I came across Rick Kirby’s work
about a year ago, when he took over the hire of
one of the outbuildings on the same farm where I
rent my cottage. This is now Rick’s
studio-workshop. It was here that I saw the face
take shape, which now presides over Lincoln’s
Rick is appealingly modest about his
achievements and it is not until recently that I
discover he has a prodigious body of work, with
a significant 90% of it being in the public
domain. His work has been unveiled by the Queen,
Princess Margaret, the Duke of Kent and, amongst
other notables in politics and culture, the
Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney.
Rick’s sculptures remain in permanent display
throughout the length and breadth of the country
– from Glasgow in the north to London, Kent and
Suffolk in the south. The advantage of this, he
says, is that not only can thousands of people
see them, but he himself can return to see them
again and again. Each piece he creates carries a
part of him and marks a particular period in his
development as an artist.
I ask Rick how he got into sculpture. He said it
was a natural progression rather than a sudden
revelation. He had always loved art as a child.
He loved looking at paintings and was
particularly interested in 20th century art. By
the time he was in secondary school he was
pretty sure that he was going to study art.
After leaving high school, he joined art school
in Somerset and then went on to do his
bachelor’s degree from Newport College of Art.
The late 60s/early 70s was a liberating time to
be in art school. It was the age of
deconstruction and anything and everything was
fair game. By the time he graduated from art
school, he had dabbled in various art forms and
came out, he says, “confused” and not at all
sure what shape his own work would take.
He went into teacher training and started his
career as art teacher. This proved to be a very
satisfying period in his life. He loved
encouraging kids to reach the upper limits of
their potential and he got a great buzz seeing
the amazement on their faces when they
discovered what they could create.
Rick stayed in teaching for 16 years. It was
during this period that his particular
predilection for sculpture crystallized.
However, as the years rolled by, he began to get
restless. He had the burn that all great artists
have – the desire to throw caution to the wind
and turn a single focus to the dedication of
art. He knew that he did not want to look back
one day and say, “I should have done that.”
It was a huge leap of faith but he gave up
teaching and turned his full attention to
sculpture. He had already been carving in stone
and now he took it up full time. The human form
and the human face held a key fascination for
him and this is what he continued (and still
continues) to delineate.
He began to exhibit his work in art galleries
and found that people were interested in buying
Selling was always a wrench. He put so much of
himself into the pieces he created. The best
were exhibited and then would be snapped up and
vanish into private collections.
After three years of stone carving he felt he
had tempered his skills and had got as good as
he could get.
Around this time, he was sharing a studio with
someone who worked in steel. His co-tenant asked
him to have a go with the welder. Rick resisted
at first and then one day, he picked up the
welder and put flame to steel. That was a
defining moment. From then on there was no
“Steel released me”, he says. “It gave me the
ability to go huge, a scale that just is not
possible with stone.” It had what he called “a
whoom-factor!” Steel has the propensity for
huge, large-scale structures in a way that stone
carving just cannot.
The process of working the two elements could
not be more different. Stone requires chipping
away. Steel is built up piece by piece. Rick’s
sculptures are made of small pieces of steel
welded together – he compares them to pixels. It
enables him to give nuance and feeling even to
large scale sculptures.
When he first used the welder, Rick worked with
mild steel which naturally oxidised in the
atmosphere, when the rays of the rising or
setting sun strike the rusted surface, the
colours are just magnificent.
He now also works in stainless steel, both
generally perceived as industrial materials, but
in Rick’s hands, steel comes sinuous and alive.
Not the most malleable of materials, it requires
infinite patience – and some – to arrive at he
wants to achieve. Importantly though for Rick,
steel did not detract from the classical human
form, which remains at the core of his work.
This juxtaposition of steel in its raw form –
cold-industrial and the warm-human that his art
breathes into it – is endlessly appealing.
Art, though, is a cruel and demanding mistress.
Rick spends long hours on his feet in the great
cavernous warehouse that his workshop-studio,
rigged up in protective gear in the heat and in
the cold (though when it’s cold it’s not so bad
to be in layers), bent over his work, patiently
moulding and shaping the pixels of steel and
then welding the pieces together. He cannot
count the number of times he has cut or burnt
his hands. That is an occupational hazard –
including ending up with a stiff back at the end
of the day!
The way Rick works is also a contrast of
extremes – using the welder which represents
industry / factory / mass production and the
creation of a work of art which is the
expression of something unique and very
We talk of the major influences in his life. The
child of a naval father, Rick had had a
peripatetic life, spending his early childhood
in Hong Kong and Singapore and then all over the
British Isles. “Home” he says, “is where you
rest your head”.
Industrial influences loom large in his life.
The giant heads he creates are reminiscent of
the old ships he had seen when his family lived
in Portsmouth. He would take the ferry to go to
primary school and would see them, listing in
the water, the great wasted hulks of timber and
steel, skeletons that had once ruled world’s
oceans – the huge-ribbed “oak Leviathans” of
Byron’s Childe Harold. It left a profound
impression. What he was witnessing then was
Britain’s great shipping industry in its dying
throes. The ribs of the ships he had seen as a
child are echoed in the structure of his
sculptures, in particular in the make-up of the
huge heads lying on their sides.
