Photograph by Nicholson Heal
Interview with Dorcas Casey
Dorcas has a form grasp on what she wants to create and it’s not represented in her outward personality. Deep in the recesses of our minds: an image, a memory, a thought, some identity. Dorcas doesn’t set out to unsettle the viewer but as a bi-product of the process of creating a physical realization she produces, with great skill, something familiar, yet unfamiliar. A posture, a pose, something identifiable, yet out of place and odd…almost, but not quite unnerving.
We chatted, we laughed, we had a normal conversation but I suspect there’s stranger things to come from Dorcas Casey.
Daniel Lingham interviews Dorcas Casey.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your background and your route to being a sculptor as you are now?
I grew up in Glastonbury, so quite a rural surrounding, quite alternative. I’ve always made sculptures, there’s never really been a point that I suddenly decided to be a sculptor as far as I remember. I didn’t go to art school at the normal time, I worked as an art technician for a few years, which was really good because I learnt a lot of skills, but I continued to make my own work. Then I went to Winchester School of Art when I was 25 to do a degree in sculpture. Since then I’ve been working part time and making my sculptures.
Q. What do you do part time other than sculpting?
I’m a technician for BA, MA and Further Education courses in printmaking and sculpture where we teach workshops in these techniques.
Q. It’s good to get some sort of work-based balance in the same arena, it’s not like you have had to go off and do something totally different.
Yes it does provide a good balance to the week.
Q. Do you find you have enough time to work on your projects?
Usually, but it would be nice to have more time. When I’m really immersed in a project I just wish I could do it full time; just have something like 6 weeks to work intensely on something. But then sometimes I think breaking it up a bit is advantageous, it can get a bit too tense otherwise. So generally I do have enough time to get my work done, but I could always fill more up.
Q. I suppose you’ve got to think about how viable it is a source, you need some sort of income to get on with life as well as being able to do your sculptural practice but I presume at some point you’d like to move that over to sculpt full time or do you like the balance between your work in the wider field?
The ideal would be that I could work full time as a sculptor, but even then I think it would nice to have just a day a week working in something a little different like an educational setting. It’s nice to have that added aspect to my weekly routines, but it would be nice to spend the vast majority of my time making my sculptures because that’s what I really love.
Q. Do you think that’s possible in the future?
I hope so, yeah. Maybe in a few years time. I’ve learnt to be really patient with my sculpture career and just think little by little I’ll make my way there. I’m not rushing it.
Q. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m making a new body of work using fabric, which is something I use all the time, and making it solid with Jesmonite resin and then I’m coating that in a metal powder and rusting it. I’m making my fabric animals more solid, more concrete but more textured.
Q. You’ve got an example of that on your website.
There’s a big bore head that I made and more recently I’ve made a couple of mule heads which are done using that process but I’m continuing with that as an ongoing experimental process that I started last year when I made a big outdoor piece for the Broomhill National Sculpture Prize. I started trying to make my fabric sculpture pieces able to exist outside with another layer to solidifying my sculptures because my fabric sculptures come from dream images. The first step is making them physically in fabric then to add another layer to make those ideas concrete.
Q. You’re trying to retain that fabric look?
Yeah, trying to maintain that flexibility and softness to the fabric. Weirdly enough putting the iron powder on surface restores the softness of the surface of the fabric because I was originally just painting them in Jesmonite which has a slightly shiny quality to it and that wasn’t really retaining the tactile nature of the fabric, whereas now I’ve started coating in something really matt it works much better as an illusion of fabric.
Q. …as it rusts it will change texture and tone
Yes, become more corroded.
Q. I presume that’s something you’re looking to have in your pieces because they seem to be about decay to some extent?
That’s right, they’re linked to memory and things that lurk about at the back of your mind, the kind of things that appear in some of your dreams that you’ve forgotten for 20 years and suddenly there’s an object there that you remember from your childhood that you haven’t recalled since. It’s that idea of lost memories, so in some of my work I’ll have old furniture which suggests that, but now I’m combining all those images into one thing and suggesting the decay and the memories through the rust, old fabrics and old clothes.
Q. Your work seems quite visceral, almost base if you like, it’s not quite raw but it’s approaching that. Is your purpose to create something visually dramatic or are you trying to tell some underlying narrative?
I guess I’m not consciously intending to make something visually dramatic but it makes the piece work. All my work comes from dream images so if I’ve had a profound dream and it’s really plaguing me, thinking about it all of the time, it usually is naturally quite a dramatic image. If I’m making a piece it only becomes right when it reflects that drama. I’m not setting out with that specific purpose, but it’s where they end up just because of where they come from.
