As our year working with 2023 Adam Reynolds Award Winner James Lake comes to a close, we sat down with the sculptor to reflect on his major new Shape-supported project, ‘Another Day’.  

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Shape Arts: Ever since we started working on this project with you, James, it’s been set against the backdrop of a world turned upside down by Covid, followed by a sudden rise in the cost of living. It feels like crisis after crisis. The project – an animation – itself is a big change for you, practice-wise, given you predominantly work with physical materials. 

You also do so much work in schools, and invest time and energy into arts education, which has been so impacted not just by the economic circumstances we find ourselves in but by the huge shift toward digital delivery, whether it’s pupils attending school remotely or lessons being designed with and around digital tools. Suddenly, there’s a younger generation who have had limited contact time with others, and a huge amount of time spent on devices. And it’s not just children of course. So many creatives are digital-first now, because it’s often more affordable and chimes with what so many other people are doing on their phones. 

James Lake: Very true, and I did want to mention an article that came to my attention recently. It was by the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD). It referred to how the arts are the key to a thriving civic society, and I know this has been picked up by political leaders too. However, I want to see more than words, we need this put into action.  

Photograph of colourful cardboard houses made by children.

Birdhouses made by primary school students at a workshop delivered by James Lake at Barnstable Library. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shape Arts: Indeed, and given that most of the changes we’ve seen have come from external pressures, rather than society wanting to abandon creativity and culture, can you tell us how they have impacted you as an artist? Especially one with a primarily physical, studio-based practice.

James Lake: I’m aware of disabled artists who really struggle because they can no longer return to physical spaces and venues. They may be much more dependent on a digital exchange. In passing I would say I’m concerned about here that leaves them in terms of other materials, especially the more costly ones.

I suppose, also, there is some irony in that art made on phones is not studio-based work. I would draw a comparison to myself, actually – perhaps surprising to some people – in that for years, I have also worked outside of a traditional studio setting. Unlike many 3D artists, I have managed to side-step such things. Where I live, in Exeter, there is a fantastic printmaking organisation and they’ve got printing presses and a central location and do all kinds of outreach work. Whereas for me, there is no working ‘base’ as such, I simply take my cardboard materials with me into schools and take them away again at the end of the day. Through working with me, the school doesn’t have to provide anything, and I think that’s how I’ve managed to keep going within a world of shrinking budgets and one that’s more digitally based. 

Treating each artistic engagement equally and using the same materials transforms all of those engagements. It becomes so much more equitable, a more level playing field.

I’m very practical that way. I’m used to taking my work by car to an exhibition to deliver it because that was how things worked in the early days – you just needed the ability to build a box and put the stuff in it and get that transported.  

But there are hidden advantages to this. The good thing about what I do is that I can be in any kind of environment without any specific kind of material. Take schools, for instance. I’m aware that some of them have had to sell their pottery kilns and so they can’t work in clay. This, in turn, restricts working with certain artists or artforms. My whole process has been based on using cheap, easily sourced materials, and it’s all about having an idea as to how you can fix and tape things together, which does allow me to go flexibly into different venues.  

An example of this is building a little group of houses which may generate ideas about community and space that wouldn’t come from other means. Or developing work about people through physical portraits. I believe in that. I think you have to be practical, work with what is at hand and with what you can afford. Again, here in Exeter, there’s been a massive reduction in community art funding for people with learning disabilities or using mental health services. You’ve got organisations merging because of cuts to staffing. To provide a buffer for my practice, and survive, I ensure that I am self-reliant and bring my own materials along. With a disability, you need to take as many variables out of the situation as possible in order to be able to compete successfully within a very competitive field of work. 

Photograph of a 3D cardboard self portrait made by a child.

Semi-3D self-portrait made by a Key Stage 2 student in one of James' Identity and Portrait workshops. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shape Arts: It sounds like, as a practitioner, you’ve deliberately evolved to be flexible and work in lots of different contexts. Can you tell us a little more about that?

James Lake: It’s a double-edged sword, because it’s important that an art practice can sometimes become fixed in place, especially when you’re relying on this work for an income – that stability and regularity can often help it be sustainable. 

However, I am definitely flexible across a certain palette, normally sculptural or semi-relief work, and this helps with sustainability too. What I work with is also pretty cheap, easily sourced, and doesn’t make too much mess. And then there’s the flexibility of the material itself. Cardboard can become anything you need it to be. You can take a strip of cardboard and work with it and now it’s part of a face, or a tree, or an elephant.