When I ask Rick, which
contemporary artist he rates most he says, with
a laugh, that actually the artist he most
admires is the architect, Frank Gehry.
Gehry creates architecture that is a functioning
work of art. It is a building, it has a purpose,
it is both a personal and public space and it is
a piece of art. This appeals to Rick, it is an
area he would love to move into.
Gehry’s buildings, whether it is the Guggenheim
Museum in Bilbao, or Gehry’s own home, in Santa
Monica, California – are of the time and yet
timeless. He uses modern materials to create
seminal pieces of architecture that become
landmarks and are at the same time a commentary
on state of the art in the period in which they
There is a close affinity between art and
architecture – they share the same platform.
Buildings house or form the backdrop to works of
art; buildings themselves become works of art.
Rick’s fascination with buildings and building
materials, of course, translates to the medium
he has chosen for the expression of his art.
Not shy of courting controversy over his works
of art, Rick believes debate is healthy – it
makes people think. The process is both
cathartic and organic. It is good when a work of
art so grabs the public imagination that it
compels people to come forward and voice their
opinions – in favour or against.
He is amused by the furore generated by his
Silver Ladies in Wellingborough. On the one hand
there were horrified gasps that they were NUDES!
and on the other there were those who thought
the Ladies were uplifting objects of beauty. In
fact, he says with a chuckle, on another piece a
small but vocal faction of locals were so
exercised that the Council urged Rick to reduce
the ladies' busts!'
We talk about Gormley’s Angel of the North. Rick
sees that as the first contemporary piece of art
that changed things in England. There was so
much controversy when the piece was first
unveiled and quite a bit of vitriol. Yet it was
the making of Gateshead. It turned the place
around. Gateshead was plucked out of obscurity
of its mining and industrial past and has become
a place people want to visit. It is synonymous
now with Gormley’s Angel and people travel from
miles to see it. Taxi drivers proudly point it
out to visitors. Locals have grown to love it,
and the demurring voices have been quelled.
Today it is an object of civic pride and it
belongs to the people of Gateshead collectively.
A lot has changed since then. Councils and
property developers are beginning to include
public art in their package for new builds. More
and more they see it as a way of making a place
special and different – distinctive. It has not
quite taken off in the way it has in the US,
where a certain percentage is allocated in the
budget for art. Developers have seen the impact
public art has on local residents and how people
have come to regard their “pieces” with pride
and affection. It has become the accepted thing
to do now. It is a hugely successful venture and
also incredible advertisement for the developers
who are proud to be seen as sponsors of art.
A lot of Rick’s work is done to commission but
he only bids for those that have an open brief.
A tight brief would be too restrictive. It would
When he wins a commission he researches the
local history and the community for whom the art
is intended. He looks for uplifting themes – not
didactic but inspiring – and he matches the
loose brief to an idea, a spark.
His own favourite, in terms of satisfaction he
said, would have to be the Arc of Angels in
Portishead. That was one of four pieces that
were commissioned for what was once an awful
brownfield site where a power station once
The Portishead Angels, as it has come to be
known, stands in the middle of what is now a
public park and local people have taken it to
It was the trigger that started off a stream of
commissions for sculptures up and down the
I tell him that his sculpture outside Guy’s and
St Thomas’s entitled “Crossing the Divide”
reminds me of Michelangelo’s painting on the
Sistine Chapel of God and Adam. He says no one
else had drawn that comparison before but agreed
that in the periphery that influence was there.
It is after all a part of the mental cultural
baggage we carry. He said the sculpture
represents a helping hand and also trust and
relationship on several levels - between patient
and healer, the NHS Trust and the medical team
and the joining of Guy’s and St Thomas’s.
We go on to talk in general terms about art and
how difficult it is to pin down. There are so
many strands art. There is the art that the
Saatchi Gallery patronises – Brit art – which is
very different from public art.
We return to architecture, which is a subject
close to Rick’s heart.
Rick recalls the period after Prince Charles’
outcry against the “carbuncle”, after which in
Britain there was a period of regression.
Architects played safe and reverted to the neo
classical. Innovative and modern materials were
spurned. Cutting-edge British architects took on
commissions abroad where there was more openness
to new ideas.
In pursuit of the modern and the new, mistakes
were made, but on the whole, Rick thinks
architecture has been kick-started and London’s
cityscape bears testimony to this. Modern glass
and steel structures have gone up everywhere and
sits perfectly comfortably with architecture
that has shaped our past through the ages. What
is happening in architecture now is beautiful
and exciting. Architecture becomes footprints in
the sands of time marking the march of progress
of a people, a nation, mankind.
He hopes sculpture will open up in the same way.
We arrive at where we are by standing on the
shoulder of giants. There is this duality about
art – Janus-faced, it looks back at what had
been and forward to what can be.
There will always be some people who will play
it safe and others who push the boundaries and
by doing so propel art and architecture into