Paul Digby: materials-process-object

Paul Digby's new body of work about the emergency services


Touring Norwich, Sheffield, Manchester, York and North Lincolnshire, Paul Digby discusses his new body of work in drawing and figurative sculpture emerging from a three year collaboration with the emergency services.

How did your project with emergency services come about?

The current project evolves from a previous project based on Charles Darwin‘s book Expression of the emotions in man and animal. For this I invited people to express their feelings and I captured them on photos in my studio after this I invited people from within community services to express joy. This led me onto looking further at art historical portrayals of emotions and notably classical Greek sculptures where I began drawing parallels with contemporary subject matters of institutional motifs of security i.e. the emergency services.

The poses in Greek sculpture seemed timeless and archetypal to specific emotions as though those feelings within classical narratives have been passed down through generations.

For the project you placed your subjects in classical poses and used traditional materials, what do you think this mode of working brings to the contemporary nature of the emergency services?

I still wanted to use fairly traditional materials and techniques to contrast with the contemporary subject matter and reiterate the classical angle. Although I do use acrylic matt paint on the Sculptures and this is a modern industrial paint. I use graphite on paper with a grain because in part this links with Seurat's drawings which I love but also because of an interest in contrasting light and dark tones/shades using the techniques of cross hatching, circular movements and layers of fixative.

For the sculptures I worked with York College who enabled me to use traditional casting techniques. This opportunity allowed me to exacerbate the contrast between contemporary subject matters and traditional Art forms.

Paul Digby 1

Would you describe your intention as celebrating and revealing the value these individuals bring to society?

Yes the idea was to celebrate the front line of the public sector and as I say before societal symbols of security. I realise and recognise the important role these people can play in society and wanted to celebrate this. It is also partly out of concern for some of the dramatic financial cuts been made in the public sector and how dependent we are on emergency services but sometimes only appreciate this when we are desperately in need of them.

Some of the roles and narratives that people relayed really emphasise this for example in the drawing Louise. In this drawing Louise is holding an emergency service dummy called Little Annie and this is used across the emergency services. In the image from a series of photos Louise recounts rescuing a child from a road traffic accident and checking to see if the child is alive before handing her over to a paramedic. These stories were commonly related through out the initial photoshoots in emergency service buildings.

Prof Ruth Holliday in her essay talks about how your art often takes ‘work’ as its object. Your work does explore ideas around vulnerability that has an impact on all of us. Why is this important to you?

I am interested in the every day and how we navigate and negotiate our everyday experiences. I selected work roles for this project and previous projects because of the effect the work environment has on our self narrative constructs. With the emergency services the initial idea involved people that did more than the job and this linked with hero theme specific to classical sculpture. Although most people I worked with in the emergency services did not regard themselves as heroes and understandably simply wanted to be paid fairly for the job that they do. I agree with Ruth’s theories on bullshit jobs and with the notion that the jobs that people from the emergency services engage seem more meaningful.

I interviewed the firefighter I portray as he has now retired from the Fire service and works in politics. In our interview it was apparent that he struggled with the aims that his new role requires from him because he inferred that and as I understood them, that these new roles were more ephemeral and less tangible than his work in the Fire service. His socio political ambitions were spread over a longer period of time and required meeting after meeting to enable them whereas in the Fire service because he was saving lives he and his colleagues would make snap decisions that had immediate outcomes.

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The whole process was collaborative. How does collaboration benefit your practice?

My projects are designed to be social and interactive events that introduce contemporary visual art to non arts communities. This is also an opportunity for me to deconstruct traditional visual art processes and materials to disseminate to wider communities via talks, workshops and exhibitions. For example with the school workshops I worked with three schools delivering clay figure workshops to 700 children. This involved teaching them basic clay skills, about the materials and the firing process.

Each session involved creating a sphere, a cuboid and two cylinders which are joined together to create a torso. After which the children could turn these into heroes based on classical sculpture with details. These completed figures became part of the overall exhibition as an installation. There are workshops planned for each exhibition venue where the work will be added to the installation.

The school work involved creating work with a series of arts and non arts organisations that helped me with finding volunteers, exhibiting, sourcing materials and kiln access.

What does the work represent to you artistically?

This project has been a valuable opportunity to develop my practice and ideas. Working with York College was essential in learning new techniques and the materials. As important as making the work was the support from the galleries and notably EAST gallery as they are the exhibition tour launch venue.

I think that ideas develop in parallel with the progression of materials and techniques. The material and concept seem to be one in the same and the idea of collaboration feeds deeper in to this. I plan to collaborate further and retain my practice as central to future project concepts. I will continue to paint, draw and sculpt challenging any notions of what these subjects are and I will continue to work with contemporary subject matters and reference historical artefacts.

List schedule of events:
EAST Gallery Norwich March/April 2019
Saul Hay Gallery, Manchester May/June 2019
York College Gallery September/October 2019
National Emergency Services Museum, Sheffield TBC
Ropewalk Gallery, Barton-on-Humber TBC

Find out more about the project by watching the film below


Exhibition text

Two key strands to this project:

The first is aesthetic and conceptual: This representation of the emergency services as statuesque, massively sculptural figures in splendid isolation. They are isolated pictorially, and this actually reminds us that these crucial and often very separate roles that our emergency services, play in our lives can be isolating and at time, traumatic. They are ordinary people who perform extraordinary roles and in my experience possess extraordinary abilities and determination.

The second aspect I would draw your attention to is the role of art as a collaborative practice, the artist Joseph Beuys I think coined the term ‘social sculpture’ back in around 1968, but since that time, ‘socially engaged practice’ has come to be more widely understood and more widely valued as a vehicle for dialogue through and around the arts.

Professor Neil Powell, Pro Vice-Chancellor Norwich University of the Arts.

Exhibition images

Paul Digby 01

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Paul Digby 03

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More information:

Paul Digby on Axisweb >