DAWN ROWLAND was interviewed in 1988 by FAY WERTHEIMER on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour – they continued their discussion in May 2000
Fay: What motivates your work?
Dawn: My emotions, I have a need to explore my basic emotions as a daughter, wife and mother and translate the feelings within these relationships into something permanent and tangible.
Why then, of all art forms have you opted for stone-carving which is such an arduous, back-breaking way of working?
I think it happened the other way round – stone carving chose me! I fell in love with it. Here was my passion. I just knew when I put mallet to chisel and made my first ‘Mother and Child’ in alabaster, that stone-sculpture was what I really had to do.
Your sculptures have an immediate impact on people. Does it bother you that onlookers, in the main, are unable to conceive the hours and months involved in producing the pieces?
Not at all – I wouldn’t expect people to be familiar with what is involved. The end result is the important thing but I don’t deny the effort and stamina required in my work. To be honest, ~I really enjoy the physicality and sensuality of carving – ‘intense pleasure and pain’ are the words that immediately spring to mind when I think of working with stone.
By pain do you mean just the bodily pain or are you referring to the difficulties of chiselling on such an unforgiving medium?
Yes and No. The physical side is definitely a challenge. There are other forms of sculpture which don’t take their toll on the body in the same way and are far quicker to produce. But I wouldn’t do anything else. I love stone. It has a presence and a will of its own. The struggles involved in working it, keeping the dialogue going and my creative ideas fresh gives me deep satisfaction.
I have long suspected most stone sculptors must be a little mad – after all, why would anyone want to pit their strength against something so resistant!
Every artist’s work is to some extent autobiographical. Do your sculptures represent specific events and milestones in your life?
My sculptures are my emotional c.v. For example ‘An Emotional Year’ was carved during the year of my father’s death. I would travel 200 miles to visit him in hospital, return home and resume work on the piece. It seemed to evolve on its own, as if guided by my own deep feelings, which is why, for me ‘An Emotional Year’ possesses such a powerful identity.
Are you implying your creative inspiration stems from crises?
Absolutely not. Creating sculpture to mark positive events keeps them and the sentiments evoked by them alive. For example my one-tonne limestone sculpture ‘Embrace’ celebrates the family unit and its all-encompassing love. And compelled by seeing the majesty of the Alaskan Indians ‘totems’, I created my own soapstone female family tree - ’Female Totem’.
However, in times of crisis, making sculpture can have a cathartic effect upon me as it demands such total commitment. The action of carving, combined with the channelling of my ideas into something concrete, transforms a negative situation into something far more positive.
So, is all your work based upon your own experiences?
Not really. Some themes are inspired by experiences outside my own sphere. The ordeals of young men going to war, its effect upon them and their mothers led to my series ‘The Warrior Dreams’.
How do you explain the cyclical nature of your work?
We all have our journey through life. The basic emotions (sentiments) underlying my work are a part of me and can therefore never be totally resolved. Sometimes I think I have completed a series but find myself returning to those same issues several years later.
For instance, the concepts behind the ‘Letting Go’ and the “Mother and Daughter’ sculptures refer to children leaving the nest. Even ‘My Mother Myself….My Daughter Myself’ delves into the same inextricable, cyclical relationship. The mother is also a daughter. That daughter will become a mother ….a continual cycle through the generations
Do you plan your work meticulously or is it an organic process?
I am a direct carver, I either draw onto the stone or go straight in and start carving. I know what I want to do and just go for it. I seldom use a macquette and occasionally make rough drawings. It’s a natural process. But I also believe there are special moments when an artist must rely on instinct, on that extra layer of consciousness to produce those wonderful ‘creative accidents’ you could never, ever plan.
What tools do you use?
My hand tools vary from points, bouchard hammers, chisels and files to rifflers and diamond pads for the finishing touches. Heavier work may require a compressor and is moved around my studio with a stacker-truck.
You work mainly in alabaster, soapstone and limestone. How do you match the stones to your ideas? What do you look for in the stone?
It depends. In alabaster I look for texture and colour and often incorporate its natural texture into a piece – as a reminder of the stone’s origin. Though traditionally, artisans fashioned alabaster into delicate objects, I prefer to use it for creating powerful images. But the beauty of the stone can cause problems as its markings may smudge the clean lines of the sculpture itself, and so compromise its shape.
Neither soapstone nor limestone presents this problems. In fact, limestone weathers and polishes well and soapstone so closely associated with primitive art, is perfect for my style of sculpture.
Do you sculpt in other materials?
Yes, I like to explore other materials like wood, bronze and plaster. If a piece is to be cast in bronze, I usually sculpt it in clay or plaster. However, if I consider a particular sculpture will stand up in its own right as a bronze I will then cast it from stone as with ‘Femme to Rocher’ and ‘The Warrior Dreams….His Mother Waits.
Why are heads and hands predominant in your sculptures?
To me, they represent strong emotion and in my opinion, the head and hands are where feelings are rooted. I am fascinated by faces but even more obsessed by hands – active not passive hands. They perform so many roles. Some people speak with them…and by their touch can communicate love, friendship, caring – and also anger, frustration and despair. Strong sentiments for any sculptor to portray!
The overall, professional finish of your figures does not diminish their earthy and tactile appeal. Is it your intention for people to touch your work?
It’s not my intention, but I think it’s great people want to do so. But there can be problems. During the large outdoor sculpture exhibition ‘Chelsea Harbour 93’ so many hands touched my limestone piece, it turned black and I spent two days removing the grease. I wasn’t concerned because it was such a complement people had responded so naturally to my work
What do the blindfolds in your sculptures signify?
Different things in each case. . In the ‘Warrior Dreams’ series, I created blindfolds to identify the dreamers. In ‘Letting Go’ and ‘Mother and Daughter’ the blindfolds symbolise the innocence of youth. In ‘Never Again’, blindfolds represent repressed anger and frustration.
Which artists and works have influenced you most?
Where do I start! Michelangelo’s four unfinished ‘Captives’, Epstein’s courageous ‘Adam’, ‘Jacob and the Angel’ and ‘Genesis’ and of course, Brancusi, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Manuel Neri. I could go on……
How would you like your sculptures to be viewed?
As sculpture which strike a chord within other people – as earning a place in the long tradition of stone sculpture.