03 Oct Carved in Stone – Jo Sweeting
Sometimes you meet a creative person whose approach to their work – and life – is as inspiring as their creations.
Sculptor and letter carver Jo Sweeting is one of those people. From her studio in Brighton, East Sussex, Jo’s imagination strolls through the English countryside seeking inspiration for her works featuring the landscape and human heads.
Jo draws from the Tibetan idea of ‘shul’ – traces left on a landscape by plants, people and animals as they move through life.
She joins us Under the Oak Tree to talk inspiration, determination and how disappointment can end up shaping your life and work in the most magical way…
“I try to capture fleeting moments in my works,” says Jo. “When I carve tiny summer blooms, they become part of the stone, something monumental that could last for thousands of years.”
“Everything about the landscape and the way we move through it inspires me. I haven’t been off this island for 20 years.”
Jo doesn’t need to travel for her mind to roam. “This land, this place… this stone. Everything starts from what I see around me.”
Rather than a formal apprenticeship in lettering, Jo comes from a fine art and sculpture background. Which means she feels freer to create more human, tactile stone pieces.
“I might start with a poem or a feeling,” she says. “I will think about certain words and the feeling of the thing as I turn it over in my head. It’s only really when I carve and work on stone that it develops into what it is meant to be.”
“I can cut a perfect line in stone,” says Jo. “I can make eyes look like eyes – but all of my heads and faces end up with quite different expressions.”
Jo loves the poet Edward Thomas, who wrote about the English landscape. “I did one head inspired by one of his poems, about going to France and looking back at this island of ours. One side of his face was soldierly, but the other side – turned to look back at England – had softened as he gazed back to these shores. My pieces come to life as I carve them.”
However, she had to find her own path to success. “When I finished my fine art degree I was supposed to go to the Royal Academy, and would have liked to do a formal apprenticeship in lettering, which is an ancient, specific art,” Jo explains. “However, I had already been studying for five years. I had children to look after. So, I ended up working as an art teacher, which I loved.”
Jo still created pieces for herself. “I knew that in the end if I really wanted to, I would find a way to work for myself.” And she did.
Now Jo can spend up to a year working on a single piece, which also requires nerves of steel. “For a long time the carving is nowhere near where you want it to be. It’s ugly, it’s rough – often for months. I have to walk away and shut the door and not look at it for a while. Then suddenly you think, “Yes!”‘.
Although Jo is a sculptor, working with stone rather than clay requires a leap of faith and a strong belief in the image or idea that has inspired her.
“As children, we are taught to play with building blocks to make things,” she explains. “Carving, on the other hand, means having the courage to take away rather than add. I could not physically carve the same thing twice, even from a similar block of stone. The result will always look and feel different.”
Which is why Jo feels honoured that those who commission her pieces are prepared to take a leap of faith with her. “I feel really lucky that people invest their belief in my belief. They have seen what I do, but they don’t really know what they are going to get. They believe in me to create something they will love.”
The rhythms of nature and the passing seasons all feature in Jo’s pieces. Each one, however big or small, calls out to be touched. The soft, sculptural beauty of her work seems so tied to the world around us, it looks as if nature itself has had a hand in its creation – which in a way it has.
Jo feels part of the landscape around her Sussex home, and part of the very song of life. “When I am carving I make a rhythm, tick, tick, tick,” she says. “When I drive afterwards I can feel that rhythm inside me and feel as if I am carving through the landscape in my car, like the lines through the surface of stone.”