Shelagh Cluett

Sculptor and teacher at Chelsea
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The Independent Online

Shelagh Cluett, sculptor: born Bourne-mouth, Hampshire 17 December 1947; died London 25 June 2007.

In 1970, in her final year at Hornsey School of Art, Shelagh Cluett was identified as one of a coming breed of exciting female sculptors. Phyllida Barlow, another of these emerging young sculptors, remembers George Fullard, the macho Head of Sculpture at Chelsea, who took Cluett on to his new postgraduate course, grumpily muttering "Women will take over making art because they have no respect for all these dead traditions which men are lumbered with . . . women are born with a sense of touch which men can only artifice".

From the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties Cluett worked in a studio at Wapping Wall, the grand wharf building whose studio shows were a hotbed of new British art. She burst on to the national stage in late 1979, simultaneously in a show of new sculpture at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (with Alison Wilding, another important new woman sculptor, also working at Wapping) and the first show at the Nicola Jacobs Gallery, London.

She was then selected the following year, by Dominique Fourcade, the celebrated French poet and acclaimed writer on art, as the only Briton in a group of seven international artists to represent the "Art of Today" at the Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen. In the same year she was appointed Principal Lecturer at Chelsea School of Art, in charge of MA sculpture, the first of the new female artists to hold such a position.

Cluett's work at this time was a drawing in space by thin steel, aluminium, brass and copper rods or strips which, rising, often from a single point on the floor, took off high up into exuberant curvilinear life to lean gracefully and obliquely onto the wall. About eight feet high and secured to the wall by a single nail, the lines were given a minimal body by inserts of lead, latex, wax, bitumen and self-hardening clay. By 1982 these inserts were replaced by strips of hammered, forged and coloured metal, endowing the sculptures with light. They created a complex melody unfolding in space, fluid yet precise, weightless yet firm and decisive.

She developed her feeling for colour, surface and material in the figure-like freestanding "Burmese Nights" of 1984 featured, with a very dramatic and romantic photograph, in December's Vogue accompanying a piece on the "New Englishwoman". Cluett worked intuitively, with a cavalier attitude to working methods. She was a "fabricator", like her contemporary and friend Richard Deacon. There is a tension between the nature of the materials used and their transformation into sculpture, the transforming process being akin, but almost perversely opposite to, traditional craft methods.

In 1984 she became head of both undergraduate and postgraduate sculpture at Chelsea and academic leader of MA Fine Art. Her critical judgments as a tutor were enlightening and empowering. Everything she suggested to students could be achieved. She spoke to them as a fellow practitioner and always listened carefully to everyone on an equal footing.

She became immensely important in art education in Britain, through her external examining and membership of national bodies, and internationally through membership of Art Accord and the Sculpture Panel of the British School at Rome. Later, she was a major contributor to conferences in the Far East.

Cluett always tried to ensure that creativity and the process of making art were prioritised over and above personal preferences, institutional prescriptions and fashionable trends. In all of this she acted with a lightness of heart, sharpness of wit and a joie de vivre that were captivating and seducing.

In 1993 her adored partner of 27 years, Mick Marshall – the rock'*'roll lighting expert – died after a long and painful illness. Mick and Shelagh were two fiercely independent people who had a dynamic life together.

Her "Maps without Territories" series of the Nineties combined digitally manipulated ground-plans of temples in South East Asia, sandblasted out of irregular stone slabs with other images taken from deep inside the temple. They dealt with loss and attempts at retrieval, expressing a need to locate and ground oneself coupled with a sense of dislocation.

More recently, her "Sea Fever" series explored her lifelong love of the sea and the flux and instability of the strand, the space between land and sea. She branched out into video; her "Under the Skin" had the heavenly stone lovers that form a skin over the temples at Khajuraho, India, seemingly tattooed with the ideal plan of the temple architecture, uniting spiritual and physical delight.

Her power as an artist, teacher, leader and vivid personality were cruelly extinguished by an aggressive cancer, which was mercifully short in duration.

Chris Yetton

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