasionally for a friendly chat. Jennifer’s space has some wax hands that seem to be growing out of a shelf, and a twisted cherry tree which she plans to turn into a sculpture.
Out the back is the forge, again covered in white dust, a kiln and a roll top bath, into whose muddy depths Jennifer reaches and pulls out someone’s elegant sculpture of a greyhound, and various cocoons containing wax moulds. A jumble of buildings, barns and shacks contain more studios – and a rather cosy pub created out of a grain store – while the landscape of golden reeds stretches out beneath a gloriously blue sky.
It was here Jennifer began her new life as an artist, and started making some of the bronzes that will feature in her show at the Aldeburgh Cinema exhibition this month, including those she made when still in pain around the break-up of her marriage. I ask her if it felt cathartic.
“It just had to happen,” she says. “When you’re in a situation you can’t see beyond the limits of it, so I don’t know if I deliberately set out to do anything. Looking back I think it was definitely good for me. I’m a balanced happy person now. When you’re in that place, you think it can never get better, but in my case it has.”