I’ve always been fascinated by the process that individual artists follow in their creations. On a few occasions in the past I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview writers and musicians and talk with them about the approach they take in creating their work. The only truism I’ve discovered from those conversations is the process is as unique to an individual as the art they produce. Therefore, by extension, you can add that looking to another’s process is not much use if you’re looking for tips or shortcuts to help with your own work.
However, there are benefits of a less tangible nature, for both non-artists and artists alike, to be found in reading about how somebody goes about creating and then making their art. For the non-artist, it’s a way of learning more about art in general and gaining a deeper appreciation for the amount of work involved with creating. More specifically, reading about one person’s methods and efforts gives you insights into their work that can only increase your enjoyment of whatever they produce. For those who are also trying to create, sometimes just reading another’s tales is sufficient to bring one’s own efforts into perspective and might just encourage you to keep flailing away even when things seem most futile.
It’s with all that in mind that I recommend to both artist and non artist alike a new publication by British sculptor Heather Jansch, Heather Jansch’s Diary: A Life In The Year Of. Laid out like a cross between a journal and sketch book, this sixty-four page spiral bound package is replete with not only the joys and travails involved in Ms. Jansch’s efforts to produce her extraordinary sculptors made of driftwood and other fallen timbers, it’s fleshed out with anecdotes about her life in general. As a result, you not only learn something about her work but also the artist as well and how her life and her art intertwine.
What Ms. Jansch is primarily famous for are her sculptures of horses. Ranging from scale models to life size, they are unlike any other statues of horses I’ve ever seen. Constructed by attaching drift wood and other found wood to a frame work, her creations capture more of the wildness and power of the animal subject – more of its spirit in fact – than you would think possible for an inanimate object. Somehow, she is able to arrange the individual pieces of wood so they coalesce into a single entity of muscle and sinew. Posed in mid-motion, she has so successfully captured the kinetic energy of the animal that you are in constant anticipation of their next move.
Almost as incredible as that may sound, what’s equally amazing is that in spite of the fact that they are made up of materials that should lend them a skeletal appearance, there’s nothing scary or spectral about them. Instead, they have all the characteristics of living horses, down to the near arrogant carriage of the stallions’ heads, the slight curve in their spines, and the multiple strands that make up their tails. As the illustrations in A Life In The Year Of… show, the horses are exhibited outdoors in various environments, and I think you could be forgiven if coming upon one of them suddenly in a field for mistaking it for the real thing.
Once you get beyond the wonder and joy of exploring the photographs of completed sculptures included in the diary and your envy over the beautiful Devonshire countryside where Jansch happens to live and work, it’s time to start exploring the text of this particular journal. As the title suggests, she does take you through a year of life with her art, but she also describes a few other adventures as well that may or may not have been part of that year as they exist as entities onto themselves. However, each and everything included in the pages of this book contribute to helping us build a picture of who this person is and gives us clues as to what compels her to create her magnificent beings.
Judging by her descriptions of sore muscles, broken nails, blistered hands, and strained ligaments, the work is not without its detractions. However, none of those difficulties seem sufficient to prevent her from taking on projects or stopping her from working when inspiration strikes. In her forward to the journal she says, “When the muse in on my shoulder I am helplessly enthralled and have to follow her fast. To deny the muse is to deny life.” However, at the same time, she also has the self awareness and insight to know when she needs to step away and take breaks from the work. Usually that seems to be for her when she begins to complain about what’s involved with the making and has lost enjoyment for the process.
In Heather Jansch’s life inspiration, seems a rather haphazard thing, as she doesn’t appear to know just when it will come and it seems to depart with equal suddenness. However, while some might find that frustrating, she seems to be able to accept that with equanimity. One of the reasons for that is that she also appears to lead a very full life, even in the times when she’s not creating, thinking, dreaming and building her art. This is made clear by the amount of space taken up in the journal describing events and happenings that on the surface have little to do with her art. For while they may not directly result in the creation of a horse or other sculpture, they can’t really be separated from her creative process either as they offer evidence of a mind that’s constantly finding the pleasure in life that’s required for inspiration to flourish
One of the delights of the journal is its layout, with text, photographs, and reproductions of sketches and preliminary drawings evenly distributed throughout its pages. Whether it’s a picture of children attending an open house at Jansch’s studio, a rough ink sketch of a horse, or a stunning shot of one of her creations silhouetted against a misty morning sky surrounded by trees, each piece helps to explain why she does what she does. There are no simple answers as to why any artist creates. They may be able, as Jansch does, to tell you what inspires them — in her case, it’s life — but as far as why is concerned, it comes down to a cross between “because” and “I must.” However, when we see the results of her creativity, and try to imaginee the feelings generated by knowing you were responsible for creating something as astounding as one of her statues or were responsible for the smile on that child’s face, a piece of the why comes a little bit clearer.
While her process might seem somewhat random, dependent on inspiration as it is, the reality, as we learn, is that once inspiration hits, hard work, sweat, and toil have as much to do with artistic creation as they do with any labour. One thing you’ll learn for sure from reading A Life In The Year Of… is that there’s one heck of a lot of hard work that goes into making something beautiful and no matter how magical inspiration might be, without the down to earth perspiration nothing would ever get done. This is a delightful and insightful journey into the mind of a truly inspired artist that will be a pleasure and an education for artist and non-artist alike.
You can order a copy of Heather Jansch’s Diary: A Life In The Year Of… through her web site, and she’ll ship anywhere in the world. For those of us on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean who stand little or no chance of ever seeing her work in person, one of these diaries represent our best opportunity to have a piece of it to hold onto for ourselves. The fact that it’s an entertaining and perceptive read at the same time makes it even that much more of a treasure.