How does artist Laura Ford transform textiles and other materials into sculptures?
Laura Ford's mixed media sculptures may appear like giant soft toys or characters from a children's picture book – but a closer look reveals that they are neither soft nor comforting! This resource looks at the inspirations, ideas and techniques that Laura Ford uses to create her powerful sculptures.
Explore the sculptures of contemporary Welsh artist Laura Ford.
Find out about the mixed media techniques she uses to create her work.
Have a go at creative activities inspired by Laura Ford's work.
Research mixed media textile artworks by a range of artists on Art UK.
This Art and Design resource offers a series of activities that can be used together as a lesson plan or as individual components to integrate into your own scheme of work. It was devised for Key Stage 3/CfE Levels 3 & 4 but may also suit Key Stage 4/CfE Senior phase students.
Art and design - Evaluate and analyse creative works - Actively engage in the creative process of art - Know about great artists and understand the historical and cultural development of their art forms - Produce creative work, explore ideas
Art and design – I have experimented with a range of media and technologies to create images and objects, using my understanding of their properties (EXA 3-02a) – I can respond to the work of artists and designers by discussing my thoughts and feelings. I can give and accept constructive comment on my own and others' work (EXA 3-07a)
Art and design - Students use their knowledge about the work of other artists to enrich and inform their work through analysis and evaluation - Students use a variety of processes - Students evaluate their work through discussion - Students explore, experiment with and apply the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
Exploring the expressive arts is essential to developing artistic skills and knowledge and it enables learners to become curious and creative individuals.
Progression step 4:
I can explore and experiment with my own and others' creative ideas, demonstrating increasingly complex technical control, innovation, independent thinking and originality to develop my work with confidence, being able to explain my reasons behind choices made and evaluate their effectiveness on my creative work
I can explore creative work, understanding the personal, social, cultural and historical context, including the conventions of the period in which it was created.
I can investigate and understand how meaning is communicated through the ideas of other artists and performers.
Responding and reflecting, both as artist and audience, is a fundamental part of learning in the expressive arts.
Progression step 4:
I can effectively evaluate my own creative work and that of others showing increasing confidence to recognise and articulate strengths, and to demonstrate resilience and determination to improve.
I can apply knowledge and understanding of context when evaluating my own creative work and creative work by other people and from other places and times.
I can evaluate the effectiveness of a wide range of artistic techniques in producing meaning.
Creating combines skills and knowledge, drawing on the senses, inspiration and imagination.
Progression step 4:
I can use my experimentation and investigation to manipulate creative work with purpose and intent when communicating my ideas.
I can apply specialised technical skills in my creative work.
I can draw upon my experiences and knowledge to inform and develop strategies to overcome creative challenges with imagination and resilience.
Laura Ford and her sculptures
Artist Laura Ford was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1961.
She creates her sculptures from fabrics, found objects and other materials such as plaster and ceramics. At first glance, the animals and childlike figures that she creates suggest innocence and an element of humour, but there is often an underlying sense of menace that confuses or upturns our initial response.
Look at the two sculptures above as a class. Ask students to think about and discuss their first impressions of the artworks. Students could work in pairs or small groups to do this. Use these discussion prompts if helpful:
What do the artworks depict?
What materials and techniques has the artist used to make them?
Do you think the sculptures are hard or soft?
How big do you think the sculptures are?
What is the expression, pose or body language of the animals shown in the artworks? (It might help to think of words to describe them)
Do the sculptures remind you of anything?
The animals depicted in the sculptures are not realistic depictions. They look like soft toys, theatrical props or perhaps characters from a children's picture book. Laura Ford has described her sculptures as 'sculptures dressed as people dressed as animals'.
She used textiles to create the sculptures. For Moose, these have apparently been draped and wrapped over a structure and suggest garments. The fabric of Donkey has been roughly stitched together and loosely fitted to the creature's structure, looking like a costume.
The animals don't have obvious facial features, but their poses make the animals look sad and dejected. The roughness of the fabrics and visible seams add to this sense of dejection. (The donkey looks as if it has put its coat on inside out!).
