An excerpt from 'Human/Nature: an exploration of urban conceptions of the natural world and their expression in contemporary creative practice' by Catherine Mary Rose Oddie.

Chapter 4: Sophie Woodrow

Sophie Woodrow is a Bristol-based ceramic artist who works predominantly in porcelain. She studied studio ceramics at Falmouth College of Art, graduating in 2001.

Her work is both fantastical and figurative, depicting many different kinds of creatures made up of fragments of the natural world. The pieces range from approximately 12cm to 45cm in height and are all finished in a clear glaze which allows the purity of the porcelain clay-body to remain visible. The creatures themselves are often colonised by elements like limpets, mushrooms or faceted crystalline formations. The majority are painstakingly hand built but, more recently, Woodrow has made moulds of far simpler figures to be slip-cast. This was an economic decision which has proven profitable, though her interest remains predominantly on the hand-built, more detailed work.

Woodrow’s approach when creating a new piece is to ‘work backwards’. She starts by making the figure, letting it evolve naturally and intuitively. As this happens she works with the ideas that are generated by the making process and by the direction of the piece. Each sculpture develops its own story, therefore, alongside its own set of specific associations, ideas and concepts. It is important to her that the making process remains driven by the subconscious so she does not do large amounts of research before embarking on each piece. Whilst she acknowledges the importance of her reading and her visits to museums, these feel to her like such a natural part of the creative process that she has never really categorised them as formal ‘research’.

Nature is an essential part of Woodrow’s work. The attraction of depicting natural forms and themes is not just a response to nature itself as ‘an endless source of fascination’ but also ‘an impulse to make art that reflects our understanding of our relationship to nature.’ She suggests that in referencing the natural world, designers and artists are trying to understand not only nature itself but also a sense of alienation from some lost aspect of what it means to be human.

The fragmented creatures she portrays are a result of examining how ‘we store images in our mind and the associations that we have with certain animal imagery. These clay creatures represent those living in people’s minds, growing and evolving from the thousands of different images and ideas we experience in our everyday lives. Woodrow is not concerned with literally representing these images and ideas but exploring the meanings they have in people’s imaginations and the method by which they came to reside there: ‘The way that we get information about nature now comes through the screen and ... through so many different slices of information that ...come at us and combine and become faceted.’ This resonates with Peter Greenhalgh’s idea that:

Modern conditions seem to have undermined the consistency of existence to the point where it can no longer generate a cultural fabric that has any form, depth or longevity; it is as though we live in a cacophony of a million competing and arbitrary sound-bites, DVD clips and internet connections; that we have created a universe in which we have fabricated millions of beads, but have had the thread taken away from us.

Greenhalgh’s comment on postmodern society is not a complimentary one. By contrast, Woodrow draws upon postmodern complexity, combining her real and virtual experiences of nature (and by extension those of city-dwellers in general) to make her elusive shards of memory tangible. In her sculptures, understanding and lack of understanding merge; disparate elements from nature and culture unite into a single entity and the chaos so constantly experienced in the urban environment is crystallized. In this way, the works call into question modern conceptions of nature as other. They are a commentary on the modern condition which she views as flawed, if not, like Greenhalgh, wholly negative. In assembling divergent themes from natural and human worlds she draws together some of Greenhalgh’s beads and eloquently threads them together. It is not practical to feel separate from nature, these sculptures say; it is not practical to feel guilty for being human and following the instincts of human nature. Like Palm, Woodrow sees the analogous narrative of cities as ecosystems. Just as a beaver follows its instincts to build a dam, the human instinct is to build cities: this should not be denigrated.

The Victorian era played an important role in the establishment of Woodrow’s sculptural form owing to her fascination with the physical misinterpretations of animals that Victorian naturalists and explorers made. These became a starting point for her sculptures and the notion of misinterpretation, discussed in more detail later, remains key to her work.

Her main fascination with this era, however, lies predominantly in the fact that it was such a pivotal point in the history of civilisation with legacies evident in the fabric of the post-industrial age, in the formation of the modern city and in the emergence of the idea that nature is separate from humanity. As Matthew Gandy states, during the Victorian age ‘the urban experience became increasingly synonymous with the experience of modernity itself. The divide between the country and the city became more sharply defined as cities grew larger and provided more opportunity for employment. This transition was not solely economic: R. A. Forsyth discusses a ‘detribalization’ process as industry replaces agriculture, which not only had economic consequences but resulted in a kind of ‘spiritual apartheid’. Old forms of behaviour became dislocated and country-folk had to make the challenging adjustment of becoming city-folk. Raymond Williams suggests similarly that the industrial revolution represented greater shifts in society and culture than it did in technology or politics. There are those who are yet to make this adjustment and view the city as a representation of corruption and degradation: a view which, at its extreme, Forsyth asserts is ‘sentimental and irrelevant’.

