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Jacob Chandler: An Interview with the Artist
23 Jun 2023

Sculptor Jacob Chandler has a new solo exhibition at the Soden Collection on Wyle Cop this week (until June 24). You may also have seen his work in The Dingle as part of the Shrewsbury Arts Trail. Katy Rink spoke to the Shropshire based artist. Picture credit (above): Joe Douglas

Life can pick us up and put us back down somewhere completely different. Jacob Chandler had set his sights on a ‘pragmatic’ career as an architect until illness interrupted his studies at Birmingham City University. 

He intended to take a short break but got interested in sculpture instead and emerged from his parents’ garden shed a few months later with a life-size horse welded together from scrap and a very serious determination to turn his new interest into a career. 

Jacob Chandler Prancing Horse

Jacob Chandler's first ever sculpture 'Jacob Prancing Horse I'

That was 10 years ago (his parents still have the horse on show in their garden (not the house shown above!) - now entitled ‘Jacob Prancing Horse I’). Nowadays, Jacob, 29, is commissioned to make giant public works of art, including a two and a half metre tall bladed athlete for the Birmingham 2022 Festival celebrating the Commonwealth Games and a piece for Telford town centre’s fashion quarter. His latest commission is a 3 metre tall sculpture destined for the new Midland Metropolitan University Hospital in Smethwick, Birmingham (details to be revealed soon!). 

Jacob, a former pupil at Thomas Telford School (Physics, Chemistry and Art A Levels), discovered that the crippling fatigue, which had put a stop to his studies, was caused by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder: “It’s a systemic disease that causes hypermobility,” he explains. “My joints are extra flexy but also my organs and insides don’t work as they should and I’ve also got colitis. Everything I do requires more energy. I have to manage myself quite carefully.”

One Giant Leap for Humankind II by Jacob Chandler

'One Giant Leap for Humankind II' by Jacob Chandler, sited at Birmingham New Street 

He says that talking to T64 sprinter Ben Pearson whilst working on the piece for the Commonwealth Games inspired him to open up about his own health problems. He’s now an ambassador for the charity EDS which supports people with the condition: “It’s tough to diagnose - I had a bunch of labels stuck on me before they found out what it was. It was through my mum’s pursuit of her own conditions - she found out she had it after 50 years of struggling - we realised it looked very similar to what I had. It’s a genetic condition.”

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Growing up with a woodworker mum and a dad who worked in product design, meant that Jacob’s creativity was given plenty of encouragement: “In school holidays, mum would bring home bags of clay, we’d play with them. I’d make off-road vehicles out of bits of bikes that broke and play with them in the woods. They were sometimes tested to destruction! I also made a forge in the back garden - until my parents realised how dangerous it was.”

Jacob's home made bike

One of Jacob's homemade bikes which were often 'tested to destruction'!

It was whilst he was back home from university, recuperating, that Jacob discovered a facility for sculpture: “In that year, it almost worked as my therapy both physical and mental - I would go down the garden to the workshop and weld little bits of metal together. Eventually I came out of that shed with a life-size horse! It’s on my parents’ drive. 

"I was delighted with it - It’s still one of my favourite pieces. It’s recognisable if you know my work. It was welded in angle iron which I sourced from a metal dealer called Christmas Stockholders in Shrewsbury. I would go and buy their scrap and offcuts, relatively cheaply.”

Jacob made more work and exhibited with a few local galleries - including Ironbridge Fine Arts - at The Big Art Show in Shrewsbury in 2014 and with The British Ironwork Centre. He went on to create his first major piece ‘Poise and Tension III’ in weathered (corten) steel working with a metal fabrication company. The sculpture was selected for exhibition by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.  

Poise and Tension III with ducks in the Dingle

Jacob's 'Pose and Tension III' sculpture on display in The Dingle for The Shrewsbury Arts Trail. Credit: Phil Langstaff

The 6ft tall figure solidified Jacob’s now signature style and can be seen on display in The Dingle in Shrewsbury this summer as part of The Shrewsbury Arts Trail. 

“It’s the sculpture that really launched my career,” Jacob says. “I made a maquette and took it to a metal company wondering what it would cost to get it made. They said come and work for a month, we’ll help you make it.” 

Then followed a commission for a 3 metre tall public sculpture for Telford shopping centre: “Every year since that, I’ve had a large commission and all but one have been in public spaces,” he adds. 

These days, he works full time from a ‘tiny square box’ of a studio in the garage at the bottom of his garden, making his maquettes: “I like to confine myself to a small space. I create a hell of a mess and dust!”

