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Artist's forms in clay revel in material reality of sculpture

Sculpture comes in many forms. Contemporary artists often rely on "found objects" or assemblages of various items. The traditional methods are the subtractive (carving away material) and the additive (building up forms).

Sculpture comes in many forms. Contemporary artists often rely on "found objects" or assemblages of various items. The traditional methods are the subtractive (carving away material) and the additive (building up forms). While Fran Semple keeps her options open, through a lifetime of making art she has based her practice on building forms with clay, the additive style.

The current show at the Winchester Gallery in Oak Bay presents a confident artist fully in control of her materials and the ideas to which she gives form. Semple creates human figures from clay, built up on a metal armature, and then she makes moulds. From these she casts her statuary in bronze, cement or a hybrid of cement invested with wax. We made ourselves comfortable amid the gallery of her sculptures and had an hour of conversation.

Semple grew up in Brampton, near Toronto, and still fondly recalls the inspiration of a high school teacher who "took the time," and enabled her students to make sculpture. Training at the Ontario College of Art led her to a career painting backdrops for the Canadian Opera Company. "They were huge," she recalled, "and we used really big brushes and painted really loose." Her skill is evident in some broadly painted silhouettes in the current show.

While painting for the opera and the film industry paid the bills, sculpture was her abiding passion. Upon arrival in Vancouver she developed a business making light and whimsical sculpture from wire covered with tissue paper, lit from within with an electric bulb. But "it was clay, always clay," Semple mused, and her work was consistently figurative.

"Abstract form is quite freeing," she noted, but as she works, a face always seems to come through. When a face is there, the piece takes on a personality, "a personality I want to be with," she says. "Usually, I don't use a model. I experience life all the time, so it comes out in my pieces. Those experiences can go into my work if I don't think about it."

Clearly, she could sculpt with any amount of articulation. One statue on show is complete to the stitching on the back pocket of his jeans. But that's "way too close to looking like the model," she commented. "I had no room." Her preferred style is to sublimate the anatomy, to simplify the shapes and fill in the spaces between them. The figure is often draped or veiled, making a very satisfying interplay between what is seen and what is implied. The dynamic "line" of the sculpture is what Semple loves.

Beyond the ability to create a perfectly believable figure, Semple revels in the material reality of the sculpture. When she loads the concrete into her moulds she "doesn't shake it too much," leaving a rugged, pitted surface. In some parts of the casting she does a bit of jiggling to make the surface smooth. She recalled the drawings of Ingres, in which the body is hastily rendered, but the face is precise. It's all about contrast.

Lately she has been pouring melted paraffin and beeswax over parts of her sculptures. The result is a softening of the form, which creates an irresistible tactile surface -- the effect is akin to marble. If you are going to be a sculptor, you have to love working with the materials.

Yet there is nothing slick about her work. She acknowledges a pleasure in decay, something she has experienced on many trips through Europe. "Art is everywhere there," she noted,... and it speaks of many generations. Decay has a softening effect, removing the bits that maybe don't matter."

On Semple's sculptures there are no "bits that don't matter." They certainly need no explanation and already have a timeless look.

Frances Semple: Recent Work, at Winchester Galleries, 2260 Oak Bay Ave., 250-595-2777, until Nov. 22. View the exhibition online at www.winchestergalleriesltd.com

robertamos@shaw.ca