William Pye

Portrait of william PyeScyllaThree in One

William Pye is best-known for his dramatic water sculptures. Pye sees water as a material in its own right that can be manipulated and moulded in the same way as any other material and he uses it to create sculptures of great originality and force. He has worked on a range of private and public commissions, but perhaps the most famous was his Water Wall, created for the British Pavilion at Expo '92 in Seville

William Pye will be speaking at our Inspired By Nature seminar on Saturday 30 June at West Dean College.


How do you describe yourself professionally?

I see myself primarily as a sculptor. I make things with my hands and am really at the other end of the spectrum from the conceptual artist. I believe very strongly in the importance of making and come from a family of makers and craftsmen. Process is integral to my practice.

You started your career as a sculptor working in fairly traditional materials, what made you change direction and decide to focus on water as a material in its own right?

My fascination with water goes right back to my early childhood. I was bought up in a house with a stream running through the garden and I used to spend lots of time playing in it. Water was deeply rooted in my psyche and when I was away at school I used to daydream about it. When I started my career as a sculptor this interest in water lay dormant for about 20 years, although some of the materials I used share characteristics with water – reflection is one example where polished stainless steel and a still pond reflect their surroundings or stainless steel cables which catch the light in the same way jetted water catches the light. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I started using water in my work after I had noticed the rhythmical ripple effect of water flowing across and down a steep flooded road in Wales. I tried to exploit that effect with Gatwick Cones – my first pieces to incorporate water – and then went on from there.

What attracts you about water as a sculptural material?

Although it’s a real challenge trying to control it and there are terrific limitations on what you can and can’t do with it, water is full of possibilities for refinement. For example you can go on and on perfecting the way water pours out of a spout. I also love the huge range of expressive potential in water. Different states of water can convey different emotions - you can use it to convey tranquillity, while waves can be violent and exciting and a whirlpool can be sinister or frightening.

How do you manipulate and control water which is such an elusive material?

I spend a lot of time researching and developing techniques. I experiment all the time, trying to find out what would happen if I did so and so. It’s a continual process of trial and error. I love a challenge and am obsessed with trying to do things which I haven’t done before – it keeps me happy! At the moment I am very interested in working out ways of running light through water. I am trying to work out how to induce laminar flow (which means that the water molecules are parallel to each other so turbulence is reduced and the water flows out smoothly) on a large scale as once this is achieved you can introduce light that works like a glass filament and produces an extraordinary beautiful effect.

Water is always very tempting to touch - do you mind people touching your sculptures?

No, not at all – I’ve no problem with that whatsoever. I recently visited my Aquarena water terraces in Millennium Square in Bristol which the council there have filled with water of swimming pool quality and was delighted to see that it was awash with small children.

What part of your practice do you enjoy most, the commissioned projects or your studio work?

I survive by my commissions but my studio work is important too as it is really the fruit of a series of ongoing experiments. I like to have a combination of work and introduce as much variety as possible. Different projects – whether they be small, large, private or public – all have different challenges and I love a challenge.