ARTIST CAPTURES THE ESSENCE OF LIVING CREATURES IN METAL AGAINST A LUSH BACKDROP
A small herd of skeletal deer graze a lush green pasture in the lee of a hill. The male stands erect, surveying the land, alert for signs of danger. Two does graze by his side, two hinds stand proud. It is a moment in nature, frozen in time and steel.
These magnificent creatures are the work of artist Andy Kay. For 10 years, he has been conjuring up what have been described as charcoal sketches in steel. His inspiration comes from the living creatures encountered on walks in the Cumbrian countryside.
Inside his workshop in Kirkby Lonsdale parts of incomplete sculptures hang from the ceiling. The spine of a young doe and the yoke that links the front or back legs of a stag both await completion by their creator. Altogether, more than 80 steel components will eventually be joined together to form the outline of a life-sized animal.
Andy’s creations include hares, pheasants, stallions, badgers and sheep. Every piece is crafted by hand. All are the result of his quiet observation of the nature surrounding his workshop. In contrast, the act of making them is full of noise, heat and light as he bends and welds steel rods together.
Simplicity of design
Born 40 miles away in Penrith, Andy studied for a BA in Design at what was then Leeds Polytechnic. “Art and design were the only things I was ever any good at. I was always whittling sticks and I remember carving a lion out of a bar of soap when I was seven years old. I did it with a little penknife and gave it to my mum,” he says.
Travelling abroad after his course finished, he developed a love of simple design. “I like the pureness. It is minimal, functional and unadorned,” he says. “This is what appeals to me. The style suits steel as you can make simple structures quickly.”
Settling back in his native Cumbria in 1993, he set up his workshop. He started creating a variety of different sculptures, and then two things happened. He was commissioned to make a steel and glass spire for a Manchester textile magnate. The money this brought in gave him time to concentrate on his interest in animals.
At that time he was seeking to develop his own style. Then a friend’s parents asked for a steel deer that looked like a charcoal sketch. While making this, he realised he had discovered his niche, incorporating his love of nature with sculpture. “That’s where it all started,” he says. “We advertised and the commissions came rolling in. It was a total surprise.”
Creating a template
With views over to the Lakeland fells, Andy’s 19 x 23ft (12 x 7m) workshop is light and airy. One side is open to the elements. Another wall is full of tools, a pile of steel and a large saw to cut it. Two large hydraulic presses sit in either corner and there are two hydraulic trolleys used as welding tables.
Here, work starts with the making of a master copy of an animal. This will be used as a template for future sculptures. These master copies form a metal zoo outside the workshop, until needed.
The process is slow and exacting. The first step is to paint a life-sized freehand sketch of the animal with a spray can onto a board. For the red deer stag, Andy finds skeletal images, as it is the skeleton he wants to depict. Before getting to work, he uses photographs to decide on the pose. It is essential that his model captures the majesty and movement of the stag.
It can take as little as 15 minutes to get the sketch right, wiping it with his sleeve if it is not quite correct. Occasionally he draws a grid to ensure the dimensions are just right, but mainly he goes by eye. “The important thing is to get the musculature right,” he says. “I do the sketch, then walk away and look and look again. It’s very easy to get it wrong. I want to capture the moment that gives it life. I’m passionate about animals and it’s important for me to get it just right. I get real pleasure from that. It can’t be just anatomically correct but has to have a sense of life as well. I love to see the real animals and I am making a different representation of them. That’s what motivates me.”
Once he is happy with the drawing, he measures each line and curve. These measurements form the blueprint for the steel pieces of the master copy. Welded carefully together, these create a stag just under 9ft (2.7m) high to the antlers, by 6½ft (2m) long.
The measurements are also copied into in his design book. Here every length is carefully numbered to correspond with the original. When a commission arrives for a stag, this master sculpture is brought into the workshop where it is used as a three-dimensional template, in conjunction with the design book.
Every month 100 20ft (6m) lengths of 16mm sq steel are delivered to the workshop from a company in Carlisle. A stag is made up of 83 lengths of steel in total. The head and antlers are formed from 34 pieces with another six to seven large pieces sweeping to form the neck. Each is worked individually, with it taking up to two weeks to make the complete sculpture.
Every piece is cut and numbered with a white chalk pencil to match the master copy. Then they are slowly bent on a press to get exactly the right curve as the original sculpture. Andy constantly checks the curve against the original and will only accept a 5mm difference. “A subtle touch works best, particularly with long pieces needing a shallow curve,” he says.
