Gillian Brett is a UK based Figurative Sculptor who is fascinated by body language and the unspoken nature of human connection as she explores the relationship between isolation and connection. Gillian embraces the imperfections and happy accidents when she works; experimenting and repurposing materials such as paper, fabric and latex to work more sustainably.
So much of human communication is unspoken
I like how your work explores the relationship between isolation and connection in the figures you portray. What drives you to study the human form? And what are the inspirations behind your sculptures?
Exploring the relationship between isolation and connection is very much a central theme of my work. As a child I developed a tendency for hyper vigilance, studying body language in an attempt to understand others’ emotions. So much of human communication is unspoken. As an adult I have learnt to channel this focus into my creative work.
I am fascinated by the face and body language. There’s an immediacy and excitement working ‘from life’ which I find demanding at times but this actually suits my personality and working style. My work is primarily inspired by my subject; be that a commission, or someone going about their daily life, or a professional life model.
Creative inspirations include Medardo Rosso, Jacob Epstein and Louise Bourgeois. I also enjoy the irreverence and playfulness of Sarah Lucas and some of Tracey Emin’s work. Mark Quinn and Rachel Whiteread’s use of varied materials have also been influences.
How do you find sculpting both feminine and masculine forms?
I respond to the model in front of me, regardless of gender. However I find I also bring my autobiography to bear on the subject matter in my response; sometimes I am not even aware of the impact at the time, I notice it later. For a woman, to stare at a naked man obviously can be loaded: the reverse of the stereotypical ‘male gaze’. I actually enjoy the challenge of sculpting both male and females equally; it’s about the character communicated by the figure in front of me rather than gender.
How has Covid-19 impacted your work? And how do you feel it has affected humans universally with regards to connection and creativity?
The ‘lockdown” gave me a chance to really focus on my work. I was alone with only my retired greyhound for company. So I balanced drawing and sculpting with dog walking and Zoom yoga sessions. A fellow artist introduced me to the Artists Support Pledge on Instagram which presented a brilliant opportunity to share my work online and I was delighted to make several sales. It was great to get instant feedback on the sculptures I posted online and then send my works out to new homes as far afield as New York. Working more flexibly from home where possible makes sense for most people and I think the focus on home will be a lasting change. I know that some of my sculptures are now enhancing their new owner’s desk or a well lit corner.
The pandemic has been a difficult time for most people and tragic for those who have lost their lives and their loved ones but there were also some interesting side effects of suddenly arresting life as we knew it. I am hopeful that some of the benefits to mankind might be maintained in some way. It soon became clear that technology could enable human connection even though we were all separated. Perhaps the sense of community and a shared sense that some of the materialism in society is no longer relevant might be lasting. Travel no longer being an essential right might also be liberating in some ways. Fewer emissions and less noise from vehicles and planes really made a huge difference in terms of appreciating the natural world. Hearing birds sing in West London was an absolute joy!
It’s about the character communicated by the figure in front of me rather than gender
Walk us through your creative process .. what are the different stages of your work? And what materials do you tend to work with?
I try to discipline myself to start with drawing and to attempt to analyse the planes and proportions in front of me. However I am usually itching to get hands on and I often jump straight into the sculpting process. Knowing when to stop is quite a challenge, it’s easy to overwork a piece, taking all the life out of it.
I work with traditional materials like clay, plaster and stone and also love to experiment with repurposing materials that would otherwise be discarded, such as paper, fabric, latex and cardboard.
Do you have any art rituals?
It’s not exactly a ritual but I make a point of celebrating the accidental. Whenever something is dropped, broken, or just turns out differently from how I expected, I try to look at it as an opportunity to reassess that work; to embrace the imperfections.
What are some of the challenges you typically face as a sculptor?
I like to re-use discarded materials and it’s a challenge to store my work and all the materials I have gathered. Sometimes something catastrophic happens, such as a work exploding in the kiln. One of my most recent portraits exploded but I decided to reconstruct it and I believe the resulting piece is more interesting and even more meaningful as a result.
Sculpture has to be photographed well. I’m learning about this every day!
Lucidity, back view
How do you feel when you create art?
It’s a totally absorbing experience. At times during the creative process I feel frustrated as if it’s a puzzle I have to solve: an itch I have to scratch if you like. It can really bug me when a work is unresolved. I try to capture a small moment of reflection, sometimes an inner smile.
When I first started sculpting it actually felt like I was ‘coming home’!
As a child I developed a tendency for hyper vigilance, studying body language in an attempt to understand others’ emotions.
What feelings and reactions do you hope to evoke in the viewer?
I am delighted if there is something about a sculpture which resonates with the viewer. Ideally I aim to capture something universal about the human condition which another can recognise and identify with. And of course I am also delighted if the sculpture is considered beautiful!
Tatiana Shredded Plus
Your hopes and dreams as an artist?
I would love my work to be appreciated. I hope to become recognised as a leading British sculptor balancing classical skills with a more contemporary abstract expression.
What can we look out for?
In my self directed work I’m hoping to develop more experimental work with reused materials. I’m also developing a series of sculptures showing a sole female figure in reflective poses.
Finally it seems to me that there is an opportunity to redress the dominance of historical white males in public space sculptures. The protests over the killing of George Floyd have shown that public art is significant to people and it would be great to help change the landscape with more contemporary and relevant material. I’d love to create a series of public sculptures celebrating significant contemporary females.
I also love to work on commission!
To view more of Gillian’s work: