Bridget McCrum: A Life in the Making – Messums Wiltshire – Nico Kos-Earle

Bridget McCrum - A Life in the Making - Messums Wiltshire

The first time I saw the sculptor, Bridget McCrum, she was holding a blow torch in her left hand, which followed her right, as she painted chloride mixture onto the crescent-shaped breast of a large bronze. The space was vast, the light flat, and the sound deafening. By contrast, her movement around the work, Crescent Birds, was fluid and light-footed. Her figure was obscured behind goggles with tempered lenses, gloves and a protective apron. I had no idea she was 85 years old.

“I have to use my hands, feel my sculptures, to see that they feel right.” -BM

The next time I saw Bridget, she was sitting in the shade of a young chestnut tree outside the burnishing station of Lockbund Studio Foundry in Cropredy. Hands folded loosely on her lap, she watched motionless as an assistant moved around her work, distressing the underbelly of a bronze with cupric nitrate to create her distinctive seafoam patina.

Dressed in loose double denim, hair partially up in a bun, she occasionally lifted an arm to point at an area that needed more attention. Instantly recognisable but smaller in scale, Crescent Birds (Maquette) was being completed for her solo show at Messums Wiltshire: Bridget McCrum’s A Life in the Making. A retrospective view of works dating from 1995 through the present offers us the chance to see previously unseen works and trace the relationship between her drawing and sculpture practice.

Bridget McCrum - A Life in the Making - Messums Wiltshire
Bridget McCrum – A Life in the Making – Messums Wiltshire

Foundry owner, and fellow sculptor, Simon Allison appeared from his studio with a chair and placed it next to Bridget for me. Reminding us of our last encounter, she smiles. “Now I am 89, I am not sure how many more exhibitions I will have,” she says, getting the question of age out of the way. I am silenced in admiration. A childhood friend and associate of Elisabeth Frink (whose Woodland Studio is now housed within Messums Wiltshire), they shared a preoccupation with expressing something essential through animal form, particularly the bird. Yet, Bridget’s artistic trajectory was wildly different, and her carvings in marble and stone are more lyrical and rhythmic as if sculpted by the wind or excavated after millennia.

Born in 1934, Bridget studied at Farnham College of Art under the painter Lesjek Musjynski, “I had always wanted to carve and work with stone since a very young age, but the medium was not the most important. Art college teaches you how to think.” After art school, she married naval officer Bobby McCrum and put her career aside to raise a family. They began their married life in Malta and travelled to many sites from different cultures around the Mediterranean. “I especially love the desert. It is beautiful, but it’s dangerous. For things to be beautiful, they must have an edge, a dark side.”

When she returned to her practice in her forties, she found her edge in sculpture. In 1980 she began to work primarily in stone, studying under John Joekes and Andrea Schulewitz. It was hard work, hammer, chisel, and drill, not an obvious choice for a woman, but the Making of her forged her longevity whilst giving her tools to fully develop her vision. Whilst this story seems rare in the commercial art world, it is not usual – think of Sue Hubbard’s recent literary success. Yet this remarkable metamorphosis or second half of life often remains unseen. Whilst this is slowly being redressed with initiatives like the Mother Art Prize, most women (like myself) still have to choose daily between fulfilling their own lives or nurturing others (children, parents, ill partners). We are all on the edge.

Bridget McCrum - A Life in the Making - Messums Wiltshire
Bridget McCrum – A Life in the Making – Messums Wiltshire

Notably, her decision to begin again has everything to do with how she sees the world. Literally. More remarkable than her a-typical timeline is that Bridget is blind in one eye. “Having been blind in one eye since birth, it’s quite difficult to get lines absolutely accurate. With two-dimensional sight, you just put the pencil down slightly in the wrong place, so I always have to move it.”

One might say her perception of the third dimension derives from touch, feeling her way around things, matching the form at her fingertips to her inner vision. “I am probably looking for the essence because I like minimalising things.” The power of Bridget’s work lies in her ability to express something essential about perception, both in how the mind turns a few lines into a complete image and how our senses collaborate to produce what we see. As the tool shapes the stone, it shapes the mind. For this, there is something universal, primal even, about her practice, on a continuum with sculptors across millennia who work with tools to chip, shape and reveal lasting forms.

