Seal Tooth Cups, 2017. Bog oak, bronze, and seal teeth, 7 x 48 x 32 cm. Photo: Steve Russell Studios

Resting Places: A Conversation with Steve Dilworth

For over five decades, Steve Dilworth has been making art inspired by the wild, windswept landscape of the Outer Hebrides, the sparsely populated chain of islands located off the northwest coast of mainland Scotland. He uses natural materials found there, including deceased animals, for which he often creates memorial-like works. Anyone who has lived in or visited the northern latitudes—where nature and wildlife reign—can see the context of Dilworth’s works clearly. For those who live elsewhere, his sculptures offer a window on a special, altogether different, and distant kind of place. More than 20 of Dilworth’s works are currently on view in his solo exhibition “Journeyman,” at Pangolin London.

Throwing Object 3 and Throwing Object 4, 2016. Bog, oak, bird, and brass, 7 x 9 x 6 cm. each. Photo: Steve Russell Studios

Robert Preece: What keeps your work focused on the context and wildlife of the Outer Hebrides?
Steve Dilworth: I have lived on the Isle of Harris for over 40 years, and before that I lived in the Cotswolds, an area of middle England. I made Rook, my first sculpture containing a preserved bird, in the Cotswolds in 1981, after Hanging Figure (1979–80). At the time, I was a part-time gardener, working in exchange for a cottage and a studio. One of my sculptures, a nesting-box gargoyle, is still on the wall of the cottage.

I first visited the Isle of Harris in 1972. My brother had a building firm, and a customer wanted a house built on Harris. A survey was needed, and I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Western Isles, a place I’d wanted to see since I was a child. It was love at first sight, though it took over 10 years before I moved there with my wife and family. We found a derelict cottage, and with the help of youthful ignorance we rebuilt the place.

It was very tough during the first few years. We had very little money. Collecting and selling winkles, a sea snail, provided an income, if limited. I guess my first break came when I was encouraged to put some work in a local gallery in Stornoway. The show was called “Grinneas nan Eilean,” or something like that. People could submit whatever they liked—a knitted cardigan or a watercolor of the sea. I put in Rook. I hitchhiked up to Stornoway with the sculpture under my arm because the car didn’t work. As a result of that, Roddy Murray, who later became the director of An Lanntair gallery, offered me an exhibition. I called it “Acts of Faith.” That was the beginning.

Multiple Carapace in Five Pieces, 2019. Bronze, 50 x 40 cm. Photo: Steve Russell Studios

RP: What do you think about while making your works? Do you have ideas in mind beforehand, or is there a lot of experimentation as you are working?
SD: Apart from the obvious practical stuff, I don’t really “think” when I’m working. I try to draw on the tacit or subconscious. A good friend of mine, Brian Catling, sadly no longer with us, spoke about me not planning but just diving straight into the work. I think that’s true. The best time is when the work flows out of me. At times like this, it’s as if I’m an idiot who has been given the keys to a fantastic library. I suppose I can tune into an energy, which is why I find the primal force of Harris the perfect place to work.

RP: Could you tell me about Lapwing (2016)?
SD: All of the materials came from the side of the road—the lapwing was roadkill, the rock and the copper wire had been discarded nearby. I simply preserved the lapwing as I usually do and carved a space for it after splitting the rock, which is a kind of dunite, a very ancient rock, 2.2 billion years old.

Lapwing, 2016. Dunite, lapwing, and copper wire, 18 x 46.5 x 17 cm. Photo: Steve Russell Studios

RP: What are Throwing Object 3 and Throwing Object 4 (both 2016) about?
SD: I have made many Throwing Objects, all unique, though they are in a “family,” the first being a wren that my cat dropped at my feet. Perhaps it’s giving flight back, but, with the wren, I used the old folklore that if a wren flies into your chest, it’s an omen of death. I saw this one as a psychic weapon able to be cast into an internal landscape. It’s fair to say that for many years my bird pieces have been something of an obsession; looking back, maybe nearly half of my objects are in that area.

