In this week’s ‘Spotlight’, we are exploring clay, themes of conformity and the ‘buzz’ of the creative process with Roger Whitaker, one of our very popular artists and a ground-breaking and award-winning sculptor. Roger’s work is certainly different to the ‘classical’ forms of sculpture so many of us may be used to, yet it is still beautifully created and draws the viewer in to an ‘edgier’ form of sculpting.
Your sculptures are striking and certainly thought-provoking; when did you start to develop your style and what influenced you to go down the harsher road of sculpture in terms of theme?
I used to create life-size papier mache sculptures, but it reached a point where I couldn’t create the work quickly enough to keep up with my ideas and the size made the work difficult to both display and store. It was also apparent that my ideas for more ambitious compositions would not be possible at the size at which I was working. At this point I had started on a teacher training course at Brighton University and this was a great opportunity to access a ceramics studio. I used those facilities as often as possible, absorbing as much information as I could from the technician and other ceramics specialists.
A few months later, with a job at a city school in Nottingham, I began the first of my clay sculptures. At this point my themes were based on ideas from inner city and school life. The figures were aggressive characters; this made the rough, unglazed surface of fired clay ideal. The artists who were most influential for me were Scottish painters who had emerged in the 80’s such as Peter Howson and Steven Campbell. My ambition was to create a sculptural equivalent to their large canvases.
What situations inspire you to create a piece – do you witness an event that triggers a desire to recreate it in sculpture? Do the figures come naturally in your imagination or are they capturing a real-life event that you’ve seen/experienced?
My ideas come from many different sources. Time in schools has a big influence on my work, triggering memories from my own school days, or just giving me a view into a mini-world; sometimes busy or overcrowded, other times just visually striking. The aspect of working in clay that I most enjoy is being able to make the separate parts of a sculpture, before I make any final decisions on composition and positioning. This makes the creating process much more fluid and open to change and improvement as I go along. It also means that I see alternative ideas as I try out compositions and can photograph these and come back to make them at a later date. Many pieces of my work develop from others; while I am creating a sculpture I come across so many alternative ideas that only a fraction of them can get made.
Many of your pieces feature suited men in ties (such as ‘Overflow’, ‘Box Living’ and ‘Emerging’). Did you ever work in the corporate world?
I haven’t ever worked in the corporate world; the work isn’t intended to be specifically about that. The suits and ties perform two roles in my work. They represent a life of conformity that is easy to fall into. They also provide a simple and fairly time proof way of dressing the figures. It’s an idea I adapted from looking at Steven Campbell’s paintings.
Have you ever received feedback or a reaction that’s surprised you?
People are often surprised that my work is clay. I hear lots of suggestions that it’s wood or even cast iron. It’s hard for me to imagine it being made from anything else! I enjoy hearing other peoples interpretations of my work; often people find it thought-provoking and I’m happy for them to find new stories and meanings in it.
What is your favourite sculpture you’ve created and why?
I’ve had many favourites along the way and for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because of the ambition of a piece, such as ‘Indoctrination’. It was so big I had to cut it in half to fit the kiln measurements, sadly forgetting to check the door size of the room I’d made it in! I knocked a leg off as I carried it through. Probably favourite now would be my series of long prison-style wallpieces. It’s been a really powerful vehicle for showing different ideas, but still has lots of room for development. It helps too when you feel that your work is being recognised. The first of these pieces won the Maynell Fenton Prize at the Discerning Eye Exhibition, and they have continued to be particularly popular in terms of sales and feedback.
How long does it take you to create a sculpture from idea conception to the finished product?
It’s too hard to quantify, it varies so much. Some small pieces can just fall into place in a couple of days. Others need reworking and adapting over months.
You’ve exhibited a lot; how important do you feel it is to physically get your artwork out into the public arena when there is so much emphasis on the internet and online market nowadays?
With sculpture, it is essential that people see the actual piece. A photo can never do the work justice. This is particularly true of the more complex compositions, as there are so many different viewpoints. Even for me, seeing the work every day, I can still find a new angle or expression that keeps the work fresh. I could never get that experience from a photograph.
Do you have any advice for artists who may be starting down the road of showcasing their work? Any tips for getting into galleries/maximising your exposure?
It seems that the most successful artists are the ones who put a big effort into their marketing. Having a website isn’t enough – you need to get the exposure too. For me though, that’s not where my motivation comes from; with a job and young family finding time for promoting my work is difficult. I suppose that if I’m to become more successful for now, it will have to be on my own terms.
What is the best/most enjoyable aspect of your work?
I love the making process, at so many stages. When your head starts to buzz with ideas, so fast that you can’t record them quickly enough and can’t sleep for the desire to start making them, through to the moment you sit back and decide the work is finished. Then, finally putting the work up for the first time at home or in a gallery.
And the part you could quite happily do without?!
As I’ve mentioned, photographing my work to do it justice is a difficult job, but my other least favourite task that can take up a lot of my making time, is trying to get my work into exhibitions.
The Artists Web would like to thank Roger for his time, contribution and fascinating work! Check out his website for lots more examples of his unique sculptures.