Caro and St Martin’s Sculpture Department

I arrived at the St Martin’s Sculpture Department in 1962, aged only 18 but having already spent 5 years at art school – 2 at a junior art school and 3 at Sutton Art School studying for Intermediate NDD (National Diploma in Design). Phillip Montford was our sculpture tutor at Sutton and as he also taught at, and recommended, St Martin’s, I applied there. On a very hot day in 1962 I struggled up Charing Cross Road with my art folder bulging with drawings, paintings and photos of sculptures and then on up to Frank Martin’s office at St Martin’s. He asked me if I was interested in making sculpture and I replied, very much so, and that was it, I was accepted – and I could not manage to interest Frank in looking at my previous work.

Basic Design and the work of the Bauhaus was what had most engaged me at Sutton and that sensibility lent itself to my sculptural experimentation at St Martin’s. However I do remember Caro asking us who our favourite artist was and when I replied Paul Klee he told me Klee was, rather whimsical. I was disappointed not to see anything of Phillip Montford and although he was around it seemed that he had been sidelined and did not come to the studios. Also, Liz Frink was around that first year, she was pointed out to me reading in the corner of a studio but I never saw her talk to any students.

Caro was very hands on that year, running workshops for us new students. I remember one where we were told to look at of the window at the London skyline and make a sculpture of it. I used lots of wooden plinths, which were all around the studios then, and I made a large construction of many parts which was much praised. In my work I used all the materials that were available – welded metal, wood, plaster, clay, plastic sheet, fibre glass, cardboard, fabric and I often combined them and used paint. We did, more or less, teach ourselves to weld and work with wood, and it was all probably a health and safety nightmare by today’s standards. But we did feel free to do what we wanted and we certainly felt that making sculpture was very important. Too important also for us to be restricted by NDD demands which would have involved making figure compositions but would also have given us a, rather useful, qualification. There was some talk of us being awarded the new DipAD. This qualification enabled colleges to set their own syllabuses and famously combined painting and sculpture to create a new Fine Art course, not something to find much favour at St Martin’s, which anyway failed to be awarded the DipAD that first year.

Caro told us that St Martin’s was the best sculpture school in the world and we believed him, of course! I enjoyed the ‘crits’, as the enthusiasm expressed was infectious. Work was good because it was good ‘sculpturally’ and meaning was not really part of this and nor was there any intellectual pretention. I recall that one of my sculptures which was liked as a sculpture I had called, Through a Glass Darkly, inspired, I said, as it was, by the Ingmar Bergman film of that name. For Caro this provoked the response – Shirley you are a bit mad! The pattern for ‘crits’ I recall was of Caro and other tutors going from sculpture to sculpture talking about each with the individual students responding. Sometimes we had all done work on a particular project which had been set, often by Caro and sometimes by Phillip King. As time went by there was an objection by a group of students to projects being set, but I always enjoyed the challenge. Project themes I recall were – imagine the 4th or 5th dimension; use a found object; suggest but don’t use movement.

I might have been called mad, possibly more than once but my work was encouraged and supported and there was always a generosity about Caro. At the end of the first year I was awarded a Thames and Hudson prize of several large art books for – the student showing the most promise. America, it became clear, was the land of inspiration and opportunity for artists and I planned a trip that first summer holiday. Caro opened his address book for me so I might contact any of the artists he had met – however, most were away from New York, it being their summer holiday too. Politics intruded in the form of the 6 days war in the Middle East – we always had students from Israel at St Martin’s, and then, much later, there was a great enthusiasm for the moon landings, but generally I’d say that St Martin’s Sculpture Department was a politics free environment. Enquiries beyond ‘sculptural enquiries’ were not encouraged. My sculptural enquiries and explorations involved me working with the following – line and form, repetition and sequence, negative and positive form, inside and outside surfaces, weight and weightlessness, related and unrelated forms, colour and surface quality, etc. I also practiced how to make things and how to join materials together.

On the floor beneath the two main studios and Frank Martin’s office was the space used as a gallery. It was quite a good size but was used as a corridor and was not supervised. We students used to say that to put a sculpture there was a good test of just how strong and well made it was, as work there could easily be pushed into or pushed over. Caro told us that sculpture could now be made of anything and be anything. However as some students and ex-students took this and other freedoms as an invitation to become the sculpture themselves or to create dematerialised work, it became clear that Caro set a limit and sculpture could not, after all, be anything. At this time Gilbert and George could be seen together making very small objects on a window ledge in the corridor outside the studios, as they had not yet started the work for which they became known.

I had done print making at Sutton Art School so when I found that St Martin’s had a print making studio I starting visiting it now and then to make some prints. Once Caro saw me coming out of that studio and challenged me saying he didn’t know how I could waste my time when I could be making sculpture.

And I did stay late making sculpture, my memory being of just Barry Flanagan and myself with the whole building to ourselves, wandering around a bit and he talking about his theories. He produced a magazine, Silans, to which most of us contributed.

Bruce McLean started the course in my second year and worked consistently making a large number of constructions out of different sized lengths of wood. Soon he had more or less filled up one of the studios and there became a fairly good natured assertion that he had made so much work just for the purpose of claiming a studio for himself. By far the majority of sculpture students then were male and there was a blokey atmosphere which, for instance, named Bruce as Little Jock and another Scottish student we always called Big Jock.

After 3 years in the Sculpture Department I set up my exhibition of work and was given a London Certificate of Art – with distinction, plus typed statements from Caro and Phillip King endorsing my work. Several of my sculptures were exhibited in galleries in London and two were bought by Leicestershire County Council. I applied to go on to work at the Royal College but was told that – they were not taking any more St Martin’s students, so I was encouraged to stay on for an extra year at St Martin’s.

In the last term of my last year at art school I married a fellow student. As a consequence, in the booklet that Frank Martin prepared to support his bid for St Martin’s to be awarded the DipAD, there under the photos of student’s sculptures where our present occupation was described, mine was listed as – housewife!

Roland Brener was an older student from South Africa who had previously worked as an assistant for Henry Moore. He set up the Stockwell Depot studio that several of us ex-students moved into. I had started a full time non-art job and so worked in my studio only when I was free. The first exhibition of sculpture there was planned without my knowledge and without my work being included. It would be an understatement to say that I was upset. At the end of that year I moved away from London.

Four years later I had started to build a reputation for myself as an installation and performance artist. While exhibiting some of this work at the Serpentine Gallery I visited Caro with my partner Roland Miller. I had always regarded Caro as a kind of father figure because he supported me with such generosity at St Martin’s. I suppose I wanted to share the pleasure I felt in the much improved state of my art career. Now I had a partner to work with, some art school teaching, art gallery and theatre bookings ahead, and some Arts Council grants to support the work. I showed photos and talked about some of my work. Caro listened and said that for him performance art was much like morris dancing, which he didn’t dislike but which just wasn’t art. I was disappointed but he had said this with a smile and he did wish me well.

In 1976 my work was in the same exhibition as Caro’s, in Arte Inglese Oggi, Milan.

Shirley Cameron