Artist Hazel Reeves talks to The Art Academy ahead of her Portrait Sculpture Masterclass that starts in less than one month’s time.

Question: I guess as good as place as any to start would be to ask what you have been working on recently?

Hazel Reeves: In January I had the extraordinary privilege of sculpting at Dorich House Museum, the studio home of the acclaimed sculptor Dora Gordine. Once again I worked with Mercy Kagia, the talented art reportagist. We spent an inspiring week in the ‘Plaster Room’ with its red-tiled floor, bank of North-facing windows, overlooked by Gordine’s plaster portraits. One of the three Mercy portraits is now at the foundry, a bronze casting being an award from the Society of Portrait Sculptors in 2012.  In homage to Gordine I have just cast a plaster of Mercy. I spend hours working on the plaster once out of the mould. I love bronze, yet I love the tranquility that plaster brings to a portrait. ­­

Q: What do you see as the strengths of three-dimensional portraiture as an art form? And do you see a difference in working in this genre today as opposed to the era of someone like Dora Gordine, when it could be argued that things were culturally more ‘conservative’, at least on the surface?

HR: You only have to watch people interact with sculpted portraits and figures in a gallery, a park or garden. They talk to them, touch them, and ask themselves questions, “who are they, where are they from, what are they thinking?”. For me there is something quite visceral about such sculpture. Its immediacy provokes emotional responses. When my sisters independently saw the finished clay portrait of our mother, they both cried. The relationship that builds up between the sculptor and sitter is somehow invested in the clay modelling process. This reveals more than a likeness, it leads to sculptures with integrity and emotional currency.

It was a revelation to see the black and white photos of Dora Gordine’s portrait sittings, and to sculpt in her studio. It brought home how remarkably similar it is to be a portrait sculptor today. The need for live sittings, good lighting and a washable floor are the same. The tools, equipment and materials are the same. The bronze casting process at the foundry is the same. One difference is that it’s perhaps easier for women to become sculptors these days, although women remain under-represented.

Q: I suppose it is also telling that Dora Gordine came from a background in which sculptural portraits were reserved as a tool of recognition to impose competing powers and ideologies on people. Do you think an emotional response has become the most significant factor in how we now relate to portrait sculpture and how strongly does it dictate your own work?

HR: It is fascinating to reflect on who, over time, is considered worthy of being captured in bronze and placed in public. Yes, public commissioned bronze portraiture is still primarily reserved for people of power and influence – whether it be political, economic, social or cultural. Yet that is only one aspect of portraiture. Today, as in Dora Gordine’s time, there are sculptors who are drawn towards portraiture due to their love of people and faces. I count Dora Gordine and myself among these. I find any head fascinating. I find any person fascinating. Yes, it is a privilege to be commissioned to sculpt a public figure. But I get equal pleasure from sculpting those who would normally never be sculpted let alone cast in bronze and placed in public.

In my portrait work, the relationship that I build up with the sitter breathes life into the sculpture. So, yes, I make an emotional investment in the sculpting process. And I find it highly rewarding when viewers relate emotionally to one of my sculptures. As to whether this is the most significant factor in people’s reaction to portraiture more generally today, I could not say. It was, however, fascinating to observe how people responded to the full figure portrait sculpture of Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, on a visit there last week.

Q: I have seen the Margaret Thatcher statue and that is a great example of a divisive and problematic piece of imagery! As you say there is also the other side of portrait sculpture which is sculpting someone who isn’t a public figure as such. What do you see as the most valuable piece of advice you could give to someone who makes portrait sculpture, and would it be different depending on whether the sitter was a public figure or not?

HR: Tough question. For those thinking of starting to sculpt portraits, or already sculpting portraits, make sure you love people and faces. If not, stay away from portraiture, it will show through. For those that pass this litmus test, my advice would be to get to know your sitter and let them get to know you – as you sculpt, as you take breaks. This is back to the idea of relationship-building as the core of a successful portrait. With public figures, of course, this may prove more difficult. They may only be available for short or a limited number of sittings.

Beyond this, my advice would be to stand back. Force yourself to keep standing back from the portrait and the sitter, to initially keep an eye on the bigger shapes and structure. The wonderful proximity of being one-on-one with your sitter can get you over-excited, side-tracked into the detail of features before structural issues have been truly resolved. This only causes problems for later.

Oh, the final piece of advice is to remember to enjoy yourself. Yes, you are under pressure. But the process of sculpting a portrait and getting to know your sitter is a real pleasure and a real privilege. There should be room for smiles and laughter in the studio.

Q: And plans for the future?

HR: In terms of what is exciting now….to gain my interest, the themes of larger commissions need to touch me in some way. My previous academic work on peace and conflict meant that my commission to sculpt Sadako Sasaki for the Hedd Wenn peace garden in Wales was a real joy. Her life was cut short by the Hiroshima bombing. The garden and bronze sculpture were blessed in a touching ceremony on the World Day of Peace, 21st September 2012. My connection with this project continues – in May, we are very privileged that Maki Saji, a young Japanese Buddhist Nun, will be coming to visit the garden. Her life is spent travelling the world, performing Kamishibai (paper theatre) to promote peace by telling the story of Sadako and the 1000 paper cranes. Maki Saji will be talking to local primary school children. An educational website is also planned.

In terms of future plans….I am interested in the politics of representation. I am seeking to understand how society defines beauty or decides whose face is worthy of capturing in bronze. And to seek to challenge this by sculpting those who would never normally be sculpted let alone have their sculptures cast in bronze and placed in public. Their exclusion may be a result of their race, gender, age, class or disability. This has culminated me working on a proposal to bring portrait sculpture to new people and places, in some sense, democratising portraiture. A ‘performative’ way of working (ie sculpting in public) will be combined with an education programme, so more people can discover the joy of clay and portraiture.

Hazel Reeves is a Sculptor working out of Brighton, UK. Website /