Mark My Words

Imogen Lycett Green meets sculptor Jo Sweeting.

Before we meet to talk, sculptor Jo Sweeting tells me her favourite book is Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer. Bird Cottage tells the story of Gwendolen Howard, a young woman who moves to Ditchling in Sussex after a failed romance, gives up on people, and fills her house with birds. She is interviewed by the ornithological societies and even approached by the BBC, but nobody believes what she is saying – that sparrows are individuals, that robins and tits (which fly in through her windows and sit on her shoulder) suffer loss and sorrow, joy and fear. ‘Len’ writes two books about her observations, but they are considered unscientific. She dies, unsung.

Bird Cottage is about the value and magic of noticing: if we notice the individual birds or indeed listen to and notice each other, and the natural world around us, we will learn and understand, instead of turning into the kind of people who destroy a planet or tarmac over gardens or, as Jo says, “drive around in horrid big cars, hating everyone.”

Unlike ‘Len’, Jo Sweeting lives at the core of a family – her husband Phil Sweeting is a picture-frame maker, their three children range from 20 to 25 – in the centre of a downland village, in the heart of a wider artist community that stretches from Brighton, where Sweeting lived most of her life, to the borders of Sussex and beyond. She has not (yet) given up on people, but she does spend her day working alone. Alone but for a constant flow of sparrows, finches, robins, dunnocks, blackbirds, doves and magpies. Sweeting’s house, studio and garden are the ‘Bird Cottage’ of her locality. To the birds, she’s like the Pied Piper, they follow her everywhere. They are so diverting, how does she get any work done? “I don’t know,” says Jo, as she and I sit mesmerised by a charm of goldfinches flitting and squabbling on a seed feeder hung on a lilac bush outside her kitchen window, their scarlet caps flashing in the sunlight. Then we spot a wren on a rose stem right there, behind the glass. We marvel at its diminutive size. “It’s really more of a moth,” says Jo. “But with the most beautiful, loudest song. ‘A bird the size of a leaf fills the whole lucid evening with his note, And flies’. That’s Wendell Berry,” she sighs. “I could sit here all day.”

But work she does, her monumental stone heads, woodcuts, chalk sculptures, smooth polished bird bowls, her stone panels and prints sell in abundance, here and abroad, the prints turning up most recently in a new book of poems by the current Scottish Makar [poet laureate] Kathleen Jamie. Jo has been a printmaker and sculptor for 40 years. After art school in Leeds, she trained as a teacher. Bringing up a family in the 90s and early 2000s she juggled teaching deaf children and making work, finding, as she calls them ‘parcels of time’ to explore her own path, her own needs as an artist. “Women have to do this,” she says. “We have to fight for the head space, make room for ideas to emerge, in between folding washing, cooking pasta and peas, clearing up sick.”

The children are now grown. Recently, she and Phil moved from the city into this village. Each morning she walks Ivo and Percy, a pair of whippets who have coats as soft as silk – one a dusky mole’s grey, the other brindle and white in patches. They are the dogs in Lucian Freud paintings, they are the Platonic ideal of a dog, so beautiful that daily proximity to them would surely make a painter of you, too. I begin to notice that everything around Jo Sweeting is considered and beautiful.

Here we are in the tiny kitchen, layered with plates, pictures and pottery, in blue and brown and yellow and grey, natural hues which blend into one another as if part of a larger artwork. On the chest there is a snail shell with a hole in it pecked by a thrush. On the windowsill, a row of five stone nests, pebbles hollowed out by Jo’s chisel, carved with the names of birds on the RSPB Red List, birds in decline: lapwing, sparrow, swift, greenfinch, tit. She can’t keep up with demand for these tiny nest sculptures. “The tits sold out immediately”, she laughs, raising her eyes to heaven.

