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A Natural Connection with Carol Crawford

There's something profoundly calming about stepping into artist Carol Crawford's studio in Surry Hills, Sydney. A sense that the work done in this room is at once a labor of love and a connection to something much deeper. Carol's practice, honed over many years, centers around sculpture and incorporates a variety of natural materials including alabaster, marble and soapstone. The work Carol does is slow and most often completely by hand-gradually unveiling the story and character of each stone. Carol herself is as sunny and warm as her studio, and, with a deep understanding of her craft is committed to fostering the next generation of artists through her ongoing work with the Tom Bass Sculpture School.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

Hi Carol, can you start by telling us about how you first became interested in art and sculpture?

My interest in art started very early in life. Nature fascinated me and its patterns and structures, and I have always had an interest in design and art history. Art was my favorite subject at school and after school, I studied history at university. After graduating, I went back to Sydney University to study art history which was where my true passion lay. By studying art history, you gather insights into the history of the world through an artist’s lens. Art has had such an impactful presence in world history.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

I had always wanted to work in three dimensions (and get my hands dirty) and heard about a sculpture school run by Tom Bass AM. I had a longing to study with him, so in the early 2000’s I decided the time was right to start attending classes. Tom was in his early to mid-eighties at the time, so I knew I couldn’t delay anymore.

Tom taught sculpture in the traditional atelier method, just as the master had done for centuries. His classes were student-driven, and we would work alongside sculptors of all levels and Tom Bass himself as he completed large commissions. I learned and absorbed a lot in those classes. Tom was an incredible man with a sharp intellect, and at tea time, I just listened to his wise words. Tom Bass AM passed away in 2010 at the age of 93, and the sculpture school he founded still runs in Erskineville and is flourishing. I am the Chair of the school and feel very privileged to work with so many wonderful people and share some of the love of sculpture.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

Are there themes or ideas that you regularly explore through your work?

I’m not sure I’d call them themes. I would say that my process is what dictates my work. What is inside is personified in the forms that I make. All my forms are soft, not measured, nongeometric, organic female life forces. When you look at my sculptures, you see my core-my inner being. When a sculpture is complete, it is a visceral feeling. I feel deep inside that it works (and if it doesn’t, I can go back to it, sometimes years later, to adjust it). I am interconnected with each sculpture I’ve made, they are all a part of me, and hence they are precious and unique. Anyone who purchases a sculpture from me commits to caring for that sculpture.

You reference your family and unique family history as a key influence on your work. Can you tell us more about this and how it manifests through your practice?

Referencing my family in my work was a gradual process. It started with the first sculpture I created after the loss of my father. I created an expression of how I was feeling, a sculpture with emotion and my feelings embedded in it. That sculpture was Genesis I, the first of a triptych of sculptures I created over two years. Genesis I consists of three rounded interlocked forms that gently intertwine to make a beautiful whole. I was one of three siblings, so I felt three was a good number.

It is a sculpture that conveys love, support, togetherness, and soothing calmness. It was this feeling of calm and tranquillity I wanted to convey at the loss of my father, to whom I was very close. He loved me unconditionally. He was my best friend and was the one I always turned to for advice. I found that even after losing someone you love so deeply, that deep sense of self and the belief they had in you strengthens you.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

"It is a sculpture that conveys love, support, togetherness, and soothing calmness."

My interlocking stone sculptures were a further extension of this theme. And then I realized that when I walked into my studio and saw these beautiful soft forms, they calmed me and became like family to me.

When I was growing up, my family was very small. Both my parents were survivors of the Shoah (Holocaust) and lost their entire families, except for my mother’s brother. I grew up without grandparents, no aunts or uncles, and no cousins. I knew the family was very important and was something that was missing from our lives. Early on, I decided to give my stone sculptures Yiddish or Hebrew female names, some of these names were names of murdered relatives or my parents’ friends. My sculptures are all female. I have the two matriarchs in my studio, Rachel, my father’s mother and Berta, my mother’s mother. They oversee all that goes on in the studio.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

When working on a piece, what is the starting point for your creative process? How does your vision for the end result change (or not) throughout the process?

I start working on a stone sculpture by looking at its raw form. I listen to it, and then I start bringing the innate form of the stone out. I try not to impose my opinion on the stone too much; I listen and react. I treat the stone respectfully, almost a ‘stone whisperer’. I am only releasing the true form of the stone, nothing more. I almost feel that it is something anyone can do, but in reality, all those years of study with Tom Bass taught me to ‘see’ and understand form and how each form interacts with other forms. The simplest forms are often the hardest to achieve.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

Your work uses various natural materials, including alabaster, marble, soapstone, bronze and plaster. What is the sourcing process for these materials, and does the origin of a particular piece play a role in how it takes shape?

Alabaster is the only material I have to source overseas. I have bought the stone on my travels, either in Europe (where white, brown and creamy alabaster originates) or from America, where I can get colored alabasters such as translucent orange, mottled pink and blue (very rare and unavailable now) alabasters. Choosing the pieces in their raw form is very important; they have to speak to me, and I am guided by this when I start carving into the stone. I need to travel to purchase the stone, and luckily I had a bit of stock from my 2019 travels.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

"I am naturally drawn to carving and taking away."

When I work with clay or plaster, it is the complete opposite of carving; it is an adding-on process rather than taking away. Working with these different mediums, I have realized that I am naturally drawn to carving and taking away. It is much less forgiving but offers surprises and other benefits.

Carving marble is quite different. I liken it to having a bit of an argument with the stone; you have to know where you are going and your opinion right from the beginning. Marble is a much harder stone than alabaster and doesn’t have the beautiful translucent qualities that attract me to alabaster.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

There is a sculpture in my studio called Yetta, named after my father’s aunt, who used to live on the Lower East Side of NYC. She was quite an adventurer who left her hometown in Poland after WW1 to live in Manhattan and work in the rag trade. She was a strong, quirky character, and I remember her well. A few years ago, when I was in New York, I went to the stone supplier to buy some tools, not intending to purchase any stone, as I had plenty to work with at the time. Of course, when I went there, I saw this beautiful nodule that I had to have (she was to become Yetta). She was then airfreighted back to Sydney for me to carve and has become a very special presence in the studio.

Are there any other artistic disciplines you’re interested in exploring, and what are they and why?

At the moment, I am still infatuated with sculpture, especially carving alabaster. I am interested in form rather than color. Carving is a very physical (and dusty) artistic pursuit, but it also energizes me. I hope to stay very strong, so I can continue to do what I love. I also think of Tom Bass AM, who continued to create sculptures until he died at 93.

Photography by Saskia Wilson.

How do you like to spend your time outside of the studio?

I love doing Iyengar yoga. I was brought up with yoga; my parents had a Hatha yoga practitioner come to their home for private classes from the time I was very young, and as I have aged, I feel yoga recalibrates my mind and body. It takes out a lot of the aches and pains, and it also gives my mind a break from the inner noise of daily life. I am fortunate to have a wonderful Iyengar yoga school and teacher very close to my studio in Surry Hills.

Cultural pursuits also enrich me. I love attending concerts by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), visiting galleries, reading literature, and eating out. I have been spending a lot of time in Melbourne recently because two of my three children living there. I joke that I’m becoming ‘bi-coastal’, and I am setting up a small studio in Melbourne to spend more time there and work on my sculpture.

What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?

I love to travel, but am still a bit hesitant, so for now, I will be satisfied traveling vicariously via Instagram. I am looking forward to a ‘normal’ rest of the year, without surprises, floods or fires, and some beautiful creations.

Follow Carol Crawford on Instagram.

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