We joined Richard Perry in his inspiring home at the top of an old watermill surrounded by branches of the River Soar and the lush green fields of the Midlands. We also visited his incredible nearby studio where large blocks of stone sat in different stages of their transformation. We discussed his natural progression into the arts, his guerrilla art activities as a student in Leeds and his ongoing mission to discover the magic of material.

Hi Richard, we are so excited to welcome you to Smithson Gallery. We have admired your work for a while now and are excited about a new sculptural direction for the gallery. I’m sure our collectors would love to know a bit more about you so I’d like to start by hearing a bit about your background, and how you came to be an artist?

Delighted to be here! I was always drawing and painting as a child, and wanted to be an artist from an early age. One of my earliest memories was being mesmerised by The Observers Book of Painting – there was a famous Constable painting with lots of trees in the foreground, and some water and landscape in the distance, which inspired me to start looking more closely at the world around me. There were some large beech trees opposite our house, and I can remember noticing for the first time that their trunks were silver and green, rather than brown as children would typically paint them. So I was thinking about colour and the perception of things quite early on.

Amazing! So it sounds like you had quite a clear trajectory from when you were 4 or 5, right up to when you went to art school. You knew what you wanted, but did you know how to get there? 

I went to an all-boys secondary modern school and I’m dyslexic, so school didn’t set me up well, but fortunately I ended up at a further education college which specialised in Fine Art. I went on to Sheffield Polytechnic for a term, before transferring to Leeds Polytechnic because that’s where my future wife, Jude, was studying. It was the right decision to make – the course suited me well because I could do sculpture as well as paint.

How romantic! Tell us more about your time at Leeds?

I was inspired to experiment at Leeds by fantastic staff who encouraged deep and critical thinking. It was a very open and liberal course, with 24/7 studio access which was perfect for me. This was the late 70s / early 80s, and large parts of Leeds were crumbling. There were old mills and canals and all sorts of interesting and edgy places. I started making large-scale outdoor things in the grounds of the college – my friend and I would go out with wheelbarrows and collect materials from landfill sites. Every day we would make a sculpture, and eventually we got a bit cocky and would go and make things in the town centre, with bricks and cement and everything! We got into trouble once with the police. We were known because we did it such a lot, and the majority of people really took to it! 

Sounds like great fun! What an amazing opportunity to have those resources on your doorstep, and not having the limitations of the ‘red tape’ of today. I bet you discovered so much about you as an artist by doing that?

It was great at the time and I learnt a lot about context and scale. It was very playful and responsive too, our sculptures would change depending on whether we were doing them outside a high street bank or in a more derelict part of the city. I still feel that need to experiment and play.

And is that why you keep drawing and painting alongside your sculptural practice?

Yes. I spend some mornings with a long brush and ink doing automatic painterly drawings. They are not schematic, I’m not trying to work out sculptures – instead I’m playing with, and embracing the fluidity of the drawing process. I find a freedom there that is adjacent to my sculptural work. You can get lost in spontaneous drawing whereas with certain aspects of sculpture you must be both technically and artistically on the ball. I think I approach my practice from a painter’s perspective more than a sculptor’s.

So tell us about the shift into working with stone as your primary material? 

I started carving, which really made me appreciate the joy of material. I started with wood, and gradually moved to stone. I am very sensitive to the material I am working with, and try to find and lean into the qualities and potentials inherent to the material. I favour stone for its ability to be transformed by light. I work with the qualities of the stone, for example if I’m using a hard stone that takes sharp edges, it’s the transition and contrast of planes of light that becomes very interesting, in contrast to something like alabaster which lends itself to much more supple and visceral organic forms. 

Yes I imagine each one comes with its own technicalities and personalities, and this informs how you work with it?

Yes, different materials have different limitations. But with granite for example, you can do pretty much anything, it just depends how much time you are willing to give it. It is hard and sharp but you can turn that into something really visceral and soft, and that’s the magic of it. So it is about trying to find the magic of material. I really love how blue Irish limestone refracts light in a sort of metallic way – if you sand it with rough sandpaper you’ll get fine scratches, and depending on where the light is, it will refract the light beautifully. It can also be polished to a deep black, it has loads of personality. Alabaster is totally different, it is soft and quick - a bit of a holiday from the harder stuff!

We are currently living in very uncertain times in the context of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising and the climate crisis, and I wonder how that might have informed or influenced your practice?  

