Arts Inspiration – Denise de Cordova

For the Arts Inspiration section of the Bronze Arts Award: Level 1 Award in the Arts qualification, young people need to research the work of an artist that inspires them. After visiting our Treewilder exhibition at Barnwell Country Park, one student from The CE Academy researched and interviewed artist Denise de Cordova.

The Winter Watcher at Barnwell Country Park – Denise de Cordova, 2022
The Winter Watcher, at Barnwell Country Park – Denise de Cordova, 2022

I really liked the Winter Watcher at Barnwell. Is the sculpture hollow? What are the loops for, birds to sit on? Why did u make her that size?

The sculpture is solid. It had to be light so it is Jesmonite (a type of water based polymer) on foam. The loops were originally embedded in the sculpture because I thought I might have to tie it to the tree for safety purposes, but it wasn’t necessary. I often embed things into the dresses of my figures – sticks, minerals, charms etc as a means of activating the surface, and I rather liked the idea that they may have been perches for birds. Regarding size, I tend to make things either bigger or smaller that their real life counterpart- I’m not trying to make humans or birds, but sculptures that are to do with ideas of nature or being human.

Do you prefer to make bird sculptures or people? 

There is no preference really. It’s more about what works as a vehicle for my ideas. They are carriers of my thinking. I am attracted to birds because they can defy gravity, and as a sculptor who makes things, it is often trying to deal with gravity – how to make things stand up, that preoccupies me at the start of a work.

Investigating The Winter Watcher at Barnwell Country Park, 2022
Investigating The Winter Watcher, at Barnwell Country Park, 2022

What are your sculptures made of? (people and the birds) James said that you don’t usually tell people, why is that?

The usual answer is mixed media. With these particular works, I almost want the works to be immaterial – that image precedes curiosity as to how they are made. The making is often rather mundane and boring – lots of sanding by hand.

How long do sculptures usually take to make?

I often work of a series of works at the same time, so it might be months, and if there are a group of works that will be shown together, I often do the final stage of painting at the same time on each of them, so that they feel they belong to the same breath, if that makes sense; the same moment of making.

Wood Walker & Women who have incidents with Animals, Denise de Cordova, 2019
Wood Walker & Women who have incidents with Animals, Denise de Cordova, 2019

I have been told you like to go into the woods on your own in Canada, What is it like? What do you like about it? Do you get scared?

I do go to the forests alone, and I am scared,  but that is part of the thrill – that I feel intensely alive, and I think it equates to the fear and adrenaline of making – getting lost, fear of being eaten etc. I call it the materiality of mild fear. Not terror, just enough to keep me alert and engaged with the spaces I walk in.

What is your favourite tree?

Silver birch.

How long have you been an artist?

48 years – since I decided to go to art school.

Wheatear, Goldfinch & Thrush, at Barnwell Country Park - Denise de Cordova. Photo Andy Eathorne
Wheatear, Goldfinch & Thrush, at Barnwell Country Park – Denise de Cordova. Photo Andy Eathorne

What got you in to making art?

I was a very late reader (Dyslexia) and so I relied heavily on the visual world. I loved drawing, images in galleries – I was taken to a lot of museums and sites of interest in France and Spain as a child by my foreign relations. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, as my French and Spanish wasn’t that good, so I would lose myself in the things I was seeing – a painted world of things – Lascaux, religious carvings, Spanish fiesta’s etc.

I often think it was a lie that got into understanding the power of art, and that it could translate the inner world of the imagination into reality.

So, the lie. Aged 4 at Primary School, being asked to draw something about our summer holidays. I drew a girl in a grass skirt from Hawaii. I thought it was really beautiful and mysterious. When Miss Harrop (see – I remember her name) accused me of lying, that I couldn’t possibly have been to Hawaii. I stubbornly insisted I had, and in my head I had.

Do you sell your work?

Yes, sometimes. Not often enough.

How come you use the name Amy Bird rather than your real name?

I only use the name Amy Bird to make certain sculptures- they are ceramic pot like women that are part of an ongoing collection. They are only made on Thursday mornings for 2 and a half hours, when I join a ceramic class.  I like the communal nature of the class- people working together, laughing and the chat. It’s a democratic space, and quite different from the solitary world of my studio, where I am alone with my other work – my carvings and larger modeled sculptures. It gives me the freedom to make things in a certain way without having to justify myself. Lots of writers adopt a nom de plume to think about things in a certain way. Why not artists? I’m thinking of having another name for my embroidered works.

Robin at Barnwell Country Park
Robin at Barnwell Country Park, Kaci, 2022

Whilst we were looking at the sculpture a robin came to see us. I asked the teacher if I could use her camera to take a picture as it was really cute. I liked that as I was walking around the exhibition nature was everywhere.

Kaci and Denise de Cordova.

Read more about our Arts Award activity here.