I cradle a stone nest in my palm. The house itself is a nest, I realise, woven together as a bird would do it, years of practice, instinct and natural materials ‘feathering’ the interior. Nothing jars. Everything is safely in its rightful place. Is Jo Sweeting’s whole world arranged like this? “Of course,” she says. She points to a bowl of lemons. “Do you think that bowl is just plonked there?” Well, yes, I thought it might have just landed there, as things do in my house. Then I notice that her Oxalis, a deep reddish brown house plant with butterfly leaves, has no peachy pink flowers on its stems. Mine at home is in bloom. No flowers? “Oh no, I don’t like the colour.” says Jo. “I snip the flowers off as soon as they appear.” She makes a snipping action, grins mischievously. “Off with their heads!”

Jo is attached to her home – this new one, and the one in Brighton before that – with an umbilical cord. She rarely strays beyond a three-mile radius. “I have this irrational fear that my home and family will be rolled up and removed while I am away.” Perhaps not so irrational, for Jo was adopted, her natural mother moving to Australia. She has recently met up with her natural mother’s son, her brother Dan, and his all too brief two visits to England have ripped open this primal wound again. But she is nothing if not brave and she would rather have hugged him and suffered his leaving again, than never have met him at all. She trusts Dan, instinctively, even though she did not know of his existence for most of her life. “It was a revelation, feeling so akin to him. I don’t trust many people,” she says.

But she has learnt to trust herself, at least as far as her work is concerned. “I absolutely believe in the work I make,” she says. Jo’s dedication to form and shape – “look, she says, even the fabric of my shirt pleases me, it snaps, can you hear it?” – is the sign of a disciplinarian who gets up day after day to tap, tap, tap patiently with a chisel and mallet into stone until the shape she is seeking begins to evolve. She will rest, look, study, walk around the piece, wait, begin again. She knows when the piece has found its form, when it’s time to stop.

Having the courage to start was the hard part. “I had to suffer the jibes of men delivering huge blocks of stone – where does ‘e want this, darlin’? – who didn’t believe it was for me. They looked for a man to sign the docket.” Stone masons and sculptors, by tradition, have often been male. And it is hard work, physically. Jo’s arms have suffered, her back too. She is two inches shorter than she was at the start of her career, from the twisting and carving of stone. “It’s like I’m grinding myself into the earth!”

So what drew her to such an unwieldy material? “If my work is about anything, it is about impermanence, about grief and by default, is a celebration of life,” she explains. The permanence of stone makes this point more acutely. She explains ‘shul’, a concept at the core of her work. ‘Shul’ is a Tibetan word for a mark which remains after the thing that made it has passed through. “Like a dry riverbed, a footprint or a hollow an animal has made in the grass where it slept the night before.” So every line or excavation of stone is a mark made, a ‘shul’. But just that, for on a universal level, even stonework is fleeting, just as our lives are.

And, rare for a sculptor, Sweeting likes to carve directly on to the face of the stone, without certainty. She has faith in ‘reciprocity’: there is a call and response – the face she carves, or the shape she makes is created in response to/in conversation with the piece of stone. “I make no maquettes,” she explains. Even when working with wood. “I want the piece of wood to be present at the end of the work.” To work in this way, you must trust the process will deliver. “You only have to begin,” she says.

So her process is ‘alive’ in a way which is apparent in the finished work – there is movement, even her carved lettering stretches, filling the space, or becomes smaller to squeeze into a corner, her whole attitude to letter carving going against the more traditional formality of the trade, such as names etched into war memorials, where the lists and uniformity and scale of the letters ‘entomb’ the people it is commemorating, she believes, rather than celebrating them. “Nothing stays still. I notice things dying and growing every day. If you stay close to the natural world, you can’t help but notice. I don’t think we care enough about things, we need to be helped to notice.”

In this spirit, Sweeting started the ‘Wunderkammer’ project in lockdown. Wunderkammer is a German word for a cupboard of curiosities, a display cabinet, a collection housed in one place. She advertised through social media, asking people to send her natural objects they cared about, and to write to her about why they mattered. “The only criterion was it had to be smaller than a badger.” She received over 100 objects, from an oyster shell with a hole in it to a beeswax honeycomb. One letter contained a single blade of grass. Sweeting opened the envelope and nearly lost the blade of grass. “Only four people asked me to send their object back,” she says. “They entrusted me with their precious things, that meant so much.” The key, she says, is again reciprocity, giving without exchange, and then what you get back is something else, something other than you expected. She has many chests full of these objects and letters, and each donation is recorded on its own page in a handwritten ledger. When the last page (267) is filled, she will hold an exhibition and invite the contributors to celebrate the collection and its hundreds of stories.

