Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Surface Design Runs Deep

I was amazingly lucky to study under two maestros of art who conducted me though my time at Chelsea School of Art. I was excepted to study ceramics but was talked into switching to Surface Design by the great Steven Sykes mainly because his course was looking depleted as only one student had signed up for his three year DipAD Surface Design. In the end he managed to talk two others into trying the course making the four of us probably the best taught ever, as the student to teacher ratio, including technicians, was 1:1. Part of the problem was that nobody knew what Steven had in mind with ‘surface’ design, but the truth was just about anything. These (late1970’s) were heady days in art colleges, decisions on direction, aesthetics, materials, influences were left to students, all things were possible, the staff helped you fulfill your wildest dreams by nudging you along the route. Turning you on to obscure art, suggesting resources and also, in Steven’s case, introducing you to respected artists in your field. To help him there was Lesley Sunderland, a master of textiles and all their ramifications. I remember, with her encouragement, one of our number choosing to dye some cloth by leaving onions, beetroot and other colour-giving botanicals, encased in bags made in the plastics workshop, which hung across the room to stew in the heat and light of the studio for three terms. In the end the bags with their coloured grunge became the art and a distinction mark followed. Experimentation leads to virtue, it frees the mind. Steven’s course was so before it’s time, nothing we made would be out of place in a so-called Brit Art collection now.
Steven lived at Hopkiln, near Midhurst in Sussex, a house and garden he created with his usual flare for surfaces out of a piece of rough ground he bought in 1967. “It was a triumph of bricolage and improvisation, incorporating a maze, a grotto, a waterfall and small raised canal, statues and mosaic work. To meet him (naked) beside his swimming pool, which was embellished with a gold peacock, was to encounter a charming sun worshipper from some ancient lost culture who had taken up unexpected residence in a fold of the South Downs”.* The house was amazing and I could try to describe it’s art and design given half a dozen paragraphs, but instead I’ll just mention the swimming pool. Hand made of course, tiled in ceramics, also hand made, of course, but what attracted me was his design solution for heating the water. He had cut the bottoms off wine bottles and threaded them closely on to a hose, then wound the whole into a huge bee-hive looking structure, solar heating long before I ever hear the expression or saw the concept. And this, I think, helps to explain what made him a genius tutor.

Both have obituaries available online at the The Independent
Steven Sykes (1914-1999) http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-steven-sykes-1072852.html
Lesley Sunderland (1947- 1995) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_19951005/ai_n14010332
*taken from the Independent Obit by Tanya Harrod

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