“Some pieces, such as the front yoke of the stag, can be tricky. All the pieces have to be bent by the presses and it’s all done by hand. This means that each piece is ever so slightly different, particularly when it comes to the welding as the shape can change slightly.”
He works on most of the animals himself but also has a team of six part-time staff. These include his wife Anneley. Two years ago, she gave up her job as a lawyer to learn the craft and join him in the workshop.
The team use two electric six-horsepower hydraulic presses to keep up with demand. One is a Horace Green & Co Ltd pre-war press from Keighley, West Yorkshire. “It’s a slower speed and has more force than my other press,” says Andy. “I got it from a company that used to make mining equipment for the pits. They said, ‘It’s £100 and the packet of cigarettes you’ve got in your pocket.’ Deal done! The other press cost more than £3,000, which was the right value.”
As the stag takes shape, he continues to refer to the master version, checking every bend, twist and curve is just right. “You are turning it through 90 degrees and then another 90 degrees. You have to constantly think about the animal’s anatomy and hold it up to the master,” he says. He works until he is happy the pieces are in the right place, and the right nuance has been captured.
“It’s all about giving the animal life, capturing that moment, the pride of the stag,” he says. Next he tack hinges the pieces together. Also known as stitch welding, this still allows him to move all the pieces by hand. If he feels a leg or an antler needs to be moved by a few millimetres to ensure it is as close to the master copy as possible, he can do this.
All the measurements are then checked again before welding starts. “Errors compound so it’s essential all the basics are right at this stage,” says Andy. “You have to keep walking away and look at the structure and keep looking at it afresh. Sometimes it’s just a matter of moving part of the leg a couple of millimetres one way or the other. If that’s wrong then the next piece will be wrong too. You can’t rush it, but you have to do this before welding because then it can’t be undone. It can’t be hurried, particularly the first time you create an animal.”
He starts on the back left leg of the stag, then moves on to the right. Next he attaches the yoke to link them to form a solid structure for the rest of the sculpture. Then the body is built up, the head and antlers being attached last. Often it is the small things that take the most time. Andy has to get the bottom of the stag’s jaw bone just right. “It’s that which gives the animal its proud and alert look. If it’s too low, it gives the stag a hangdog expression.”
The welding is a hazardous occupation. “I’m always burning my skin,” he says, despite wearing a welding visor and protective gauntlets. “You weld at 1000°C. It gets extremely hot, particularly in summer. You can end up wearing a cotton T-shirt and burning your arms!”
The final process is to rub off the chalked numbers on each piece of steel. He then attaches a small bronze plaque with his signature and website address to the sculpture. It is now ready for despatching to its new owner.
Often there will be up to four people in the workshop, all working on one animal. At other times they work on individual projects, depending on the workload. Andy is always devising new designs to add to his menagerie. The latest is a Swaledale sheep. The animal’s lack of obvious musculature meant it took a long time to get right. The effort was worth it, however. “My neighbour, a farmer, came by and said, ‘You’ve really got the horns right’. He wanted to buy one, that was real praise!”
Usually the sculptures are life-sized. Once he was commissioned to make two hares, however, and he decided to play around with the size. The finished creatures were 6ft (1.8m) high. “I don’t think the client had looked at the dimensions,” he says. “She rang to say she was surprised, and also delighted.”
Despite a decade of creating the animals, Andy still has his disasters. His sculpture of his black Labrador, Duke, looked more like a bull mastiff, he says. He also goes back to his book from time to time to improve his designs. One example of this is a new pheasant sculpture. This, he says, is much better than the original, as it is more simplistic with fewer pieces. The one animal he has yet to make to his satisfaction is a pig. Again this is down to poorly defined musculature. “Wild boar are fine, though, as their bodies have more of a structure,” he says.
Labour of love
His passion for Cumbria and its animals is deep in him, and is something he enjoys sharing. “The evening is when this place comes alive,” he says. “There’s a copse where a herd of red deer comes down from Barbon Fell as well as other wildlife, including hares, badgers and rabbits. It’s something really special, I see the herons and hear the curlews and I realise how lucky I am.
“I think the sculptures speak for themselves. They are original and I get real satisfaction from that. If you see a herd of them on top of a hillside with a nice brooding sky behind, they make a real visual impact.”
Words: Susan Riley Photography: Clive Doyle and Andy Kay