I think about it everyday – what our children have got in front of them is really worrying. I am always reading and trying to educate myself about these issues. My work is always primarily abstract, but perhaps some of this political angst comes through in my endeavour to bring out aesthetic oddness, disjointedness, or imbalance. I am not interested in making pleasing things, I am interested in making something that is challenging and arresting, I suppose. 

I like the idea that the imperfectness, unbalance and sense of juxtaposition in your work does potentially reflect the world we are living in and the issues we are facing. 

That’s why I’m so interested in other artists too, and what they do, people like Philip Guston, Barbara Hepworth and Edward Burra for example, and that sort of strangeness of how they see, and how they show you their world.

How would you say the natural environment feeds into your practice, both in terms of your immediate surroundings and the wider natural world?

I find both the natural and the manmade world invigorating. I live in the top floor of an old watermill with a fantastic and ever-transforming view. I love juxtapositions in landscapes, contrast-filled areas like edge-lands, and whilst I am keenly interested in the built environment and architecture, I also love raw, unspoiled nature. I particularly like cliff faces that you can see patterns in, and the structure and geometry in rock forms.

Some of my recent studio work has been partly inspired by reading about extinct glaciers and trying to visualise what the very last body of ice might look like before it ceases to exist. I like work that is born from these sorts of subtle notions, notions that are serious and relevant, but not necessary to overstate.

Another thing I enjoy about working with stone is knowing where it comes from, so the material always gives you connections to a place outside of your studio, whether it is marble or local limestone. The stone I work with is often from Ireland, and I have worked there a lot in recent years, so it’s nice to feel that connection especially at times like these when travel is restricted.

You work across very different scales, from large-scale site-specific commissions to smaller scale collectable art-objects, tell us about your approach to scale?

The scale is all about context. My studio work is about what I can fit into my hands and what I can comfortably pick up, so that I can play with multiple orientations as the work progresses. When I begin a piece I might have an idea of which way up it will be, but invariably they end up on their sides or upside down. 

The public realm commissions allow me to work big, so I can be quite ambitious with these. The context of the work, material, footprint, silhouette, all inform the scale. In many cases my public commissions have fed back into my studio work; I see the public realm and studio sides of my practice as quite reciprocal in that regard. 

That moves us on nicely you to the incredible new Smithson collection, a series of geometric sculptures in Irish blue limestone, Carrara marble and bronze which can all be picked up and positioned accordingly. How did you find the creation process for this collection?

It’s quite a high risk process, because I don’t work from a model or sketches. One wrong move can set me back days! It’s a bit like playing a game of chess with yourself, constantly trying to foresee moves and implications. When it stops being a battle, when the sculpture doesn’t annoy me anymore, when it has a character of its own and when it surprises me: that’s when it’s finished. I’m really pleased with the sculptures I’ve made for the Smithson gallery. One of them ended up taking on unexpected resonances with current times, as its shape, from a certain angle, has an uncanny resemblance to the beaked masks worn by medieval plague doctors, so I called it ‘Nostradamus’.

Fascinating! We are so honoured to have these works as part of the Smithson collection; you are an esteemed artist, the winner of some prestigious awards, and you have produced fantastic commissions all over the world. Reflecting on your career and projects so far is there any one moment you consider your proudest moment, or where you thought, I really got that right this time?

Starstone (2011) was a commission for Armagh District Council in Northern Ireland made in Armagh Marble. It’s a striking place full of hills: they have both Catholic and Protestant cathedrals built on hills, the town hall is on a hill, as is a famous fort – all the important bits are on the tops of hills, and the landscape dovetails with the sky. They also have an important observatory there, which mapped the visible night sky in the 1700s. I was interested in the idea of the sky meeting the earth, and I see the sculpture, which is a 5.5m high star-sectioned cone, as dovetailing into the sky. I used Armagh Marble, which is a very hard limestone, to honour the natural materials of the place. At the unveiling of the sculpture my family came over and a local musician from played a trumpet fanfare composed by my elder daughter! So that project was particularly memorable.

This whole project just sounds like a lovely story of collaboration and authenticity, something really born out of people and place, no wonder it’s one of your proudest moments! So now we have looked back on the past is there anything you really aspire to, or you are working towards in the future? 

Although my work is not easy, it fact it is often a bit of a battle, I enjoy it because I am constantly experimenting and trying new things. I know that the work will always evolve and shift, which is quite exciting really. I’ve recently started making more wobbly, supple forms that are basically the opposite of the geometric sculptures that have dominated my studio practice for nearly a decade now. I’m interested to see where this new direction will lead, and how it might in turn inform my continuing geometric project.