Jason Sweeney's story is a fascinating one. It is an inspirational tale of a man who found his forte in life as an artist by following his heart. By Marcus Janssen.
Recognised now as a prodigious talent who creates sporting art in the form of beautiful and bespoke metal sculptures of British wildlife, his journey didn't start on the streets of Paris or Venice or even in an art classroom or college as one might expect. His story began one day whilst he was shoeing a young lady's horse.
Jason was working as a farrier in Lancashire where he grew up and was raised by his father, when he fell in love with one of his customers: "I used to shoe Reike's horse, and we actually got together on the night of her leaving party back in 2000. She was moving back home to the Borders, and I ended up following her.
Initially I used to commute up to Scotland to see her, and I would stay for a few days. That's how I started sculpting really, as I needed something to do."
For the first time in Jason's life, he had an opportunity to explore and pursue his interest in art: "Where I grew up in Lancashire, there was quite a lot of poverty, and although the school did really well, I could never do art or take it as a subject - I'd have got my head kicked in! My family wanted me to work in a factory so that I'd get a pension and things like that. Art wasn't something that could be taken seriously."
And so, inspired by his love of nature, and unhindered by the constraints or expectations of others, Jason found himself in a leaky old shed belonging to his girlfriend's parents, where he started to work on a sculpture of a salmon that he had found lying on the banks of the River Tweed. "I have always been fascinated by wildlife. Where we lived in Lancashire was quite urban - to live in the country was something that I aspired to. We only had industrial canals and ponds around us, and the salmon was seen as the ultimate. For me, the salmon typifies cleanliness and natural beauty. I was so excited when I got up to the Borders to see the Tweed."
Using his metal working skills that he had developed as a farrier and blacksmith, Jason worked on that first piece for several weeks: "I had no idea what the hell I was doing, so I just kept banging away at it and experimenting until I was happy with it. I was completely engrossed in it, and the time seemed to pass very quickly."
Eventually, satisfied with the result, Jason decided to take his salmon into Kelso on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. "I was quietly ecstatic with the result. I had made this thing, and I was bubbling inside. Looking back now, it wasn't a masterpiece! I had no idea where I could sell it, and so I took it into this gallery, and presented it to them. And it was that classic thing, a case of stick and twist as they told me: "No, I don't think we would sell anything like that round here." It was wet and rainy and I had worked so hard on this bloody thing and had just been given a flat rejection." Naturally, Jason was devastated. He'd had the wind knocked from his sails and already, his career as an artist looked like it had come to an abrupt end. "I thought to myself: What the hell! Why have I messed about with this thing? What was it all for? And just as I was about to go back home in the pouring rain, I walked past Tweedside Tackle. I stood outside the shop for a while and thought: 'Should I go in? Yes!' The lady who owned it back then, Linda Vipond, made a big fuss of me and said how lovely the fish was and that she would show it for me. I went out of that shop feeling a million dollars." Less than two weeks later, Jason's first ever sculpture had been sold, fetching the princely sum of about £200.
Jason reflects with both nostalgia and deep gratitude as he looks back to that fateful day in Kelso: "Sometimes in life, times can be hard, and you have to accept that that's how things are. But every so often you turn a corner - it can unnerve you a little bit because just when you were expecting another kick up the backside, you get a lucky break!"
With a newfound confidence in his ability as an artist, Jason set about sculpting with gusto, and before long, he held his first exhibition in a small country house nearby. "I had made a few pieces, maybe six things. We had a pair of salmon on exhibition, and very luckily, a member of the Percy family bought the pair of fish. And again, I had another huge lift! You're not sure where it is all going, you're just fathoming your way through it, and then somebody like that buys your work! It was such a compliment, I felt completely flattered."
Buoyed by his success, Jason continued to sculpt the wildlife he was surrounded by. Indeed, not only is wildlife the subject of his art, but it is also the inspiration behind it: "It's like fishing and shooting - it's not just about the quarry, it's about being out there and seeing it all. You don't just want to kill everything - you are there to enjoy the outdoors, see it all, immerse yourself in it and everything around you, and appreciate it. You're out there with a gun a lot, but you don't always shoot - you often just look and watch."
This keen sense of observation is pivotal to Jason's work as each and every piece is unique and more often than not is based on a fish that he has caught or an animal that he, or someone else, has shot. "Every single one starts as a sketch of something, whether it's a woodcock I've been given or a salmon I have in the freezer, and each bit must be made in sections - in constituent parts - and then assembled anatomically. The steel arrives off the back of a wagon in 2mm thick flat sheets, and I've then got to beat it out with nylon hammers around a frame. I then add the various parts, like the head and the fins in flat panels, each heated and beaten out and hammered into shape."
It's a long and drawn out process, and a single piece can take up to several months to complete. It's no wonder then that Jason gets excited when he has an opportunity to sculpt something new. From his home, it is a mere amble down to the water's edge where the Eyemouth fishing boats come in with their catches. "It's like when you're a kid and are on a river walk, you naturally gravitate towards the water, and in the same sense, when the boats are in, I go down to where they bring the fish in, to see what they've got. I'm infatuated, and there could be anything in those boxes like red gurnard or ray's bream. They save them for me and I put them in my freezer. So in between commissions to keep me keen and inspired, I'll sculpt something completely new." Jason admits that there probably isn't a huge demand for sculptures of red gurnard or ray's bream, but as long as his own passion for what he does is maintained, the homes of his discerning clients will continue to be adorned with his stunning sporting sculptures of British wildlife.
It has been nearly ten years since that rainy afternoon in Kelso, and things have certainly changed. Jason no longer works from a leaky shed - he now has a warm and dry workshop attached to the house that he and Reike have had built - and despite the regular commissions he receives being a clear testament to his skill as a sculptor, he modestly puts a lot of it down to luck: "I'm now 37 years old, and it's taken me this long to feel like I have some idea of what life is all about. We've just got the house finished, and I'm very lucky to live where I do, and have such a great partner and family with Reike. I can shoot and fish and I get to do the things I love. And now people like what I'm doing with my art. To have all those things is just great. If it wasn't for luck, I might never have continued with this." It was American author Elbert Hubbard who said that luck is tenacity of purpose, and in Jason's case, I'd have to agree.
Jason's art can be seen on exhibition at The House of Bruar in Perthshire, The Tryon Gallery and The Mall Galleries in London and at Tweedside Tackle in Kelso. www.jasonsweeney.co.uk