“All of Us,” Sophie Ryder’s current exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking, England, near London, features over 50 examples of her anthropomorphic dream imagery—ladyhares, minotaurs, boars, and dogs, as well as dislocated representations of eyes, hands, and feet, all magically juxtaposed across the exhibition space. Ryder’s imaginings take form through a wide range of media and techniques, including the manipulation of wire and the enlivening of bronze with impressions and additions of unusual objects. The rich blend of unity and variety across forms and scales in the show allows us to experience Ryder’s menagerie in full and to consider the richly characterized stories that have emerged from her mindscape. “All of Us” remains on view through September 10, 2023.
Robert Preece: Could you tell me about the range of characters featured in “All of Us?”
Sophie Ryder: My characters are minotaurs, hares, dogs, horses, and boars. I’m not an animal sculptor; I use animals and hybrids to portray human and animal emotions and relationships. The minotaur and the ladyhare are my central hybrid characters—I see them as opposite forces; they can be paired or remain independent of one another. Dogs are my family. The boar is a newer addition, and the horse is a friend to all, a gentle giant.
RP: What are the origins of your characters, and how did you develop them?
SR: I studied Greek mythology at school; I was fascinated by the half-bull, half-man image of the Minotaur. The dogs started when I was at the Royal Academy schools in London, aged 17. I had a lurcher and brought him in every day, saying that he was my model, so then I had to start drawing him. Since then, I have always been surrounded by at least four small lurchers. I can’t imagine life without my dogs—they are with me 24/7. I moved to the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire a few years after finishing at the RA, and one day my dog brought a hare home, so I drew it. That’s when I had the idea to use a hare head on a female body to make a companion for my minotaur. Her long ears representing a mane of hair just worked with the female body.
I had a gypsy horse and drew her; she was strong and willful. I often wonder if horses actually enjoy being ridden or raced, because she always got bad tempered when I took her for a ride. She was unbroken, which meant that nobody had forced her into submission.
The boar came about after I found a dead boar in France. They are portrayed as dangerous and ugly, but I was totally captivated by its absolute beauty. They are only dangerous when hunted; otherwise, they are highly intelligent and accepting. You can walk past a boar in the forest, and if you are no threat, it will ignore you. This has happened to me on numerous occasions when I’ve been walking in the forests near my home and studios in France, where I spend my summers.
RP: The exhibition includes different media—from drawings to prints to monumental sculpture. Which do you particularly like, and which are the most challenging? How do you decide what to use?
SR: I like to experiment. Materials excite me, and when I try something new, I keep going until I have achieved everything I can from that material. Rusty metal is beautiful. Broken plates and glass are lovely for mosaics. Wire can be light or dense. Bronze is heavy and resistant. I like a challenge. I find mosaics very therapeutic and meditative and tend to do them to wind down in the evenings and weekends these days. Tapestries, which take forever to make, are very rewarding when they’re finished. They are great to take traveling—I can’t sit still on journeys. I enjoy certain aspects of working in plaster; I love the outcome, as well as the potential to change things as I work, taking away and adding in equal measure. Drawing is the most enjoyable—it’s relaxing and easy to do anywhere. Often the drawings are a starting point for the sculptures, but not always.
For me, working big is the most exciting thing. I get a thrill from looking up at a big sculpture and feeling tiny in comparison. When you place a monumental piece next to a cathedral and it stands its ground, that is a great feeling. I work on all of my monumental sculptures at scale myself. They can take years and are made with my hands, not machines. Obviously, the monumental bronzes and resins are cast at the foundry, but I check every stage, and I make the original piece myself in plaster.
RP: Could you tell me about the multi-figure Introspective (2003)?
SR: When the world was in shock after 9/11, I found it hard to continue with the pieces I had been working on. It felt disrespectful to be making happy work, even though people needed some happiness. I felt that these figures were hiding, grieving, looking out for others, and praying. My work became introspective. People who saw the installation at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath said that they were touched by it, that it had created the right atmosphere for them. With the war in Ukraine and the earthquakes in Turkey, Introspective has taken on a new but similar meaning for me. The scrap metal represents the demolished buildings in both Ukraine and Turkey.
RP: What attracts you to working with wire? How do you go about making a wire sculpture?
SR: My mother introduced me to wire when I was a small child. She took us to jewelry-making classes on Saturday mornings. Over the years, it developed into an obsession. I would buy cables of copper wire from scrap yards and strip the plastic off to get to the braids of wire inside. Sometimes I would make line drawings in space, and then as my work became more three-dimensional, I would scrunch it up into a more solid material to make sculpture. As they grew, I would make armatures and tie the wire to them. Sometimes the works are solid, and sometimes the armature becomes an integral part, so I let it remain visible.
To me, this is like the sketch under a painting or the reworking of a drawing, like with Giacometti’s drawings. It’s the process a piece goes through to get to completion. I like the final piece to show the journey. I leave the chains for lifting in view. It’s a work in progress, even when my part is done; I feel like it will continue to evolve as the patina ages and the weather changes. The lightness and transparency of the largest pieces are brought to life by the sky moving past and breathing life into them. When the light is directly on them, they look solid like stone or concrete. When the light is behind, they look transparent, like a brushstroke on a landscape. To me, this is the appeal of wire—it can be very versatile. I’ve been using it for 56 years, so I feel very confident with it, and a pair of pliers in my hands feels like it belongs, like a third hand.
RP: Could you explain a bit about Minotaur with Hare (2023)?
SR: With the monumental sculptures, I imagine myself as a tiny little creature being held gently and studied by a child. I used to pick up insects and mice as a child and would let them crawl all over my hands. They were so tiny and vulnerable in my hands, yet so strong in their own world.
My minotaur is caring and inquisitive. I made him in plaster and the foundry molded and cast him in resin because we wanted to show him at The Lightbox, where a bronze would have been too heavy. That’s the benefit of using resin. We make it look like bronze or rusty iron, so you get the effect without the weight or the cost. He stands on a big tire, which makes him tower over us, giving him even more height and impact.
RP: Why did you use a barrel as the plinth for the bronze Minotaur and Boar on a Barrel (2017)?
SR: Wild boar in the south of France eat 30 percent of the wine grapes, and so they are culled every August/September. One day, I found a dead boar, which had been shot and went to die in the vines. I had never been so close to such an incredibly beautiful wild animal. He looked prehistoric with his huge head and dangerous-looking tusks. I was immediately inspired to make a boar. The relationship between the minotaur and the boar is trusting and affectionate. The barrels represent the grapes that the boar had eaten and the reason for him being shot—an homage to the boar.
RP: Smaller-scale details are embedded in a kind of relief. There’s a dinosaur, scissors, and the minotaur and the hare embracing. What are they about?
SR: I place objects into my sculptures to create a more interesting texture and to add a different dimension to the work. Some are everyday things that have broken or that I found relevant, and sometimes I would use my children’s and grandchildren’s favorite toys. It’s like adding graffiti to my work so that the surface, as well as the sculpture, has a story to tell.