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Getting creative with messy fingers in peaceful spot on Dartmoor

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 24, 2013

  • Sarah Pitt working on her bowl with sculptor Kobi Beck. Pictures: Steven Haywood

  • Mapstone Studio founder Nina Cairns pictured in her Dartmoor home, with some of the sculptures she has made

  • Susan Eckles at work on her dragon

  • Nicola Ravenscroft puts the finishing touches to her filly

  • Hard at work on a female nude

  • The early stages of creating a swan sculpture

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Sarah Pitt joins a sculpture course at Mapstone Studio near Lustleigh on Dartmoor.

"It is a bit like play school – play school for adults," laughs Susan Eckles, as she sits back and surveys her dragon, a masterpiece she's spent several days sculpting from a squidgy substance called Darjit.

I know what she means, having just passed a few relaxing hours in the sunshine in this peaceful spot, smearing this clay-like mixture on to stiff netting I'm turning into a bowl. Sculpting with Darjit is a bit like play school, in a good way.

Sculptor Kobi Beck, who is leading the three-day course at Mapstone Studio near the pretty village of Lustleigh on Dartmoor, has brought her enthusiasm for the material all the way from New Zealand, where as well as sculpting dragons and crocodiles, she created set designs for films, including The Hobbit.

"In my film-set design I have worked with polystyrene, which is instant," she says. "Darjit is a bit like that – all you have to do is let it dry, whereas with clay you've got difficulties, because you've got to fire it."

Darjit, she explains, was invented by fellow New Zealander Brent Sumner, a keen recycler who saw the potential for creating a clay-lookalike using silicone dust left over from china clay mining.

Because it doesn't need firing – the cement ensures it hardens after a few days – you can fashion it into quite large sculptures, supported within by a skeleton-like structure, known as an armature.

Anything goes with Darjit, which is kind of why Kobi likes it.

"You can play," she says to me, as she shows me how to use the palm of the hand to add a crenellated edge to my bowl.

Her favourite tool is a round-ended knife. "I made a whole dragon with that – it was the only tool I needed," she says.

Around me, a number of sculptures are nearing completion, none of them small. There's a naive art-style foal; a female form with generous curves; and, out in the sunshine, a magnificent leopard, his paw draped over the sawhorse which is supporting him.

Nicola Ravenscroft, an artist who is experimenting with sculpture, is creating the foal to provide the centrepiece of her sculpture garden at her new home in Newlyn in West Cornwall. The winsome creature has been months in the planning, with Nicola specially commissioning the steel structure which supports him inside. While we talk, she is adding some more Darjit to her sculpture, which captures the unsteady gait of a colt.

"It is a her, it is a filly," she says. "And I've designed her so that she'll look good in my garden among the palms and tree ferns. She is not meant to be representational, but I want her to have the feel of horse! I'm not going to do an enormous amount more to her, I'm going to keep her quite rough looking.

"I wanted to experiment with this Darjit material because I liked the idea of using something you don't have to fire and doesn't deteriorate. It would be amazing to cast it in bronze, but that costs an awful lot of money. This will have a permanence to it, without having to add another process to it."

Also busy at work is Nina Cairns, the vivacious sculpture lover who lives in this lovely spot. As she works on getting the mouths of her tropical-looking fish just right – she plans to have them startle visitors as a centrepiece in her pond – she tells me how she came to set up her studio.

While Nina, originally from California, is well-versed in the study of sculpture, with a degree in the history of art, she had not actually ever got her fingers messy with clay until she went along to a sculpture session in Exeter 18 months ago.

"It was just after Christmas, the year before last, and I had a 'what am I going to do with my life?' moment. Then I saw the Phoenix Arts Centre was offering this course with sculptor Sarah John and I went along. And it was just like 'yeah, I love this!'"

"It made me want to do more, so I went from that straight on to a course with Luke Shepherd, who teaches portrait sculpture. That was like learning neurosurgery on your first day at medical school, so it really was like diving in at the deep end."

From here grew Nina's idea of setting up her own sculpture studio in her workspace in her garden.

"I go on lots of courses and if I meet someone I think is a great teacher, I ask if they'll come down," she says "I've been really lucky because everyone I've asked has said 'yes please, when can I come?' It has been amazing."

She aims for, and achieves, a relaxed creative environment, which includes a delicious lunch she cooks herself and limitless tea and coffee in the studio. "It is really peaceful here," she says. "We don't bother anybody and nobody bothers us. It has been such fun."

Among the skilled people who have shared their talents over the past year has been animal sculptor Nick Mack from Bratton Clovelly in West Devon.

"She's a terrific teacher, so full of enthusiasm," says Rachel Belgrave, the creator of the leopard at the workshop with Kobi Beck. "She was so knowledgeable about animal anatomy, she'd say things like – 'the ear should go further down here'. I did an African wild dog and someone else did a rhino."

Rachel, who lives at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, is a regular on Nina's courses. "It is wonderful for us, as local people, to have Nina's place to come to."

Some of the courses are seriously ambitious, like the forthcoming ten-day workshop with Lynn Brankojevicz, who will show people how to create nude human figures with anatomical accuracy. She is teaching at Mapstone Studios from September 2-13, with a few places left, at £925.

At the other end of the scale, Nina runs regular "clay group" sessions for £20 per head for two days, where she hires a life model for participants to sketch or sculpt.

"I will invite everyone on my list to come along and we just hire a model and go for it," says Nina. "For clay group, people bring their own clay or wax, I don't provide any tools, but for the workshops we include all that in the price and lunch.

"I find when I've gone to workshops elsewhere and I have to figure out about lunch, then it just becomes a drag. And it is nice to bond over the table. We are in the middle of nowhere, in any case, so you can't just nip to a cafe!"

And Nina is such an amazing cook, if the lunch I sample is anything to go by. No wonder those sculptors keep coming back for more.

Mapstone Studio is at Middle Coombe, Lustleigh, TQ13 9SE. Visit mapstonestudio.com (website under construction) or contact Nina Cairns at nina@mapstonestudio.com or on 01647 277432 for information on forthcoming courses.

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