Jo Sweeting is a sculptor and letter carver, living and working in Brighton. Her work is based on the concept of 'Shul', a passing impression or mark left on the landscape - from a dry riverbed to a hollow where an animal has slept on the grass. She carves these impressions into clay, wood, plaster and bronze...
Tell us about your work?
I often have a feeling about a piece and sometimes I write about it, think about it at night and then draw it onto paper. Sometimes I just draw direct onto stone and then carve a little bit of it and then re draw and re draw. I know what I am making but allow the carving process to define the form as I progress. Carving by hand is slow and therefore gives you time to decide what should go and what should stay. There is of course little margin for error, especially in letter carving. My letters are based on knowledge of formal inscriptions but being a sculptor of forms my aim is to allow the letters to react and change and to emphasise the form of the piece they are carved on.
What materials do you use?
I usually work in British limestone but also use clay, wood, plaster and bronze. Stone is my preferred medium because unlike many other materials its starting and finished state remains constant. I like to keep the original block form within the sculpture as this keeps its history present.
How did you learn your craft?
After my degree course I decided to opt out of a Masters course and carried on drawing whilst teaching. I then met John Skelton at his ‘Skelton at Seventy’ show and he liked my work and it spurred me on to try carving. Having thought I was a ‘modeller’ I realised that in fact carving direct into stone was the way for me. My work began in a figurative way but I then studied lettercarving and now combine the figure, landscape and words in my work.
Describe your workspace…
My studio is in my garden and is a space that smells of linseed oil and limestone. It is a beautiful building that my husband and I made from old wood and skip-found windows. It is painted black like a Hastings net hut and now has a woodburning stove and wall of welsh slate. It sits amongst the plants, which I grow for their structure and form for my carving.
It is full of books and drawings and is a peaceful place primarily as I carve by hand. If I am working on a large scale, like the half ton piece I made for Brighton Stadium, then I rent space with fellow carvers at Wivelsfield in Sussex. The studio is full of chunks of wood for plinths and British limestone for carving and there is a wall of postcards for inspiration that I have collected from shows over the years or have been given to me by friends and students.
What inspires you, both in your work and life in general?
The British landscape inspires my work and I particularly love the way that paths intersect the Downs. I am a lover of poetry and often a line, word or overheard conversation will start the process. My work is particularly concerned with the concept of ‘Shul’ and celebrating a moment in time. John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth, George Kennethson and Gertrude Hermes were and are inspirational figures for me. I am always in awe of anyone who manages to make a living from art in whatever medium they use, especially if they are women.
Photography by Alun Callender
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