Steve Dilworth interview: Northern Inspirations (2009)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 12 February 2012
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 28(6), July / August 2009, pp. 26-31 & cover.

Steve Dilworth: Northern Inspirations

The site where an artist lives often provides inspirational material for his or her work, and such is certainly the case for Steve Dilworth. He has spent the past 25 years on the North Atlantic coast of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides in northwest Scotland, roughly equidistant from London and Iceland. Stretching into the far north and characterized by rough, windswept weather coming from the ocean, this unique environment is home to whales, porpoises, seals, and millions of birds— animals that urbanites usually see only in aquariums. Dilworth, on the other hand, can watch their daily lives unfold from the windows of his home and studio.

Over his 40-year career, Steve Dilworth has created sculptural entombments of animals found dead on the Isle of Harris. He has also made contemplative hand-held objects, works in the land, and recently, public sculpture. Originally from Northeast England, Dilworth has exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the U.K., and his large-scale public artworks are in many U.K. collections. Dilworth is represented by the Hart Gallery in London.

R.J. Preece: I’ve traveled a bit around Iceland and Arctic Norway and feel like I have a sense of where your work comes from: the serenity, the empty beaches, the landscapes that stretch endlessly, the amazing number of birds and other wildlife. It’s their territory. Is it necessary to travel to the far north to really appreciate your work?

Steve Dilworth: There is definitely a lot of the far north in my work, but I would hope that even if someone has had no first-hand experience of these northern places that the sculptures would touch something inside. For example, even with ancient cave paintings, I think that people can relate through time to the work itself. You don’t have to be from that time to have an experience with those works. The archetypal qualities of the landscape, myths, and histories feed and run parallel as I work. Brian Catling said that I tapped archaic undercurrents, which is the same thing, I guess.

R.J. Preece: When you are talking to people about your work, do they ask you about the environmental context?

Steve Dilworth: Sometimes people have a tactile experience, and they will say something like, “The work is beautifully made.” You can see that they feel the power and energy of the object, which I see as the core of the works. But they don’t ask a lot of questions about the environmental context, which is an obvious influence. It’s only a part, however; the internal landscape drives the work and my need to make it.

R.J. Preece: What would you describe as the key developments in your artistic practice?

Steve Dilworth: Two developments stand out for me. There is no doubt that making and showing Hanging figure (1979–80) opened all sorts of Pandora’s boxes, focusing my attitude and understanding of what sculpture can and should be. With this work, I wanted to take an animal presence and a human presence and combine them with equal respect, as we cannot separate ourselves from nature.

I’ve been trying ever since to unravel these questions and insights, to work with responsibility and integrity. Sculpture is not purely a visual art: materials possess energy and have a presence that can be manipulated by changing their shape and positioning them with other materials. A more powerful presence can be created, and objects can be made that have a power greater than their physical form. All of the object is important, whether seen or unseen, as with everything else in life.

Secondly, making Calm water (1991) had a big impact on me. It was very important because I was making something completely outside the art world. It had nothing to do with exhibitions, showing, or my artistic identity. It was designing and making something, with a purpose, for somebody. It was to be used as a contemplative, personal object to provide comfort to a friend who was dying of cancer.

R.J. Preece: Could you give examples of how you conceive your works? Does it depend on the type of work you are making?

Steve Dilworth: Some of my works begin by simply placing collected material together, a bit like placing copper and zinc together as the beginning of a battery. For example, Rook (1980), which uses bog oak, iron, and the “material” of the rook, fits into this category. Calm water is another example of all the materials relating through their history, combined together.

With Porpoise (2004–05), I came across a dead, rotting porpoise washed up on the beach below my home. I managed to extract the vertebrae, about 60 bones in all, and the skull. The skull was particularly smelly so I left it outside. This turned out to be a mistake, because a local dog started chewing it. Afterwards, I boiled and cleaned the bones and what remained of the skull, and they became the start of a new work. The whole spine was used. The 60 bones of the vertebrae were molded. Using the lost wax method, they were cast into pure sterling silver. The body was cast in bronze at Pangolin Foundry. Doing this was rather difficult, and I’m very fortunate to be able to work with a foundry of such caliber.

R.J. Preece: How did you go about making Three Herons (2003)?

Steve Dilworth: The herons were collected by a friend who ran a local fish farm. They all had broken necks, which must have been caused by them trying to take salmon from the fish cages. This happens often up here— herons try to stab the salmon with their beaks through the cages. Sometimes two or three herons will work together, using their combined weight to lower the “anti-predator net”, which is stretched over the top of a fish cage. This makes it easier for one of them to catch a fish— quite clever really.

I took the dead herons and injected them with sodium fluoride and formaldehyde to preserve them. Then I positioned them in my studio so they would dry. This took about six weeks, but drying time varies depending on the wetness of the air. They become stiff as a board when dry. I strengthened their legs with stainless steel wire and then encased the entire birds in glass fiber. For each feather that had a fish hook bound to it with fishing line, I rehooked it in exactly the same position. The composition is such that, if unraveled, the birds would stretch into a fishing line of sorts.

R.J. Preece: You use an internal and external method to preserve the animal material as opposed to taxidermy, which just uses the animal exterior. Why is this?

Steve Dilworth: For me, it’s not about what the animal looks like. It’s about what the animal is.

R.J. Preece: Over the past year especially, there has been growing interest in the news media and among the general public about environmental issues and protection strategies. How do you see your work as relating to “environmental art”?