Jacob at work

'Sculpting is dusty work' - Jacob works from his garage at home

He makes the maquettes in a manageable size (approximately 50cm tall) and gets them 3D scanned and digitally scaled up to any size he needs, working with different partners in bronze or steel. 

Jacob’s work is a perfect fit for the Shrewsbury Arts Trail - the trail theme of movement is also Chandler’s source of inspiration (he’s a fan of Swiss sculptor Giacometti whose work reduces figures to core shapes): “I love the sense of movement, the pushing and distorting of proportions yet keeping a really identifiable figure,” he explains. 

He approves of the siting of ‘Pose and Tension III’, in the middle of The Dingle pond in Shrewsbury’s formal town centre garden, where it attracts attention from curious ducks: “When I got the location I was thrilled. I had the piece on water once before and it really comes alive. I love the reflections.”

Jacob and Jonathan

Jacob Chandler with Jonathan Soden at the opening of 'Exploration of Flatland' at The Soden Collection in Shrewsbury

In the past year, with a one-year-old at home, Jacob has had to readjust to parenthood: “I spent six months not producing much work. It gave me time to think and regenerate and has led to a new body of work. Until then it was back to back commissions. I almost didn't get a chance to breathe or reanalyse what I was doing. It’s helped my practice develop. I don’t stop thinking.”

His new body of work ‘Exploration of Flatland’, on display at a solo exhibition at The Soden Collection on Wyle Cop this month, reveals an ambition to distil figures to the simplest of planes: “I’ve always said I want to constrain the number of facets I use. In the same way that Mondrian would take a beautiful tree and distil it to lines and colours, I want to see how much of the form I can remove and yet it still be distinctly the human form. 

“It is still possible to capture emotion - perhaps even more so. As you move around them, if you get quite close to the wall, some facets will completely disappear and become line segments, or a figure will emerge. I love the way the different, contrasting metals interact and give different reflections. I am passionate about materials, pairing really beautiful copper with a different medium. I feel there’s almost endless potential for it.” 

Poise and Valour by Jacob Chandler

'Poise and Valour' 

Jacob’s health struggles inspire themes of strength and vulnerability, self-assurance and imbalance, fragility and impermanence; figures such as ‘Poise and Valour’ reflect the precariousness of existence and the unpredictability of the path ahead. His work elicits a strong response; the viewer is compelled to touch these figurative, geometric works of perfection. The minimalist Flatland pieces teeter on abstraction but retain a clear link to his existing collection. Stand with them for a while and there’s a tangible sense of time passing - of the artist leaving his mark. 

Jacob loves watching his work take effect: “I was at a small exhibition at the Wellington Arts Festival. A guy came in looking like he’d had a tough day. He stood and looked at ‘Poise and Tension’ and said ‘Wow’ three or four times. That’s when I realised my work could have an emotional impact on people.”

The solo exhibition in Shrewsbury is selling well: “Jonathan at The Soden Collection has supported me from the early days - I was one of his first artists in the gallery. He saw my potential even before the big commissions started coming in."

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Jacob describes himself as ‘process driven’ and embraces technology: “Whereas, with the more 3D pieces, I was sat in a respirator for 8-9 hours a day, bathed in horrific solvents, now I can work on a sketch pad, do some little designs, translate them into computer models, laser cut them in card and assemble them. It’s a process I’m really enjoying.”

It was an opportune moment to bring up ChatGPT: “I don’t want to be replaced by a programme!” Jacob responds. “It’s scary - I try not to think about it too much. It can create some incredible work and lead to fascinating conversations about art and process. With a piece of art, the important thing for me is that emotion has gone into it. Whilst ChatGPT can probably simulate incredibly well - in the same way that I like to touch my sculptures and like to feel the cold of the bronze, being able to interact with a person as a way to access the work can’t be replaced.

Hand on art

ChatGPT can never supplant real emotion - or the true handiwork of an artist, says Jacob Chandler

“Copying art is in some ways the least scary thing about ChatGPT when you consider the other implications. I enjoy using technology in my work. I 3D scan and print my work, I laser cut it. If all of these processes weren’t in existence, I couldn’t create the work.”

Whilst he’s loved working on a smaller scale for the solo exhibition, Jacob would love to see his work ‘writ large’ on the side of a building (it'd look stunning on the side of Shrewsbury Market Hall!). 

Jacob has experienced extraordinary success relatively early in his career, especially for an artist with no formal training. Does he have advice for fellow young sculptors? 

"I think you have to have talent and drive, you have to put yourself out there as much as you can, knock on doors and get a little bit lucky. It’s about putting yourself in a position to be lucky. You have to have a business head on you as well. There are tonnes of incredible artists that don’t know how to put themselves out there and don’t ever get found. You have to invest time in it and get out of your comfort zone.”