Hamish Mackie deserves to sit back on his laurels for a while. The 36-year-old Cornishman has bust a gut since leaving school, building a reputation as a high class sculptor of movement in wild animals. His wife Laura and three small children have recently moved into a dreamy barn conversion in Oxfordshire. He has cracked the formula that outwits most artists, namely being paid to exercise your passions.
The daily ‘commute' from kitchen to studio takes less than 15 seconds across the garden, where he works from 7.30am to 6.30pm most days. His roomy, well-lit atelier could double as a game larder, with its system of hoists and pulleys to hang carcasses for study. A flat-screen TV against one wall allows Hamish to watch videos of the animals surveyed in Africa, to ensure he has mastery over their movement and character. Most of the sculpting is done by hand, although he has a box of simple tools such as palette knives, sponges, files and handmade wooden scrapes by his work desk. There are models and bronzes everywhere. Otters chase trout in a stream of fresh air, impala bound across the savannah, Highland cattle relieve a permanent itch on their backsides under the gaze of a brooding gorilla.
Hamish's accuracy is all the more remarkable given the range of subjects he tackles. The technique for creating the delicateness of a tip-toeing avocet must be a world away from depicting the fearsome potency of a black rhino? “I find myself drawn to these challenges,” he said, “Don't forget that the animals themselves show different mannerisms, depending on their mood. For example, I once sculpted the same herd of elephants at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. One moment I'd watch a matriarch caring for her new-born calf; then a playful youngster trumpeting; and finally the violent aggression of two large tuskers fighting. The days just flew by.”
He will spend many weeks in Africa, watching the animals from a vehicle, photographing, filming or sculpting just yards from his subject matter. Recently, he also went fishing for yellowfin tuna off Manda Bay off the Lamu Coast in the name of research. “Not many people get to do that and call it work!”
Most prominent in his studio, however, were three large sculptures of European subjects: a wild boar and a red stag, both life-size bronzes, as well as a charging Spanish bull cast in silver. The first two may end up trotting across a woodland ride or strutting the lawns of a country estate. The bull was recently bought by an Omani client. Despite the sterile setting of the studio, the boar bristled with vitality and Hamish was eager to explain the fun it provided. “I now have the equipment to hang a beast of this size in my studio, so I was able to examine the anatomy in great detail. The first step was to build an accurate armature - a wire skeleton - on which to sculpt the clay. All of the joints on the armature are bendable, so I can manipulate it into any poses I need. The only drawback was the stench. Happily, I have a freezer in my studio, which helped, but I'll limit carcasses to winter months from now on!”
On the stag's torso, the rough dollops of clay which the sculptor has pushed with the palm of his hand are clearly visible, but they blend together to give a lifelike interpretation of its majesty on the hill. “The story behind how each piece came to be is a big part of my work,” he said. “I have always been fascinated how even a fingerprint can be reproduced in bronze. The client can see how my hands have worked the clay or wax - I literally leave a history as to how the piece was made.”
More impressive still is the hallmarked silver sculpture of a raging Spanish bull. Again, the surface has a rough texture which demonstrates the surging power of el toro, rather than a smooth, mirrored effect so often associated with the precious metal. The viewer can almost see through the skin of the bull to the heaving musculature beneath. Hamish is also casting silver sculptures of two elephant bulls sparring in time for his exhibition. These weighty sculptures represent the change in direction for Hamish, who has never attempted such big subjects before. They are something of a commercial risk too. He must fund the materials and labour up front: a substantial outlay, especially for the silver.
Hamish wanted to show off the foundry where his models are cast, so we rattled down the country lanes in his battered VW Transporter van. En route, he explained why he needs to take this new step. “I know where I want to get to with my art and that means pushing on. I want to do the really big African game, as well as life-size bulls and horses. That's the ambition.”
He has been sculpting as a career since 1996 and has works in public and private collections around the world. Public commissions include Merrill Lynch, Hiscox Insurance, Barclays Bank, The National Trust, RSPCA, Woburn Abbey, Chapman University California and Gilbane Development Company, Rhode Island. Hamish has a natural talent, as well as a passion, which was developed at Radley College, Falmouth School of Art and Kingston University.
Commercial success is a driving force. Unlike many artists, Hamish enjoys the business element of his trade and manages his own marketing, publicity and accounts. But, money aside, he just cannot stop himself.
“I sculpted the boar, stag and bull as I can't resist tackling the animals I feel so passionately about. This year, I am travelling to Antarctica to sculpt elephant seals, penguins and albatross in time for an exhibition at Mallett in New York in October 2011. How could I say no? I am fortunate to have the artistic freedom that I don't have to depend solely on client commissions, but sometimes I get a bit carried away. That's the problem of loving what you do!”
We arrived at the Lockbund Sculpture Foundry near Banbury in time for mid-morning tea and toast. Hamish was soon sitting at a picnic table outside, sharing a joke with the craftsmen who bring his creations to life. “There's no point being over-precious about your work here,” he said. “After all, this is art and not an exact science. Accidents can and do happen, but there is usually a way round it. I trust these guys to do the best possible job.”
The foundry employs the 5,000-year-old ‘lost wax' process of casting metal, albeit with modern materials. In simple terms, the ‘positive' clay model provides an imprint for a negative mould made of silicon rubber. Wax is then painted into the details of the mould to create a positive again. The wax is coated in layers of ceramic, which is then fired to melt away the wax, leaving a negative ceramic shell. Molten bronze at 1200 degrees centigrade is poured into the shell using a system of runners and risers ‘sprue' pipes, which allow an even flow of bronze as the gases escape. Once cooled, the ceramic is removed with a hammer and nitric acid, revealing the bronze sculpture, which is finished with traditional metalwork techniques. The final stage is for the Hamish to patinate the bronze into different colours, using chemicals and a blowtorch.
Lockbund owner Simon Allison first worked with Hamish 17 years ago, deferring payment until the greenhorn's sculptures had been bought. “I could see from the start that Hamish would make it as an artist,” said the 55-year-old New Zealander, a sculptor himself. “I took a bit of a punt, but I recognised that he had the drive and enthusiasm to make the project work. What stands Hamish apart is the energy that exudes from his work. He has grunt and plenty of it.”
Simon is in no doubt that the decision to think big is the right one. “Someone needs to commission him to do some really stonking big sculptures. Like a life-size African elephant perhaps. That would bring out the best in him.”
This year's exhibitions may well allow Hamish to reflect on his successes up until now. Yet, they will be fleeting thoughts, as all this grunt is being mustered for the next chapter in his career. After all, when your art specialises in movement, it must be mighty difficult to stand still.