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Friday, June 23rd, 2006 at 11:20 am
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Meet West Linton Sculptor Susan White-Oakes

Download a PDF of “How I Work” by Susan White-Oakes
“We call it the state room because it’s the largest room in the house and it’s always in a state,” Susan White-Oakes explains, entering what could loosely be called her office. The room is the brightest in the renovated farmhouse, just outside West Linton, where she lives with husband Roger. On display are a number of menacing, predatory animals and birds, a graceful swan, a whimsical robot.
Sue studied Industrial Design at the Central School of Art and Design in London and the combination of creativity and practicality is evident in her work.
While designing kettles and toasters for Morphy Richards, and stationary and safe doors for Chubb, she attended evening classes in sculpture and mural painting. Her teacher used to bring in great chunks of different materials, not just wood and clay, but perspex and steel.
“I remember picking up two of the off-cuts from this piece of steel I had been hacking away at and deciding I liked the look of them. They had a kind of simple elegance that appealed to me. I mounted them on a steel base, they went to a gallery but fortunately they didn’t sell. I shouldn’t have liked to lose my first piece of sculpture.”
After moving to West Linton in 1975, Sue devoted more time to her first love sculpture. This figurative style took on a more deliberate characteristic and she describes her earliest pieces as robotic. Currently she is enjoying making insects and animals and this is where her reputation lies today.
Anyone who queries the price of one of these pieces of sculpture should visit Sue’s workshop to see the amount of work that goes into each piece. She has developed a style akin to silversmithing and is able to work in incredible detail, creating delicate subjects such as spiders, birds and insects which would normally be impossible.
Amazingly, she is also able to reproduce the sinuous forms of fishes and snakes and has now produced over one hundred and thirty of these animate sculptures.
“Mostly my inspiration comes from coffee table books which have excellent photographs,” she says. Her rhino, on the other hand, was taken from a drawing by Durer in 1515. “He had never seen a rhinoceros but a friend of his had travelled to Spain and been rather taken with a strange beast which he had seen in a zoo. Durer produced a remarkable drawing from that of his friend and I have interpreted it, albeit it in a slightly stylised form, for my sculpture.
“I also pick up dried skulls that I find in the fields, at the roadside or on beaches. You have to understand the underlying structure and it helps to have a skeleton handy.”
First, there are sketches which become working drawings, then she begins to cut out the pieces in copper, building up the basic shapes. New copper sheet is very expensive and she has alerted all the local plumbers that she is willing to buy old water tanks. She used to be able to buy them from a scrap yard which has been taken over. “Unfortunately the new owners are more health and safety conscious and they will neither prepare the tanks for me, nor let me go into their yard and find them myself.”
These tanks can provide 3 or 4 sheets much more cheaply than the 4’ by 2’sheets she has to buy new at £45 a time. The basic shape in bone and muscles is created in smooth copper sheet. “When it comes to putting on the feathers, I know where to begin because I have studied the real thing.”
The outside pieces, feathers or scales, are hammered into shape using special tools, most of which she has made herself. In her search for accuracy she makes lips for the rhinoceros from a spiral of copper strip wound round a wire. The Jesus lizard’s leg is a rolled up piece of metal.
She is particularly proud of it. “When I first saw a picture of it I wondered if it were possible to make it balance on its legs. It walks on water so I didn’t want it mounted on a block of wood. I tried it on glass but that reflected everything in the room and was too distracting.”
With its perfectly poised tail and long claws on its long thin legs, it does indeed look too ephemeral to settle on a table top. It is surely in a hurry to get somewhere.
The huge golden eagle that sits on another table, its beady eye watching for the slightest movement of something that might mean food, was actually designed to fit its stand. “A creature like this belongs in the wild,” Sue explains. “It wouldn’t look right on a block plinth, so I scour the ground for suitable tree roots. They are much more interesting than branches, for example, because they have had to fight their way down through the ground.”
Recently, she has had some of her sculptures cast in bronze by Powderhall Bronze who make the casting using the lost wax technique. The sculpture is painted with rubber, then backed up with plaster so you have a plaster mould with a rubber lining. Large items will be made in several pieces. It is then painted with a quarter of an inch of wax, the pieces are joined together, then the rubber is removed so that a perfect wax replica is left. The inside is poured full of plaster and the outside is coated with plaster. Then it is heated so that the wax melts. Into this cavity, the bronze is poured. This stage of the process takes about a further month.
Bronze statuary is found all over Britain and is robust enough to withstand all sorts of weather and graffiti. It is coated in a wax polish which can be replaced if necessary. This meticulously engineered finished product is quite breathtaking in its form and in the colours of the material. But Sue’s workshop gives a clue to this careful accuracy. Every tool has its place and its purpose. If she couldn’t find the perfect implement, she made it, often only fractionally different from an existing one, but providing a subtle variation in size or effect.
She works on her last, hammering and cutting, smoothing and shaping and as she works the material hardens. A deft flick of the industrial welder and the heated copper is malleable once more.
Sue’s engineering and design background are also applied in the house. A mere derelict when they took it over twenty years ago, Sue herself built many of the wooden cupboards, chests and dressers, faithfully reproducing their panels and mouldings. She acknowledges that the ones built with second hand wood have kept their shape, while those built with new wood have shrunk – “you can almost slip a finger between these cupboards,” she exclaims indignantly. “When I made them they fitted perfectly.”
Life and work combine happily for Sue, whether drawing and thinking in the stateroom, or ensconced in her workshop with music and tools. She also enjoys her garden, as far as the rabbits will allow, while crediting the work on its upkeep to husband Roger. Her love of the outdoors extends to cycling and to amateur archaeology and she has found several artefacts which are now on display in the National Museum.
She has been exhibiting since 1962 in numerous galleries in London and Scotland. Her work is in great demand and can be found in private collections throughout Britain, the USA and Japan. You can usually find a few pieces at The Lost Gallery, a rural art gallery in Upper Strathdon, which benefits from an association with the Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

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One Response to “Meet West Linton Sculptor Susan White-Oakes”

  1. Lothian Life the magazine for Edinburgh and the Lothians » Archive » Sculpting in Copper – reviewed Says:

    […] person who could have written it – Sue White-Oakes, with photographer Jim Pratt. Back in 2004, I spent a day at her studio in West Linton, exploring her work and techniques. Now this book goes into much greater detail with the aim of […]

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