Samantha Bryan

portrait sam.jpgAirship FairyBrains Fairies Airship
Brains Fairies Winch
Landing practice

Yorkshire-based artist Samantha Bryan makes fantastical wire and mixed media sculptures. Her quirky – often humorous and always highly individual – figures depict long-limbed fairies manning bizarre, machine-like contraptions. They are characterised by an off-beat, zany charm which is realised by Bryan’s imaginative and skilful making technique. She says, ‘my objective is to realise the necessities and requirements involved in fairy life – to provide everything a fairy would need during its daily existence.’
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Your work follows a very specific (and unusual) theme – exploring life in fairyland - how did you develop this and was it something you always wanted to do?

No it wasn’t a conscious thing. It all started with a particular brief when I was at college. We were asked to come up with a witty Christmas character and my first fairy figure, which was very traditional, was inspired by old-fashioned Christmas decorations. The figures gradually developed into their unusual style through my looking at the natural world for stimulation. One day at college I came across a fantastic book called ‘From Punch to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Beyond’. It was full of elaborate, strange and faintly ridiculous drawings by Rowland Emett who did all the inventions for the film and fuelled my experimenting with the idea of invention. I became fascinated by Victorian and Edwardian inventions – I really liked the idea of making machines that were humorous but not necessarily necessary. I eventually managed to fuse this concept with my fairy characters by inventing contraptions that a fairy might need.

Your fairies all seem to tell a story – how important is narrative in your work?

I have always been into narrative – it is one of the main things for me. In my earlier pieces I would type out fairly elaborate explanations of what my characters were doing – for example learning to fly or catching dreams – as I felt I had to explain what I was up to, but now I have cut the labels down to captions. They are there to make people laugh and to explain the machines. A lot of the narrative element in my work is inspired by everyday life and the mundane.

Does humour play a big role in your work?

I do try and make people laugh, both through the narrative and the positions of the figures themselves, but my work is also about escapism, nostalgia and make-believe. I hope that it will temporarily remove the viewer from their worries into an imaginative world. I think that’s why it works so well in hospitals [Bryan has been commissioned to make pieces for Batley Health Centre and Moorfields Eye Hospital]. It can have a positive effect on what is often quite a depressing environment.

Do you have a clear idea of what you are going to make when you start or do you let the materials and techniques dictate the outcome?

The idea comes before the making. I normally have a clear idea of what I want to make and then I have to work out how to make it. I often start with a drawing as I am fascinated with making things look as though they really work and I need to figure them out on paper first. It’s a question of working a 2D drawing up into a 3D sculpture. But of course some shapes do evolve during the work process.

How do you make your figures?

I start by soldering brass wire into stick men and then feed the skeletons into leather outfits which I stuff with wadding. Their limbs are then wrapped with paper that is shaped to create detail like the knees. It is then aged to give them the right look. All the details are hand stitched. The faces are made out of air-dried clay. I make lots of the details out of things I find – for example I might use acorns or poppy heads to make helmets or feathers and leaf skeletons for wings.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

I am fascinated with experimenting with scale - something my public art projects have allowed me to do as they have forced me to make much bigger pieces. This year I was awarded an Arts Council Research and Development grant which I will use to visit new museums and collections to find new sources of inspiration. I might also experiment with new materials and techniques like knitting, but I will stick with this particular fairy narrative – I still feel there is a lot more I can do with it.