Maggie Ward, dressed up in apron, goggles and mask, is hacking furiously at a concrete block. So far it bears little resemblance to the delicate clay model of a classical girl's head that she made last week. But these are early days in the sculpture course, and Maggie's enthusiasm with her hammer and chisel is promising.
"Aphrodite, here I come," she giggles as she tackles her block with gusto. "I must say that if you've had a row at home, this is good therapy." Maggie decided to sign up for the sculpture course now that the two youngest of her three children have started university. "My husband has just retired and so I thought I would do something for me. I had absolutely no experience of sculpture at all. I'd done dressmaking and pattern-cutting at college but this is a completely new experience. And it's wonderful.
"Look at my homework. We had to carve something out of fruit or vegetables and I did this female figure out of a potato. I kept her in the fridge but she seems to have lost her bust ..."
Fellow student Neil Peters, 39, works as a literary agent and director of a publishing company, and after years spent promoting the talents of playwrights he decided to look at his own potential.
"I had done a bit of sculpture in art at school and knew I liked it. I wanted to do something tactile, and something that was more than just a hobby class. What I found here was a tutor who is very encouraging, and I have met a whole cross-section of people I would never normally meet in my work."
There are about 15 men and women on this particular further education course, at Kensington and Chelsea College in London. It is called Sculpture Materials and Techniques, runs from 10pm until 4pm every Tuesday for 30 weeks, and can take students up to A-level standard. But there is no particular pressure to achieve. The tutor allows most of his pupils to go at their own pace to build up a portfolio, and they are taught basic techniques in a variety of materials.
Both Neil and Maggie are anxious to point out that everyone is made to feel comfortable. No one is going to denigrate those first, self-conscious and sometimes embarrassing attempts to fashion something resembling a head out of a handful of clay.
On the day of my visit, while some students chatted constantly others worked quietly in a corner away from the group, either intent on a piece of work or, perhaps, finding the experience of sculpture a therapeutic one. At the introductory session students are asked to draw sketches of heads and then begin to mould them with the clay. Next they are taught to carve and reproduce the clay model out of a concrete breeze-block.
The tutor, Tim Beswick, said that sculpture courses now attract more women than men - a reversal of the situation 20 years ago. "Women approach it in a different way. I think they don't have the same expectations as men and are prepared to experiment more," he added.
"During the course we will be working with steel, plaster, wire, wood and 'mixed media', which can mean anything from string and brown paper to plastic bottles and teddy bears. I try to cover conventional approaches to sculpting, and to introduce contemporary issues.
"The first term is really about banging, sawing, sticking, cutting, and getting to grips with the sculptor's tools. Next term they will do a piece of sculpture on a theme they have chosen. It may be something like the beauty of snow or the sadness of Christmas. By the end of the year they will work independently.
"We start off having fun and trying to break down any fears. A common comment is 'I can't draw. I won't be any good.' People gradually gain confidence, because this is a safe, non-critical environment to develop and take risks. No one's going to say: 'You're not good enough for this class.'"
Jo Innes, a copper-haired 27-year-old with a model-like figure, is quick to confirm this approach. "People are so afraid of rejection, but whatever you produce Tim will always find the germ of an idea. I do a jewellery- making course, where you have to learn techniques and there is a right and a wrong. Here you can be creative and do what you really enjoy.
"I have travelled a great deal - I spent a lot of time in Africa - and have all sorts of ideas in my head. Trying to realise them in sculpture is like going on a journey. It's exciting, and it's what life should be like."
Where to learn
The 'Sculpture, Materials and Techniques' course is one of several offered by Kensington and Chelsea College in London (0171-573 3600). It costs pounds 145 plus materials, and there are reductions for the unemployed.
For advice on other sculpture classes, contact the Adult and Further Education department of your local authority.Reuse content