Inspired by the unrestricted shapes found in the natural world and by the work of Brâncuși, Kim Francis creates abstract yet sensorial sculptural pieces that open a visual tension and a rich dialogue between stone and feather, inorganic and organic, hardness and lightness. Conversing with Kim Francis about her journey into the world of art, it quickly becomes obvious not only that she doesn’t speak in rehearsed platitudes, but that she is also equally curious about the other and at ease asking questions and digging deeper.
Later in the afternoon, Kim took us to the town of Nailsworth to show us one of her commissioned pieces, and shared with us the story behind at The Canteen nearby. We then drove to her polytunnel studio on the outskirts of Stroud, where she showed us her work in progress and elaborated on her creative process. After a scenic walk on the Rodborough Common, we ended our amazing day in Kim’s peaceful garden, reminiscing about our travels, digging up overgrown horseradish and picking some sticky-sweet plums.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work, who is Kim Francis?
I am an artist, a sculptor, working predominantly in stone. I make abstract tactile pieces, often using contrasting materials, sometimes precious metals, sometimes feathers to contrast with the qualities of the stone.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I grew up in France and one of my most vivid memories is probably being in the boat yard where my Dad who was starting to design sailing Boats, was working. I remember the smell of the aluminium hulls and the texture of the metal after it had been brushed by the circular pattern of the angle grinder. I remember all the shapes, the holes cut out of the ribs of the hull to make it lighter, the huge straps suspending the boats over the water, and the keels that always looked too big.
Was there a defining moment when you realised you wanted to be an artist?
I think I always wanted to be an artist, I’d always been drawing and making as a child, but there was a defining moment when I knew I wanted to be a sculptor. After filing a degree in jewellery and getting side tracked into a short career in the circus arts, a strange sequence of events led me to get a job in a big art foundry in New York, where I found myself working on a Louise Bourgeois Spider and casting my first bronze. Being in that environment where everything sculptural was possible set me back on track.
You trained as a jeweller in London. How did you make the transition from body adornment to sculpture?
I actually wanted to do sculpture from the start but the tutors at college dissuaded me saying that my work was too small! (probably because I was a girl!) Although jewellery and body adornment was relevant in relation the the circus work I was doing as soon as I left college, I stopped making jewellery, picked up a chainsaw and began carving wood. My interest in the body translated into using my body physically in the work and scale of wood carving. After gaining a scholarship at a small school in Italy I discovered the material I wanted to be carving, stone.
Who or what sparked your interest in sculpture?
When I was making jewellery, my pieces were very sculptural, large pieces to adorn the face or head, it was instinctive. I think it was my attraction to the process of carving but specially to the quality and experience of materials. Shaping a material, that interaction fascinated me. My interest in sculpture is very experiential, or process driven...
What are your major sources of inspiration?
The natural world is usually my greatest inspiration and influence, shapes in found stones, the elegance of bones or a beetle's shell, or a seed pod. The sheer perfection of those designs… And the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford! The fetish objects, the amazing human artefacts, the use and combination of materials to make sacred or mundane objects... it is one of my favourite places.
Tell us a bit about your experience as a studio assistant to Damien Hirst. What was your most memorable or cherished experience from that time?
I think I worked for Science in its hay day! It was quite rock’n’roll at that time. I remember a really relaxed creative atmosphere. All sat together around huge canvases painting, talking, there was a huge exchange of music too as we all brought our own in and took turns to play our music on a great system and this is how I discovered some great music. There were some big parties and we were treated very generously. The whole studio got flown to NY for an opening once (I think those days are over now!). I also learnt to broaden my understanding of what art could be.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
How would I describe my work?... it is sensorial, abstract objects/pieces. I like to inspire a visceral response to the forms or the materials. Sometimes the contrast of stone and feather is met with repulsion, sometimes it is very seductive, but both reactions are positive to me. I’d like my work not to elicit an intellectual response but a visceral or sensory one. In this respect, I sometimes wonder where do I see myself in the context of contemporary art as a whole as so much of it requires an intellectual engagement. I see contemporary art pieces as being about something whereas my work is the thing itself, it is not about anything.
If I am honest, I don’t know where I fit into contemporary art. That field sometimes leaves me baffled as it is so broad, I’m sure my location in it will become clear to me in time and I’m sure it may already be clearer to an onlooker that it is to me.
How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
I usually start with a vague flavour or the loose sense of a form, I then usually make some 3 dimensional sketches to record and explore the idea. I might make a more finished maquette at this point or have enough clarity in my mind from the rough sketches to begin carving. This involves finding a piece of stone, or ordering a piece and marking out profiles on the surfaces to begin cutting the form.
Are there any recurring themes that run through your body of work?