Initially influenced by archaeological finds and the work of Brancusi, Hepworth and Moore, Bridget found her line in the Making of works, which led to a cohesive and inimitable body of work. “When you first start sculpting, everybody tells you that you’ve got to get a moment of stillness between movement, and I thought ‘, No, why? I’m going to make birds, and they can fly!” Then the chance to work on archaeological surveys during the 80s changed everything. “A little pebble that I saw in a museum in Algiers had been picked up by a Berber, it had been tumbled in a river, and it looked like a sheep – so he just carved a horn in it. That changed my sculpture; I don’t want any lines that join upcoming inwards; I just did curves with lines appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing again.”

Another monumental bronze Meridian, initially commissioned by Rolls Royce, rested on a palette under the foundry arches. Tracing the outline of a bird seen in perpendicular flight – its monumental wingspan forms a vertical column, dissected by its lean body. “If you see a bird on its side like this, illuminated by the sun, it looks like a cross in the sky,” she says as if to echo my feelings of reverence for the form, so minimal but true. I notice how the light travels in a fluid line from the bird’s underbelly up and down each wing, where Bridget has created a flat edge. “I have seen a seagull do that once,” I say, “it was stunning.” “Yes,” she replies, “Birds make good abstract shapes; I never tire of looking at them. They are also very aggressive.”

Birds are her primary subject in sculpture and drawing, but they are not necessarily drawn from life. Frequently, they are inspired by artefacts – in particular axes. “When I look at them in museums, they look like birds.” We see the shape of an axe head in Mesopotamia, 2017 or Stymphalian Birds, 2008, and the outline of a scythe in Arboreal 2016 and Ucello. Emblematic of all that is beauty and edge, the shapes she creates are also suggestive of the tools she uses.

After working primarily in stone, Bridget began collaborating with Lockbund Sculpture Foundry (established by Simon Allison in 1993), creating plaster versions from her stone works, which offer a starting point to create new work, which is then cast in bronze. In this retrospective, we find the full panoply of works carved in Carrera marble and Kilkenny Limestone or cast in bronze and a complimentary selection of works on paper. Her works are elemental, compact with potential like a shadow travelling across the ground in the midday sun. Birds are described in sweeping arcs and curves: beaks reaching for the sky, necks elongated to totemic heights, wings enfolded like hearts, profiles that turn on a knife edge. Regardless of medium, Bridget retains the bare minimum of lines to signal the avian form. Her drawings are sparse but dynamic, air rushing between the blank space of wing beats.

“Because I was so lucky to travel in the Middle East, I have always appreciated a line from the Koran that ‘Only Allah can make something perfect’. Therefore, anything else should have imperfections.” We imagine Bridget standing in an open field, tracking a bird in flight with one eye. As it vanishes, her mind retains its essence; then, her hand traces this from memory to lyrical abstraction. And so, a fleeting moment is translated into stone. Often, she completes a sculpture with a drawing. “These shapes on the wing are based on a little bird I saw in a museum in Palmira – with a scribbled wing on it – used that wing so often.” Just as a drawing inspires a sculpture in this artist’s mind, she finishes the work with these “scribbles”. In this repetition, she acknowledges that there are many forms in one form, but like a scream of swifts that coalesce to a single entity in flight, every state will eventually break apart.

Aerodynamic and curvilinear, her pieces look like the elements have carved them. They call to mind dunes shaped by the wind. “The landscape around my two homes has inevitably worked into my mind. The gentle curves of the hills of South Devon and the stark limestone cliffs carved by wind and sea on Gozo have subconsciously influenced me. But it was in the desert, on the road between Khartoum and Cairo, that I saw what I could do. Huge stones that must have been there for millennia. One had a bird carved into its side, almost like graffiti, but also like it had just landed there.”

Unlike her drawings, there is something landed about Bridget’s sculptures, not only for suggesting weathered landscapes but for how she unites the body with base. As if her imagination perceives both things as a single entity – the rock and what has landed there –her subjects are always integrated with a base. But rather than ground them, this element serves as a jumping-off point, both for the bird that might take flight and the viewer anticipating movement. Her work has freedom and pathos – an awareness that nothing lasts forever. Even these stones will eventually turn to sand.

We sense she is working on a vast timeline, making forms that will still exist in millennia, like the stones along the road from Khartoum to Cairo. “Things tell you what to do as you go on,” Bridget says, then pauses. “I have to use my hands, feel my sculptures, to see that they feel right.”. So many gems of wisdom; I imagine carving her observations onto tablets and leaving them in a forest. They give me hope that the best things we make will outlast everything else.

Bridget McCrum – A Life in the Making – Messums Wiltshire 17 June – 31 July 2023

Words/Photos: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2023

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EXHIBITION: Bridget McCrum ‘A Life in the Making’