Hammering out a witty balance between 'nature' and 'art'

AT a recent show for art dealers, a remarkable group of small sculptures caught my eye and stayed on my mind. The sculptures, at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, were of animals and birds - a hen, a cow, penguins, a kudu, a toucan, a ram. They were made of metal and strongly, shiningly colored. Above all they had that rare thing: originality. They were sculpturally inventive.

Joan Moore, the creator of these unusual objects, has been a professional sculptor for 40 years or more. She has worked in stone, wood, and bronze. Carving was her first love.

She lives in north London, where I met her, and also has a studio in Italy. Immediately warm and friendly, this small woman is as forthright in speaking as she is in hammering a little piece of steel into shape on her massive blacksmith's anvil. She is both certain of her aims in sculpture and engagingly modest about them.

Miss Moore's training at London's Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1930s involved life-drawing, and she loved making sculptures of the human figure. But then she began to feel ''it wasn't really 'real life': I mean, you don't see people wandering about nude.'' And she found that with animals the same things apply - ''all the anatomy and drawing I'd done in my training was extremely useful.''

As a child, Miss Moore had always wanted to be an artist, but instead of sending her to art school, her father made her go to domestic college to learn to cook. ''There I also learned dressmaking and tailoring, which I adored,'' she says. It was from tailoring that she learned a great deal that would later be very useful to her as a sculptor. ''It taught me the shape of a person, and how to fit that shape. When I came to making animal sculptures, I cut out patterns. Men wouldn't have thought of that idea! An animal is like a coat, almost. I make a paper pattern. Then I make the animal out of paper.''

This paper version is the basis of the final steel sculpture. The forms of her animals and birds might indeed be described as ''clothed'' - the flat shapes of steel cut, then formed with the hammer, then ''fitted'' around the image of the animal and welded. The hollow interiors of these sculptures are a distinct feature of their interest. This partial openness is also a technical necessity, because they have to be enameled inside as well as out.

The kiln in Miss Moore's studio is important because of the highly unusual way she colors her animal sculptures: by enameling them. Enamel - a vitreous glaze fused by heat with a metal surface - is today mainly thought of as a medium for jewelry, though it is an ancient technique for a variety of decorative arts and crafts. Yet she does not use it in a remotely medieval way. Her sculpture is in the very 20th-century medium of welded steel. To color this with enamel is at least unusual.

''I think I'm the only person doing anything quite like this,'' she says, obviously enjoying a process she has been practicing five years. ''It's quite different from pottery. I only put in one sculpture at a time - each one is individual - and only for three or four minutes. They come out red hot. I have to wear this mask. If the enameling is really good, you can drop them on the floor without damage - though I don't go about the place trying it!''

Enameling as a craft has endless ramifications. But Miss Moore tries to keep her use of it simple. She doesn't go for many colors. ''I learned enameling with a jeweler who was terribly good - and he wanted me to try something new all the time. I felt: No, this is wrong - I'm not really learning enameling, I just want it to color my sculpture. You need a certain amount of technique, but not too much.''

There are pitfalls in making such small sculptures. ''I have to avoid making them turn out like children's toys,'' she says. Perhaps for this reason she has so far avoided fish and insects. How would she display them? As mobiles? She is determined to avoid such cliches.

On the other hand, she believes her enameled steel sculptures are not conventional enough for some tastes. ''People don't like something different,'' she comments. ''If the sculptures were in bronze or wood, then you know this has been done through the ages and is quite safe.'' She finds even her use of color - sometimes vivid, sometimes muted and quiet, as suits different creatures - alarms people. ''But they don't think far enough back to when sculpture really was colored - to the Egyptian and Greek sculptures that were colored.'' For Miss Moore the use of enameled colors satisfies the painter in her. ''I started as a painter. I've always wanted to use color in sculpture.''

Animal sculpture - often very small - is, like enamel, also an ancient tradition. The Egyptians made wonderfully observed animal sculptures. So did the Chinese. Delightful animal sculptures were dug out of Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the 19th century there were the French animaliers making bronzes of wild beasts. In modern art, one might name Picasso and Calder as artists who have produced notable animal sculpture, although neither seems of much apparent interest to Joan Moore.

Her own procedures start with drawings. She has folders full of them, creased and crumpled and treated with no special care. This makes a dealer she knows ''very cross,'' she admits, but to her ''they're just working drawings.''

''I start off with quantities of drawings,'' she explains. ''I go to a zoo.'' London's own Regent's Park zoo is nearest. It was at Edinburgh Zoo that she drew the penguins. ''They're frightfully funny: like mayors and mayoresses, puffing along. Funny - and inquisitive. They wanted to come and see what I was doing.'' She drew sheep when a friend took her to a sheep fair near Melrose in Scotland. She drew cows on Alderney, one of the Channel Islands.

But it is birds that seem to attract her most of all. ''Metal,'' she says, ''seems to be extremely suitable for birds. I've got interested in birds now - how they're sometimes little tiny things like this'' - she cups her hands - ''in a corner, and then they come out with their terrific wings'' - she stretches out her arms.

Joan Moore's parrot and camel, fawning dog and kudu - the wingspread and forward strut of her pheasant eagle, the contortions of her cow turning backward to lick its flank - are not only alert and sensitive, but also strike a balance between ''nature'' and ''art,'' between observation on the one hand and reinvention on the other. They also have wit - in the sense of aptness and happy perception.

Still, she disavows any intention of humor. ''I never think in those terms at all! But I always remember in Italy there were about four of us together who would go sketching out-of-doors very seriously, and the children would watch us. They would go and look at everybody else's sketches, and then when they came to mine they'd always burst out laughing!'' She chuckles. ''I could never see what I was doing to make them laugh!''

''Perhaps,'' she adds, after a little thought, ''I do have a certain tendency towards caricature, possibly because I exaggerate what interests me.''

Yet if others find her sculptural bestiary humorous, she is nice enough not to mind: so long as they also take them as seriously as she undoubtedly, and rightly, does.

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