Watch and discuss
This video features another sculpture by Laura Ford. In the video, a class of students visit an exhibition and respond to her sculpture Giraffe. Watch the video as a class and then ask students what they discovered about the sculptures and Laura Ford's processes.
Were you surprised by the scale of Giraffe?
What do you think the students in the video meant about the sculpture looking 'scraggly', 'rough' and 'broken down'?
What is the effect of the patterned patchwork surface of Giraffe? Does it remind you of anything?
What is your response to Giraffe? What does it make you think and feel? (Do you agree with the student in the video who describes it as having a 'toylike vibe to it like a nightmare from your childhood'?)
Ideas and inspirations
The uncertain and unexpected
Things being not quite what they seem is a theme that runs through Laura Ford's art. The curator in the video describes her work as 'at first pretty idyllic and then a bit ghoulish'.
Laura Ford often juxtaposes opposite themes, ideas and emotions in her sculptures. The sculptures evoke childhood but seem menacing rather than innocent. They are often humorous but melancholic at the same time. They are made to be life-size and are often imposing – but they also appear fragile.
Childhood experiences and memories
Laura Ford's family were show people who travelled the fairground circuit. She has described the fantasy models and props that appeared among the fairground attractions as an early inspiration for her sculptures. She was fascinated that rough plaster figures could be painted and made to look impressive and provoke reactions. She remembers especially a version of Frankenstein's monster that would leap out of a booth.
'You knew perfectly well that it would happen, but it was always incredibly exciting … It is that uncertainty I am aiming for in my work.'
Animals are a recurring theme that also has roots in her childhood memories – Laura Ford's grandfather owned a farm near Llanrumney, Cardiff and her family often spent winters there. She also spent a lot of time visiting zoos with her own children and has said that these visits inspired her.
Surrealism is another important influence on Laura Ford's work. Surrealist artists often juxtaposed unlikely objects or images (as Salvador Dalí did with his sculpture Lobster Telephone) to create artworks that surprise, confuse and disturb the viewer, making us question what we are looking at.
Laura Ford does this with the fabrics and materials she uses. We don't expect to see a lifesize giraffe made from patchwork. For her Headthinkers sculpture series, she created sculptures of people dressed in familiar, everyday clothes such as cosy jumpers and jeans – but instead of human heads, they have heavy ceramic animal heads.
Surrealist artists were also interested in dreams and the thoughts, feelings and fears that are hidden in our subconscious.
The dreamlike, fairy tale quality of the figures in Laura Ford's Weeping Girls series of bronze sculptures is reminiscent of Surrealist Dorothea Tanning's painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Materials and techniques
Laura Ford uses a combination of traditional materials and techniques alongside materials that we might not associate with art to create her animal and figure sculptures.
She initially makes a metal armature for her sculptures by welding metal rods together. She has described this process as similar to drawing with metal, creating the basic form and pose for her figures in a series of simple lines.
She pads out this stick-like frame with newspaper.
She then wraps plaster-soaked scrim around the structure, moulding the form of the figure using the plaster.
She covers this underlying structure with fabrics or clothing and adds found objects (which she finds in skips or buys on eBay).
Discuss Laura Ford's techniques and materials with students.
What could they use to create an underlying structure for a sculpture without using welding?
Encourage them to think creatively about materials that might be available to them if they were making a sculpture inspired by Laura Ford.
Activity: wrapped objects and sculptures
The objective of this activity is to encourage students to explore and experiment with techniques and forms. Students will wrap ordinary objects in textiles to research and discover how this changes their form as well as their function, meaning and status.
You will need:
a selection of textiles such as blankets, towels, pillowcases, duvet covers and clothing. Try and have a mix of patterned and plain fabrics (visit a local charity shop or ask students to bring old textiles from home into class). You could also use materials such as plastic sheeting or tarpaulin
ordinary, everyday objects to wrap. You could use tables, chairs stools or books in the classroom. Or you could use household objects such as toys, tin cans, buckets, brooms, boxes and bottles
string or tape to secure the wrapped fabrics
Explore wrapped sculptures
We have seen how Laura Ford wraps an armature with newspaper, plaster and then textiles to create the sculptures. Explore how other artists have wrapped objects to create sculptures.
