Our exclusive Q&A with sculptor, Dallas Collins.
"...I had a moment of extreme emotional clarity and realised that the one thing that glued my life together was art, and if I became an artist, I may be able to express this inner emotion to others...”
A former aircraft engineer, Dallas Collins RWA MRSS is a sculptor working in variety of media including bronze, wood and even foam. He studied sculpture at the RCA from 1999 to 2001, specialising in foundry art practice, and has taught in Chelsea, London, Bristol and Cardiff. Dallas has had numerous shows throughout the UK, Europe and USA and his work is held in private and public art collections.
In 2018 Dallas became both become an academician of the RWA and a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors. He is one of the selectors for the 2019 RWA Sculpture Open exhibition.
Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
It’s hard to say but from an early age I used lining paper to produce long drawings that would fill a room. I also liked taking things apart and putting them back together, not necessarily in the right order.
At school I was always drawing and making things in the classroom when I should have been concentrating on the lesson. I was forever being told off for being a daydreamer and for staring outside the classroom window. The one thing I always enjoyed at school was art. I remember trying to copy The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David with pastels; it took me forever to finish and I thought whoever painted this must be a genius!
When I eventually left school I started an apprenticeship as an aerospace engineer. At this point I had no idea I would ever leave work or even make art. At the age of thirty I thought I would enrol on a life drawing class at the RWA. Three years later and with the support of my wife and children, I signed up to study on an art foundation course at Bath School of Art and Design.
One day I was asked to express in my own way the corner of a room. While I sat there with easel and paint, I had a moment of extreme emotional clarity and realised that the one thing that glued my life together was art, and if I became an artist, I may be able to express this inner emotion to others…
Why do you make art?
I can’t imagine not making art; It’s a child like feeling of comfort that lies in between thinking and not thinking and never leaves you alone even if you are asleep.
What is your usual process for making an artwork?
The idea or the found object pushes me to make work. I never intentionally use one material or another; it’s whatever’s at hand and what lends itself to the process or idea. A friend asked me if I would like some oak from an old tree she chopped down because it was unsafe and in danger of falling on houses in the valley below. I seasoned it outside for two years until I had time to think how I was going use it.
One of the processes that I use more than others is bronze casting. I tend to use polyurethane foam as part of this process. For me it reveals another side that’s unearthly and instantaneous. Finishing a bronze is a lot of hard work. It can take several months to complete just one piece, providing time to work on several other things at once; this enables you to play with materials and new ideas.
I’m never entirely satisfied with the finished work as working so intimately with a piece, you get to know all the small blemishes and mistakes you’ve made. I go through stages of hectic energy that are usually interrupted by life’s daily routines, so getting back to the initial starting point is always hard. It’s like trying to find the end of a piece of string you’ve dropped; sometimes you find it but usually it’s the other bit of string you forgot about that’s more interesting.
What other artists, works or art traditions have most influenced you?
I remember going to Paris with a friend; we did all the usual tourist art sites and that included Rodin’s house – The Musee Rodin. As we walked through the main doors to the museum, my friend spotted The Kiss and without hesitation jumped in the lap of the sculpture! Inevitably he was unceremoniously thrown out by the security guard. I managed to stay in by disassociating myself from him.
I had the most wonderful time of my life looking and marvelling at the works in the beautiful gardens; The Age of Bronze, The gates of hell and Monument to Balzac. “Mask of The Man with a Broken Nose” 1863-4, was such a pivotal work that it defined Rodin’s style. He said of the sculpture that “it determined all my future.” I knew then that the skill that Rodin had in sculpting and modelling was phenomenal. He had the presence of mind to strip away the narrative of traditional figurative sculpture that was prevalent at that time and reveal the true corporeality of the human form.
While I was studying at the RCA in 2000, I was privileged to work with Eduardo Paolozzi and on some of his original Maquettes and sculptures of Newton, Faraday and The Head of Invention. I’ve always admired his work especially being a self-confessed fan of Sci-fi. I’m always fascinated at the breadth of sculptural works that incorporate traditional skills with modern materials that are similar to my own.
One such sculptor I discovered was Folkestone de Jong, a Dutch artist who makes large scale figurative installations using the same polyurethane foam. His approach is to deconstruct the figures and then reconstruct them into grotesque caricatures using and referencing the Old Dutch masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt. For me, the dialogue between the past and the present is something I use within my work.
Another artist who recently exhibited at The Hayward in the Space Shifter exhibition is Fred Eversley, who by coincidence was also a former aerospace engineer turned artist. He spins liquid resin in a centrifuged former with a machine originally used to produce nuclear components. Once the forms solidify, he polishes the surface to produce large parabolic lenses. This way of working has intrigued me for a while and in 2010, I started to work with spinning coloured liquid polyurethane foam on a potter’s wheel to produce sculptures that capture the spatial energy of centrifugal forces– Universe 1# (2010) and M51 (2014)
Your artist statement mentions that your work ‘explores the idea of the aftermath of an uncontrolled chaotic event in time’. Can you expand a little on what you mean by that?
