Wednesday 28 January 2015

Jessica Sturgess and art for heart's sake

Jessica Sturgess's first exhibition is nothing less than a love letter to her man, the world-famous sculptor Barry Flanagan, who died shockingly young and shockingly quickly. Emily Hourican spoke to her

Published 04/02/2013 | 06:00

WHAT is it that pushes us across the invisible line that separates thinking from doing? Where does the impulse to create, that finally dominates inhibition, come from? Often, it is the need to express joy or delight; more often again, it is a need to express pain.

For Jessica Sturgess, it was love, and the act of missing; a physical yearning for the man with whom she had lived for seven years, who had been a friend and mentor for over 10 before that, that caused her to model his face in clay in the months after his death. "I decided to make a portrait of him from memory, because I missed him. I was trying in some way to bring him back, or express how he had been," she tells me in a deep, resonant voice, hands gesturing with delicate expression, as we sit, surrounded by her joyful, slightly madcap sculptures, on the second floor of the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin. "It just went on from there, so it was a lovely start." She's now 53, and this is her first exhibition. It's a tangible love letter to the man she misses, Barry Flanagan.

Inventive, charismatic, a much-lauded sculptor, Barry's giant bronze hares can be seen, in all their exuberant hilarity, in the Victoria Plaza Hotel in London, the Equitable Life Tower in Manhattan and Washington university in St Louis, as well as at IMMA in Dublin, and galleries throughout the world. Radical and versatile, he was hugely successful both commercially and critically, leaving an estate worth some €14m; an eccentric, charming man without pretension or arrogance, who, although Welsh by birth, took Irish citizenship and lived here for a large portion of his life.

He died in 2009 of motor neurone disease, aged 68, with just six shocking, short months, between his diagnosis and death. His passing put an end to the many plans he and Jessica had made – "We were going to set up a studio in Italy, near Pietrasanta. We had a camper van, with another caravan parked there and a studio which was an enormous garage" – but the impetus of grief and loss were what finally pushed Jessica into fully exploring her emotions, something she had long wanted to do.

"I always wanted to be able to express myself like that. When I lived in India, I drew a cartoon diary every day, just little stick figures, capturing the scene and the place, a story with a thread running through. It was fun, I still have those. But I always wanted to be able to make a living through something to do with my hands. Through Barry, I found the reason to do it. The desire was always there; his death gave me a reason."

Jessica met Barry on Ibiza, the magical island where both of them lived, where Jessica still lives. She was running a small bar; Barry, by then already a world-famous sculptor, came in one day, and after some conversation asked her to go with him to Madrid where he had an exhibition and several days of teaching, in order to translate for him. That was in 1990, and for both of them, the beginning of something definitive, even though both were at the time with other people.

"I always loved Barry. I always felt very protective of him. I think I fell in love with him on seeing him," Jessica tells me. "He would always find where I was working – I moved on to other restaurants, and kitchens, and lots of jobs – he would come in, just appear out of nowhere. But it was only many years later, after he had long separated from his wife, that we were together." For 12 years, Jessica was Barry's assistant and protege, but love was there too.

"We always had this deep friendship, and then it was time to get together. It was great. We both knew it was time; I had separated, he had separated. And we had a great life together for those years. He showed me London and Amsterdam, we went to New York, all these places I had never been to."

In return, Jessica showed Barry India, where she lived for 11 years.

Hers has been a seeking sort of life, dominated, I think, by spiritual quest; by the searching out of meaning beyond the mundane and understanding beyond the ordinary. The daughter of a British foreign office official, Jessica was born in Budapest and grew up in Spain. In 1979, when she was just 19, she travelled to India, to sit at the feet of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, a controversial figure who believed in the Human Potential Movement and advocated the exploration of violence in therapy and an open attitude towards sexuality.

To some, he was a charlatan whose large collection of Rolls-Royces negated any spiritual message he had to offer, and highly critical accounts of the permissiveness of the various therapies on offer at his ashram have been written. In 1985, he was deported from the United States, where he had founded a huge commune in Oregon, which ran into serious disputes over land with local residents and eventually launched a bio-terror attack in the form of food contamination.

However, Jessica simply recalls him as "a lovely man. There was a great big gathering of foreigners there, a lot of fun to be had." After two years, when Osho left to begin his mission in the US, Jessica stayed. "I had a partner at the time, we went into all sorts of adventures," she reminisces. "We had a strawberry farm. Later, we were baking and selling pizzas to the foreigners as they came to Goa. We had a truck and went all the way round to the eastern sea below Calcutta. Travelling in your own moving home is a wonderful experience; you stop in the jungle, wherever you want. But then my brother wrote a letter saying, 'I think you should come back, it's time to come home.' He had settled in Ibiza and his children were in school. So that's how I turned up in Ibiza."