There are recurring themes of organic pod form with openings, these can look quite vulval but the essence for me is a form with an opening, a vessel. A recurrent theme too is the combination of feathers in the stone. The contrast of the two seem to validate the respective qualities of each.
Where do you source your materials from?
The stone I get from Italy when it is Marble, the Kilkenny I buy large offcuts from a fellow sculptor who works on a more monumental scale. There is a nice exchange of stone among fellow carvers. Other smaller pieces, specially pebbles, are found in Wales. Feathers are sometimes found and sometimes bought and some are from wildfowl centres. I try not to buy them anonymously online as it feels important to be more directly involved in their provenance.
You are working primarily with stone, an eternal and inorganic material, and you created pieces in which you are opening a visual tension or dialogue between inorganic and organic, hardness and lightness, stone and feathers. To what extent is this a reaction against the transitoriness of organic life? Can you tell us more about this?
I did begin with wood as a medium but was disturbed by the way it would change, crack, warp. Stone felt more stable, it is a constantly evolving material on the planet but it terms of my time scales it is stable! I think I have chosen a material that is constant and stable not so much as a resistance to the transitory nature of life but more as something unchanging and solid to relate to, something dependable and solid, like a grounding relationship. I think the use of feathers with the stone is a way or remembering the fragility and vulnerability of nature, but one that is contained and protected in the solidity of the stone. Perhaps it is containing and protecting me too. I do a lot of tattoo work too, an indelible art on a transient canvas… I guess I am playing with both avoiding and honouring the transitoriness of life...
What does your daily routine look like?
My daily routine generally is up at 6-ish to do an hour of yoga postures, (yoga postures have been a part of my life for the past 20 years) then breakfast for my 2 daughters and maternal activities… I then drive them over the common to their school, and then on to my studio which is currently in a large polytunnel shared with a French stone mason. We usually stop to eat lunch together around 1 then continue working. If I am making models I’ll go back home to do this. I’m in the process of insulating my shed for this kind of small work. My working day is short as I pick up my girls at 3 then it's back into parent mode. There is often something I am polishing or tinkering with on the kitchen table though!
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken so far?
The greatest risk I’ve taken so far was committing to being a full time sculptor when I was made redundant from Pangolin Editions 5 years ago... it was well worth it!
What was the best advice given to you as an artist?
The best advice was from my grandfather, via my Mum: “Don’t do anything for money, but get as much money as you can doing what you love”.
Do you go to any special places for inspiration?
I like to go to the sea for inspiration. The space and perspective opens my mind. Visiting other makers in any discipline always inspires me. Also the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford when I can get there, that place gives me a hundred ideas every time. The objects, the materials, the authenticity of everything there...
You work from your studio in the Cotswolds. What’s the art scene like there and how does this area influence you creatively?
There is a big art scene here in Stroud, there are a lot of artists and creative types here which makes it a really great and supportive community for artists. I tend to exhibit more outside Stroud though where there is a stronger client base for me. I love living here as the town has enough arts and music going on but we also have all the hills and valleys that characterise the Cotswolds, there always seem to be new places and people to discover around here. I live on top of a hill and can see Wales in the distance, I love being able to see distant places, it makes me feel connected.
What are some of your favourite places in Stroud and why?
One of my favourite places in Stroud is my local pub, it is the best pub for miles! Miles and Lotte who run it are big music lovers so there is always an amazing band or music experience to be had there. It feels like a bohemian front room and is a key part of the community here in Rodborough (the local parish). The farmers market on a Saturday morning is a Stroud highlight too, everyone is out and after a week of working fairly isolatedly, it's a great time to run into people and catch up. Another favourite place is the views of the sunset in the summer months from my garden!
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am getting pieces together to install at a show at the end of Summer in Hereford called “Out of Nature”. Once that is installed I will be ordering a large piece of stone to begin my first large scale piece (large for me) around 2-3 m tall...
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I have enjoyed working on a relatively small scale, pieces that can be held, moved, but I would like to explore the possibilities of scaling up a bit, I’d like to work within the proportions of the body, to make pieces that are not figurative but that have a human scale and sensuality. I also aim to develop the combining of materials, move from housing feathers in the stone to housing bird and animal bones, skulls… some kind of reliquaries for discarded remains of animal life... I hope to continue finding my most authentic expression in the materials and objects I make, to honour the authenticity of the natural world and the physical, and process driven aspect of creating...
Can you recommend us:
A film: Exile, by Tony Gatlif ‒ about a couple who walk from Paris to Algeria to trace their roots, it is a love story and a pilgrimage story, it’s also about immigrants/exiles/refugees...
A song: “Sinnerman”, by Nina Simone... it is a long journey...
A book: Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson. My sister read it and thought it was depressing, but I found it to be the most honest, hopeful and funny story of a brave woman’s life. She has so much insight, wisdom and honesty...