Q. Are you trying to unhinge or unsettle the viewer? If you look at ‘Cats’ for example it can seem quite morbid – are you consciously dealing with that possible disturbing aspect of death and decay?
I guess I do. The work that I personally respond to from other sculptors is something which unsettles me, something you can’t quite put your finger on what it is that’s making you feel uncomfortable about it. Not necessarily something that’s really outwardly macabre but something which is troubling for deeper reasons and you can’t quite work out why it’s bothering you. I do set out to unsettle in a way because when the thing I am making becomes unsettling and uncanny to myself I know that I’m on the right track with representing the kind of power that was there as an original subconscious image. It has to be something that starts to spook me a bit for me to feel like it’s going to be a powerful object for people to view. I like sculpture that really hits me in the guts, that you have a kind of bodily response to and I’m aiming for something that draws you in and demands that you look at it, grabbing your attention.
Q. Dreams are quite transient, and as a big part of the imputes for your process do you have to do something in particular to capture that. What is your process?
I do have to write them down because I will forget them half an hour later, even a really powerful dream, it’ll just be gone. I write them down, but not in great detail. It will be five or six words that jog my memory so I can remember the dreams. I’ve got loads of really disorganized bits of paper with dreams written on them; on things like the back of receipts or the back envelopes. My work, making it tangible, solid and tactile, is a response to how slippery and unstable dream images are. Making the significant things from my dreams very solid, very undeniable, shores them against that process of being eroded.
Q. What sort of things would you be writing down?
It’s very random. Written down they might seem mundane or boring and it might be the same thing that comes up over and over again over a period of a couple of months. I constantly see the same animal. I have certain animals that appear as constant motifs. The white goat is one of those and it’s always coming back in different guises, one dream building on the last. So it will be just a few words like ‘I saw a goat here…and it does this…’ and literally just helps to jog my memory and I make a sculpture based on that emotion and that power.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about the setting for the sculptures? You’ve obviously thought about the context. How important is that context to you because I imagine you might lose something if one of your pieces is put in a clean white gallery space?
I find my work can really feed off the context it’s put into. Also though, I’d like it to be able to hold its own in the white cube gallery spaces. I like it to be able to have enough suggestion of the sort of things I am looking at, such as dilapidation and memory, to retain that in a white cube space. The Bull is leaning up against some rickety, dilapidated old chairs and I hope that there is enough of that sort of feeling about it to stir those ideas in the viewer. But I do think they are really enhanced by being in an atmospheric space. I have images of the Bull displayed in Gloucester Cathedral, in the crypt, and what you get is an amazingly atmospheric space, and a labyrinth, giving an overlay of Minotaur, myths and the historical, heavy grandeur to it that lends a huge amount to the sculptures. I want them to be unsettling and uncanny so if they are in an environment that fosters that I think it enhances the impact.
My work, making it tangible, solid and tactile, is a response to how slippery and unstable dream images are. Making the significant things from my dreams very solid, very undeniable, shores them against that process of being eroded.
Q. I suppose you can’t replicate that kind of context. If you need to take that to gallery you’ve got to be able to let that aspect of it go?
When I’m making them, I’m not envisaging them being in anything other than a white cube space so I’m not necessarily making them for a particular environment but I have been lucky to show them in some really interesting places, like derelict building, and it does change them for the better having that kind of backdrop to them.
Q. I think the derelict building with the goat really does make a dramatic image, also coupled with your use of fabrics and the colour of the fabrics. Is that something you are worried about losing if you are transitioning to different surfaces that you need to use outside?
I am a bit worried about losing that tactile nature of the fabric, but also the immediately recognizable nature of the fabrics. When you use clothes, and things like that, on close inspection the viewer can tell its socks, they can see little cuts, and the covering of the sculptures in fabric gives them a slightly grotesque human quality. A bit like a human body would be clothed in those fabrics. It’s definitely a delicate balance to maintain that in my more solid sculptures. The way I get around that is to use much more textured fabrics so you can still see the weave under the rusty coating. I don’t feel like I am moving away from making purely fabric based works. I hope to make more large scale fabric works alongside my solid works which I can pursue simultaneously.
Q. I was wondering if you feel that there is a push to have your pieces of work outside considering the opportunities for sculptors to show in external spaces and given there’s a different feeling to sculpture outside, are you happy to do that?
It does seem like there is a lot more opportunities for sculpture as an outdoor thing. Personally, I do prefer my sculptures as indoor objects because they are related to dream imagery and that’s a very internal, interior thing. I feel they work much better in a domestic or enclosed space. It’s hard to get an atmospheric feeling in something when it’s outdoors. My work that I have done for the outdoors is more of an experimental route: I’m interested to see my work in that context but I don’t think that is going to be the main context for my work. An indoor environment is always going to be the main arena for my sculptures.
