Artist Zuza Mengham on how nature informs her designs

Artist Zuza Mengham on how nature informs her designs

Words Julia Jarvis

Photographs Andy Donohoe

Artist and designer Zuza Mengham on her sculptures mimicking natural forms – and her innovative use of Jesmonite, 2017’s ‘Material of the Year’…

How do you describe your (working) self?
I’m happiest tucked away in my studio pottering around with my next project.

What set you onto a path for making as a living?
I’ve always worked for artists so I’ve been making for a living under the umbrella of another person’s work for some time. After graduating in 2011, I spent a long time without the confidence to execute an idea. I worked through the reasons why it wasn’t interesting enough or wouldn’t hold strong before I even started. There was a point a couple of years ago when I decided to go back to exploring materials and not concerning myself with the end result. It was a freedom that immediately gave me the ability to fabricate again and I was quickly making sculptures that I was excited about.

Zuza Mengham carving jesmonite

Megham concentrates on exploring materials ‘and not concerning myself with the end result’ in her work

I remember first seeing the project you did for Laboratory Perfumes, these highly polished rock formations looked so tactile and intriguing. They seem to be a core element of your practice. Where did you first come upon this technique or combination of materials?
Yes, I think that project really allowed the technique to fully flourish and bring out the materials’ qualities, using them to create a logic for moving from an abstraction to a concept and vice-versa. I think the reason it worked so well was because they were designed to communicate specific fragrances, and as resin becomes liquid, you can really employ that characteristic and capture both movement and block pattern into a solid form. I came across the idea, totally by chance, in a process of making something simple in resin and then noticing layered colour materialise in a discarded mixing pot. It went from there really, testing out how to get it all unified and playing with techniques to manipulate the material, as well as the lengthy process of how to best achieve a highly polished finish.

Do you have a particular philosophy or set of values when you approach your work?
I never make the same sculpture more than once. Each of the pieces is made from a one-off mould with its own intentions or line of enquiry. I’m not interested in mass producing anything or tiring an idea out too far. As much possible, I try to make sure it stays new to me so I can fully invest in each piece and stay attuned and fully involved.

Can you explain your working process to us?
It really depends on the project. I’m definitely more an artist than a designer (I imagine) within the process, in that I’ll happily plough into a new piece without sketching it out or planning too much – if the project doesn’t require it and it’s a personal piece. It’s much more fun working intuitively and I think it’s good to keep the spontaneous muscle practiced and activated. Perhaps, it’s the same reason why you have to do so much life drawing as an art student. It’s like finding your handwriting style in 3D form and keeping it both rehearsed and challenged.

Portrait of Zuza Mengham in her studio

Zuza Mengham in her studio

What part of the process do you find most pleasing?
The way in which the resins are specifically created means they are shaped by a mould, cast and uncovered again. You lose visibility of the layers halfway through when they are large pieces because the resin shrinks and the layers start to overlap, so really you don’t always know the individual piece’s exact character until it is very physically knocked back, re-shaped, gouged out and unearthed. It’s always an exciting moment and it feels somehow like a mirror process of their natural gemstone counterparts. It feels like you’re excavating something.

Can you tell us about your next project involving lichen and Jesmonite?
I’m really excited about this one. I have to thank my sister (A talented spoon carver, chainsaw wielder and winter tree bud identifier — to name a few of her talents!) for her incredible enthusiasm and joy in sharing her vast knowledge of the natural world and for first telling me about lichens and sparking my interest.

Lichens are a fascinating organism – or rather two. They are formed out of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. Historically they have been used for: fabric colour dye; as a litmus dye to indicate PH levels and some combinations even have antibiotic properties. One of the reasons which make them so interesting is their sensitivity to, and are natural indicators for, pollution. Consequently – there are many types that can be found in different locations depending on the synthesis which makes up their environment. The multitude of combinations between algae (or cyanobacteria) and fungi means there are approximately 18,000 varieties worldwide and 1,700 in Britain. Each with a preferred combination of needs and habitats.

The project lends itself to the exploration of natural materials, especially as, recently I discovered Jesmonite which feels like the perfect material to incorporate lichen with, as it’s water based rather than a plastic (which is what I usually work with) and because of the beautiful and varied characteristics you can achieve with different applications. I’ve now started playing with ways to incorporate and translate a few specific British lichens into sculptural works. I really want the project to be a celebration and means of telling the story of different lichen qualities from around the country. It’s an ongoing project for the next few months and I’m currently reaching out to lichenologists to help with classification and ethical sourcing of these slow growing marvels! I’m really excited about the results so far and I can’t wait to share the final project.

A ‘hole-and-corner’ is a secret place hidden away from the hustle and bustle of daily life: where is your hole-and-corner?
West Kennet Long Barrow in Avebury which is one of the largest Neolithic tombs in Britain. It’s comprised of an underground tunnel made of huge pieces of sandstone and three gigantic sarsen stones towering at the entrance, a deeply atmospheric place. It’s located in a pretty windy spot so when you enter the tomb there’s a huge contrast in how quiet and serene it is inside. I think what makes it so interesting to me is; not only that it’s one of the first examples of architecture (3650BC) but the way it was used and treated as a kind of portal between the living and the dead. Bodies were not buried there but more assembled together, moving and grouping collections of bones, placing them in the many chambers along the sides of the barrow passage and around the perimeters of the village to mark off the territory. There are some individual graves but the constant movement of parts emphasises a marked endeavour to create a community of the dead, where the living can repeatedly visit by entering the space and momentarily exist collectively in a plane of dual existence. This may all sound a little dark but I think the point is the way in which these ancestors understood and formed their own logic of time through a limitless generational domain by means of creating a very physical space.

Lichens integrated with Jesmonite

Mengham’s work includes integrating British lichens into Jesmonite

I imagine that when anyone thinks of their favourite place, or their ‘hole-and-corner’,  it is somewhere you want to spend time because it is innately tied to nourishing a sense of self that reiterates something either exciting or peaceful. It makes you acutely aware of your own position in your given surrounding. What I love about West Kennet Long Barrow is that it’s a shadow of the past which permeates the present with a consciousness, still so powerfully relevant. And it’s a good example of how a simple space can stay so intensely activated.

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