While studying sculpture at Norwich School of Art and Design from 1996-99, I was awarded funds from the Wellcome Trust for a science and art project. I thought it would be fun to work with a readily used building material called polychromatic foam; you can make large volume works which are portable and cost very little to make. After a while, I started to colour and mix the foam at source and draw with it like expanding paint. The material grows after a few seconds of mixing so you have a limited time to use it. Sometimes it goes your way and at other times it explodes in a bulge of foam that moves uncontrollably.
At the time I was reading a book by Umberto Eco called Foucault’s Pendulum; the book deals with The Sefirot – the building blocks of nature and the esoteric ideas that surround the art of Alchemy. The concept of mixing art, science and engineering has been a focal point for most of my work as seen in my sculpture ‘Belling Handy Heater’ 2018.
Incorporating the building foam with a found object, has enabled me to see that these things hold onto the energy and essence of their former use. This made me think about the point at which time stops and things start to degrade. In science, this can be read as Entropy; the theoretical idea we are all governed by a moment in time and by the order and disorder that’s weaved within it.
Time is the first breath of being; we can see how the atoms of our chaotic existence help build a new world, enabling us all to pass essential information on.
Has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point that changed your path?
I joined the British sub aqua club when I was sixteen and dived all over the world. We discovered shipwrecks, sunken aircraft and all manner of sea life. The feeling of freedom and weightlessness whilst diving was an overwhelming experience, so taking this with me to university as a mature student, mixed with my engineering skills, gave me the initial starting point for my work.
At the start it was very hard for me to let go of the precise nature of engineering and my work was very heavily formulated. It wasn’t until I started to use polychromatic foam, I felt compelled to be more spontaneous and free to create work with intention, movement and form. I realised then I could combine all my skills together as one and create my own sculptural experience.
The work that I produced at Norwich, helped me gain a first class honours degree and then gain a place at one of the most prestigious art schools in the world! Living in London and studying at the RCA was the turning point for me. It helped me re-evaluate my art, increasing my experience and confidence in casting bronze. This gave me the time to research and experiment with new ideas and materials and to become aware of my own sculptural art practice.
You were made an Academician of the RWA in 2018. What did that mean to you?
I’ve always had a great affinity with the RWA as I started my career quite late in life. For me, drawing was the most important step in understanding my own work. I knew that the RWA ran evening life drawings classes so I enrolled myself on one. This was the catalyst which started my early artistic career. I lived and worked in Norwich and London for eight years teaching sculpture in Chelsea, Bristol and Cardiff.
In 2003 I was selected to show at the RWA Sculpture Open exhibition which brought me back to Bristol. Five open exhibitions at the RWA and fifteen years later, I was selected to become an Academician. It’s a great privilege to be selected by your peers with the acknowledgement that your work has the qualities to be part of this long established artistic family.
This year I have also been given the honour of becoming a council member for the RWA. This has given me the opportunity to be part of a community of artists whose sole aim is to support arts in all its forms. By giving my support to this world class arts venue which enriches the lives of so many people from all walks of life, I hope that in some way, I can help promote this unique place which will be forever dear to my heart.
‘Fermi’s Chain’ (2015) (Beech wood slats, plywood and graphite powder.)…I can’t imagine not making art; It’s a child like feeling of comfort that lies in between thinking and not thinking and never leaves you alone even if you are asleep…
What are you working on next?
I usually work on several pieces at once. Some take longer than others to be realised, so I can never really say that I’m working on one thing.
Just before Christmas, I was asked if I would like to be one of the selectors for the RWA Sculpture Open 2019. For me this was a great privilege but also quite daunting. We had over 1,200 artists submit entries which we reduced to 100 art works chosen by seven judges including myself. For me, the task was a hard one and took me four days in front of a computer screen drinking countless cups of tea. This will be the first sculpture open for at least ten years. I feel this show will be a pivotal moment for the RWA and hopefully become a regular event.
The piece of work I’ve put into the sculpture open this year is very important to me. It was the culmination of my final research year at the RCA and formed part of my degree show. The work has been outside on permanent loan at The Sculpture Park in Churt near Farnham Surrey for the last sixteen years; it will be great to see it in a gallery setting again. At the moment I’m trying to work out the logistics of moving this heavy piece of work from Surrey to Cardiff and back to Bristol for the show.
I’ve got four other sculptures which are in shows coming up this Easter. Two are on show at the RBSA Birmingham gallery, another is at Millfield School in Street for a show called ‘Otherworldly’ and the last one is at the Elemental Sculpture Park, Cirencester, Gloucestershire from the 1st April 2019.
A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?
I have too many to choose from! I would love a Turner, but If I had a house on the coast overlooking the sea with large granite cliffs, I’d go with a piece of artwork by Eduardo Chillida called´Peine del Viento´. The perfect combination – art working within its environment.