Welcome to the #10 email in our series on Sculptors' Materials. Over the past few weeks we've looked at a number of naturally occurring materials which sculptors use but this week we are looking at some of the more unusual applications.

The beauty of nature never goes out of fashion and artists have been captivated by the natural world for centuries. As such it is no surprise that sculptors would want to use natural materials in their work but it is only relatively recently that this has become widely acceptable and has extended the possibilities of sculpture beyond traditional materials and making methods.
The 20th century has seen a rise in artists reconnecting with and embracing nature as both a source of inspiration and an environment to source materials from. Artists such as George Taylor and Susie MacMurray use feathers to explore the cycle of life and death through works of startling beauty. Polly Morgan communicates surrealist stories about her once-living subjects - turning conventional taxidermy on its head. Steve Dilworth and Julie Brook have used bones, stones, water and fire - bringing their affinity with the land, and the strength of nature's elements to the fore.
One of the earliest works using natural materials to stir sculptors (pun intended) was this surrealist fur-lined cup, saucer and spoon by Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim, made in 1936. The sculpture highlights the specificities of sensual pleasure - fur may delight the touch, but it repels the tongue. And a cup and spoon, of course, are made to be put in the mouth. The work, now in the collection of MoMA, continues to trigger intense reactions years later – expressed in rage, laughter, disgust or delight.
Many sculptors are interested in exploring life and death through their work. Damien Hirst regularly explores the theme of death and some of his most recognised pieces include a series of dead animals (a shark, a sheep and a cow) preserved in formaldehyde, such as Away from the Flock illustrated above. The artist has commented that the vitrines series: 'First came from a fear of everything in life being so fragile’ and wanting ‘to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased. Where it exists in its own space. The sculpture is spatially contained.'
Living in the rugged landscape of the Isle of Harris, Steve Dilworth often encases the natural remains of animals and birds within his sculptures. Beautiful in their own right, they impart an energy and life to his sculpture. Even when completely enclosed, like the heart in a living body, they empower the sculpture in both conceptual and symbolic ways.

In Dilworth’s Three Herons, the birds came from a nearby fish farm where they had broken their necks trying to take farmed fish out of a cage. First they were injected with sodium fluoride and formaldehyde to preserve them, then left to dry for six weeks. Twenty-five feathers on each heron’s wing and twelve tail feathers were removed by Dilworth in numerical sequence. The birds were then encased in fibreglass, a nautical, protective layer befitting their habitat. Each feather has a fish hook and line bound to it, nearly 200 in total, re-hooked into place. The sculpture’s real power lies in the authenticity and creative charge of the natural materials, echoing the beauty of the land he lives in.
George Taylor’s conceptual language is based on her own experience of the natural world which surrounds her, on the secluded Gloucestershire farm she lives and works on. She comments that birds naturally display their feathers of extraordinary colours and shapes in order to attract a mate; there is an urgency to sow the seed and to procreate before death. Inspired by mortality and sensuality – the continual cycle of love, life, sex and death – Taylor's feather pieces such as Erotica: Return to Chaos (detail pictured top) are mesmerising optically and full of life and rebirth.

This organic arrangement of quail's eggs in Beauty's Magic Trick is inspired by the satisfying geometric patterns found in nature. By applying her signature use of natural materials in her work, George Taylor stretches the possibilities of sculptural form.
Using antlers, wool, wax and feathers in her work Susie MacMurray also exposes the powerful but fragile, ephemeral nature of life. Everything has a time, and nothing stays the same or lasts forever.

Because my work is about being, being in your body, and trying to stay in the world – I’m constantly bemused by how physical and solid we are & how vulnerable and ephemeral we are at the same time. That’s the human condition.

In Foundling, MacMurray has carefully sliced deer antlers into thin flake-like slivers, rendering them almost unrecognisable and inviting the viewer to look afresh. Once majestic on the head of a deer for protection, showing strength and virility, they have become delicate and exposed.
Land art has also offered sculptors the opportunity to work with the natural materials that surround them. Central to British land artist Richard Long’s work is the activity of walking. Since the mid-1960s he has taken countless walks throughout the world, in such places as the Sahara Desert, Australia, Iceland and near his home in Bristol. Long’s sculptures commonly take the form of geometric shapes such as circles, lines, ellipses and spirals, and are often composed of minerals native either to their location or to the British countryside Long has travelled by foot. He similarly sources mud and earth from his expeditions for use in performative paintings done on canvas or directly onto the wall.
Julie Brook has lived and worked in a range of wild, remote places around the world in her quest to connect to the land and nature. Brook creates work that reflects a relationship between the materials and their surroundings. Her work is often time-consuming, physically demanding and pain-staking.

Bringing the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water together in one striking piece, Brook’s Firestack series asks us to reconnect with nature and take note of the rhythms of tide and time; darkness and light; the power of the weather; making and destruction. Each Firestack takes three to four days to build between the tides using the same techniques used for drystone walls. The firings are documented by film and their duration depends on the weather conditions of that season occasionally reaching a powerful climax where the stack crumbles with the force of the wind and waves and the fire is extinguished.




1. Meret Oppenheim's ‘Object’ (illustrated above), was inspired by a conversation between Oppenheim, Pablo Picasso, and the photographer Dora Maar at Café de Flore, in Paris. Admiring Oppenheim’s fur-trimmed bracelets, Picasso remarked that one could cover just about anything with fur. “Even this cup and saucer,” Oppenheim replied.

2. At 7ft tall, George Taylor’s largest feather piece The Beast in Me (illustrated above) took nearly a whole year to make and is made up of nearly 5000 feathers!

3. During the mid 1990s, Julie Brook discovered a natural arch in a rock face on the rugged and remote Scottish island of Jura. At first, it was just an overnight shelter from a rainstorm, and then it became her home. She decided to build a raw camp and remained there for over two years by herself to experience solitude and the landscape; she wanted to be able to work without pressures or interruptions. Her first major job was to build a wind baffle from driftwood to help protect her from the Atlantic storms. She also made a cloth house where she could create a sheltered sleeping area.

4. Possibly the oldest surviving piece of taxidermy is found of a church in Ponte Nossa, Italy, where a stuffed crocodile, that dates from the 1530s, is hanging from the ceiling.

5. Susie MacMurray is drawn towards materials that a have a connection to the body - such as leather, bone, feathers and hair. The most unusual natural materials she has ever used include sausage skins, cottonwool earplugs, mussel shells, teasels, vegetarian lard, cotton slither, and horse hair.
January 28, 2021