In conversation with sculptor Dorcas Casey she’s too modest to mention her First Class BA Hons in Sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but a hard-won bursary from the Royal British Society of Sculptors, the 2014 Public Speaks Award in the Broomhill National Sculpture Prize and inclusion in this year's prestigious Columbia Threadneedle Prize at London’s Mall Galleries, speak volumes.

As do her large-scale animal sculptures and context-based installations that translate dreams and childhood recollections into the unsettling, ambiguous and fantastical. On a sunny Bristol morning we catch up with her at her Jamaica Street studio to delve further into her work, inspiration and a rural Somerset upbringing.  

Tell us about how you got started as an artist? Have you always been a creative person?

I have always been obsessed with making things. Maybe not so much works of art when I was a child, but I always used to make models and 3D things. I went to university quite late – I was 25, and studied Fine Art as a mature student specialising in sculpture. That’s where I started to make my more ambitious, large-scale pieces. I’d always made animals, so those themes stayed the same. In the interim I was working as a technician in the art department of a sixth form college and alongside that I continued my art practice. So that was brilliant. But eventually I decided I should go to university. I think I just got to the point where I had more ambitious ideas and I wanted that to focus on developing my practice. I’m glad I made the decision.

Can you tell us about your inspiration and influences? Do you think the Somerset landscape and your rural upbringing have played into your work at all?

The core of my work has always been from my own subconscious and dreams. But it’s an interesting question because now I don't live in Glastonbury any more I can see it from an outside perspective and I'm sure growing up there, and possibly its spiritual side has seeped in. Growing up in a rural community surrounded by farms and farm animals – we always went on farm holidays when I was a child because I’ve got seven brothers and sisters, so we'd always stay in farmhouses – I think it’s definitely, definitely influenced my work.

My work is also quite closely linked to my childhood. I seek out materials that remind me of my childhood, and artists such as Louise Bourgeois and her stitched fabric works – where some things that are really monumental and powerful but are finely stitched in a comforting and domestic way – I think that's definitely coming through. Also, Belinde De Bruyckere, her very sad, emotional animal pieces have probably influenced me as well.

Tell us more about your animals and how they make the transition from your dreams into your work? The anatomical detail is amazing, how do you achieve that?

A lot of the animals are sort of suspended in a state of collapse or disempowerment, and sometimes that’s based specifically on the mood of the dream. So the Bull is based on a series of dreams where bulls appeared menacing in fields at first, but then they just became powerless. Sometimes I feel through the process of making them – like translating them from the imaginary world into the physical world – they lose something, so they go from being a really powerful physical presence to not quite the thing you’re trying to communicate. I’m trying to preserve the power of the dream image – keep it ambiguous, keep it mysterious – and translate that somehow into my sculptures.

When I’m going to make a particular piece I always like to go and look at the actual animal – look at the weight of it, the energy of it. I do loads of sketching but then I do also look at anatomy books and hundreds and hundreds of photos from the internet. I like the work to be quite specific to the animal, so they’re not just something symbolic. I like there to be a lot of detail. I think there’s quite rich symbolism to animals which is connected to all parts of its body – not just something that’s representable. I like to have every aspect of the physicality of it there, represented in front of you.

You’ve touched on the importance of the materials you use. How do you find the right materials for your work?

Generally I do a lot of collecting so I’m always looking for materials at car boot sales, in dumps and at charity shops – all over the place. As you can see from my studio, I’m always hoarding things to make my sculptures from! Objects and materials that appeal to me often link to my childhood or memories or things I’ve seen in dreams – so there’s quite a direct link there to my collecting. I quite often choose tactile, comforting fabrics that were in my house when I was growing up. I find them interesting as an adult because they link to memory and also they’re things that quite often pop up in dreams because you haven’t remembered them for 20 years. That’s a really powerful thing. I quite like using materials that are comforting and homely and domestic, because I think they heighten that uncanny feeling to the sculptures I make. Because they’re immediately recognisable, and you can’t quite put your finger on why the sculpture is maybe slightly challenging or uncomfortable to look at. I think I’d rather that mysterious element than make it out of something that’s clearly disturbing in the first place. Then it’s easy to rationalise why it’s making you feel that way – it’s not so sort of troubling.

