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You want to reach out and touch the trees. Puyehue, Chile. February 2022

From a very small age I liked Henry Moore’s sculptures, and even now, I associate them with childhood. My grandparents would take me to the sculpture park to see them: long peaceful walks, with reverent pauses in the presence of these art-forms. Sculptures many times bigger than me stood beside well-worn paths, like fellow walkers, or lay out, beneath the clouds, in fields surrounded by sheep-nibbled grass. Others hid among trees, surprising the passer-by as they shimmered into view and others peered out over the lake, watching the swans paddle along. Sculptures of bronze shells or stone limbs reminding us of our own bodies, positioning us beside them, exuding and sharing strength with their size, a guardianship, a guide. Sculptures with smooth voluptuous surfaces telling us to touch, skin to skin.

Trees can also be like this, with broad roots bulging from the base, their bark peeling like flakes of paper, layer on layer, branches just out of reach, solid and unmoving, reassuringly still. Grown adults in a forest, when they’re not conscious of being watched, run their fingers along the rough bark. A fingertip trace, reading the world to find a connection.

Interestingly, the benefit of therapy stems not from the words spoken, but from the relationship, the carving out of a safe space, a human contact that is non-judgmental, where forgiveness is not required or solicited. If words sufficed, we could heal ourselves through reading a book. And books are wondrous things, but they are a vessel of human connection, a one to many, not a one to one. Sometimes it’s the being with each other that’s necessary. It’s the presence. Like a tree, the psychotherapist does not move, does not rush. Connection takes time, and time is given with patience.

Meditation is the crafting of stillness, a pause where thoughts are encouraged to flow without sticking, without getting caught, where the body is calmed, and balance is restored to the breath. Time passes, but time is allowed to pass. There is a flow, a curve, an evenness, a beauty in being. Within this pause, there is sometimes clarity, insight. Sit calm and you learn to appreciate your own company. Solitude separates ‘now’ from the haste. Why is haste so frequently harnessed to life? With the harness unclipped, our shoulders lift, we consider the spine and rest in the breath. Listening to our breath unites us with the truth of what we are feeling.

 Connection is not complicated, but does have to be given to, it has to be trusted in, it has to be devoted to. But it’s also what makes being worthwhile.

“What sort of sculpture do you like?”

Family of Man, Barbara Hepworth, YSP

On the way to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the champagne opening of Tony Cragg’s exhibition, A Rare Category of Objects, which has taken over the underground gallery and formal gardens, the Grandfather asked me what sort of sculpture I liked.

What I don’t like

Occasionally, I find piece of art which I particularly dislike. One of my diaries is filled with half a dozen or so pages complaining about a few select pieces of art from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). The one that stands out in my memory is a pile of Egyptian newspapers neatly stacked and weighted down with rocks in a white room. The idea of capturing something of Cairo’s street life, showing what media distribution looks like to the typical Cairo citizen and making a political statement about the freedom of the press, seemed reasonable enough to me. But I’d only a few months previously I’d been in Cairo. Egypt’s capital is not neat. It has an abundance of atmosphere. Comparatively, the well-meaning stacks of newspapers on the gallery floor looked clinical.

The only feeling I had, was of how disjointed art can be from reality.

Sculpture that feels like home

I’m a Yorkshire lass, and I’m lucky that my grandparents have always been happy to take me to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

On the hill, rolling down from the formal gardens, is Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man. These shapes, did not look anything like a family, or human beings. They have some familiarities, as if joined on one level, but they’re shaped differently, and stand apart, as if lost in their own thoughts. They became familiar friends to me, I saw them year on year.

Now my grandparents refer to a sculpture (one of many) by Henry Moore called Mother and Child, which as a very small child I was apparently fascinated by. In fact, so fascinated that I insisted on bringing the Father to see it. By which time it was gone.

But it’s Hepworth’s Family of Man that called to me at a slightly older age and was some of the first art that struck me on an intellectual level. It was called a family, but it wasn’t anything like my family. Who was the father? Who was the mother? I wanted to know, definitively, how the pieces related, where they can from. Whether they liked one another. If they were a family, which one was most like me?

If I like it, I don’t know why I like it. All I know is that Hepworth’s family sucks in my attention.

Maybe it’s in my blood, but the appreciation of Moore and Hepworth feels ingrained. Their work, that feels so familiar, even pieces which I’ve never seen in my life, talks to me like a familiar song might soothe you.

Sculpture as touch from a distance

When I was in Pompei in the autumn, I was met by a calm face, which stared past me, in a serene peace, like an Ancient Greek sculpture, but it wasn’t carved from marble, its face was blue, not white, and some liberties had been taken with its positioning in the Roman forum.

Sculpture Igor Mitoraj
A fallen Icarus in the forum of Pomepi – sculpture by Igor Mitoraj.

Igor Mitoraj’s sculptures, huge, light, elegant, struck me with mythical enchantment that still returns when I cast my mind back.

Our social structures, deeply ingrained sense of ‘personal space’ and what is inappropriate, keeps us at a safe distance from each other most of the time. Whilst small children cling, touch and cuddle, if you’re like me, you’ll not relax to most people’s touch but tense slightly. There are very few people whom I’d be comfortable leaning up close against whilst watching a film say.

Sculpture Tony Cragg
Tony Cragg, Points of View, 2013

And yet, it’s this sense of touch I feel when I see such a sculpture as Igor Mitoraj’s colossal characters of mythology. Tony Cragg’s wooden sculptures are similar. They invite you to touch and explore their shapes, but you’re forced to do it from a distance, in your head. They create a sense of longing, an echo of loneliness.

What sort of sculpture do I like?

Sculpture that, whether in a conscious or subconscious way, makes some sort of connection with me. It can be completely abstract, or it can be representative of something or someone specific. I can’t say this sort of sculpture or that sort of sculpture. There’s no definitive answer.

All I can say is that now, in this moment, that sculpture in front of me connects, or doesn’t connect.

And even then, even when I feel a connection with a piece of work, I might not know if I like it.

Take, not sculpture, but the well-known ‘Weeping Woman’ painting by Picasso. It makes a deep connection with me, but it reminds me of feelings which although not pleasant or comfortable, are significant and meaningful to me. I like that it talks to me, but it doesn’t mean I like how it makes me feel.

Art is complex, it has to be, because the messages it tries to show are complex.

What sculpture do you like?