Rick Kirby - Sculpture



Curriculum Vitae



In conversation with Rick Kirby – sculptor/artist

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 town centre.
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 his work.
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 looking back.
“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 personal.
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 were created.
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 cramp creativity.
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 stood.
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 their hearts.
It was the trigger that started off a stream of commissions for sculptures up and down the country.
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 another dimension.

Neeta Borah
January 2008

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