Heather B. Swann
KWG: Now that your new exhibition, Bone has been installed in the gallery, can you tell me a little about how you got here?
HBS: When I started to think about a new body of work to show at Karen Woodbury I immediately considered the rectangular space. There is nowhere to hide so I decided that the work should read as a whole, as an installation rather than a group of works. As usual I started by spending some weeks drawing. I have been making sculpture for nearly twenty years now so each exhibition is a chance to start something new but inevitably I start where I left off last time and loop back on old ideas, take the chance to refine forms that I have worked on before - I can fill a whole sketchbook with tiny refinements of just one shape. A woman’s thigh can mutate into a horse’s head and then into the barrel of a gun… A dog’s head can align with a bicycle seat and then become a Picasso bull’s head pun. A man’s exaggerated long back becomes a bone and at the same time it becomes a cock. The drawing process is messy and wild and fun. I usually take over our dining room table as well as working in the studio. This time I kept coming back to the bone shape. At the same time I was reading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. This is a very intense novel, it is not as violent as some of his other work but the feeling is raw – down to the bone.
Pablo Picasso bull's head 1943
A working drawing from Heather's sketchbook
KWG: So the drawing is instrumental. You always draw in black ink and your sculptures are nearly always black. Is there a link?
HBS: Yes. I started making art as a printmaker – this is not as straightforward a link as it could be but I do think that working with all that rich beautiful black ink captured my soul. I started out making etchings that were very figurative and full – I was enraptured by the works of Hieronymus Bosch just like many art students – by the freedom that the visions of the Temptations of St Anthony give any artist. When I discovered sculpture I merely translated the figures that I had been drawing and etching into three
dimensions. I used colour and decoration and was excited about it. And then I was awarded a residency to spend five months in Paris – this was my first travel out of Australia – and everything changed. I spent nearly every day of that five months in the Louvre and other museums and galleries – I discovered history through objects. I found myself going further and further back in history – I started to dream of falling into shapes – those shapes were simple and refined and worn with time. I wanted to throw everything away and start again, so I did. I dispensed with colour and decoration and narrative and concentrated on form and profile and curve. I dressed those forms in black – it could have been white, but not colour.
All through this I kept drawing in black ink on white paper and gradually the drawings too became simpler, less about telling a story and more about form. I am not trained in drawing and merely use it as a vehicle to get ideas onto paper. This suits the way I work as a sculptor – capturing a black edge against white – the profile of a black sculpture in a clean space.
Heather B. Swann Hyper-text 2010
KWG: Can you tell me how you translate the drawing into sculpture?
HBS: During the drawing I eventually manage to draw something that looks like a sculpture that I would like to make. Then I start – wood, modelling clay, glue, nails etc. I never have 12 drawings of sculptures and then 12 sculptures. One feeds off another, one leads to another. There will be many drawings that simply play around with ideas and forms that can never be realized – these drawings just pile up and I go through them over and over again or pin them up on the studio wall.
This time I started by making the bone that is like the long back of a man – it became a long back to bear the weight of a monkey. I was reading around the folklore and phraseology of the monkey on your back and discovered that a monkey with a long tail is slang for a mortgage – this rang true with my current financial struggle and also suited my penchant for an elegant serpentine curve. I always work like this – a drawing, a curve, a form comes together with a situation, an idea; this will fit a line from a song, a feeling, an art historical reference, a joke or a weight and then they will fit with a making technique, a material.
The long man’s back led to making the raw woman bone that became the sculpture Equestrienne. A feeling of raw desperation but also a quiet nod to Brancusi’s Princesse X and a good old fashioned belly laugh with Bourgeois’ Fillette. The double-backed beast brought those two backs together and sees them rutting on the floor in the corner. I have been drawing these two backs for years – they used to have legs but through the drawing process they had become simpler, more connected and now they had found a place.
The rat and the dog are simply two more troublemakers to join in the fun with the monkey. That dog will always be waiting for a bone. The rat is a boner, a huge shunga print phallus. The bicycle thieves can also read like two boners checking each other out, but equally they are two birds, two Venetian masks, an impossible journey. I really do not have any reasoning with this one, it was a drawing and became a sculpture.
The long back bone had become so luxurious and like a weird chaise lounge, I liked it but I was not prepared to let everything settle into such comfort so I drew out the bones of the spine into a spiky barbed whip. And then I made it. And hung it. And was a little frightened.
Heather B. Swann Barb (detail) 2010
KWG: It sounds as if things can get a little out of hand in your studio…
HBS: Yes, I like that!!