Header Image—detail of Mercury Window

Transformation—The Horsley Mill Sculpture

Transformation Sculpture front detail

I wrote about the project in one of my imaginary interviews with Shanton Miers

Shanton Miers: You were saying something about the launch of the project?

Johannes: Ah yes – I try not to turn down a challenge; I don’t think I lack imagination but in this case I completely lacked foresight.

Shanton Miers: What do you mean?

Johannes: Well if I had had any kind of notion what this project involved, I would have run a million miles. Almost immediately on agreeing I was thrown into doubt and terror. I had foolishly agreed to: a, work in the public eye; b, work together with Ruskin Mill students; and c, work in a material I had absolutely no experience of.

Shanton Miers: Why did you agree?

Johannes: As an artist/daddy/hunter-gatherer, I am always on the lookout for something to pop into my sack. To get any commissioned work represents an opportunity which would be too stupid to refuse. There’s also always the half-articulated hope (well covered by life’s bitter experience) that this could be the one, the big one. The one that takes me to a level of self-perpetuating creativity, that breaks the cage, lifts me into a greater public awareness. I might get other jobs; I might be able to continue working as an artist.

Shanton Miers: So what was your reaction when the stone arrived?

Johannes: I almost couldn’t bear to be there, I avoided people’s eyes and questions. A special crane (thanks to Tony) eventually manipulated it into the upright. I remember tapping the stone tentatively and thinking – my God, I’ve really done it this time – rubber bedrooms, here I come! 10 tonnes of stone, 3 metres high by 1 metre cube, harder than anything I’d ever tackled. What the fuck am I going to do?

Shanton Miers: Was there some kind of brief? A theme to work on? Something to be represented?

Johannes: Yes there was: ‘Create something Michaelic,’ Aonghus had said, ‘a worthy sculpture for Ruskin Mill and the Millennium.’ I am not a figurative sculptor, so the task was to show something that represented Michaelic elements: tension, transformation, balance, something like that. I started by making a series of models out of clay and plaster. I even made a scale model out of stone, very different from the shape the sculpture eventually took. It was based on a vertical spiral and was pierced. The idea was that the viewers could imagine themselves passing through a doorway, being part of a dynamic struggle.

Shanton Miers: What happened to that idea?

Johannes: It was shelved, one of the earlier models was used. It had an upright spiralling form and a kind of vortex on each side. One aspect was more related to the Ahrimanic adversary, the other to Lucifer. The vortices were centres of energy that hold the balance. A model or a maquette for me is only a starting point, it’s a beginning, a trigger. The form itself has to find its own integrity, become itself.

Shanton Miers: So when did you actually start?

Johannes: I made my first tentative taps on Michaelmas day in 1999, but it was in autumn 2000 that I began properly. When I say properly, it was a little like trying to hand-milk a cow in a straight-jacket. I banged away with a heavy hammer, using the wrong chisels, jarring my arm and feeling incredibly exhausted and frustrated.

Shanton Miers: Why didn’t you find out how to do it and use the right tools?

Johannes: A good question – I can only reply, because that’s how I am. I’ve never been very good at informing myself. Instructions on packets elude me. I don’t know…I suppose I am just not that kind of person. I could have gone on a course, read the right books, scanned the net, I guess I have to do it my way, the hard way.

Shanton Miers: So what about machinery? Compressed air? Angle grinders?

Johannes: No, I’ve never really liked machines. As a child I found them terrifying, the technology I use is a compromise, I’d rather have nothing to do with it at all. I wanted my first (and possibly my only) excursion into marble to be a total experience. I believe there are no short cuts really, everything has to be suffered, experienced fully. A machine could have removed lots of stone quickly; but would I have had the same experience of slow progression, evolution and metamorphosis? I doubt it. Also, my wife was against it.

Shanton Miers: Well no wonder it took so long. Were you full-time on the marble?

Johannes: Good Lord, no, my life is thick with other commitments, teaching, other artwork, some quite large commissions and of course my own family.

Shanton Miers: It must have been hard to maintain your momentum on a part-time basis.

