He has enjoyed an international career, receiving widespread acclaim for his welded steel and bronze works… but Michael Lyons sometimes looks to pen and paper for inspiration.
The Bilston-born sculptor draws on memories of growing up in the Black Country, exploring the Jurassic goldmine of Wren’s Nest, Dudley, on his way to his grandmother’s house.
His studies at Wolverhampton College of Art, now part of the University of Wolverhampton, enabled him to explore the possibilities of steel, a material he found well-suited to his interpretation of the regional landscape.
Industry and nature flow through his sculptures as he marries early influences with his travels in China and Canada, America, Mexico… landscapes not always a million miles from home.
And it is when he is forming ideas, trying to understand his response to what is in front of him, that Michael turns to poetry.
‘Drawing is very intimate for me, and poetry is similarly intimate, as opposed to making bolder statements in sculpture.
‘The poems can be very direct, as can the drawings. Sculpture, by contrast, takes a very long time and so these more direct works can run parallel to the sculptural ideas.
‘My working process in beginning a sculpture can be through photographs, through aspects of poetry, through working with wax models, or by working directly with steel.’
Virgin of the blue skies, of dark mountains,
your stars are scattered in the depth of the oceans
and hidden under rumbling volcanoes.
Your gaudy image repeated endlessly,
sheltering in the shadow of the market stalls,
does not diminish the essence of your vibrant presence
illuminating the sacred landscape.
from 12th December (The Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe) © Michael Lyons
In the oily
In the empty
Of the silent
Below the molten
Of the lake
from The Lake Afire © Michael Lyons 1995
‘I’m interested in evolution, and nature, and man’s place in the world; the seasons, the movement of clouds against an industrial backdrop. In the 50s and 60s you could see for miles and miles over industry.
‘The train journey from Wolverhampton to Birmingham was littered with factories and the remains of war. Before Thatcher wiped it all out, there was industry everywhere… you could smell it in the air.
‘In the Black Country, you see a convergence of nature and industry; memories of my childhood exploring the Wren’s Nest have reverberated in my work ever since. You can feel a sense of the rocks and the very groundworkings of the earth.’
The rocks of the land
tear open the flesh of the earth
exposing its innards like the entrails of the martyr
pulled by cart to Tyburn Tree
then hung drawn and quartered
from Heart’s Flight © Michael Lyons
Michael reveals he very nearly didn’t get into art school.
‘I hadn’t got any work to show them and so I was given a three-week trial. I had no sense of perspective whatsoever. I remember drawing a phone box like it was a three-storey building.’
He stuck it out and by the final year had decided to specialise in sculpture. A small welding workshop set up by tutor Roy Kitchin introduced him to steel.
Michael’s work often takes his perspective beneath things: rock formations or lakes, as if his subject is seeking solace, immersed in emotion.
He hasn’t made much obvious figural work since the 1960s, but a human or animal presence is implied in Voice of the Mountain: Sudden Storm (2009), and Ritual and Rebirth (1998), which fuse elements of landscape, the human form, and Chinese cultural references.
‘I found, in China, that the landscape outside Hangzhou was very industrial. In the Guilin mountains the rock shoots up out of the ground, and you can go into the caves by boat, just as you can explore the canals and tunnels of Dudley.
‘There was a correlation with the Black Country. It was a real surprise, and I was quite touched to see the similarities, and that fusion of landscape and industry again.’
Making drawings and poems allows Michael to fully explore themes and arrive at a more rounded understanding than that offered by sculpture alone.
He is keen for these works to be seen in their own right: the ink drawings Voice of the Mountain: Sudden Storm (2009) were made after the sculpture of the same name, using Chinese ink on Xuan paper. Commentators in China recognised his understanding of calligraphic forms.
Poetry, calligraphy and painting are known in Chinese culture as ‘the three perfections’ sharing aesthetic conventions, brushstrokes migrating between calligraphy and painting, and paintings often including inscriptions or poems.
Full Circle, Wolverhampton Art Gallery 2018
His poetry offers an additional dimension.
Michael Lyons was talking to Louise Palfreyman at Full Circle, a major exhibition of his work at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
Michael Lyons was born in Bilston in 1943 and attended Wolverhampton College of Art.
He was included in exhibitions such as the ICA’s ‘Young Contemporaries’ and the Whitworth’s ‘Northern Young Contemporaries’.
His work has taken him to China and Canada, where he has taught and made sculpture, and to residencies in Mexico, Germany, America, Turkey and Cyprus.
His steel constructions, rooted in the tradition of Picasso, González and David Smith, and organic bronzes, draw on aspects of nature, myth and ancient cultures.
Lyons’ drawings and sculpture are represented in the collections of the Canary Wharf Group, Arts Council England, Henry Moore Institute, Yale Centre for British Art and galleries throughout Britain and abroad. Lyons was a founding member of Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Vice-President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.