Maker in Focus - Nigel Williams
Nigel Williams creates unique whimsical sculptures, mostly from brass and copper, and usually incorporating ‘found’ objects which have already had a ‘quality’ life elsewhere. His inspiration comes from, amongst others, Heath-Robinson, Rowland Emett, and Keith Newstead, but he is driven mostly by a desire to draw attention to the loss of the ability to design and manufacture quality goods from a country which used to be the centre of the industrial universe.
We caught up with him to find out more about his practice.
What inspires your sculptures?
I am driven by many things, but mostly two significant issues:
a. sadness arising from the realisation of the massive loss of skills, resources and manufacturing ability which developed in a country that used to be the centre of the entire industrial world. The reasons for this are many and complex, but I feel a need to bring this to viewers’ attention, through nostalgia, fantasy, humour and fascination - hopefully invoking a universal desire to re-discover, re-learn and re-apply the skills required to design & manufacture the type and quality of goods which I use as the basis of my creations - especially amongst younger people. I believe this is still possible, and in these days of ecological insanity and need, without it we will not survive.
b. the desire to make people laugh. I am delighted by the fact that viewers often spend much time discussing my works and its origins with me, always with a smile on their face. If I can brighten up their day with a bit of complicated absurdity, that's all I need to make *my* day.
I am *inspired* again by many things, but including:
a. a lifelong interest in industrial archaeology and heritage transport, leading to significant knowledge of historical machinery and antique domestic artefacts
b. the great technical and social humourists like Edward Heath Robinson and Rowland Emett
c. automata makers like Paul Spooner, Keith Newstead and Rob Higgs
How does your humour come across in your work?
I hope through the obvious absurdity, pointlessness, impracticality or plain 'impossibleness' of each piece. I grew up with Monty Python’s Flying Circus during the 1960s and '70s, which meant I became fully conversant & totally in tune with the self-deprecating humour, absurdity and challenge-to-formality which became part of the English character at that time. I would like to think that I have incorporated this successfully with the pompousness and formality of the Victorian & Edwardian periods which I allude to, without denigrating the incredible inventiveness and development of those periods.
Do your pieces have stories behind each of them, what is one that makes you smile?
Almost without exception, each of my pieces are associated with a sometimes complex fantastical background, which justifies (or not!) their own complexity. Sometimes the story is fully developed before I start work; for other pieces, it develops and gets more complicated as I build it and add more 'functionality' to it. I always hope that each piece will stand on its own without needing a 'story', but in truth the story is part of the piece and adds significantly to the impact and the humour of it. Sometimes I even go to the lengths of developing a contrived 'Operations Manual' or similar annotated document, to add as much as possible to the 'authenticity' of a piece. Incidentally, the titles are a big part of that too, and are very important to me (much to the annoyance of exhibition curators who are lumbered with figuring out how to fit my ridiculously-long titles onto the labels and into the catalogue design!). Having said all that, one piece that makes *me* laugh more than most is the 'D.I.F. or Device of Indeterminate Function' - unlike many others having a detailed fantastic 'purpose', this piece was contrived to have *no function whatsoever* (to highlight the absurdity of marketing domestic appliances which are designed with profiteering rather than true purpose in mind) - but this still needs a 'story' to explain that!
When you are looking for the found elements for your sculptures what often catches your eye?
Firstly - brass! Secondly - brass! No, it's not *quite* like that.....! I'm looking for *quality* items that were manufactured in this country during a time when folks cared about the quality of the goods they were making, and have consequently been around for long enough for me to find them and incorporate them into a new (and slightly different!) 'quality' item. It just so happens that during the period of manufacturing that attracts me, brass was a commonly used material....! (And who *doesn't* like the look of heavily-polished 'soft' brass?). Having been doing this for a while and become very familiar with the history of domestic artefacts (not to mention building up a large 'stock' of usable items), if I find something new that I'm not familiar with, whilst I may find it very interesting I often end up rejecting it because it's 'Made in France' or somewhere other than 'England'!!
How did you get into sculpture?
I was always going to be a maker, right from constructing things from Meccano and Lego when I was a kid. And I was always one of those awkward left-brain/right-brain bods who was interested in everything, but not clever enough to do it all. I was frustrated at school being forced to choose one of art, woodwork or metalwork, when I wanted to do all three. I chose woodwork - which I don't regret because it taught me many things - but I was always jealous of the metalwork lads when they walked out of their classes holding *spoons* (wow!) they had made! And of course, because I didn't do art, I never learned to draw - which is a massive handicap. When I took up a career in computing in the 1970s, one of the first things I wanted to do was exploit the creative possibilities of computing - something very few folks were aware of in those times - possibly arising from a need to make up for my inability to draw, by using other tools. This led on to lots of work on the fringes of computing: automotive design, animation, multimedia, industrial photography etc. But all the while, I was interested in sculpture, and in particular, innovative ways of making it. Back then, it was modern abstract sculpture (Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were my idols), but now as you've seen I'm making completely different stuff that combines the technical interests developed during my life with self-taught skills in wood & metal-forming, and my sense of humour - and I have been doing this now for fifteen years or so.
What is your newest make (one you're most happy with)? What do you like about it and why is it special?
I am just nearing completion of a piece I've called the "Gossifer Aquatic Cleansing Machine" (its working title was "Hooverfish" - you probably get the idea). The Victorians were crackers about aquariums - both institutional (Brighton, Crystal Palace) and domestic (which they treated like we do television). So I figured it would save on servants if you had a machine to keep your aquarium clean for you. It's named after Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), who originally coined the term "aquarium", in his 1854 book "The aquarium: An unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea" (you knew that, didn't you?). I like it because it's a) very silly indeed, and b) very, very (very) shiny: it's quite large (63cm long and 43cm high), all copper & brass and highly polished.
What does being part of the Guild mean to you?
Before I applied to join the Guild, I was advised by a number of individuals in different situations that I should "exhibit with quality". Well, as an accepted full member of the Guild, I am now doing exactly that. It is a serious privilege, firstly to be accepted by and associated with a group of craftspeople making the best quality goods that can be had, secondly to exhibit alongside them, and thirdly to become a part of the history that goes right back to the original Arts & Crafts Movement in the 1930s.
Do you have any events or workshops coming up?
My next major exhibition is as part of the Guild 'Crafts Alive' event at Rodmarton Manor in September 2023.
What is on your wish list from the Guild shop?
That's not a fair question! [laugh] Expecting me to choose between all the exquisite items available from other Guild members is a great way to make friends and enemies at the same time! However, if you really are forcing me, I guess my favourite work would have to be that by Neil MacGregor & Valerie Michael. My special favourite is the huge leather-covered trunks with their custom-made corners, but they're probably too big to be in the shop, so I would choose something at the other end of the scale: the leather bracelet/cuff; as simple as it gets, but still exuding quality, especially with those beautiful brass fittings (you probably figured by now I'm very keen on brass!).