Johannes: It was, particularly as it was very much an uphill struggle. The physical and psychological barriers were enormous. Without the delicious canteen food, I might not have got there at all. Sometimes I would bash away for hours and move hardly any material. Maintaining confidence, a springy step and a glittering eye in the face of such slow progress was hard.

Shanton Miers: Did you work with the students?

Johannes: No – I suppose if I’d been an experienced marble-carver with some well-trained assistants, it might have been possible; as it was, a very inexperienced, very ‘every now and then on the job’ person couldn’t really carry a team on a project of such delicacy and monumentality.

Shanton Miers: Monumentality certainly, but what do you mean by delicacy? Your sledgehammer bashings don’t sound very delicate to me.

Johannes: Right from the beginning I was aware of the preciousness of the material. This radiant, pure, white substance – somehow, I hardly dared to strike it. Delicate also in terms of money – I was well aware that it had not been donated to Ruskin Mill by the Greek government; not to mention what I was being paid. Now, just for the record, let me say that this was not, as some people probably imagined, an hourly rate (I would have been one of Nailsworth’s top earners) but a fixed amount for the whole job. The other factor that strongly impinged itself upon me was the need to succeed. It simply wouldn’t do just to make gravel. The thought of some over-zealous student knocking off bits that he didn’t ought to, was more than I could bear. Of course, I hope that it meant something to be near the evolving lump, it was there for some time after all.

Shanton Miers: Did you get any feedback?

Johannes: Yes, of course, there’d been a lot of interest all along. Many people penetrated into my pen, watched me working and even had a go. Sometimes on those hot and sultry summer days when heat and airlessness plunged me into the very tropics, I took off nearly all my clothes. At such times I would hastily duck behind the marble, addressing my visitors (particularly the female ones) from behind a wall of stone. I generated quite a bit of unwelcome interest too. A certain nameless thorn in the flesh of the Ruskin Emporium managed to close me down for several months. I then had to work in a semi-soundproofed box, somewhat difficult for a piece of such dimensions.

Shanton Miers: Were you making a lot of noise?

Johannes: Not really, though of course that’s difficult to assess. As I’ve said, I did not use machinery, just a hammer and chisel. I suppose modern life has brought us to this pass. We can’t do anything about the strimmers, chainsaws, cars, factories and aeroplanes – that’s progress, that’s the mantle of stupefying deadness that shrouds us all. But woe unto the little man who makes a little irritating noise, to earn his little irritating living. We can come down on him like a ton of bricks, legislate him into poverty and silence. It’s a sad fact that the reason most given by children for not playing outside in the streets and shopping malls is the adults’ intolerance of noise. Sure, the world is a dangerous place full of speeding cars and perverts, so television tells us. Yet wouldn’t we rather hear the noise and bustle of childhood than all that bone-grating machinery? Or have we really reached a point where nothing must impede the almost spiritual pleasure of shopping? A chisel banging and a child yelling are not quite the same, but nonetheless they come from the same source: human creativity, human activity.

That was another hurdle I had to overcome: the realisation that every stroke, every bell-like clang was sending somebody into paroxysms of anger and frustration.

Shanton Miers: So what was it like in your box? How did you cope with only seeing the work from such a short distance?

Johannes: I quite liked my box, it kept me dry, was a barrier to the wind; yes it was hard if not impossible to see the emerging form, but I had privacy. Could carry on trying to carve marble, break a chisel every three or four days, curse and weep unseen, slink away if things got too much.

Shanton Miers: Were you ever tempted to give up?

Johannes: Yes, all the time but the consequences of giving up are so horrendous, so awesome, that I didn’t really have a choice. Giving up is a kind of death, an admission of failure. It’s saying: this challenge is beyond me, let me go back to making little things, I am not really an artist, it’s all a terrible mistake. One has to pick up the gauntlet, prove one’s manhood; not to do so undermines integrity, leads to artistic and moral bankruptcy.

Shanton Miers: As a non-artist, I can hardly imagine a lump of stone being a matter of life and death, but I believe you. But surely it could not all have been like that, there must have been a time when things got easier.

