Nicola Ravenscroft A graduate of Camberwell School of Art, she has owned and run a sculpture gallery and, as an art teacher, has nurtured many young people into celebrating their inherent creativity and thinking beyond the walls.
Nicola has recently been commissioned to create a memorial to honour the bravery of front-line NHS and care workers in the fight against Covid. Nic Careem, who proposed and directs the project, has set up a committee including MPs and Peers to oversee the project and raise funds. The project has the backing of Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock and members of the public are currently being asked to propose a fitting name for the memorial.
Nicola says she is ‘deeply honoured to be commissioned by the anti-poverty campaigner/visionary Nic Careem, parliamentarians Dean Russell MP and Lord Rami Ranger, co-chairs of The NHS & Social Care Memorial Committee to create a new bronze sculpture in gratitude to our precious NHS, and in enduring memory of those who, on the COVID front line, “gave their love for those in life: their sleep is not in vain”.’
Her sculpture installation ‘With the Heart of a Child’ was part of a project exploring what the arts, in transdisciplinary learning spaces, can contribute to primary education. Her work has consistently inspired musicians, including her husband saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft and, most recently, Tim Watts, assistant director of music at St. John’s College Cambridge, who is composing a piece in response to bas sculpture reliefs on paper titled ‘Among the Words of Trees’.
Sculpture, words and song are each ways of communicating a message and connecting with others. She seeks to harness and record the ephemeral essences of life in words and music, graphite, clay and bronze, producing songs and sculpture that explore the depth and spark of being alive, that carve meaning into space, and thereby make a difference to her audience. Her work invites us to pause, to feel … and to respond.
She says: ‘For me, the inherent joy of being a sculptor lies in three life giving experiences: first, in the moment of conception, second, in the deep fulfillment that comes from the journey of creating something meaningful, something beautiful, and third, in the reaction and heart response to the piece from the audience.’
JE: How did the commission to design a memorial to NHS workers and care workers come about?
NR: Underlying my practice – sculpture, drawing, songwriting – is a heartfelt longing for peace; ‘bringing people together by way of a shared conversation’. The conversation is the recognising of our ‘oneness,’ our interconnectedness with Earth, the universe and each other. We are all made of spirit, love and stardust.
A quiet activist, I was invited last year to design and start work on a life-size bronze commission of Anne Frank (and friend), a gentle, modern sculpture of two children. I have titled this work, ‘Tender Poetic Friendship’, and it is scheduled to be unveiled at some point in Westminster. However, COVID has temporarily disrupted progress and ‘Tender Poetic Friendship’ is currently shelved for later.
Meanwhile, Westminster visionary Nic Careem invited me to come up with ideas for a memorial to NHS and care workers. Nic has previously worked on memorials for Nelson Mandela and Anne Frank. He has also involved Dean Russell MP who has secured the backing of Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock. The 13ft bronze sculpture will honour all NHS and social care heroes who died in the battle against Covid, with names recorded in a very beautiful book of remembrance.
JE: In reflecting on the sacrifices made by NHS and care workers, what impacted you most in your thinking about the memorial design?
NR: I remember that the first emotion I felt when invited to come up with a concept, was one of deep sadness. I mused on the sacrificial hearts of so many, courageous, innocent, and now silent. I kept returning in my mind to the tomb of the unknown warrior and a fiery gratitude began to grow in my heart. I knew that I must give LIFE to something that not only honoured those on the front line who sacrificed their futures to save the lives of others, but that simultaneously, and in ongoing gratitude and hope, celebrated this truth. I wanted their collective sacrifice to live singing into our future; a new life, their new life.
JE: Can you talk us through the elements in the design, the two trees, their root structure, the catkins in their branches, and the two figures at their base.
NR: I have written lyrics for this:
bronze and earth / and stone / and gratitude: / a musical instrument / two trees / and a song ..
this sculpture is alive / wind .. / singing catkins curling softly in the branches
whispering living memories, / the breath / the love of those who breathed their life into our future:
tender symbolism .. / two trees / touching/delicate as one, / soaring gracefully beyond the sky
to Heaven / victorious and brave: / leaves .. / forged in love / and molten burning bronze /
refining fire / and prayer, / sunlight-scintillating / breathing air / and rain and / shining
gently holding tears: roots .. / interwinding long / and deep earth-holding firm / pathfinding-future:
and then .. / two children / in simple-dappled shade / and light / and small and slender-sweet,
and laughing / on tomorrow’s fragile edge: / our Earth .. / granite-igneous and young
and agéd ocean-smooth, / now holds your song / the stories, / air .. / your breath:
you gave your love for those in life /your sleep is not in vain ..
JE: You have said that ‘sculptures become living experiences, installations singing in space’. The sculpture you have designed is called ‘Breath’ because you intend, through the interaction of the wind and the catkins, for this to be a ‘living breathing sculpture’. What are the resonances for you in that title in this context?
NR: Many years ago I studied Ancient Greek: the word for breath is ‘pneuma’; this same word is also the word for ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’. I remember breathing this word into my deep memory, knowing it held more than the sum of its parts. For me the word ‘breath’ means hope, creation, love, and in songwriting, ‘breath’ gives life.
JE: You are recording a song as part of this project. How does that link in and complement your sculpture? Are there other ways in which music and art might mingle in your work?
