“I have lived in Oxford for 12 years now,” she says. “It’s the origin of so many enchanting stories and I have recently started to wonder if there is something otherworldly about the place. It’s as though its quiet ancient walls and buildings and surrounding misty, fen-like countryside hold a mysterious influence, enabling us to picture lost worlds, far-away lands, and see into other dimensions. Some of Oxford’s most famous residents – Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien and recently Philip Pullman – offer us a glimpse into other hidden, magical places. I like to imagine that there are other secret worlds too, where animals are the heroes,” she smiles, “worlds where jaguars fight demons under setting suns, where foxes brush the snow with their tails to make the northern lights, where firebirds dreamily eat golden apples in the gardens of Tsars, and a dog and fox spin endlessly in an eternal chase in the infinite cosmos.”
Sophie studied anthropology at Goldsmiths, London which made her realise that the knowledge of the natural world as we understand it in the West is still limited, and that the beliefs and knowledge of other cultures can offer us a greater understanding of the environment. “I am fascinated by human’s ingenuity to create stories from the evidence we have around us. Albert Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’ Without imagination, and these stories, our lives would be very dull.
“Growing up in a small Devon town, my favourite book was an old hard back copy of Russian Fairy Tales translated into English. Thinking about the characters in the book and the adventures they went on filled me with wonder. I also particularly loved an old tale from Finnish folklore that the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) are created by sparks from the tail of an arctic fox brushing up the snow as it runs across the tundra – this is called ‘revontulet’ meaning ‘fox fires’ and it is the story illustrated in one of my most popular prints.
“I originally started making lino prints at an evening printmaking class, drawn to the direct method of cutting into a block and printing from it and the way I could turn my ideas into pictures full of energy. This enthusiasm turned into an obsession to recreate and tell the world’s stories of animals through the medium of lino printing. Mainly working in colour, I often use multiple lino blocks and rollers with a gradual blend of coloured ink, to create different layers. I am influenced by the pioneers in colour printmaking including Hiroshige and Hokusai – Japanese woodblock artists from the 18th-19th century: as well as their heavy use of Prussian blue (my favourite colour to work with), they used a particular technique called ‘bokashi’ in which the gradation of colour applied captures varying amounts of light adding depth to an image, and it adds a magical quality to my art.”
Also inspired by the magic of animals, in the rural Phoenix Studio in Towersey near Thame, ceramicist and sculptor James Ort has been creating ‘Wild Beasts’ that capture the grace, form, vibrancy and wonder of the wider animal world.
Like Sophie, James explains how he too was heavily influenced by the stories on his bookshelf during his childhood: his grandfather, Brian Price Thomas, had even illustrated a number of the Ladybird Children Books including The Gingerbread Man. “He was a huge wildlife lover, talented artist and a big influence on me in so many ways,” explains James, who now draws on both a lifelong fascination with wildlife and a previous career in conservation.
There’s a touch of theatre too in James’ sculpture which he creates from clay, wire and sheet metals – a combination rarely seem together in sculptural pieces – enjoying the challenge of mixing them. “Clay has a wholesome tactile nature but wire is more feisty and great for creating dynamism. With wire it is as if you are drawing in the air without taking your pen off the paper, you can get a real sense of movement from it but metal is temperamental if it is fired in the kiln.”
The ‘Wild Beasts’ series includes a range of mammals and bird species from little to large including bee-eaters and a hunting barn owl, a majestic stag and a tiger inspired by a trip to see them in India earlier in the year, during which the animals were tauntingly camera-shy. James’ tiger shimmer is as powerful as its walk, the rusty mild steel from which it’s partially created giving it the almost industrial feel of a mechanical beast, while the softer burnt sienna of his coat evoke the sun-dried landscape in which it is found. Although they vary in size, James’ pieces are normally 30-40 cm in length. He’s currently, however, working on a life-size steel wolfhound.
“I have also made a pair of gorillas,” James describes, “one of which I donated to an Ape Action charity auction in London. He was standing but his partner in crime, who’ll be in the Artweeks show, is hunched over with the knuckles of one of his hands on the ground. They’re largely ceramic with some sheet metal leaves to suggest the natural environments that they’re found in. The gorillas themselves are black and grey and silver, as you’d expect, with some extra unexpected touches of colour like blue and red to pick out the shades and shadows.
“Also, one of my favourite books when I was small, was Ring of Bright Water and then I had an amazing encounter with a pair of otters in Wales on New Year’s Day, and followed them along the edge of an estuary and across the road. They were so slender and long and yet surprisingly big and muscular – it was an intriguing contrast and inspired some lovely flowing otter sculptures.”
For Artweeks, which is proceeding in 2020 as a virtual festival, James has also created a sheet metal lion’s skull which is more edgy and shocking than his normal collection. “It was amazing to make because of the sharp contours of the skeleton and the skull in particular, and the gaps between the bones are part of what gives it its form,” he says. With this statement piece he hopes to draw attention to endangered animals, highlighting that even the king of the jungle is at risk of extinction.
This year the annual Artweeks festival (2-25 May) has been restricted by coronavirus to a virtual presence: visit artweeks.org and follow #oxfordshireartweeks on Instagram to enjoy the creative talent of these and hundreds of other artists and designers this summer.