Johannes: Of course things got easier; suddenly, inexplicably things started moving. Almost by chance I used the right chisel in the right way – it was as if the stone had let me. Having witnessed my random brutish bangings with cold indifference and folded arms, it suddenly welcomed me, allowed me to carve, indeed, seemed eager to help and guide me. It was the beginning of a most exhilarating last lap.

Shanton Miers: So when was this?

Johannes: In the spring of 2003. More than half the work was accomplished in less than a year.

Shanton Miers: What changed your technique? Why did it suddenly work?

Johannes: I had been using a thin pointed chisel and making extended linear marks across the surface. Suddenly I used a much heavier tool and worked straight into the stone, creating pits which joined up to make a rough cratered skin. It was possible to loosen the surface; each pit provided an anchorage for the chisel point, making it easy to work down to the next level. I really had the sensation of peeling away material to expose the form.

Shanton Miers: That sounds a bit like Michelangelo perceiving the form in the stone and liberating it. Was it like that?

Johannes: Yes, I suppose so. I realised more and more clearly that the forms had their own integrity. A kind of current, a flow of energy had been set up. Rhythm gave rise to form. There was a certain ‘isness’ to the shapes, almost as if the marble had will and consciousness. I reached the point in the summer where I was virtually living marble. I would shut my eyes at night and be transported into a landscape of breathing, moving stone. I was ant-like in size, a baby suckling at the pap of God, a lover embracing a milky goddess.

Shanton Miers: So your agony turned to ecstasy in the end?

Johannes: Yes, you could say that, though all too briefly. Apparently, no great joy can be uncontaminated, be utterly free of shadow. By this time, June, July, August of 2003, the sculpture was more or less paid for. The honey pot licked out. I was experiencing tremendous exhilaration on one level and the most difficult financial problems on the other. I was carried on a wave of great creative energy that bore me effortlessly along. It was good to be doing the work for its own sake, freely given, freed from necessity, freed from gain. But how to pay the bills? All those black-edged envelopes that only said one thing: ‘We’re going to cut off your balls.’ Where was the money going to come from? Somehow, we limped and fluttered through.

To generate the stamina to see a project of this nature through, naturally means freeing oneself up, letting other things go, making space. Now, I suppose I feel a kind of emptiness; this, you understand is not only on an artistic level.

Shanton Miers: So what’s next Johannes? Where do you go from here?

Johannes: Difficult to say – hopefully not a brown paper bag under a motorway bridge! I might not have much foresight but I’ve got a bit of faith. Something will happen. Ideally, I would like to launch into some other grand project. Thirty more lumps of marble of the same size would do nicely thank you. It seems to be one of those laws of nature that as soon as one has learnt something, it’s time to move on. I can carve marble a bit now, it would be great to continue taking to it all that I have experienced. But life isn’t like that. One never gets the same chance twice.

Despite all the problems and hiccups, both the outer and the inner, I felt I was doing something for the community. By community I don’t mean only the students and staff of Ruskin Mill – I mean the whole neighbourhood. I hope I was not only a nuisance.

One of the great problems facing modern art and the modern artist is: who’s it for? Does it just go off to the market place, the gallery? To be sold on to anonymous buyers? Or does art still have a wider spiritual and social function?

To have worked on site, albeit in a box, is still an ideal. The artist is providing something tangible to the community that surrounds him. He shares his insights, sufferings and skills and in return is given a place, has a role to play. This has always been the case throughout history, be it producing sacred objects for the shaman, altar paintings for the church or portraits for a patron. His skills and services were necessary for the cultural-spiritual definition of what constitutes a society, a civilisation. I think this is a life and death issue, something worth fighting and suffering for. Human culture and civilisation will only continue if there is a creative renewal.

Art has to be something other than the clever concept or the decorative bauble. Art has to be the very stuff of life itself. Where do I go from here? I can only hope onwards, to further work, further agony and ecstasy.

Shanton Miers: Can you take it?

Johannes: Yes, always.

Transformation—The Horsley Mill Sculpture
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