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Laura Ford and her sculptures

Artist Laura Ford was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1961.

She creates her sculptures from fabrics, found objects and other materials such as plaster and ceramics. At first glance, the animals and childlike figures that she creates suggest innocence and an element of humour, but there is often an underlying sense of menace that confuses or upturns our initial response.

First impressions

Look at the two sculptures above as a class. Ask students to think about and discuss their first impressions of the artworks. Students could work in pairs or small groups to do this. Use these discussion prompts if helpful:

  • What do the artworks depict?
  • What materials and techniques has the artist used to make them?
  • Do you think the sculptures are hard or soft?
  • How big do you think the sculptures are?
  • What is the expression, pose or body language of the animals shown in the artworks? (It might help to think of words to describe them)
  • Do the sculptures remind you of anything?

Teachers notes

The animals depicted in the sculptures are not realistic depictions. They look like soft toys, theatrical props or perhaps characters from a children's picture book. Laura Ford has described her sculptures as 'sculptures dressed as people dressed as animals'.

She used textiles to create the sculptures. For Moose, these have apparently been draped and wrapped over a structure and suggest garments. The fabric of Donkey has been roughly stitched together and loosely fitted to the creature's structure, looking like a costume.

The animals don't have obvious facial features, but their poses make the animals look sad and dejected. The roughness of the fabrics and visible seams add to this sense of dejection. (The donkey looks as if it has put its coat on inside out!).

Ideas and inspirations

The uncertain and unexpected

Things being not quite what they seem is a theme that runs through Laura Ford's art. The curator in the video describes her work as 'at first pretty idyllic and then a bit ghoulish'.

Laura Ford often juxtaposes opposite themes, ideas and emotions in her sculptures. The sculptures evoke childhood but seem menacing rather than innocent. They are often humorous but melancholic at the same time. They are made to be life-size and are often imposing – but they also appear fragile.

Beast

Beast 2005

Laura Ford (b.1961)

Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

Childhood experiences and memories

Laura Ford's family were show people who travelled the fairground circuit. She has described the fantasy models and props that appeared among the fairground attractions as an early inspiration for her sculptures. She was fascinated that rough plaster figures could be painted and made to look impressive and provoke reactions. She remembers especially a version of Frankenstein's monster that would leap out of a booth.

'You knew perfectly well that it would happen, but it was always incredibly exciting … It is that uncertainty I am aiming for in my work.'

Animals are a recurring theme that also has roots in her childhood memories – Laura Ford's grandfather owned a farm near Llanrumney, Cardiff and her family often spent winters there. She also spent a lot of time visiting zoos with her own children and has said that these visits inspired her.

Surrealism

Surrealism is another important influence on Laura Ford's work. Surrealist artists often juxtaposed unlikely objects or images (as Salvador Dalí did with his sculpture Lobster Telephone) to create artworks that surprise, confuse and disturb the viewer, making us question what we are looking at.

Laura Ford does this with the fabrics and materials she uses. We don't expect to see a lifesize giraffe made from patchwork. For her Headthinkers sculpture series, she created sculptures of people dressed in familiar, everyday clothes such as cosy jumpers and jeans – but instead of human heads, they have heavy ceramic animal heads.

Surrealist artists were also interested in dreams and the thoughts, feelings and fears that are hidden in our subconscious.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943

Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012)

Tate

The dreamlike, fairy tale quality of the figures in Laura Ford's Weeping Girls series of bronze sculptures is reminiscent of Surrealist Dorothea Tanning's painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Weeping Girls

Weeping Girls 2008

Laura Ford (b.1961)

Jupiter Artland

Materials and techniques

Laura Ford uses a combination of traditional materials and techniques alongside materials that we might not associate with art to create her animal and figure sculptures.

Glory Glory (Hat and Horns)

Glory Glory (Hat and Horns) 2005

Laura Ford (b.1961)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

  • She initially makes a metal armature for her sculptures by welding metal rods together. She has described this process as similar to drawing with metal, creating the basic form and pose for her figures in a series of simple lines.
  • She pads out this stick-like frame with newspaper.
  • She then wraps plaster-soaked scrim around the structure, moulding the form of the figure using the plaster.
  • She covers this underlying structure with fabrics or clothing and adds found objects (which she finds in skips or buys on eBay).

Discuss Laura Ford's techniques and materials with students.

  • What could they use to create an underlying structure for a sculpture without using welding?
  • Encourage them to think creatively about materials that might be available to them if they were making a sculpture inspired by Laura Ford.

Activity: wrapped objects and sculptures

The objective of this activity is to encourage students to explore and experiment with techniques and forms. Students will wrap ordinary objects in textiles to research and discover how this changes their form as well as their function, meaning and status.