Barry's path to Ibiza was more direct; he was married twice before meeting Jessica, and had two children from each marriage. Two of those children were living, with their mother, on Ibiza, and Barry wanted to be near them. "He came to Ibiza because his children had been born there," explains Jessica. "He loved it, the climate was great and it wasn't too far from the foundry in London. His children lived with their mother, but he was always there for them."

Initially, Jessica had no idea of the extent of the regard in which Barry was held by the art world. "We all knew on Ibiza that he was a sculptor, but I didn't know anything about his work until I went with him to Madrid to translate," she tells me. "I went to his exhibition there, and just smiled my way through it. Bit by bit, he showed me his world. He didn't brag about being a sculptor, and a lot of people on Ibiza didn't really realise. They knew him, not his reputation."

In fact, Barry donated one of his horse sculptures to the town hall in Santa Eulalia, the village close to where he and Jessica lived; "it was only after he died, when they read in the papers that he was a world-famous sculptor, that they realised what they had," she laughs. "They went to the square and touched the horse, and realised they could simply lift it up, right out of the ground. So now it is firmly fixed, its feet in the ground.

"We were together only seven years. It was too short. That was the hardest thing. Between diagnosis and death was only six months." What were the first signs that all was not right? "We happened to be arm-in-arm in Soho one day, and he tripped. It was nothing to do with the pavement, so we were quite surprised. Then he didn't like walking upstairs, and started to prefer taking a taxi. Then he started losing his voice. Waiters would ask me, 'What did he say?' which would annoy him. His voice got softer and softer. He went to a doctor, had a check-up, but nobody found anything." Eventually, a man in a health food shop listened to the list of symptoms, and suggested a visit to a neurosurgeon, where diagnosis was immediately made.

"Motor neurone disease can last for years," says Jessica, "but Barry knew it would happen fast. I didn't. Right up until the last minute, when you're with someone who's ill, you think they're going to get better..." she pauses, lost in hard thoughts, then continues: "Thank goodness it wasn't a bad death. I was there beside him, he wasn't gasping for breath. It was not terrible in that way. He had a small stroke and then, I was holding his hand, his youngest daughter came in right at the end. There was no pain, we were saying, 'Don't worry, we're there with you.' He really was flying, he was well able to go into death."

The kindness of that death is still a great relief; "struggling and fear are awful to watch. The soul can take a couple of days to leave, if the death has been reluctant. In other deaths, the soul just goes, straight away. With Barry, it was like that." And does she believe that there is a place for the soul to go? "For sure. I'm sure of it, I think that soul literally leaves the body, you can feel it leave, and fly and be free."

Too often, where there has been more than one relationship, death can be divisive, pitting one against another in an attempt to establish a hierarchy of grief. It is huge testimony to Barry's personality and breadth of care that this was not the case.

"We lost him together," says Jessica, of all those who have cause to mourn his passing.

"I have known the children since they were kids. We all get on very well, and we have all had to grieve together. It is wonderful that we are all close."

The destiny that brought Jessica and Barry together opened the door to her creative expression with a kind of crash course.

"When Barry introduced me first into the art world, I thought, 'Wow, so this is where we all meet spiritually!' It reaches something else, it's not just eating, drinking and being merry. This represents the spiritual part of humanity."

Barry encouraged her to draw – "he always insisted that I draw quite a lot, he said it was very important because drawing was part of the thing" – and she learned the basics of the trade. "I used to keep Barry's clay, make sure it was moist, and he taught me about waxing some of his stuff for transport. Just being around him, I learned.

"Barry spent a lot of time doing little pinch-pot bowls and ceramics, so I knew how to cook them."

And so when he was taken from her, Jessica was left with the tools to begin her own work. The imprint on the clay of her life that he made has been cast and fired.

Looking around at the sculptures and ceramics she has created, their genesis is very obvious. There is a humour and a joy in her work, a lack of pomposity, with shapes that are gentle, generous and comic, just as Barry's were, but entirely her own.

The quest that took Jessica to India, then back to Ibiza, has finally been answered. The confidence that Barry gave her, the way in which he pushed her to express what was inside her, has answered the questions her life was asking, and the answers, as always, lay within.

And so, despite the loss of great love, Jessica is filled with purpose and joy. "These are the first steps anyway; I don't know where else it is going to lead.

"But I am enthusiastic when I look forward. I am over the moon, very happy about this."

Jessica Sturgess Recent Works runs until February 28 at the Oliver Sears Gallery.

Irish Independent

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