Ian Wolter

Students & Alumni. Fine Art.

Ian Wolter working on sculptures of people

Ian Wolter graduated from our BA (Hons) Fine Art in 2015. Since then he has been awarded many high profile commissions and awards, including the Art Laguna Prize.

What have you been doing since graduating from ARU?

I came out of the Cambridge School of Art at a bit of a canter, kept on developing some of the work I did in my final year and won some very high profile awards. I won the Sustainability Art Prize in my third year, the year after the Art Laguna Prize in Venice, and two years after graduating the RomArt Sculpture Prize in Rome. But my career has diverted a bit. Initially, it was very conceptual, very varied media and overwhelmingly punchy, political stuff. I upset people, and got threatened with legal cases. So it was all good fun!  

Latterly, I've focused more on figurative art. One of the big themes of my degree was the bust - how and why we memorialise people. I really interrogted that art form, that sculptural language, during my degree and, as time’s gone on, I've ended up being a practitioner of it. I've made busts of war heroes, the founder of Save the Children, and I made a very political artwork in response to some disturbing remarks that, some years ago, my MP made about refugees. Rather than shouting about it and arguing with our democratic representatives -  because I think they always deserve respect even if they hold abhorrent views – I made an artwork about child refugees trapped in Calais.

In researching that, I went to Calais with a charity called Art Refuge UK, and met and worked with child refugees through the art therapy of Art Refuge. And of course, their stories are nothing like a right-wing politician would say. They’re human beings with very different stories and motivations, and many of them spoke English and had families in the UK. What I eventually made was a sculpture called the Children of Calais. It’s a riff on the Burghers of Calais by August Rodin, but I replaced the burghers with child refugees of mixed races and ages.

The sculpture is located in Saffron Walden and was unveiled by Lord Dubs, who himself came to the UK as a child refugee. It got loads of attention - Saffron Walden is one of the safest Conservative seats, but any suggestion that it’s removed results in a chorus of outrage. People love it. They’ve taken it to heart. I love the idea that an artwork can enable people to express their humanity instead of jingoism. On a sunny day, families interact with it. Small children like it because it's not on a plinth, it's at their height and there’s room for them to squeeze between, so their parents can take their photo as one of the figures. Then they’ll read the information panel and understand that they’ve just photographed their child as a refugee. That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?

Where and what did you study before ARU?

I grew up in Hertfordshire and went to secondary school in Stevenage. For various reasons, the only the only A-Level I completed was art, and I always intended to go to art school, but at 18 years old it would have been wasted on me. I think I wasn’t anywhere near mature enough. So, I got a series of jobs, then at 23 I started a recruitment business called Eden Brown, which I built up and became quite successful. I sold half of it to private equity, and it became a group called NGage which is now one of the UK’s biggest recruitment businesses. I left before it became an international group, so I can't claim all of that success, but I also did a management buyout of a business from that group and grew that, so I've kept that thread of my career going.

I'm very much an entrepreneur as well as an artist.  I did some courses with the Training and Enterprise Council quite early on, then later became a Director of a Training and Enterprise Council, so I got to understand it from the perspective of a supplier of adult education. But in terms of arts education, I did nothing in between A-Level and my Fine Art degree, which I began aged 45.

Children of Calais sculpture
Children of Calais

Did you always know that you would go to university and if not, what changed your mind?

I always thought I would go. I thought I would go at 30. I honestly thought seven years would be plenty to build a business, make it successful, sell it, then go to art school. In practice, it took a lot longer to do that.  I thought, how hard can it be to build a big business? And the answer is it's very hard!

Is there one thing that inspired you to do what you do now?

My mother took me and my siblings to museums and galleries relentlessly, so we grew up trying to understand the art and she would really encourage that curiosity. We went to the Tate, I must have been perhaps seven or eight, and one piece of art that stood out was Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre. He’d done a series of bricks and slabs in a stack on the floor, and these bricks fascinated me. It had a low fence around it so you didn’t stand on it, and I stood outside this little fence staring at it, willing myself to understand how a pile of bricks could be art. I couldn’t get there, so I asked my Mum and she read the information on the wall, and I remember knowing there was some level of understanding that I couldn’t reach. I think that was a really formative moment in my journey.

The other thing was that, from a very young age at junior school, other parents would say to my Mum “Oh, your son's great at art, isn't he?” and she would look at my drawings and say, ”How ridiculous, what are you talking about? He just draws like any other five year old.” But by the time I got to be 10 or 11, I had a fantastic headmaster, Campbell Trotman, who really helped support my developing art skills. He was himself an artist, so I would do loads of extracurricular pottery and painting. He really built my confidence and skills. I think if you’re good at something at school, you get lots of people telling you you’re good at it, so you do more of it, and you get better at it, and people tell you -  it’s a virtuous circle. I think that’s a large part of why I wanted to be an artist.

What’s the most valuable thing you took away from your education?

When I started my first week at ARU, I was as nervous as all of the 18 and 19 year olds. I arrived with a bag of paints, and brushes, and pallets, and pallet knives - because I was going to be a painter. I think in my three years there I completed all of two paintings, neither of which were good enough to hang on my wall, and I left as a sculptor. I describe myself as an artist or a sculptor now, never a painter. So I think that was really valuable. I learned, to my core, what I am - and within the first term too.