Q. I suppose that your dream image is juxtaposing an odd dreamscape with a recognizable animal, but when you put that animal in the outdoors it’s a more comfortable setting?
If you’ve got a bull inside, in a kind of domestic room, it’s completely different to having a bull outside in a field. It operates much better, it’s more interesting, in a domestic environment.
Q. You were awarded a bursary in 2013 by the Royal British Society of Sculptors, what did that mean to you and is that support ongoing?
It’s really improved my confidence in my own work. When I applied I really didn’t think I was going to get it. Because I don’t live in London and didn’t study in London it’s made me feel part of an art scene in there that previously I felt completely cut off from. I’ve continued to do peer mentoring through it. We meet regularly with the ten artists who were part of the bursary in 2013. An artist from one of the other bursary years has set up a regular meeting where we can discuss various issues or have critiques of our work. Without that it would have been a bit of a distant memory of getting the RBS bursary and having a show in London. Now I feel like I am part of a community of artists and can build up links with those people over the next few years. As part of the bursary we were all given show in the RBS building in London. That was amazing to get the exposure, to meet and show with my peer group.
Q. Do you think it’s important to be London centric? It seems that it’s a kind of destination for a lot of bigger names within the art scene.
I feel it’s a good idea to have some presence in London. I don’t have a huge presence in London at all but you can’t ignore London. You have to have some sort of connection because there is so much going on there art-wise. I am based at Bristol at the moment and there is a lot of art happening here. I like to be involved in a bit of both.
Q. Bristol has had a bit of a renaissance over the past decade or more?
Culturally it’s amazing. There’s loads of really good art, loads of good galleries, really good artist studios. It just seems a totally different city and a buzzing place to live. I’m right in the centre and live in a shared flat where I have a studio but I’m in the process of applying for some of the bigger studios, like the artist run spaces in Bristol. For a studio space it’s getting a bit crazy making my work here now, but I’ve been so busy the past couple of years I haven’t really had a chance to move studios and I want to be part of a community of artists now and there’s so much going on in Bristol that I’m not fully connected with because my studio’s at home. I want to get involved more.
Q. Do you feel that you are isolated as a sculptor because it’s very insular when you do your work, do you have to force a connection with other people or is it a natural process?
I am lucky because my employment work is in an art department, so I work with other artists who are also teachers and technicians so I don’t feel cut off from other artists and it operates as a peer group. When I am making my own work it is quite isolating. It’s you in a room constantly working away. Part of me thinks it might be a bit distracting, but it would be nice to be around artists who are doing the same kind of thing.
Q. Other than the RBS bursary are there other opportunities for support to develop your sculptural practice.
I’ve been applying for quite a few things – there are a lot of different sculpture prizes and since I graduated I’ve had a policy of applying for anything I am eligible for. I’ve been quite lucky and have got some really good open exhibition opportunities. I applied last year for the Jerwood Open and I was shortlisted but didn’t get it. I’m going to apply again this year. They give you money and a timescale to make a new ambitious piece of work and an exhibition, maybe a touring exhibition. Funding to make an ambitious piece of work is something that I am really keen to get because it’s difficult to fund myself making something larger.
Q. Are you looking to do something on a grander scale?
Not necessarily a grander scale than the big pieces I make at the moment but I do like working large scale. I used to make really small intimate work for years then I started making bigger work during my degree and I can’t stop. I can’t get the same kind of expression into smaller work. I like working life size, which is not huge in terms of sculpture but it quite big in terms of affording materials. It would be good to confidently make some more work without worrying that I am going to run out of money.
Q. You might need more space, what’s your studio like?
It’s quite a big space, but I do have a lot of stuff because I’m always collecting. I make my work out of all kinds of bits and pieces. I’m always collecting things, so at any given time I could have ten times as much stuff as I could possibly be using; chairs, stools, antlers and fabrics and although it’s a big space my actual working space within it is a bit small.
Q. You’re a hoarder then?
Yes, basically I’m a hoarder, it’s a confession
Q. What would a typical day in your studio be like if you were full-on working on a piece?
It would definitely always start with a tidy up. If I’m working on one of my fabric pieces it would just be all day…a lot of my fabric sculptures are made out of socks filled with stuffing so it would be all day stitching and stuffing socks till I build up a form. I do make them quite fast. I can work quite vigorously. Yeah…, it’s not very calm, definitely chaotic. Usually the first time I see my sculptures not absolutely surrounded by my collection of stuff and objects is when I take them to a gallery or exhibition when I can actually see them in a bit of space. I work really close up to them, I can’t really get back from them, but I like that, and it’s very intense and involved. I’m obsessed with it.