Material Curiosity: how to harness the power of creative diversions, with Juliette Bigley

Reflecting on her own experiences, artist Simone Brewster finds a kindred spirit in fellow creative wanderer and cerebral silversmith, Juliette Bigley.

To look at London-based sculptor Juliette Bigley’s work, one would not imagine the winding road that has led her to this point. While many involved in high-end artisanal making have taken a more traditional route to learn their craft from a young age, Juliette has in fact lived many lives before this one as an artist.

When I was thinking about who to feature for this story, Juliette’s name immediately came to mind. I recognised in her a part of myself. One of the main reasons I wanted to speak with her was because, like me, her creative path was not a straight one. My beginnings as an architectural designer would have left me computer-bound, but, like Juliette, I felt an urge to make that led me towards the world of craft.

i Juliette Bigley, Two Bowls, Sterling Silver.

Juliette started her career as a classical singer, spending her days training and mastering annunciation, projection and expression, all things that we find in her work today. At a young age singing was a creative outlet for someone who probably would have fitted better with a three-dimensional visual medium but, as she puts it, “design spaces were male spaces…it just never really occurred to me”.

Music didn’t sustain her creativity for long and she decided to move into an entirely different world, one of practicality and usefulness. For ten years Juliette would work in healthcare. It was a profession she enjoyed and was good at, but after a decade left her with a creative itch that needed to be scratched. “I always knew there was something that I was missing, and I tried loads of different things to satisfy this [gap],” she says. For Juliette, “the perfect object is one that communicates something.”

When Juliette speaks of her journey to finding her craft, I hear an inquisitive mind seeking a means to expression and the creation of a dialogue with the surrounding world and its fabric.

She eventually decided to take a jewellery evening course. And while she found an affinity with the materials, the scale was restrictive. “I struggle with aesthetic at that size… it’s not my scale,” she says. It was the passing mention of silversmithing on the course that struck a chord. The creation of larger objects is what caught her imagination. “As soon as I heard that I knew,” she says.

i Juliette Bigley, TABLE (detail), mixed metals.

Juliette’s instincts and curiosity eventually led her to complete a research MA at The School of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University. The act of expression through the material of metal would be the nexus, linking the analytical, technical and curious elements of Juliette’s character, offering her a creative output and a physical voice through the objects she would go on to craft.

On their own, the constructions are beautiful sculptural works, but when placed in the context of the collective, they sing.

Scale is an important factor in Juliette’s work and many of her sculptures would comfortably rest upon a tabletop, but not always as individual statements: her objects often exist as pairs and small families of constructed forms. They are compositions and considered assemblages of carefully crafted metal. Each element within a cluster captures line and volume, each forms a moment of clarity in its own right, but in coming together with its neighbours it expresses a greater intent, much like words flowing to form a sentence. On their own, the constructions are beautiful sculptural works, but when placed in the context of the collective, they sing.

Although trained in silversmithing, much of her work combines precious metals with base metals. For Juliette, the choice of material does not come down to value instead her use of silver or base metals is reliant on her required outcome: oxidised copper, steel or brass may sit alongside silver.

Juliette points out the strange tension that all makers have when creating a piece of work. As we advance in our skills the imperfections that marred our training years begin to slip away, leaving the finished article closer to a perceived point of perfection. However, by removing too much of the handmade traces of the maker, we erode one of the inherent values that we seek in crafted objects: evidence of the makers themselves.

To look at Juliette’s work, one imagines that she set out with a clear vision of the perfect object she wished to create. The satin textures of the finish and the crisp clean lines forming geometric volumes scream of a perfectionist. But she sees the search for perfection in and of itself as boring, and a distraction from what should be the real aim of art. For Juliette, “the perfect object is one that communicates something.”

The decidedly architectural feel and knowingly balanced appearance of each piece may appear the final answer to a closed question. In actuality, these nuggets of scaled down architecture are one of many stages in an active, questioning and curious dialogue. The sculptures themselves are birthed through the synergy of material and constant questioning by Juliette, who states: “If I can get curious, I can get creative”.

Mapping my making process is a way to explore how we reconcile our body with our emotions, the physical with the non-physical.

Initial iterations often take place in plaster, a faster and more satisfyingly speedy making process than working with metal. It is also a material that responds to process, capturing the lines and surfaces it abuts to and solidifying them into the surface of its skin awaiting a new round of questioning and interpretation.

As Juliette continues to question through material, we see a movement from literal to abstract. A slow digestion of complexity, to purity as opposed to perfection. A series of stages follows, where the outcome is then questioned again and elements are retained or removed as they continue their journey to becoming a built form, from flat to fold, paper to metal.

i Juliette Bigley, Squares (pair), mixed metals.

It is evident that there is a heightened level of awareness in this creative process, one that signals mastery, and shows a dedication to interrogating her craft. Juliette speaks of a desire beyond making, to understand the brain and creativity itself. Grand intentions indeed.

“Mapping my making process is a way to explore how we reconcile our body with our emotions, the physical with the non-physical,” she says. Juliette believes that through making, a different type of thinking and understanding becomes tangible, one that is not available through other forms of thinking.

She seeks to understand how the intangible sparks which are inherent seeds within each act of creativity are planted and grow as the creative process moves from thought to physical object, and how this journey is tied to the act of making. The payoff is the letting go of perfection.

Most sculptors work on a scale much larger than Juliette, but she is not averse to working at a grander scale on principal. “I love working big, but I also love making all the work myself, and at a certain point that gets trickier. If you have a fully industrialised workshop that’s great, if you have all the kit that allows you to bend enormous pieces of metal that’s great,” she says, but the logistical challenges make it difficult for her to create much larger pieces herself, so for now going bigger would not fit her current process. “That takes some of the immediacy out of it and it takes some of the actual making out of it.” And while she recognises that she could collaborate with others to achieve this, Juliette would have to sacrifice the sole, immediate relationship with the making process.

i Juliette at her bench.

There has been a joyful expansion of some of her works in recent years. A solo exhibition at the Scottish Gallery saw her create large standing sculptures in nickel and rusted steel as part of her first outdoor collection. This change in scale sees a move away from her assemblages of smaller works placed together as collections, towards individual structures, bold and confident enough as statements in and of themselves.

Striding across scale and material, her practice is fluid, questioning, and hands on. It is through the confidence of these moves that we understand that Juliette has transitioned from silversmith to sculptor. In reality, these labels mean nothing to her or her practice “I think they only really matter to people in the industry,” she says. “If my work is to be interesting, it must have a cross-disciplinary approach.”

Taking the time out to investigate the journey of one of my creative contemporaries has led me to reflect on my own journey. It is wonderful to see someone who does not set out from the start with a clear vision of how she expects her creative output to resolve. Instead, Juliette’s winding path has taught her to appreciate the lessons learnt along the way. These diversions have not diminished Juliette or her work, but rather accumulated to enrich her oeuvre. It is through continual search for further lessons to be learnt, and her dialogue with metal and hands, that Juliette will continue to evolve.


Author: Simone Brewster | Photo Credit: Nicola Tree