You will need:

  • a selection of textiles such as blankets, towels, pillowcases, duvet covers and clothing. Try and have a mix of patterned and plain fabrics (visit a local charity shop or ask students to bring old textiles from home into class). You could also use materials such as plastic sheeting or tarpaulin
  • ordinary, everyday objects to wrap. You could use tables, chairs stools or books in the classroom. Or you could use household objects such as toys, tin cans, buckets, brooms, boxes and bottles
  • string or tape to secure the wrapped fabrics

Explore wrapped sculptures

We have seen how Laura Ford wraps an armature with newspaper, plaster and then textiles to create the sculptures. Explore how other artists have wrapped objects to create sculptures.

Man Ray

Look at this sculpture by Surrealist artist Man Ray as a class.

L'enigme d'Isidore Ducasse

L'enigme d'Isidore Ducasse 1920

Man Ray (1890–1976)

Tate

  • Ask students what they think has been wrapped.
  • What is the effect of wrapping the object?
  • What does it do to the shape of the object?
  • How does it affect how we think about the object underneath?

By wrapping the sewing machine in cloth, Man Ray altered not only the appearance of the sewing machine but also how we think of it. It becomes mysterious. He also changes its function and status: it is no longer a functional, manufactured everyday object but a unique sculpture displayed in a gallery.

Alina Azadeh

Artist Alina Azadeh wrapped books that belonged to her mother in cloth. This was partly to express her grief at her mother's death, but also suggests the idea of hiding knowledge. Azadeh's heritage is Iranian, a country where women's rights and access to education have been curtailed by the government.

By wrapping the books she has not only changed their appearance, function and status – she has also made us think about the meaning and significance of the objects.

Secret Knowledge

Secret Knowledge 2012

Alinah Azadeh (b.1968)

Glasgow Women's Library

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude began by wrapping ordinary objects, including tin cans and plastic flowers, in the late 1950s/1960s.

  • How has wrapping up this bunch of flowers with plastic sheeting changed how we view it?

Wrapped Roses

Wrapped Roses (edition of 75) 1968

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

The artists went on to take the process of wrapping things to an extreme by wrapping buildings and even landscapes! This sketch shows their plan for wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin – a project that they realised in 1995.

Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Berlin)

Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Berlin) 1983

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Hiscox Collection

By wrapping objects and buildings they wanted to disrupt how we see the world and encourage people to look at familiar things with a new curiosity. They also wanted to add sculptural qualities to ordinary objects.

Task outline

Students could work in groups or individually.

Provide each student/group with an object or more than one object. Task them with using fabrics to wrap the objects in whatever way they like. If they have more than one object they could wrap the objects together. (Alternatively, if you are feeling brave and have large pieces of fabric, you could task them with wrapping a whole section of the classroom!)

Set a timer for the activity for 20 minutes. Explain to students that this activity is about experimentation and 'seeing what happens' and that there are no right or wrong approaches.

Once students have wrapped their objects, place the objects together and discuss them as a class. You could think about:

  • what is the effect of the wrapped objects?
  • how have you changed the objects and changed how we see them?
  • have ordinary objects such as a stool taken on a new character?
  • does the wrapping suggest new meanings or narratives?
  • what words would you use to describe the effect of wrapping the objects?
  • do you think the wrapped objects look like sculptures?
  • has this activity given you ideas for other wrapping projects? What else could you wrap? 

Encourage students to think about how the draped covering softens the form of the object and also hides features or details. Words such as altered, disrupted, abstracted, disappeared, muffled, disguised, mysterious, useless and softened could be used to describe the effect.

Development ideas

Use the wrapped objects as a starting point for other projects. 

  • The wrapping technique might suggest ideas for a sculpture project.
  • Photograph the wrapped objects and alter their scale or place them in other environments to create surreal landscapes.
  • Or task students with drawing, painting or creating a mixed media still life artwork of the wrapped forms. This could explore fabric patterns or simplified, abstract forms.

Still Life, January

Still Life, January 1962

J. M. Anderson

The Hepworth Wakefield

Activity: design and make a mixed media sculpture using textiles

Task students with creating a sculpture using textiles. 

  • The sculptures could be figurative or abstract.
  • Students may be interested in exploring shapes and forms or expressing a theme or idea.
  • The sculptures could be made by: wrapping, bundling or stuffing fabric shapes; cutting up, stitching and sewing fabrics together; or combining fabrics with other materials or found objects.
  • Or students could make an armature for their sculptures and use newspaper, clay or plaster to create a form that they could then cover with textiles.

Donkey

Donkey 2000

Laura Ford (b.1961)

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

Encourage students to think about and research how Laura Ford makes use of seams, rough edges and loose threads to add character and feeling to her sculptures and how she uses patterns to change the look of forms or evoke themes such as childhood memories.

Students should plan their sculptures with sketches and notes. Encourage them to think about why they're doing what they're doing, and how they want people to respond to their sculpture.

It might be helpful to research the work of other artists who use textiles. Here are some examples:

 


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