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Jewels of the junkyard
Step into Serena Thirkell’s world, even for an afternoon, and things quickly get topsy-turvy.
In the higgledy-piggledy garden of her Lewes home, rusting pitch forks stand to attention in sunglasses, angels swoop down on scythe blade wings, and armies of metal plier insects march across windowsills.
Thirkell is a sculptor who enchants the everyday, turning industrial and domestic tools into creatures both terrifying and comic. Where the rest of us just see an old bike seat, Thirkell sees an armadillo head; an aluminium shoe horn might become a springy puppy or part of a warrior’s armour.
“When is a vegetable steamer not a vegetable steamer?”
she says with a twinkle. “When it’s a poodle!”
Thirkell, 62, stumbled into sculpture four years ago – the latest twist in her fascinating tale.
Latterly an antiques dealer, she has also been a theatre producer, author, an Oxford classics scholar and – many moons ago – a would-be opera singer in Cold War-era Vienna: “A very strange time; the shops were always selling out of flour and sugar and coffee because people kept hoarding it in fear of a Russian invasion.”
Thirkell is the great-greatgranddaughter of the Pre- Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, whose stainedglass windows can be seen in St Michael’s Church, Brighton and who is buried in St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean, where the family had a holiday home for many years. But it wasn’t until a builder lodger started to bring home pieces of scrap metal that she started to make her own forays into the art world.
The team at Architectural Fabrications in Ringmer – “very young and dynamic and generous” – taught her to weld and braze, while well-wishers often supply materials. Future Cycles in Lewes frequently donates bike chains, seats and pedals, posting pictures of Thirkell’s creations on its website. Other pieces arrive in mysterious circumstances. “I come home and find anonymous gifts on the doorstep,” she says.
“These bits of metal just arrive and I often don’t know for ages who donated them.”
Her work is driven in part by practicality – using found objects is cheaper than starting from scratch. But more than that, Thirkell is a keen believer in the Renaissance ideal of the polymath and can’t see why objects should only have one purpose. Why should a plough just be a plough, when it could also be a bright blue helicopter?
She delights in the craftsmanship and ergonomics of tools, enthusing about regular trips to Heathfield Market, where Peter Hanman sells her bags of unwanted goods from his collectible tools shop. “He knows more about tools than anyone in Sussex. In his little shop in the market, he talks to collectors from all over the world.”
I have to admit – I hadn’t realised tools were collectible. Oh yes,” she says, “I was visited by a group of men from the National Society for the Collection of Pliers, or something like that, and they told me they didn’t like what I was doing because I was ‘defacing’ historically important objects! I’m not, because I never cut anything up – they could always be restored to their original form. Also, I see what I do as preserving these tools because they’d be melted down for scrap otherwise, whereas now people can see what they do and how they worked.”
Thirkell’s latest exhibition, at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, is titled The Garden Of Forgotten Engineers, Smiths And Bicycles in tribute to the craftsmen whose work she “saved from the scrapheap”. A red pitchfork has been reimagined as a mythical beastie, a rusty old Belling heater forms the body of a giant bee. “I think with good engineering there’s an intrinsic movement and you can use that in a piece.”
Thirkell appears to see anthropomorphic potential in the most ordinary of objects.
In the garden of a house on the town’s Neville Estate, there stands a sculpture she made of the house’s inhabitants. “She’s a pretty little thing with a heartshaped face and plaits, so I made her from a turfing spade with bike chains for plaits,”
she beams. She made another sculpture of a particularly handsome former tenant from old car pistons.
Yes, her work is unusual. But maybe all art is recycling, she suggests? “At the heart of it, all artists turn one thing into another.”
* The Garden Of Forgotten Engineers, Smiths And Bicycles is at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, in Chapel Road, until May 5. For more information, visit www.worthingmuseum.co.uk * For more information about Serena Thirkell, visit www.serenathirkell.co.uk
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