IN FINE FORM:
Celebrated sculptor Jean Doyle reflects on her 45-year career
Despite having memorialised figures like Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela (twice), producing a 9m-high national monument for Angola (weighing in at 8,5 tons) and bringing to life a made-to-scale bull elephant, Jean Doyle is probably best known for her voluptuous female figures cast in warm bronze. Influenced by Renaissance painters, her muses are always full-bodied, confident and bold.
‘I use large figures to represent a largesse of spirit – women who are daring and who are achievers. I hope women will see them as role models,’ Jean says. Her sculptures do what she would do ‘were I brave enough. ‘I’d love to career down the main street on a bicycle, stark naked, blasting a reveille on my trumpet – but I’ve never had the balls’.
It was a chance encounter with a stranger in a hotel in 1982 that prompted her to start sculpting the figures that would become her trademark. Jean relates the story to Grace Powell in her book, Jean Doyle: A Portrait:
‘The hotel at which I was staying had a swimming pool. One day a very large, interesting woman hove into sight with her blonde hair piled up on her head, wearing killer heels, an arsenal of jewellery and the tiniest bikini. She looked so glamorous, so confident and so bold. She didn’t give a stuff about what anybody else thought. She looked like a 1950s movie star – Jayne Mansfield or Diana Dors – except for her pillar-like thighs supporting voluminous hips. In spite of this, she moved with exquisite grace and carried herself with style and unmistakable elegance. She was monumental and I felt that I had to fully capture her.’
Jean went straight back to her studio with a bag of clay and started sculpting her: ‘Her confidence, her elegance, her sophistication... I’ve been circling her ever since.’
Jean’s preoccupation with women, she believes, comes from having had a female-centric childhood. Born towards the end of the Second World War, the men in her family were sent off to Egypt and Italy. Jean grew up living with her grandmother, her mom, two aunts and her two girl cousins. ‘My earliest memories are of being surrounded by women. I went to a girls’ school, then a girls’ college. It was only in my early twenties when I got to art school where there were male lecturers and students that I discovered there were also men about. I was terribly impressed and took them far too H seriously.’ er mother, she says, was a strong, independent woman. ‘She allowed me to be myself, to do what I wanted to do and express myself in the way that I wanted to.’ Jean dreamed of being an opera singer, but ‘having a voice like a nutmeg grater’ put paid to that. Her father was a painter and a craftsman, and as a child Jean would amuse herself sitting under his easel, shaping little clay sculptures, knocking together ‘frames’
from wooden boxes and making flies for his trout fishing. She also picked up several skills along the way, like leatherwork, working on a lathe and ceramics. T oday she’s an adept painter, sculptor – and foundryman (a metal caster). ‘When I first started there wasn’t a foundry in Cape Town. So I started my own bronze foundry in 1983 with the help of a foundryman who had learnt the trade at a bell foundry and who was very interested in my art.’ (Jean is the first woman to be elected as a member of the South African Institute of Foundrymen).
She lights up when we start discussing the intricacies of her work.
‘I feel like the Witch of Endor, with my pots of boiling metal.’
It’s a solitary job, but she likes working on her own. ‘I feel very at peace when I’m working.’ For her life-size figures, she usually starts off by making a maquette, a small sculpture from which she can work out the proportions of its final, larger counterpart.
‘If it’s very large, you have to make it taller and thinner as you go up, to allow for the distance. And you need to make the head bigger so that it looks like it’s in proportion from the ground.’
One of her taller sculptures is one of the most photographed in Africa: the 3m-high ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ sculpture of Madiba outside the Groot Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison) in Paarl.
‘I loved doing that,’ says Jean. ‘I’ve done a lot of large sculptures, so the size wasn’t a problem. But I spent a long time doing research. I studied his face on images and on film until I felt I knew it very well. And I had many pictures of him coming out of the prison… with that look of joy and triumph, and of humanity. That’s what I wanted to capture.’
Miriam Makeba, she says, was the hardest to immortalise.
‘I had photos of her from when she was very young until she was quite elderly, and she seemed to change quite dramatically over the years.’
Jean has also made a life-size sculpture of a bull elephant, which spent some time doing charity work (on loan to a Big Five preservation fund) and welcoming guests at Cape Town airport before being shipped off to America. For a while, ‘Nhlangulene’ even stood in Jean’s backyard, much to the delight of her neighbourhood.
‘All the nannies would bring the children in their prams to see it,’ says Jean. ‘But,’ she says with a laugh, ‘I’m probably most well known for my sculpture of [SA Navy dog] Just Nuisance.’
Military monument aside, Jean has no qualms speaking her mind when it comes to the topic of warfare and violence, particularly so during apartheid. Watching her sons being forced to report for military service marked a distinct turning point in her work.
‘All their lives I’ve taught my children to negotiate rather than confront,’ she’s quoted as saying, ‘only to see them carted off in army
lorries to be taught how to wipe each other out.’
In her series ‘South African Renaissance’, Jean adapted portraits of female figures by Renaissance artists – among them Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael – and gave them weapons of war like hand grenades and AK-47s.
‘If my figures looked absurd, I was hoping that the whole war scene would appear to be absurd, which I felt it was.’
The series made a strong pacifist statement, but also a political one.
‘Renaissance means a rebirth or an awakening, and my sculptures are intended to reflect the awakening of a new awareness in the political and social structure of this country,’ she’s quoted as saying.
Despite the fiercely feminist nature of most of her pieces, Jean sees humour as one of the cornerstones of her work and likes to give her sculptures tongue-in-cheek titles.
‘I love making up names – they’re the icing on top,’ she says. ‘I like a name that typifies the piece but also doesn’t have a serious ring to it. Humour in art is very important. A lot of people think it trivialises it, but I think it glorifies it.’
Washer woman, which is on the cover of the book about Jean, for instance, turns the conventional image of a woman doing the physical work of hand-washing clothing on its head. Jean’s incarnation looks like she’s mid-dance, wearing high-heeled boots and a skimpy mini and bra. It’s only upon closer inspection that you realise her outfit is adorned with tap washers, hence the name.
‘Jean sees her role as an artist as something outside of herself,’ writes Grace Powell. ‘She is a creator, a conjuror, yes, but she is also the instrument of her creations.’
‘I live vicariously, an observer, a records clerk, and it is my sculptures that dance to the concerto in my head,’ says Jean. ‘And when words fail me and my tongue becomes leaden, when I am mute, my sculptures speak for me – they are my eloquence.’
Looking back over her 45-year career, is there anything she would have done differently?
‘I suppose I would have started working earlier,’ says Jean. ‘I had my children first and looked after them when they were young. It was really only when they went to school that I started working – I had my first exhibition when I was 40. I think I would like to have started earlier, when I had more energy and drive.’ Her advice for aspiring artists? ‘Look glamorous, smile at everybody and never stop J working.’ ean has two sons and is now a grandmother. ‘I hope I’ve taught my children to be independent and to be their own people. And I hope they’re content with their lives.’ Her son Anton currently works with her.
‘He manages my marketing and sales and exhibitions, and he manages the foundry. So that leaves me free to be able to work, which is wonderful. I feel very privileged to be able to work as an artist. As you get older it’s more difficult because you’re not as flexible as you were. Especially doing the large sculptures – shimmying up ladders and swinging off scaffolding and the like. But you find ways to cope.’
She’s recently made a return to painting, but still loves doing life-size pieces – and typically sculpts the face first: ‘So I know exactly who I am dealing with!’
This pic: A clay bust of the piece Mother of Kings, from the African Images series.
Above: The Turkana Woman from the series African Images.