RP: Scored Stone (2016) is similar in form, but not so much a memorial. What drove you to this work?
SD: This is very simple, but in my mind I kept thinking about swords being sharpened on church walls or canal boats being dragged around a cornerstone, both activities leaving traces in the stone. You could think of these marks as being a kind of memorial, like the axe marks left on a block, which remain after a decapitation. It’s interesting how graffiti, given great age, becomes more than disfiguration. These are some of the thoughts that a simple object, a scored stone, can stimulate.

Scored Stone, 2016. Dunite, 21 x 26 x 14 cm. Photo: Steve Russell Studios

RP: Seal Tooth Cups (2017) has quite a bit going on. What are the different elements, and how did you mentally and physically put it together?
SD: The materials were lying about the studio—bog oak, some 10,000 years old, seal teeth, and a bronze cast of a female torso that I made many years earlier but never got round to doing much with. I used the breasts as cups. The rules of the game have been lost, but the game remains.

RP: How did Kestrel (2017) come about?
SD: The kestrel was given to me when I had a show at the Booth Museum in Brighton. The taxidermist there wanted birds that I would come across in the Hebrides, and he had a freezer full of birds that I couldn’t get, so we swapped. The kestrel probably dated back to the 1960s. The materials used are yew, feathers, a kestrel, metal claws, and a glass dome.

Kestrel, 2017. Kestrel, wood, leather, silver, and iron in glass dome, 65 x 32 x 32 cm. Photo: © Pangolin London / Steve Russell Studios

RP: Fledglings (2011) and the Carapace works are made with different processes. Could you tell me about them and the differing results?
SD: Actually, the processes are similar, though they start from different sources. I made the originals for both works in a material used for repairing cars, a filler that, though unpleasant to work with because of the fumes, is very practical. It’s a good idea to mix it outside.

In terms of form, Maquette for Carapace (2010) was inspired by natural forms, both land and marine. The deep ripples connect with sand freshly washed by waves. With Multiple Carapace in Five Pieces (2019), imagine a creature washed up on the shore, broken by the waves and with parts missing. These are the remnants preserved in bronze, each distinctive in form but belonging to each other. With Fledglings, I found two dead fledglings in a nest and decided to preserve them in their final embrace, reflected in the external form of the piece. These fledglings were placed inside a wooden casket before their final resting place with the bronze sculpture.

Maquette for Carapace, 2010. Bronze, 27 x 25 x 42 cm. Photo: © Pangolin London / Steve Russell Studios

RP: Cremation (2023), for me, is a strange object. What are you doing here?
SD: A lovely woman from America contacted me, asking if I could make a kind of memorial because her husband had died a year earlier. We got into an email conversation, and one thing she wanted to do was to find a place for their wedding rings. I asked her to send bits and pieces of metal—personal material, but nothing expensive, things she wouldn’t get too upset about. I proposed welding these bits and pieces into a form resembling an egg, though created from a stone I found on the beach. She also wanted some words inscribed, and while I normally keep away from using words, in this case, the Latin made some sense.

Cremation was a natural progression from that piece. The container was made using all sorts of metals to create two halves of an “egg” form. In fact, I used an ostrich egg and made a mold from it in fire cement. I then lined the welded metal with more fire cement, placed the bird inside, and put the whole lot on a barbecue and “cooked,” or cremated, it before continuing with the exterior form.

Cremation, 2023. Mixed media, 15 x 7.5 x 12 cm. Photo: Steve Russell Studios

RP: There is a recent book about your work, as well as a new film. Could you tell me about them?
SD: Georgina Coburn spent six years researching my work and found 600 or more pieces scattered around the world. She has written a phenomenal book, Journeyman—The Art of Steve Dilworth, published by Francis Boutle Publishers. Much in the same vein, Paul Cox began filming me about 10 years ago and has continued adding to and editing this film ever since. It’s a brilliant documentary. I remember Paul visiting one day when I was working on Fledglings. He asked what I was doing and if he could film it. It grew from there.

“Steve Dilworth: Journeyman” is on view at Pangolin London through June 8, 2024.