Cel­e­brated sculp­tor Jean Doyle re­flects on her 45-year ca­reer

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Liesl Robertson

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.

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