Steve Dilworth: I guess living where I do, on the margins, it would be unusual not to have become more aware of environmental changes. This includes climate extremes, more violent storms, and changes in the patterns of fish and bird life. This must inevitably influence and feed into my work, even at a subconscious level. I have made things directly in the environment, but my studio work is involved with the raw tooth-and-claw dynamics of nature, life and death stuff.

R.J. Preece: And how do you see your work relating to Modernist sculpture?

Steve Dilworth: As I understand it, Modernist art deals directly with and is dependent on contemporary issues. In my work, I engage with and relate timeless issues: those of place, material, identity, and understanding. My work is of today, but also of tomorrow, and I hope relevant for all time. I like to think that if one of my sculptures were found on a beach or at a junk stall, it would “speak” without props or history. Viewers may not be aware of all of the internal stuff, like the thoughts behind the work or some of the internal materials, but I aim for the works to be unique, powerful, and special in and of themselves.

R.J. Preece: You came to public art recently, with, for example, Ark (2000) and Claw (2007). Was the different working process— making and negotiating— a challenge?

Steve Dilworth: No, not really, not the negotiating part at least. I built our home and studio from ruins, and you learn quite a lot from an experience like that. The scary thing I found was to have the confidence to visualize what a large-scale sculpture would “do” before committing to making it. So far, I’ve been delighted and surprised by the final pieces— although it is a fait accompli, and some makers have a different attitude to what is acceptable. But over the years, I’ve built quite a network of people who care and get involved in my developing work. At times this has helped push the works to places that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’ve tried to build on my skills as a maker and have been humbled by the craftsmen I’ve worked with.

R.J. Preece: There’s something about your work that I have not been able to place. I’m not sure if it’s a romantic quality in the way you memorialize life, in the entombments especially, or if it’s a profound sensitivity to life. When I referred to the shock element of your work, you said, “It’s just material”. But you’ve chosen materials that have specific contexts and meanings, haven’t you?

Steve Dilworth: This is a very interesting question, and I am not sure that I’m able to answer it satisfactorily. I don’t see “shock” as having much weight or longevity. The fact that the works may at times shock has, I think, more to do with the viewer. I live close to nature, with life and death as part of the place. This is part of the natural turn of events; seeing it up close has given me some sort of immunity. But I’m not insensitive, and I abhor cruelty and suffering in animals as I do in people.

When you are working with a rook, you are thinking about its life. It’s got its history, its smell, its feathers. For me, it’s a sculpture. It’s not a bird. I suppose that it’s much like how a surgeon becomes immersed in the work of an operation or a butcher in creating joints of meat. Am I memorializing? Some people think so, but I’m just partly doing that. I don’t think of it that way when I’m making it. It’s about doing the animal justice, not “making use of it”. I am romantic, but I’m not sure if the work is. There’s a sensitivity for sure.

R.J. Preece: Could you describe the range of materials you’ve worked with in making sculpture?

Steve Dilworth: As an example of one extreme, I used “darkness” as the starting point and core of a couple of sculptures. It was a bit daft really, a bit like “London Fog”, the jokey stuff that used to be sold, probably still is, in tins; but I was serious in collecting this “material” in the middle of the darkest, longest night of the year as far from artificial light as possible. Believe me, it does get dark up here in the winter. The collected material was sealed inside a lead container. This process is comparable to Calm water. I’ve also worked with air.

R.J. Preece: What about animals?

Steve Dilworth: I’m obsessed with birds for some reason— I’m still working with them, from very tiny birds to large swans. Dolphin heads, skin, fat, and vertebrae; eel skins; human teeth; my own blood; seal oil; whale bones and teeth; partly rotted sheepskin; fish heads, oil, skin, and bones. I’ve got part of the umbilical cord that was attached to my grandson, Finn, which my daughter wants me to do “something” with. Also, I’ve worked with all sorts of wood. I’m now working with glass, as well as different kinds of stone and bronze.

R.J. Preece: You’ve also been inspired by the stone on the Isle of Harris, as in Balancing Stone.

Steve Dilworth: Yes, for that work I used a local source, an outcrop that I found while I was searching for an old Viking “soapstone” quarry. Using the Harris stone is like working with marble; it requires diamond cutters and polishers. It is very heavy and has a lot of iron content. It is undepleted magma usually located about 30 kilometers beneath the earth’s crust. It is approximately 2.8 billion years old, obviously giving or taking a few years. This stone worked perfectly for Balancing stone. I was interested in the absolute simplicity of it, relying purely on form. This work was also an important development in my practice. Previously my works had developed in complexity, and this work was about simplifying.

R.J. Preece: What would you describe as your artistic influences? Do you think it’s a combination of Modernist sculpture, the far north environment, and found art / assemblage?

Steve Dilworth: I think it is. Certainly there are plenty of artists whom I admire and appreciate— Joseph Beuys, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, and the list could go on; but how any of them have influenced the work I can’t say. When I made Hanging figure, I was hardly aware of anything except the work in front of me. I don’t like tradition. I feel that it’s counterproductive, but inevitably we may be absorbed by it. I used to imagine a “tribe” that I made things for, and this tribe constantly changed its culture, place, and time in history. But that’s a kind of game to assist the creative process.

R.J. Preece: Do you identify with any of today’s artists?

Steve Dilworth: Again, there is plenty of work that I admire, but I can’t honesty think of any that I identify with, which I’m sure must be a relief to artists out there.

R.J. Preece: Future plans? Future dreams?

Steve Dilworth: I’ve enjoyed collaborating with artists, musicians, and scientists from different disciplines recently. We did a sound / chaos art proposal for Kings College, Aberdeen University. More of this kind of thing would be fun. But mainly I’m just hoping to stay upright and keep going.