The art of happiness - despite cancer and family trauma

Sculptor Vanessa Pooley Byline: Sonya DuncanCopyright: Archant 2019

Sculptor Vanessa Pooley Byline: Sonya DuncanCopyright: Archant 2019 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The cancer came as she prepared for a new exhibition. 'I used to think my art had to be serious. Now I want it to emanate happiness,' said sculptor Vanessa Pooley.

Sculptor Vanessa Pooley Byline: Sonya DuncanCopyright: Archant 2019

Sculptor Vanessa Pooley Byline: Sonya DuncanCopyright: Archant 2019 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Vanessa Pooley is just back from chemotherapy. She fizzes with energy and enthusiasm, talking, fast, of running, cycling, and how she wants her latest sculptures to exude happiness.

Yes, her Park Run times are down – but that just means she will be able to watch her health and fitness soar when the cancer treatment is finished. 'I'm doing personal worsts right now, but then it will show me my improvements,' said the sculptor whose works sells across the world.

Vanessa, of The Crescent, Norwich, focuses on female figures – rounded, robust, joyous, dancing, reclining, alone or hugging children.

From the start of her career as a sculptor, in her 20s, she has made these women. 'I just love the shape of women!' she said. 'I feel guilty that I am going to make yet another female figure but in all honesty it's the only thing that interests me,' she said. 'Even at nursery I remember repeatedly drawing female figures and it has continued as a lifelong obsession.'

Sculpture 03 by Vanessa Pooley

Sculpture 03 by Vanessa Pooley - Credit: Vanessa Pooley

As a child she made miniature clay women from beach mud, which have morphed into the glowing blue-green and golden bronzes of today. But the parade of curvaceous, cheerful sculptures stand against the trauma she has lived through recently. Last year, aged 59, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She noticed bleeding in August, went to the doctor in September and in November had an operation 'to take everything out!'

'Ovarian cancer is a silent killer,' she said. 'You often don't get symptoms. So I was lucky.'

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Five-year survival figures are just below 50%, but Vanessa is not just a glass half full person. Her glass is brimming over. Clutching a second cup of tea, and with a fizzy water lined up, she says the chemo leaves her thirsty. It has cost her her hair too, but not her almost superhuman energy and optimism.

'I feel incredibly happy. Although I got the cancer I still fell lucky because they got it early. It's gone now.'

Vanessa Pooley

Vanessa Pooley - Credit: supplied

Her sixth, and final, chemotherapy session falls during the latest exhibition of her work, which runs until April 5.

The show, shared with two friends, was planned before she became ill, but she was determined not to cancel. 'You could just spend all your time sitting around waiting for the cancer treatment and fretting,' she said. 'But that would make it worse.'

She is small, slim, smiley, chatty, quick to confide; her sculptures are bigger, rounded, necessarily still and silent, but also made to weather storms. Although never diagnosed with an eating disorder Vanessa said: 'In my early 20s my work was all skinny stick people. I thought about my weight and how I looked all the time. I think that has informed my work. I still think I look fat now.'

Another theme she returns to again and again is mothers and children. Vanessa, and her husband, also an artist, have two grown-up children, in their 20s. One has transitioned to live as a woman, the other has battled serious mental health problems. Parenting has not always been easy, but Vanessa chooses to concentrate on the joy in her work.

'I'm thinking more and more, 'Why be miserable?'' she said. 'I want my work to be happy and optimistic. Not because of the cancer, but because I used to think my art had to be serious. Now I want it to emanate happiness.'

Her figures hold babies high in the air, gaze or gesture upwards with hands or feet or even a flying ponytail, delight flowing through them.

'People say they make them feel calm, or happy,' said Vanessa. 'They mustn't tell a story or give a message. You don't want to be told anything by a piece of metal, but I want people to like them.'

The sculptures sell from galleries in New York, Singapore and Milan, as well as Britain. Her first solo exhibition, more than 30 years ago, was in Southwark Cathedral, London, and regular exhibitions ever since mean Vanessa's bronzes are in homes and gardens all around the world. Cast at a foundry near Swaffham they also spread happiness and calm through her Norwich home and garden – the house where Vanessa spent her teens. She left for art college in London and stayed on in the capital as she began making a name for herself as a sculptor. But as her parents got older, and she had children, she returned.

She loves the compactness of Norwich, how she can cycle everywhere, from a house alive with her sculptures, her husband's paintings, plus art by their friends and relatives.

She is 60 now, and racing through her treatment, ready to grasp life.

'So now what do I want to do with my life?' she asked. 'I'm working on the show, I'm running and cycling, being active, I'm seeing my friends. My Park Run times will improve and I'll do triathlons. (Vanessa's niece, Emma Pooley, also from Norwich, is an Olympic silver medallist cyclist and professional triathlete.)

And she will make more sculptures.

'It's an exciting time. Art critics, curators and collectors are suddenly taking notice of older, women artists,' said Vanessa. 'I have found my voice and I'm concerned to perfect that voice.'

See some of Vanessa Pooley's work, alongside paintings by Mary Mellor and photographs by Julia Cameron, in an exhibition called Art, Obsession and Maturity at The Crypt Gallery, Norwich School, The Close, until April 5. Monday to Saturday, 9am-5pm.