The course I did at ARU was fantastic in providing an artistic environment, a literal studio space, to learn in. I’ve got a studio at home, but somehow my studio at ARU was better. Just having three years to explore the subject for yourself, and be supported, and guided, and encouraged, and led, and inspired – it was absolutely magnificent.

I might add that my cohort was very young students, but I still know lots of them. It's lovely if you go to university in your forties with students in their late teens and early twenties, then 10 years after you get invited to weddings and christenings. I've exhibited with some of the other students too, most notably Penelope Harrall. I also met Susie Olczak at ARU, although she wasn't a student, she was accessing the studios through the AA2A scheme, The deal of AA2A is that the artist contributes something to the art school in return, and what she contributed was keeping the 3D studio open late one evening a week, which was brilliant as I was the artist who used the 3D studio most, so I would be there until the last minute! Susie and I got very friendly through that, and have collaborated a lot.

Sculpture of Kindertransport surrounded by applauding people on Harwich docks
"Safe Haven" - Ian's Kindertransport memorial at Harwich

Which aspects of the course most helped your career development, and why?

What was really useful was writing proposals, producing a CV and a personal statement. I’m not a natural writer, so learning how to do all those things and being supported in that was really useful to me.

Also having the Sustainability Art Prize to apply for and be encouraged to apply for was really useful. It’s incredibly valuable for an early career artist to have something on their CV. The ability to be in exhibitions during the course, and to self-administer exhibitions. The art school at that point worked with a local charity who used empty shop units in the city so groups of students could put on shows. That was really valuable to me.

Soon after graduating, I put on an exhibition at the Hundred Years gallery in North London with two other artists. Everything I did for that - to apply for it, to publicise it, to document it – I learned during the course. Not least, I met one of the other artists on the course as well.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

I think I would urge my younger self to go to art school earlier. And I think that's about confidence - to be confident in your own ability. But on the other hand, would I change anything really? No, probably not!

What was your favourite thing about studying in Cambridge, and what did you learn about it that you didn’t know before?

I live 15 miles from Cambridge, so I knew it pretty well already. What was brilliant was, having commuted to London for most of my children’s lives, commuting to Cambridge was completely different. I could walk my kids to school and was just much more involved in their lives. That was incredibly valuable. My youngest daughter doesn’t remember me working in London, she only remembers me as a very present Dad, which is brilliant.

I got a real kick out of going to university. On my first day I tweeted a picture of me cycling from the station to ARU. I just felt like a milllion dollars. I went to occasional lectures at Downing College and that was a joy, and doing exhibitions in the city was really good. So I loved it, it was brilliant.

I think at first glance Cambridge doesn't seem to have much of an art scene, but actually it’s got a huge number of practitioners. There’s a real network that you can plug into and, increasingly, there are interesting galleries. There’s a new one just off Mill Road, Quip and Curiosity – that looks really fabulous.

Bust of grenadier in the National Army Museum
Ian's bust of a grenadier in the National Army Museum

What projects are you currently working on, both at work and outside it?

Today I'm here at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, where I’ve done a lovely residency. When they moved to this fabulous building, they found in their stores a bronze bust of a World War One soldier – and there’s no record of why or when it came into their collection, who the sculptor was (although I think we’ve now managed to attribute it to Charles Sargeant Jagger), or who the subject was. There’s just this bronze bust, but it’s beautiful, so they put it on display up on the fourth floor and this year they asked me to make a partner for it, separated by 100 years. The subject was a member of the Grenadier Guards. We did two sittings here in the museum while it was open, so we had an audience, and people wandering up to chat with us. It was superb. The bust was unveiled last week with the head of the British Army. I’m here today to install it on its permanent plinth.

At the end of last year I completed the UK’s new memorial to the Kindertransport in Harwich – Safe Haven. I’m particularly proud of that one because the group who commissioned me to make it found me through the Children of Calais project. They selected me because they could see that I had a genuine, heartfelt concern for the plight of migrants and refugees. Safe Haven was unveiled in September by Dame Stephanie Shirley, who was herself a Kindertransport refugee. The unveiling was fantastic. We had about 150 guests and 32 Kindertransport refugees, all of whom are now in their eighties. There were lots of TV cameras, photographers and journalists there and, after all the speeches and the unveiling, the Kindertransport refugees all migrated slowly to the sculpture. They all wanted to touch it, and to share their story. Some of them wanted to pin something to it, like their papers when they arrived in the UK. It was incredibly moving. All the other people stood around in a big arc, respectfully leaving them some space.

And what’s happened since is, because Harwich doesn’t really have a Jewish community or a synagogue, on Holocaust Memorial Day the parish now has an annual event centred on the memorial. It’s become a focus for education about refugees, so you turn up and people will have added flowers or hung something around one of the necks of the figures. I used my learning from the Children of Calais sculpture to make this one even more accessible for children. It’s in the form of a gangplank on a very low plinth with steps up the back so children can literally just walk up and be one of the figures walking down the gangplank.

I’m working on a commission at the moment in Scotland, which is another memorial of a slightly different kind, but I’m going to use that approach again, and make it really easy to sit on if you’re a parent, and climb on if you’re a child, and make it very photogenic.

I'm also working on a lovely project for the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, a sculpture to go outside the main entrance of nine artists who are represented within the gallery, and I’m looking at something to do with the English Civil War. I’m still planning some more political work, some more kinetic work, more speculative stuff, so we’ll see.

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