IN THE STUDIO / Animal, vegetable or mineral?: Nicola Hicks's animal sculptures involve plaster, pets and mountains of straw. Dalya Alberge met her

An old lift, once used for transporting goods rather than people, cranks its way up the Victorian warehouse in which the sculptress Nicola Hicks has her studio. As she folds back the lift's heavy concertina door, there is a bustle of movement from a greyhound, a Jack Russell, a cat and, for a moment, what looks like a giant hare. When the other animals have torn off, though, the hare is left behind. It is solid, made of bronze. Even motionless, it is not inanimate, but instilled with energy.

Hicks's chaotic studio, on the borders of Brixton and Camberwell, is filled with a menagerie both real and sculptural. Here is a bounding kangaroo, a cantering horse, a kicking goat . . . Most are made of straw and plaster, or bronze; others are charcoal or chalk on huge sheets of earthy-coloured paper. Their rough texture and bits of unkempt straw blur outlines and convey a sense of movement.

In 1984, Dame Elisabeth Frink singled out Hicks (then 24) as an artist who deserved greater exposure. Since then Hicks has been described by some critics as Frink's successor. If prices say something about an artist's standing, her latest show at the Flowers East gallery in London has tags going up to pounds 32,000 for her sculptures and pounds 5,500 for her drawings.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Hicks does not work from life, but she likes to surround herself with her pets. Even if she is sculpting or drawing humans the presence of her greyhound or Jack Russell is important, she says; they give off a vitality which she attempts to translate into other forms.

Her studio is more like a stable than an artist's garret. Straw, in bales and loose, is scattered everywhere. Among a mass of plaster-encrusted tools and other unidentified contraptions are cow and boar skulls. Hicks runs her fingers over the boar, feeling every indent in its surface. 'Anything you could say about sculpture you find in the tiniest bone,' she says.

On a table are scraps of paper bearing sketches. They are scattered everywhere. Heaps of them. The tattiest old envelope has a horse cantering across the typed address. And yet, says Hicks, 'I chuck them out all the time . . . There's something about scrap paper that stops you being precious. You can throw it away and no- one need know.' She does hundreds of sketches for each work, and continues to sketch even after she has begun sculpting. But, even after those hundreds of drawings, she is unlikely to have found the final composition, and will constantly change the sculpted version. Which is why, she explains, she developed a technique of working with plaster over a steel-mesh frame. It allows her to work at breakneck speed, and to change her mind. Once she has cut the mesh like a dress pattern, she moulds it. Sections are attached with wire, and then bound with matting dipped in plaster and wrapped around, like a bandage.

Speed is of the essence for her: 'It's not just impatience,' she says. 'You would lose track of that little thing that made you want to start in the first place.'

Hicks is exhibiting at Flowers East at London Fields, 282 Richmond Rd, London, E8 (081-985 3333). To 13 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)

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