Look at this sculpture by Surrealist artist Man Ray as a class.
Ask students what they think has been wrapped.
What is the effect of wrapping the object?
What does it do to the shape of the object?
How does it affect how we think about the object underneath?
By wrapping the sewing machine in cloth, Man Ray altered not only the appearance of the sewing machine but also how we think of it. It becomes mysterious. He also changes its function and status: it is no longer a functional, manufactured everyday object but a unique sculpture displayed in a gallery.
Artist Alina Azadeh wrapped books that belonged to her mother in cloth. This was partly to express her grief at her mother's death, but also suggests the idea of hiding knowledge. Azadeh's heritage is Iranian, a country where women's rights and access to education have been curtailed by the government.
By wrapping the books she has not only changed their appearance, function and status – she has also made us think about the meaning and significance of the objects.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude began by wrapping ordinary objects, including tin cans and plastic flowers, in the late 1950s/1960s.
How has wrapping up this bunch of flowers with plastic sheeting changed how we view it?
The artists went on to take the process of wrapping things to an extreme by wrapping buildings and even landscapes! This sketch shows their plan for wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin – a project that they realised in 1995.
By wrapping objects and buildings they wanted to disrupt how we see the world and encourage people to look at familiar things with a new curiosity. They also wanted to add sculptural qualities to ordinary objects.
Provide each student/group with an object or more than one object. Task them with using fabrics to wrap the objects in whatever way they like. If they have more than one object they could wrap the objects together. (Alternatively, if you are feeling brave and have large pieces of fabric, you could task them with wrapping a whole section of the classroom!)
Set a timer for the activity for 20 minutes. Explain to students that this activity is about experimentation and 'seeing what happens' and that there are no right or wrong approaches.
Once students have wrapped their objects, place the objects together and discuss them as a class. You could think about:
what is the effect of the wrapped objects?
how have you changed the objects and changed how we see them?
have ordinary objects such as a stool taken on a new character?
does the wrapping suggest new meanings or narratives?
what words would you use to describe the effect of wrapping the objects?
do you think the wrapped objects look like sculptures?
has this activity given you ideas for other wrapping projects? What else could you wrap?
Encourage students to think about how the draped covering softens the form of the object and also hides features or details. Words such as altered, disrupted, abstracted, disappeared, muffled, disguised, mysterious, useless and softened could be used to describe the effect.
Use the wrapped objects as a starting point for other projects.
The wrapping technique might suggest ideas for a sculpture project.
Photograph the wrapped objects and alter their scale or place them in other environments to create surreal landscapes.
Or task students with drawing, painting or creating a mixed media still life artwork of the wrapped forms. This could explore fabric patterns or simplified, abstract forms.
Activity: design and make a mixed media sculpture using textiles
Task students with creating a sculpture using textiles.
The sculptures could be figurative or abstract.
Students may be interested in exploring shapes and forms or expressing a theme or idea.
The sculptures could be made by: wrapping, bundling or stuffing fabric shapes; cutting up, stitching and sewing fabrics together; or combining fabrics with other materials or found objects.
Or students could make an armature for their sculptures and use newspaper, clay or plaster to create a form that they could then cover with textiles.
Encourage students to think about and research how Laura Ford makes use of seams, rough edges and loose threads to add character and feeling to her sculptures and how she uses patterns to change the look of forms or evoke themes such as childhood memories.
Students should plan their sculptures with sketches and notes. Encourage them to think about why they're doing what they're doing, and how they want people to respond to their sculpture.
It might be helpful to research the work of other artists who use textiles. Here are some examples:
Phantom Twins 1997
Christine Borland (b.1965)
Small Mollington Knot Cushion 1973
Ann Sutton (b.1935)