Q & A with Celia Smith

Q & A with Celia


Celia Smith makes wire sculptures of birds. She combines great technical skill with carefully observed naturalistic details to create deceptively simple pieces full of life and energy. Her sculptures are like three dimensional sketches, where the lines are created by manipulating wire rather than by drawing, and they have the same spontaneity and dynamism as a sketch with the added bonus of being in the round.

Tell us a little about yourself: have you always been creative?
I have always been a maker, from mud pies to ‘Blue Peter’ sticky back plastic creations as a child. I grew up on a farm so I had plenty of materials and inspiration. I was often given sickly chicks and calves to look after, this has made me very sentimental of animals and birds. I had a great art teacher at secondary school he encouraged me to build sculptures as I became increasingly frustrated by painting – I was always trying to make them 3D!

Who was your greatest influence?
Sophie Ryder was one of the first British artists to sculpt and draw with wire. I was lucky enough to have a school trip to her studio, after which I started to experiment with old wires I found on my parent’s farm.

Did you have formal training (if so, what and when)?
After my A levels I did an Art Foundation at The City of Bath College 1992 and then a sculpture degree at Wimbledon School of Art 1993-96. I experimented with lots of different materials during this time, I didn’t really start using wire as a sole material until after I graduated. I came up with my own techniques for making wire sculptures through trial and lots of errors!

What urges you to create?
Seeing skips of rusty and corroding wires at scrap yards! Seeing all those wires just makes me to start forming shapes and forms. I love finding old wires and recycling them into sculptures. While on a residency in the Shetland Islands I found huge piles of rusty fencing wires, that the farmers were only too glad to get rid of. I used the wire to make a flock of greylag geese which were a common site in the fields up there.

What attracts you to wire?
Wire is so instant. When I did my degree I experimented with processes like casting but they all take such a long time. Working in wire is like sketching and it’s this immediacy that I really like. Also, I like the fact that you can change it and re-work things in wire. And I think birds and wire go together. The wire gives the sculptures a sense of lightness and movement that you wouldn’t get if you used other materials.

Do you find wire lacks variety and colour as a material?
No, not all. I have never been very comfortable with colour – I’m quite a monochrome person. And in fact there is a lot of variety within the wire I use. I source it from scrap yards where you can find all sorts of different wires from coloured, plastic coated wire to rusty, quite weathered wires. All wires are different and all make different types of lines to use and draw with.

How important is the re-cycling element to your work?
I have always been a bit of a hoarder and it’s very satisfying to re-use old materials, but I know that in fact most of the wire goes to China to be re-cycled and so I’m just intercepting it before it goes abroad. Sometimes I manage to re-cycle materials in quite a neat way; when I was in Shetland I made a flock of geese out of wire I sourced there and I also made a piece out of the foil wrappers from all the tea cakes I ate there when trying to keep warm while studying the birds.

Have you experimented with any other materials?
I have tried working with sheet metal, but haven’t really stuck with anything. I’ve also experimented with clay and willow but I always seem to come back to wire.

Have you always been more attracted to sculpture than flat art?
I have always been interested in working three dimensionally. I was taught art in quite a conventional way at school and even when we were doing basic oil painting I was always trying to build something coming out of the picture.

And yet drawing seems to be an important part of your practice?
Although I have always been interested in working in 3D, I enjoy sketching and life drawing. And now sketching is becoming a bigger part of my work as I am doing a lot more wall mounted pieces which are closer to wire drawings than sculptures. The way I draw is changing too – I’ve become a lot freer, more gestural and more confident in my drawings. When I first started it was hard to get anything recognisable down on the paper and now a few marks can mean something.

How does your sketching feed into your sculptures?
I always have a sketch book on the go and when I visit a reserve to study a particular bird, I make a series of sketches (although I will also do little wire studies) which I then build up in the studio to make a life-size piece. I don’t really like using photographs as I find the results too staid and too detailed – they’re quite frustrating. I find I get to understand how a bird moves and flies much better if I study it for several hours and try and capture it on paper. All birds have different characters – some are more twitchy than others – and you need to look at them closely to get their character.

Have you had any more unusual commissions?
I’ve run many school projects helping students make life-size cows, dragons and people.

Do you ever wish you could keep your work?
Sometimes: the hardest pieces to part with are the ones I’ve made on location, such as the puffins I made while sitting on the cliffs amongst them on the Shetland Islands.

How do you go about doing it, from start to finish?
All my sculptures start with a sketch, so the first thing I do is travel to place where I can see the particular bird I would like to make.  This can sometimes be the most time consuming part. Once I have a number of sketches and I feel that I know the feel of the bird I then start making a framework with thick wire. I use the sketches to help me determine the shape and poise of the bird. Once I have the framework standing I then move on to using thinner wires to build up the body of the bird.

Do you use recycled wires from around your home etc, or do you buy them?
The majority of the wire I use is sourced from scrapyards. I like working with wire that’s weathered as it’s often got interesting patinations and colours. I buy new fencing wires from agricultural suppliers. Sometimes I am given lengths of interesting wires by friends and customers.  I also find wires that have been dumped in ditches.

How long does each sculpture take and roughly what are their sizes?
Most of my sculptures are life-size from swans to robins, sometimes I make flocks of flying birds as wall drawings or aerial installations these can be very large. Its hard to say how long my sculptures take as each one starts with a sketch I have made while watching the birds. Once I have a number of sketches of a particular bird and I feel I have observed them enough to really know them – then I will start to make the wire framework. I often have several pieces on the go at any one time and I will work on one up to a point normally until its standing and I have a complete outline… then I will leave it for a few days and work on something else. I do this so that I have time to think about it and not over work it (put too much wire on). I guess a chicken sized bird might take me two days to make.

Can you list the types of birds you have made?
I have made most British native birds that can be easily seen.I particularly like observing wetland birds and seabirds.I tend to work seasonally so in the summer months I concentrate on swallows and swifts and seabirds and in the winter I make more waders, swans and ducks.

Do you need to use any special equipment?
No all I need is my trusty pair of long-nose pliers! All the wire in my sculptures is twisted and bound together. I don’t use any glue or solder.