Jamie Frost - the Pennine artist whose wood sculptures are astonishing

When Jamie Frost was an A-level student studying maths, physics and art at Shelley High School, near Huddersfield, his head told him an electronic engineering career was a safe bet that would lead to a solid income.

Jamie Frost hard at work in his studio in the Pennine village of Holmbridge. (JPIMedia)

He had good offers from respected universities – but his heart was in art and he also had a place waiting for him at Dewsbury College on an art foundation course.

So he did what anyone would do – seeking the answer he knew he wanted from inspirational art teacher Mark Cooke.

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“He got me a school holiday placement helping a visiting artist to create a piece of land art on a former spoil heap,” says Frost. “He said I would be able to make the correct decision after that, and he was right.

The artist with one of his works. (JPIMedia).

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He acknowledges now that his parents were probably panicking about his choice, but “they were supportive and didn’t ask many searching questions about how I planned to make a living”.

Twenty-odd years on from that course, with more inspiring teachers along the way and a first in Fine Art Sculpture at what’s now Loughborough University, Frost has become one of the most arresting figurative sculptors in Britain today.

He also works in bronze and sells many drawings, but (certainly to this viewer) it’s his work in wood that is most alluring and unforgettable.

The detail in Frost's wood sculptures is remarkable. (JPIMedia).

Now in his early 40s, he’s possibly just approaching his fullest powers. His strong, emotionally captivating figures, often life-size and hewn from oak, elm, ash, cherry, holly, lime or even black walnut, seem to create a world around them.

They instantly invoke a narrative and a feeling of strong engagement or identification in the viewer’s head.

Frost’s many sources of inspiration include the late renaissance marble and bronze statuary of the Flemish sculptor Giambologna and the moon-faced polychrome wood sculptures of contemporary Brazilian artist Ana Maria Pacheco.

But he’s just as likely to take a cue from a fleeting gesture made by a friend’s mouth or hand, or their unmistakable shape spotted fleetingly through a distant window.

For his larger works, such as The Gaslighter’s Comeuppance, or I Don’t Know Why She Swallowed a Fly, the process starts by playing with bodily shapes on paper, creating sometimes dozens of sketches of a body in certain positions, expressing a mood or idea.

I Don’t Know Why… incorporated a slightly furtive gesture made by the model, as though she was secretively slipping something forbidden into her mouth.

When a life model arrives at his studio – at a former mill building converted to the Sculpture Lounge, an art community based in the Pennine village of Holmbridge, south of Huddersfield – he or she will look at the sketches and discard the poses they think their body will be unable to achieve comfortably.

One model was very happy to “swim” as she lay on the large paint-spattered table. The joyful drawings that came from this session have the female form forging her way through space, every muscle strong and fluid.

Some of Frost’s most exquisite pieces are more elaborate drawings or paintings that have evolved out of these preparatory drawings for sculpture.

In the wood figures, his command of draughtsmanship allows a model’s complex anatomy to be fleshed out, carved, then chiselled, with sinews given a kind of mobility, as the light falls on many fine planes that make up a buttock, cheek or a finger.

In the large studio where Frost works and does much of his teaching – his weekly classes and short masterclass courses were in high demand – the vice holds a piece that’s still in a semi-embryonic state, having been shaped broadly from a large cube of pale oak, following marks transferred from paper onto the wood.

Nearby, ranked by size, a couple of hundred chisels lie in wait to fine tune and finally give birth to one figure labouring to carry another. Frost is no fan of power tools. His figures have stature, heft; yet they’re delicate, too, thanks to so much laborious hand carving.

“For me, it’s all about blurring the lines between the subject matter, the material and myself. I’m not an outside force with the wood telling me what to do,” he says. “I have a shape in mind that I’m imposing on it.”

Yet some of the pieces in the room, such as a pair of sturdy, playful balletic legs rising feet first from a jagged, splintered block of black walnut, suggest the body was always hidden in there and is working its way out into the world – despite the grip of timber trying to hold it back.

“I can smell it, feel it, hear it as I work,” says Frost. “With the mallet on the chisel, you can feel different reverberations in there from different woods. I carved stone for years and it’s the same; there’s a bounce back when you hit a chisel that tells you what’s going on in the material, tells you what your next chisel cut is going to be like.”

He has no shortage of willing life models, nor of wood donated to him by local farmers or people who simply want to clear an overgrown tree from their garden.

He believes that “you should be striving to say something as an artist, but you don’t always need to know what it is as you work, if that makes sense. There’s always an underlying mood or theme I want to express, but as much as anything I am trying to avoid doing or being certain things.

“I avoid the obvious, things that are seen too often, things that are straightforward or decorative.”

Frost came to a preference for wood after years of sculpting mostly in stone or bronze. Having found this great affinity and produced outstanding work, he says candidly that there are things about wood he actually doesn’t like.

“It’s funny, I know, but I don’t like the decorative, psychedelic patterning of the grain – there’s something too ‘nice’ about it. I’m not overly fond of making things just for that reason, just to make a pleasing looking thing.

“It’s not that I feel the need to repress the grain; but I’m not there to show it off and celebrate it either. It’s really about the subject matter, not the material for me.

“I suppose the reason I’ve ended up making things from wood is that it’s very corporeal, it’s fleshy. And wood gave me enough back – enough to feel it was worth pursuing.

“I do love the fact that wood is both tough and delicate. It can be rough, splintered, split, finely carved. It’s so versatile, used for marquetry, for making musical instruments, for buildings and bridges. Yet it can rot, burn, split or become infested.”

To Frost, the fact that a piece made from unseasoned timber may later develop a split only adds to its character and beauty – and can suggest a narrative of its own.

“I like it when people, including students, say things such as ‘I can see my body in that’ or it makes them recall a state or a feeling,” he says. “How people react to my sculptures is as important to me as the sculptures themselves.”

Jamie Frost’s work can be seen online at www.rvp.gallery and instagramhttps://www.instagram.com/rvpgallery/ The online gallery www.woodsymphony.com also sells his pieces.

Jamie’s masterclasses in life drawing, painting and wood/stone carving are suspended for the time being, but he has posted a series of art demonstration videos on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEZHZi8iUU2ajgcAAvKRTSA

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