How Yorkshire's rugby league stars are being turned into works of art

If you were asked to describe a 17-stone rugby league prop forward, you might well use words such as 'hefty', 'solid' or possibly just 'built like a brick you-know-what'.

Mandy Long from Leeds surrounded by some of her sculptures

You probably wouldn’t use “graceful” but that’s because you haven’t been looking properly and the proof of this is in the basement of a Victorian terrace house in Leeds. It’s where Mandy Long has her studio and a storeroom full of figurative sculptures of sportsmen in action: kicking, diving, tackling, fending off and hugging.

“The rugby league players have an incredible power and energy but they are also graceful. I look at Ryan Hall running up the wing and it’s poetry in motion. It passes in the blink of an eye and you only really see it when you slow everything down,” says Mandy, a Leeds Rhinos season ticket holder who also likes football. As well as watching games live, she has spent hours studying photographs of players in action, watching re-runs of games and consulting books on anatomy. It’s taught her that footballers have much more freedom with their bodies, while rugby players are constrained by a more technical game. “The positions footballers get themselves into are incredible,” she says.

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A regular at the gym, Mandy uses her workout sessions to observe others as they lift weights, pound the treadmill and practise their sit-ups. “It gives me a chance to observe how the body works and I’ll often look at knees, especially in a spinning class but I have to be careful about staring for too long in case someone thinks I am stalking them,” she says.

Her decision to specialise in sport sculptures in general and movement in particular came while she was studying as a mature student at Harrogate College. She wanted a theme and sport seemed a good choice as much of her life revolved around it.

“When I moved up here my sons were aged eight and 10 and they were football crazy, so we got very involved in grassroots sport. I loved it and what it did for young kids. I’d also noticed how graceful professional footballers were. At that time Leeds United’s Alan Smith really inspired me.”

She also thought sport sculpture was unusual as she couldn’t think of anyone else who did it, apart from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

“Even though we are a football and rugby-mad nation, you don’t see much art inspired by sport. Maybe it’s because it isn’t that commercial. People who like art don’t always like sport and people who like sport don’t always visit galleries,” says Mandy, whose favourite ever players are the aforementioned Ryan Hall and RL legend Kevin Sinfield.

She has often borrowed their playing style for her figurative sculptures, which range in price from £700 to £1,000 and are named appropriately. The Fend is based on Hall repelling a tackler with his arm.

The ceramics look authentic and full of energy because she has captured the movement and stance perfectly. You can also see determination, despair, aggression and joy, even though they have no facial features.

“You can occasionally spot who they are even though they don’t have faces. I did one of Keith Senior recently and people guessed that it was him,” says Mandy.

They don’t have genitals either and for a very good reason. “I tried putting them on but they are just too distracting and people focus on them, so now there is a slight bulge, just a suggestion of them.”

She uses a wire skeleton to create the basic form then moulds paper clay around it before hand-building the figures. The clay is homemade from loo roll mixed with water and slip clay to produce a thick “porridge” that is rolled out in sheets before being modelled.

“The paper burns away when you fire the clay, which makes the sculpture much lighter,” she says. “It still amazes me that you can take this substance out of the ground and make something that can last 1,000 years. There is something very elemental and spiritual about working with it.”

The first firing is in a electric kiln after which Mandy pours on a raku glaze to highlight the tendons and define the muscles. Then there is a second firing in a gas kiln before the piece is plunged into a pit of sawdust. The resulting charring and smoke gives a crackled and blackened effect.

All Mandy’s figures live in a storeroom on plinths ready to be sent to galleries across the country, including the David Long Gallery in York, while she works in the adjoining studio. It can be chilly in her basement HQ but it has proved the perfect creative space. The cold and damp atmosphere is good for sculpting because the clay doesn’t dry out so quickly.

The cellar was the main reason why she and husband Chris bought their house after relocating from Devon 16 years ago. Mandy was a primary school teacher and Chris a social worker who wanted a new job, so they moved from Exeter so he could take a post in Leeds. The fresh start was a chance for Mandy to take a career break and study 3D design and ceramics. She now combines sculpting with part-time supply teaching.

“I had always played around with clay and wanted to see if I could take it further. I needed somewhere I could work and when I saw the basement in this house I knew it would be perfect,” she says.

The cellar is decorated with a Kevin Sinfield poster and the radio is tuned to 5 Live, the station of choice for sport obsessives.

“When I’m down in the studio, hours can slip away. I sit there working and listening to 5 Live and it feels right. I don’t think I’ll ever deviate from movement in sport. I find it endlessly fascinating and challenging.”

Mandy has almost perfected the way Ryan Hall stands on the pitch, with a dropped hip, but Kevin Sinfield is presenting problems. “I am trying to capture the way he sizes up the ball before running and kicking it but, at the moment, that pose remains elusive.”