NR: The song ‘Lion Lain on Stone’ is dedicated to all whose hearts are touched by the battle-death of a loved one. COVID is the unseen enemy and we are all on the battle field: but, this time we are not lining up, weapons sharp, one against the other to the death. Instead we have come together on the same side, to fight for life. ‘Lion Lain on Stone’ is a song of gratitude and hope, of strength in weakness, and life in death. It is a song for eternity. I hope my sculpture ‘Breath’ will stand for the same.
I am currently collaborating on a ground-breaking sculpture and music installation with Tim Watts, assistant director of music at St. John’s College Cambridge. Tim is composing a piece of music in twenty four movements to accompany a folio of 24 of my fine bas sculpture reliefs on paper, titled ‘Among the Words of Trees’. This new work is a beautiful journey, and as with any good ‘jam session’, our collaboration consistently offers up more and wider and deeper messages and interpretations.
For me, working with musicians is inspiring and exciting, giving wings to words, to art: it’s deeply healing. We are all singing together in our different voices.
JE: You have said that ‘Sculpture, Music, Architecture and Song, all share a spacial quality. These communicative art forms carve meaning into space: they attract participation and engagement’. How can those interested in the memorial, participate, both now and in the future?
NR: Sculpture, by its very nature, reaches out to us, like music. It has an energy, a presence, a silent frequency. We can actually ‘meet’ a sculpture: it draws us close, inviting us in, to walk around it, to feel, to contemplate and to respond. My hope is that this memorial will touch hearts in small ways, with great love in many ways, and for always.
JE: Your installation ‘With the Heart of a Child’ also invites participation, and has been seen and appreciated in the context of schools and educational research. Can you tell us more about that project, and its reception?
NR: ‘With the Heart of a Child’ is a sculpture installation comprising seven life-size bronze children; eco-earthling-warrior-mudcubs:
seven life-size bronze children / one from every continent on Earth / simply dressed in soft silk tulle
hesitate in time, / leaning forward, hopeful, / poised to dive, /
eyes closed, dreaming into their future, / anticipating things unseen:
a little child shall lead / trusting feet, plump and bare,
remind us of our duty of care / to life, to love, to planet Earth
they stand together, peacefully, as friends, / vulnerable and strong, /
silently singing out to us / their call to change.
Shortly after its unveiling in 2016 in Churchill College Cambridge, the bronze sculpture installation ‘WITH the HEART of a CHILD’ was installed in The University of Cambridge Primary School, a part of Cambridge University. It remained there for two terms, an arts-based research tool, inspiring new ways of thinking about teaching and learning, for both children and teachers, and prompting the urge to seek answers to questions. These included questions about the arts, about how the arts contribute to learning in other domains of experience, about how teachers use art to develop new creative possibilities, and essentially, about how children enact their agency to strive for their personal and collective very best in all their learning.
With the little bronze children as peaceful provocateurs, children were challenged to give open ended answers to complex questions about themselves, their school and their Earth.
JE: What is your aim for ‘With the Heart of a Child’, and how do you see the project developing in the future?
NR: ‘With the Heart of a Child’ invites creative, new possibility thinking. The little eco-earthling-warriors, ‘mudcubs’, provoke us to reflect deeply about the future, to highlight our collective responsibility, to inspire our sense of purpose, our hopes, and to wonder at the possibilities that arise when humanity works together for the ‘betterment of all’.
They are little ‘mudcubs’, every one an artist, with hope-filled, mischievous personalities, hearts and hands that help. I should like to see them in twos and threes in every nation on Earth holding us all together in ‘oneness’, and inspiring us to do whatever it takes to find solutions to avert Earth’s climate catastrophe.
JE: In all your work, which includes portrait sculpture, you aim to ‘harness the ephemeral essence of your subject’. How do you, as an artist, identify essence and work with it?
NR: The inherent nature, the ‘being’, the spirit individual to anything, the life-spark.
My greatest influence is the extraordinary and brilliant sculptor, Dame Elisabeth Frink. I say extraordinary, as her work hangs in the present with a restlessness, a life force from within, that pushes with energy constantly about to burst through into the future, taking the viewer with it. I find this exciting, inspiring and alive. Frink captures the essence of her subject with an urgency that transcends the frigid. It holds emotion.
I’m with her in this. I feel essence as the subtle ‘being’ of a person, a place, a tree – nature, the wind, the sea, sky – when I open my heart essence works with me, rather than the other way around.
JE: You have spoken of the ‘still silent presence that a sculpture offers up’ as being ‘mysterious, other worldly almost’. Can you say more about this aspect of sculpture for you, both as artist, and for those who view the work?
NR: This is a profoundly feeling thing. It’s like a prayer, a prayer embracing the artist, the sculpture and the audience, a new creation, fluidity. It touches on essence, mystery and love. I have no words for it.
JE: You view the practice of sculpture as involving life giving experiences, and have said that ‘it is our responsibility as citizens of the earth, to use wisely our infinite fountain of creativity’. We have ‘the ability to respond,’ we have ‘flexible imaginations,’ ‘now we must love’. How might art and your installations inspire love?
NR: ‘Contemplation’, writes John Drury in ‘Angels and Dirt’, ‘is something like a calling of things out of chaos into distinct being … we are passive, in that we let things speak to us in their own way, active, in that by doing so, we call them into the light, and into individual existence’.
My installations are contemplations, silent, tender pleadings: they plead for you, for me, for us all to work together: they cry out for us to recognise the loving signature connecting us all – the Divine – in nature, in human diversity, in the universe, and in the heart of a little child.
I trust that in this beautiful and powerful realisation, we can imagine, create and achieve in ‘oneness’, that which we can’t achieve alone.