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Artist in residence

Master sculptor Jeremy Stiff returns to Cornwall, his childhood home, to inspire his latest collection of work.


Words by Mercedes Smith


This June, the Bohago Estate in Cornwall hosts an art residency by sculptor Jeremy Stiff, a skilled craftsman whose beautiful work strikes that elusive and thrilling balance between the abstract and figurative. Jeremy was born in London but raised in Cornwall, and as a sculptor he has made his mark in the UK and Europe over a thirty-year career, creating site-specific works and gallery collections. He now lives in the spectacular setting of Bannau Brycheiniog in Wales, in a farmhouse he shares with his wife, still-life painter Menna Angharad.


The focus of Jeremy’s Cornwall residency will be drawing and stone carving, with a focus on vessel and pod forms, “although this could change while I am working there,” says Jeremy of the residency process, which by definition invites artists to stay and respond freely to the stimulus of a new place. “They have given me a lovely old open-fronted tin barn to work in” he tells me, “and I am hoping to go out most mornings to draw and sketch, and will then spend my afternoons in the barn. We will see.” Bohago is a private residence, with no public access, but Jeremy’s work will be exhibited at Cornwall’s Whitewater Gallery this summer and will give collectors an insight into the unique visual language and mastery of materials that define the world’s very best sculptors.



These are talents that take time and significant experience to acquire. “During my 20s,” says Jeremy, “I worked as a carpenter in and around London, but in my 30s I gradually reconnected with my childhood love of making art. I took an art foundation course at East London University and a second one at City Lit in Holborn, and from there I joined a figurative sculpture course in Stafford. My choice to study sculpture followed on from my lifelong joy of making things, but the transition into crafting sculptural objects became a search for meaning in a process of making not constrained by usefulness or function. Sculpture has become my way of transposing my feelings into material being. My work doesn’t often have an intellectual beginning, it comes from feelings and thoughts that reside in me and from my appreciation of the materials I choose, so my art starts primarily with the formal process of capturing the fundamental shapes that I see in my subjects. My way of approaching sculpture does not exclude the conceptual nor the intellectual – I think the opposite is so – it embraces and, I hope, enriches the conceptual in my work.”


Jeremy’s recent focus has been on boat and vessel forms, and has resulted in an elegant and refined collection of small to mid-scale works in Carrara Marble, Cornish Serpentine, Welsh Limestone and Egyptian Porphyry, with the qualities of each stone adding significantly to the beauty of the sculpture. “There is a solidity to my work,” says Jeremy, “though my subject is usually something that ‘contains’, that places the viewer on the outside, trying to imagine what secrets and mysteries are on the inside. Boats, for example, are hollow, but my boats don’t need to be hollow; their being solid nudges them into the sculptural rather than the functional. I enjoy this intriguing contradiction.” Ideas of contradiction have been key to the creation and form of sculpture over the centuries. You need only consider the muscle and sinew of Michelangelo’s David, or the feminine contours of the Venus de Milo and the swathes of fabric that clothe her, to understand that the power of these sculptures lies in the contradiction of sensuous form hewn from solid marble.



The act of creating sculpture also follows that narrative: it is a physically demanding, often violent act, a heavy interaction between artist and material that produces something wondrously still. When you look at Jeremy’s perfect sculptural forms, it is hard to imagine that such quietly enigmatic works have emerged through intense handcraftsmanship in a studio full of dust and the echoes of tools on stone. “My workshop is special because it is entirely my domain,” Jeremy tells me. “It gives me space to think, to make a mess, to experiment, and it has all the tools I need. I only allow influences in it that are conducive to working efficiently. It’s not very big, has a leaky roof, not enough windows, is often cold and it has far too much stuff in it, but I always enjoy entering my making space. I look at my drawings, at recent works, perhaps at my feelings and memories, and then I will start to peruse my materials to see what seems appropriate. This is the moment when the physical work begins. As I suspect is true for most artists, this moment of starting the ‘real’ work is a great relief. I enjoy the process of making, it’s like a meditation, a total commitment to that moment and to that piece of work. I relish exploring the formal qualities of my material, its texture, colour and density, how it cuts, the grinding, peeling, slicing, and the different marks that my tools make. Unveiling a piece of stone is both limiting and endless, and the natural and manmade faults all play a part in what is possible.”


Some sculptures, he tells me, may be finished in one or two sittings, while the creation of others may go on for days or even months. “Some I never finish,” he adds. “Choosing when a work is finished can be problematic. Each cut or mark is an opportunity, so having an idea of where you want that piece to end up can be useful in deciding its finished state. However, transitional stages can suggest a different moment to finish, sometimes completely at odds with what I had first envisaged. The opposite can also be true though – sometimes I lessen a piece by focusing on the end and not realising its opportunities.”

The junctions between Jeremy’s different bodies of work, or between different periods of work, are often bridged by the materials themselves, perhaps by a particular wood or stone, as opposed to an idea. “I am material led,” says Jeremy. “My ideas often come from the materials rather than the other way round. Much of my work is small, of a hand-held size, and I enjoy picking these pieces up and looking closely at the material qualities I can see and touch. This touching of the work is part of my process. The business of abstract thought about my work is for others to interpret through their hands, feelings, or intellect, but abstraction and my tactile connection to the material are integral to the making process. The poetry, when I am lucky, is in the making and in the final object. I leave the interpretation to the viewer.”



As a master sculptor, Jeremy has a clear view of his position, and the position of sculpture in the wider art scene, as it becomes a focus for the 21st century revival of craftsmanship and the handmade. “In both the Welsh and the wider contemporary sculpture scene I recognise that there is a resurgence in the use and appreciation of natural materials,” he says. “More and more I am seeing youngsters coming through the art education system embracing traditional skills and mediums. I think that my work is part of that reconnection – not as a rejection of the modern – but as an inclusion of the old with the new. I hope that people will gain some feel for the beauty of our material world when they look at my work.

I hope they want to touch and feel that material beauty and perhaps, through this sculptural encounter, feel something unique. I would like people to enjoy the formal qualities of my materials and shapes, and through this appreciation reach a space or moment of abstract beauty. This ‘place of no name’ is always what I look for in other people’s art, and is what I aspire to achieve in my work.”



Jeremy’s residency in Cornwall runs from 19th to the 30th of June 2023. For information on the resulting collection and other works see jeremystiffsculptor.co.uk and whitewatercontemporary.co.uk


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