When he turned 30, Wilfrid Wood
had an epiphany. “I was fed up with being a mediocre graphic designer,” says the East London-based artist. “[I also realized that] if I carried on going to the publishing office every day I would have gone mental.” That was nearly a decade ago. Since then Wood has shed his office job where he worked doing layout and design for an encyclopedia company, a task he doesn’t regret leaving behind. He then actively pursued a new creative path, which led him to sculpture. But not abstract, oddly shaped sculptures that people stare at and ponder while sipping wine and adjusting their cable-knit sweaters. No, Wood turned the notion of expressive sculpture on its ear, injecting vivid color and sublime characterization in a manner uniquely his own: He created an entire world.
“I hope my sculptures are a celebration of life's variety,” Wood explains. “I like to make a thin character then a fat one. I just can't get enough bodies and faces. To me, the most important aspects of visual art are its visual qualities! I'm not very interested in conceptual art.” Wood’s disinterest in conceptual art is apparent. His sculptures ooze with comic, sexual, and sometimes just plain bizarre imagery. They are literal—albeit stylized and often cartoony—interpretations of the types of people that populate our daily lives. He captures what we see on the street, and what we don’t see behind closed doors. From the plump office worker to the transsexual to the bruised-up drunk, Wood proves he has the keen eye of a careful observer. Between sketching and sculpting sessions at his studio, located in an area of East London known as Fish Island
, Mr. Wood took a moment to answer my questions about his work.
When did you begin creating these characters, and what got you started?
I was fed up with being a mediocre graphic designer and turning 30 bumped me into taking the risk of concentrating on something I really enjoyed but might not get paid for.
Has the risk proven worthwhile?
Well it's been extremely uneven! In a way I don't think I had a choice—if I had carried on going to the publishing office every day I would have gone mental.
What was it about your publishing job that made you fear you would lose your mind?
I remember thinking whilst I was there that I was transparent, that I might as well not exist. I feel a need to make some kind of an impact… I need to produce objects with the Wilfrid Wood stamp to verify my own existence. I know we're all going to die in the end but this is our chance! Doing an encyclopedia layout on rocks and minerals impresses no one.
Although you don't mention one, there seems to be a story behind each character. Can you explain a little bit about how your creative process works—from idea to finished character?
All I need is a visually stimulating nugget, it could come from anywhere. I've just seen this guy in a magazine with fantastic grey-looking skin and a pale purple Mohican. I really want to make a sculpture like him now. Sometimes my things are portraits of people I know: Ed is my badminton teacher and Charlie is a boy who lives round the corner.
So do you have a background in illustration?
I had some silly idea at college that it was the manly thing to do graphic design. But I've always been more of an illustrator. I'm hopeless at typography.
And do your sketches look fairly similar to your final sculptures, or do you refine the idea as you sculpt?
Yes, my sculptures look fairly similar to the original drawings. Quite often, if I am losing my way with a sculpture, I look back at the original drawing to find what it was I liked in the first place. At the same time, things always evolve as I sculpt; little accidents hint at a new direction. I tend to make a plasticine maquette before starting the real thing. The other day I heard the potter Grayson Perry talking about the importance of 'the resistance of the material' in his case clay. In other words, the difficulty of pushing around a physical substance is always challenging and changes the final result from what you had in mind.
Can you briefly explain how you make these sculptures?
First I draw; then make a plasticine maquette; then start on the real thing with a wire armature. I wrap aluminum foil around the wire then cover that in a layer of polymer clay. I then sculpt it, bake it in an ordinary home oven, airbrush it (using the spray booth in the photo) and finally varnish. If I'm making a cast I pour a silicone rubber mold and cast resin or Jesmonite into that.
Each of your pieces also seems to convey a certain sort of commentary, whether it's social observation or blatant caricature. Do you try to embed messages in your work?
I certainly don't set out to get a message across. I like my work to have 'resonances' rather than messages, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. I hope my sculptures are a celebration of life's variety. I like to make a thin character then a fat one. I just can't get enough bodies and faces. To me, the most important aspects of visual art are its visual qualities! I'm not very interested in conceptual art. I absolutely love Jeff Koons’ work to look at but reading about it bores me to tears. I worry I am either old fashioned or a philistine. Perhaps it's the English suspicion of anything intellectual. To me, something visually delightful is its own justification. The other day I had the idea that what I really am is a craftsman. I know it's a dirty word, but I felt I should admit it. The craft of making is very important to me. I don't really have any big ideas about art.
In reference to your Koons comment, does hearing an artist's intent somehow ruin the initial connection you may have had to the work?
I don't think it ruins it but sometimes I find it rather irrelevant. I knew I loved Koons’ silver rabbit the moment I saw it because it's funny and slightly sinister—its shapes are so elegant, it's so fantastically crafted, it's a light thing made out of stainless steel. You can see all these qualities. The theory behind it, if there is any, is secondary.
When you say "...the most important aspects of visual art are its visual qualities," what are some striking visual qualities that you look for in art?
Don't forget an exclamation mark at the end of that quote, it's supposed to be stating the obvious but overlooked! What I was trying to say was that at the moment there sometimes seems to be a concentration on the cleverness of the idea at the expense of its visual ingenuity. Coming from a design background I think I veer towards the illustrative and graphic as opposed to very painterly and expressive or conceptual. I like such a wide range of stuff though, from a super polished Koons to roughly slapped-up self taught art. I really love ordinary pencil drawings and buy far too many off eBay.
You seem to be a straightforward person. Is the notion of considering yourself a craftsman versus an artist appealing to you because it's, perhaps, less pretentious?
Well really I don't like either term. I think of crafts people as making daft looking teapots with triangular handles. On the other hand 'Artist' is so loaded—I don't feel I can live up to the expectation. Maybe I am a designer after all. In the end it doesn't matter what you call the person who made it, it's the object that counts.
Many of your characters convey sexual themes, while others are funny or bizarre. What makes you gravitate toward a certain type of character?
Generally I like to slice in between two or three themes, so my characters usually have a kind of ambiguity. A mix of sex and humor with mildly dark undertones gets me going. Pure sex is pornography; an overload of humor is unfunny. It’s the areas in between where interesting tensions exist and viewers have more space to make up their own minds.
Visual artists are being fawned over more than ever it seems. What are your thoughts on the rise in popularity of art?
Umm, I don't know. We've probably got too much of everything right now. I think having one cherished drawing is more valuable than a million Tate Moderns. I don't think art being popular is necessarily such a good thing, a bit of hunger and inaccessibility sharpens the senses. Art thrives on a bit of oppression. Art is a weird kind of bi-product of evolution I suppose, it seems people just can’t help themselves from making it once they've got enough to eat and drink.
All images featured in this article were used with permission from the artist. Images are © 2008 Wilfrid Wood, all rights reserved.