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Sculpting Lives podcast featuring Phyllida Barlow, 2020
Jo Baring
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Installation view of Phyllida Barlow RA cul-de-sac, Royal Academy of Arts, London
Installation view of Phyllida Barlow RA cul-de-sac, Royal Academy of Arts, London Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: © David Parry / Royal Academy of Arts, London
The original inspiration for this podcast series came from my colleague Sarah Victoria Turner and my realisation that our best-known women artists tended to be sculptors. We decided to explore the theme in a series of programmes that would be accessible to as many people as possible, but also interesting to listeners who already knew something about the period and the artists we featured – Barbara Hepworth, Elisabeth Frink, Kim Lim, Phyllida Barlow and Rana Begum. Now, of course, we hope that the podcasts can bring a little light into the lives of all the people who find themselves confined to their homes. We wanted to be curious rather than didactic; talking to curators, museum directors, artists and their families raised so many questions. The Kim Lim programme, for example, touches on gender and race as Lim – a Singaporean-British sculptor of Chinese descent – has 80 works in public collections in the UK, yet few people have heard of her. In Barlow’s episode, she is frank and open about her experiences. When she turned up at the Slade School of Fine Art, her tutor Reg Butler said he wasn’t very interested in her because ‘you’re a woman … [and] when you’re 30, you’ll be having babies and making jam’. Barlow also reveals that there was a sign on the door of the welding room saying that women were not allowed inside. During our interview, she said it was interesting to have those ‘challenges’ that forced her to muster all her single-mindedness to use them as a trigger for her future. Describing the Slade as a ‘dark place’, she said fighting against the hierarchical and patriarchal system – as well as the somewhat rigid definitions about what sculpture could be – acted as an impetus for her subsequent teaching and artistic careers. Barlow is aware of the criticisms surrounding her work and describes the presumption that she searched through skips for low-grade materials for her work as ‘an urban myth’. Talking about her cul-de-sac exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London last year, she says the monumental work was geared towards invoking a sensation in the viewer and a memory of how it made them feel. The RA’s contemporary curator, Edith Devaney, told us how she was proudly showing Barlow around the reformatted building’s new exhibition spaces prior to installation, only for the artist to say,‘they’re a bit narrow, aren’t they?’. In the episode, as we walked around we can be heard describing cul-de-sac in whispered tones because we were aware of the debate about whether the podcast format works when talking about works that people might have not seen. In the Elizabeth Frink programme, we try to give the listener the sense of the speed at which she had to work when carving into wet plaster added to metalwork. We also include lots of soundscapes from different locations. In the Barbara Hepworth episode, we’re in the artist’s garden in St Ives, in Cornwall, where a curator describes sculpture as ‘a moment of praise’ just as the local church bells begin to peal. Interview by John Holt. Listen to the podcast for free on Audioboom or download it for free on iTunes.

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