Sculpting a Career Down Under

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Former Bedford College student Andrew Poppleton is forging an international reputation as a sculptor in Australia since completing a one-year foundation course in art and design in 2002. 

He claims that one of the pearls of wisdom he has taken from his time studying at the college was from tutor Angela Allen who said “‘just do the work’, a piece of advice he took as a way to identify those who were really motivated.

Now aged 37 years old, Andrew lives in Melbourne with his wife Josephine and children Tobias and Jasper aged six and three respectively. 

The Bedford College team have recently got in touch with Andrew where he gave an insight into how he has developed a career in what he began training for in Bedford over ten years ago.

“Our home, and my sculpture studio, is located 100km north of Melbourne and situated within the Victorian Goldfields which, as the name suggests, became popular during the mid 1800’s gold rush era. Much of the rich arts and culture seen today owes provenance to this prosperous time period and is reflected in the many Victorian style buildings.”

After leaving Bedford, Andrew studied Fine Arts at Kingston University, London for three years. 

He commented:

“The final year of my degree was probably the most rewarding. I moved my studio practice into the workshop alongside the various technicians whose skills I was able to glean. All artists in their own right, the technicians had their own studio practices. One of them was newly appointed Sculptor, Richard Trupp, who quickly reignited the university furnace and re-introduced bronze casting.  

I quickly took this opportunity and began to introduce cast bronze into my own work. Richard became somewhat of a mentor to me at this point in my career and helped me to seek out further foundry experience once I completed my studies at university.

After graduating in 2006 I worked at Bronze Age Art Foundry, situated in Limehouse along the Docklands Light Rail. Part of the foundry itself is built beneath the railway arch where trains could be heard passing overhead. It was hot, noisy and dusty but I loved every minute of it. Working there showed me all the processes involved in the ancient method of ‘lost wax’ bronze casting within a commercial art foundry. Over time, I was able to gain a thorough understanding of the variety of different skills involved in the process. 

Then I had the opportunity to take what I learnt with me when I travelled to Australia, taking a position at Meridian Sculpture, Melbourne. 

My decision to move to Australia came somewhat by chance. The requisite skills needed for lost wax casting are becoming increasingly niche. The Head of Metal Work at Bronze Age had been offered a position at Meridian, which had an increased workload at the time. To my good fortune he did not take the position and I put my hand up instead. Four weeks later I was on the plane.

Up until university I had been modelling sculptures in clay, but it was only when I reached university that I cast my first portrait bust in bronze; my first commission. 

Further commission work came not solely because of my arts training, but also due to people seeing my competency with my figurative sculpture. There was an element of fortune with subsequent early commissions, word of mouth and that kind of thing.

Using this, I began actively pursuing commission work more and built myself an online presence to showcase my work. 

I am at the point now in my career where I am spending several months of the year working from my studio at home.

When looking at the income potential for a self-sustaining artist from their practise I am certainly placed at the fortunate end.  I can honestly say I have worked hard to get to where I am but I humbly recognise the importance of the support from people around you. 

The irony is not lost on me that the period of life spent pursuing and progressing in a career often coincides with having children and raising a family. Time management is always a challenge, but as Angela said to me back in Bedford you have to ‘just do the work’. 

Work in progress

Large amounts of my studio time are spent modelling directly in clay to create life-size or even larger than life figures. The clay is modelled over a carefully considered steel armature since the clay itself has little of its own integral strength. Before beginning I gather material such as photographs from which to work. During a studio visit I invite the person to pose for me on a platform that rotates 360 degrees, allowing me to photograph them from all angles. During this process I also take a series of measurements to refer to.

When sculpting a historical figure or a deceased person, the process becomes a matter of research, gathering all the best existing material on the person in question. Thankfully images online helps. The research may also call for historical accuracy; for example, identifying uniforms worn by a particular regiment if the subject had been part of the military.

Most of my commissioned sculptural work follows traditions of figurative sculpture and of casting into bronze using methods that in the main remained unchanged for centuries. The foundry process can only begin once everyone has agreed the clay is finished. As I often say to clients ‘what you see in the clay is what you get in bronze’. 

The transformation of clay to bronze is a process that still remains a bit of a mystery to the public, despite its long history. For many it seems to conjure ideas of primeval alchemy and images of people toiling amongst fire and brimstone. These notions are quite accurate. 

The future

The increasing scarcity of lost wax practitioners and changes to manufacturing such as automation and 3D printing make the future or bronze sculpting difficult to predict. I believe people will continue to see a qualitative difference between machine made and handmade objects though.

Most recently I have a completed a sculpture for Melbourne’s Essendon Football Club of the renowned indigenous AFL footballer, Michael Long. The sculpture stands over life-size in bronze at their club headquarters. Michael was a champion footballer whilst at the club and is also known for his political activism advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

I have also recently completed a sculpture of Dr Hugh Wirth who spent his entire working life with the RSPCA in Australia dedicating his life to the welfare of animals as well as raising awareness of the many issues facing animal welfare in the world today.

Looking ahead to the future I hope to continue my career as a sculptor and further improve on what I have achieved already. There is always something new to learn. Most of my progress has come through stretching out of my comfort zone.  I come face-to-face problems, which I then work through until I come to a solution. With this in mind I anticipate taking on increasingly ambitious projects in the future.”

Today Bedford College offers a range of Art and Design courses including the Arts Practice BTEC HNC or HND which includes elements of sculpture to develop aspiring artists to follow in the footsteps of Andrew.

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