Of particular interest to Woodrow is the emergent Victorian notion of separation between nature and culture, perhaps the result of the increased industrialisation and urbanisation of the time. Her interest in this era, therefore, does not rest on the aesthetic motifs of Victoriana but on this central concept of separation, which her work, like Millington’s analysis of ruin photography, seeks to question.

Natural history museums and their taxonomies might be said to contribute to this separation by neatly categorising species and subspecies, suggesting that in order to understand anything, first it must be separated from everything with which it is surrounded. Natural history museums are an excellent source of material for these narratives and play a large role in Woodrow’s research and conceptual development. Indeed, she is currently exhibiting at Portsmouth City Museum where she was invited to make use of the their natural history archives as a starting point for a range of new sculptures.

Woodrow’s work shows a deep fascination with misinterpretations of the natural world and in particular with the literal misinterpretations that Victorian naturalists and museum curators made about the mysterious new animals that they encountered for the first time.

The Horniman Walrus is one such example. Brought over from Canada by Victorian hunter James Henry Hubbard it was preserved by a taxidermist who had never seen a walrus alive and who was unaware how its loose skin hangs in fleshy folds. The result is a rather endearing, overly rotund creature which, because of this misinterpretation, has become one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. This misconception alters the original animal to the extent that it must be considered more a work of culture than nature. 

As a result of public zoos and nature documentaries, knowledge about the animal kingdom is now more widespread. However, despite this knowledge about animals’ physical appearance and behaviours there remains a proclivity to make unfounded interpretations of the natural world. One of these misinterpretations, as Woodrow sees it, is the tendency to classify animals, plants and natural as pure and morally superior. This attitude places nature above culture in a binary hierarchy, implying that solutions to environmental problems can only be found by attempting impractically to reject the industrial model of modernity. Woodrow is definite in her opinion that to project human virtues onto animals, to romanticise and sentimentalise them, is damaging because it ‘clouds our rational thoughts’36 and results in the search for solutions to environmental problems becoming more emotional than pragmatic. It is important, however, to note the difference between anthropomorphism and sentimentalisation: whilst the first of these might be viewed as a healthy way in which humans attempt to erase the boundary between human and nature, the second is arguably the province of garish animations and gift cards.

Anthropomorphism is strongly connected with storytelling and fairytales and is the attribution of complex human emotions, mental faculties and even souls to animals, plants and non-human objects. As a literary device, anthropomorphism is particularly common in children’s literature. Early exposure in this context might be argued to render adults susceptible to this way of thinking: when children grow up with representations of animals as creatures which think and feel just like humans it makes sense that, to an extent, this way of viewing them becomes part of their overall adult sensibility.

A compelling argument against anthropomorphism is that it is in no sense rational. Both science and religion invite us to adopt an anthropocentric view in which humans are the only creatures to express complex emotions and thought patterns and are the only beings, according to most monotheistic religions, to have souls. Anthropomorphism in this context is a pejorative term. Interestingly, however, primatologist Frans de Waal states that ‘To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.’

There are a few sculptures in which Woodrow engages directly with, whilst not endorsing, anthropomorphism. Juxtaposed with the ‘misconceived’ Victorian natural history exhibits, these works highlight her conviction that anthropomorphism is an analogous contemporary form of natural misinterpretation.

Anthropomorphism in art and design can have a tendency to become tinged with sentimentality, and is certainly not to everyone’s taste.

Sentimentality, clearly, is the last thing Sophie Woodrow intends for her sculptures. Her attitude toward creatures is one of respecting the ways in which they operate differently from humans. She is fascinated by the behaviours of animals and does not seek to understand them by projecting human motivations and emotions onto them. This may be the reason that her sculptures have an otherworldly quality to them: the empty eye sockets remove the attribution of character to each piece, making them ghostly and less easy to identify as sentient beings. Even those with humanoid form are free of emotion and gesture. As she puts it, her sculptures are ideas which she deliberately does not animate; nor does she place them in landscapes or scenarios which would locate them temporally. Because these sculptures are a representation of the way information is stored in our minds they are free from time.

 

 
 

© Sophie Woodrow, 2014
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