As a child, Sweeting was always scribbling down stories, words, fragments of poems. Words gripped her and still do. They are scattered through her work. She often begins with a line of poetry, is inspired by a single word. Her adoptive mother was a primary school teacher, who encouraged her pupils to make ‘nature tables’ by collecting moss and pebbles, twigs and leaves. “She took us on walks, and we picked things up then came home and labelled what we found. Of course [nature writer] Robert Macfarlane is on to it, the call is out, but I will say again, we cannot lose the names.” She mentions ‘Bird’s foot Trefoil’ (a tiny yellow vetch) and ‘Ragged Robin’, the minute pink geranium you find at the base of hedgerows. “Foxgloves! Foxes with gloves on, can you imagine!”

Her love of words developed into a love of reading. The first grown-up novel she read was An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. “The title alone was extraordinary,” she says. She had connected with Ezra Pound and TS Eliot through schoolwork, then came the war poets, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas. She’s never forgotten the Thomas line: ‘larks rising, spire upon spire.’ She tells me the story of Thomas’s death, an almost unbearable manifestation of ‘shul’. He was killed by concussive shock from an explosion. There was not a mark on his body, but the notebook in his pocket had a ripple running through it, the ‘impression’ of the explosion.

“How truthful and beautiful is that?” says Sweeting, shaking her head in wonder. “And how could he be surrounded by all this blood and watching people die and still write poetry.” Jo has recently written a 40,000-word memoir – a maker’s journey –on a 1950s Olivetti Lettera typewriter. It was a slow process, like tapping with a chisel into stone, but, as she says, you only have to begin. She writes every day, as things affect her – big things, like her father’s recent death on New Year’s Day, to small things, like the death of a tiny goldfinch, killed by a cat on her doorstep.

“Words are at the heart of everything I do.” She has 30 sketchbooks from her art school days, filled entirely with words. Another Sweeting project is the Word Hoard, supported by Robert Macfarlane, where she collects words specific to local areas that describe geographical formations, human activity in the landscape or weather patterns. The collaborative, all-female project began in Devon, where artists carve words like PALSH –meaning ‘to walk slowly while looking’ in the Devon dialect – into huge boulders on the beach. In Sussex, where the project links with Ditchling Museum, Jo worked with Louisa Thomsen-Brits, carving Sussex dialect words into a chalk boulder they called The Foundle (a thing found) on the Downs above Firle, which led to a new commission from Pallant House.

After five hours talking (that’s at least 15,000 words on tape!) we end the day with a glass of red wine in her garden studio. I run my finger around a Portland limestone bird bath named Wandering Bowl, carved with three words for ‘walking’ in dialects from Scotland, East Anglia and Northern Ireland: stravaig, striddle, shulve. Through the window you can see a Bronze Age barrow high on the hill. Behind the studio, an 8th-century church, built over a Saxon burial ground, built over a Roman site. When they moved here, Sweeting renamed her 1520 flint cottage ‘Long Ground’, to encompass the ancient value and meaning of the ground beneath her feet. Eyebrows were raised in the village, but she stood firm. The act of renaming, I now see, is a mark of respect. It is a way of noticing.

Oh I wish I could report that just then a pair of owls started their own call and response – a twit and a twoo. What a perfect ending. But nothing ends perfectly, it just ends when it ends, and what we are left with is Jo Sweeting’s own ‘shul’: her markmaking in print, her deep lines in stone and her carving of words we might otherwise tend to forget – Maunder, Driftway, Dimpse, Haitchy, Hag-track, Shay.

For the first time ever, Jo opened her studio as part of Artwave 2023: September 2 – 17, To donate to the Wunderkammer Project please contact Jo on Instagram @thestonecarver

Imogen Lycett Green is an arts journalist and curator of kids’ poetry projects, including Betjeman Poetry Prize and Track Record.