Can you also tell us a little about some of the techniques you use?

I really like the humbleness of handstitching. I can’t ever remember being taught it as a child but I’ve always used it as a construction technique. Because it’s a really old-fashioned thing to do, just the action of it makes you feel a connection to people who have done it in the past. And I like being able to make something that has real bulk and mass out of something that’s quite delicate. So a lot of my larger sculptures are covered in a network of really fine, weak seams, and I like the fact that they’re fragile but quite robust and bulky at the same time.

Some of my work I cast, so with a piece like Mule Head I would make a very rough clay head, then use more textured fabrics like bedding fabrics and jumpers stitched and pinned together to create the more detailed shape.

This would be coated in Jesmonite resin which is something I use quite a lot, then I take a mould from that and cast it again. There are loads and loads of layers to the process. It’s quite laborious as you have to leave things to dry inbetween, but once you’ve made your mould you can cast multiples or experiment with different materials. The final effect of Mule Head is created with a real iron powder in the surface of it, and then I rust the iron powder so it’s a real rust coating which looks really heavy and solid.

I started to experiment with Jesmonite after university and I’ve found it to be an amazing, versatile material for sculpting. It allows me to make my work so it can go outside – which is important in being able to display it in different contexts. I made a piece for the Broomhill National Sculpture Prize based around a sculpture I’d made. The piece is still in the Sculpture Gardens and it’s really quite established now. It'll be interesting to see how it may degrade– it might be enhanced as it starts to fall apart!

Some of your recent and future projects like Banksy’s Dismaland and Glastonbury Festival sound interesting? How did they come about?

I can’t tell you how Dismaland came about I’m afraid!? But it was really exciting. I exhibited a set of my large-scale sculptures and I was also commissioned to fabricate two life-size white horses for the Dismaland Castle.

I absolutely love Glastonbury Festival, I’ve been every year since I was 14 and I always wanted to make something for it. So this year I decided it was the year to do it! The piece I’m making is actually based on the Broomhill sculptures which were inspired by folk costumes I saw in Poland. They were these huge animal heads which had obviously been part of vibrant festivals and customs for years, and then they were just hung up on the wall and they looked like big, grumpy old gargoyles. I’ve always wanted to turn them into actual costumes that can move because obviously they’re completely solid, rigid things. So I wrote a proposal with a photograph of the piece to Glastonbury Festival – and I was delighted when they accepted! I’m going to be creating these as costumes for this years festival which I’m really excited about. I’ll be wearing them with two other people parading them around as a walkabout act. I can’t wait!

I’m also working on a collaborative project with a dance and music collective. They specifically make work for young children and children with disabilities and they’re putting together a show at the moment called Le Cheval Solitaire that I’m the designer for, so I’m making carousel horse costumes for them. The carousel horse head is mounted on a little hat so the main performer will wear it and she’ll have kids riding on her back! It’s really nice to work with a team of people from different disciplines like dance and music, and it’s a slightly different area I’m interested in.

And we’ve got open studios here at Jamaica Street so I am really busy gearing up for that and making my Glastonbury Festival costumes at the same time! I might show some of them during the open studios if they’re half-made. Maybe an installation in the lift shaft, like last year – it’s a good, really creepy space for my work, really atmospheric.

How does being based in Bristol work for you? be a working artist? 

I think it’s made a big difference to my day to day working life. There’s an amazing community of artists here, some really cool galleries and you’re always meeting people, making connections and just learning about the art world I guess.

And Bristol is lovely, really vibrant and creative, especially here in Stokes Croft. When I’ve worked in other jobs I’ve always been wanting to do more of my own creative work. It can be tiring and full-on as I quite often tend to have a lot of projects on the go at once, but it’s really rewarding. I’ve always got a massive queue of ideas waiting to be made! So yeah, I couldn’t really do anything else.