In schools or educational settings, if you remove too much of the three-dimensional world, then the focus can become quite narrow. Instead of kids fully enjoying the creative process, what’s really going on is the reduction of space in the classroom or the community setting, or the material budget to make things happen. To deal with this, I have to ensure my designs are small, individual, or tailored to the environment, and package it up to match. Then everybody’s able to achieve something three-dimensional and take it home and expand on it without me, the classroom, a studio or expensive equipment that’s hard to access.

And I think in outreach work now, this is the trick to succeed or at least improve engagement, because with more technology around, people want some sort of visual outcome or something to react to almost instantaneously. And that can change the way you work.

I think, within the art fields, and this applies to disability arts too, you need to come up with a process that allows students or people in the community a sense that they’re constructing something that’s beyond their current ideas. To be able to see what’s possible beyond their circumstances or the limitations and expectations placed on them. Doing it in a way whereby the initial stages give them something visual that they can recognise or relate to or get some fulfilment from – that’s the key to avoiding any kind of tokenistic engagement. Then you can take them to the next stage, and the next. 

I think that the problem with some art forms now, because computers can so readily do lots of different things for you, is that the process of holding a pencil might seem out of date when you can draw on an iPad or computer program and make an image. And with the speed of social media, it’s hard not to lose the attention of the younger generation because they already know they’re not interested within ten seconds! It’s so easy to have lost them for the day to scrolling through endless videos on YouTube, TikTok, or whatever.

Photograph of collection of wildflowers made from cardboard.

Cardboard wildflowers created by participants in James' workshop with Honiton Carers in 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shape Arts: How can you tap into these kind of things to make sure young people have the opportunity to connect with creativity in the way you envisage it?

James Lake: I think about the idea and having the infrastructure to put the ideas to work. What I have done very successfully in the past with schools is to collaborate, right across the age groups. For instance, this worked really well with a project where primary and secondary students worked alongside each other to make giant cardboard heads and torsos of people, to collaborate on themes of feelings and identity. What I found was that the more physically restricted you are – and that might be due to location, environment, or it might be around disability – the more significance there is on what you are able to make with your hands. 

There’s something about not being defined or limited to one specific area. You could say that when you have shrinking school budgets, you can get given an A4 piece of paper to work on and that’s what you’re limited to, because you’re in a busy classroom. So, you go ahead and fill that space, and then that piece of paper gets put away in a folder or ever smaller chest of drawers. What I’m saying is, as this practice of shrinking increases the budget becomes smaller too. The whole thing about environments getting smaller means physical space can get smaller, houses get smaller, educational aspirations get smaller, display areas get smaller.

And, in a way, when you build things, you’re reacting against the shrinking of space to some degree. There’s something inherently liberating to actually build something. Build out, if you will. I’ve been doing this for 15, 20 years. I’m the only disabled artist I know in my local area who works like this.

The way I approach art, and that’s whether I’m working with teenagers in a private school, or a low-funded art environment or community setting, and with different ranges of ability, is fundamentally the same. Treating each artistic engagement equally and using the same materials transforms all of those engagements. It becomes so much more equitable, a more level playing field. It’s more accessible. It doesn’t matter what your income is, or whether or not you have a studio. 

As an artist, you might well be living in a very cramped situation. What I don’t like is the idea that making things and expressing yourself through 3D work should be restricted by your background or the space you live in. That’s what Another Day’s story is fundamentally about. It’s not about how expensive the materials that you’re using are, it’s about the quality of your idea, and the fact that you don’t have to go to the most expensive school to have the best ideas. It’s the way I’ve always worked, because I started off in that situation myself, recovering from cancer, having limited mobility, living in my parents’ house, one room, and a small table to work on.

When you demystify the artistic process, you’re giving people the tools to have a go themselves.

I like the idea of starting out with a simple sheet of cardboard and drawing something new, a shape maybe. Cutting it out and adding more shapes until you have something that begins to take form and can stand upright, and not be confined to the surface of a table. My process is about using simple materials you don’t have to worry about, like cardboard, you just take the objects or images and move them around, just keep moving things around until the combination works. Being very dyslexic, this making process is comparable to how I used to move the text around in an essay until it started to make sense. That way, you take the stress out of it, you take the worry about using expensive resources out of the equation, meaning that you have a process that many more people can access. 

If you’re not happy with the result of your artistic creations, you just put it to one side and come back to it at a later date. Sometimes I tell students about one such piece of work. I get them to guess how long it took to make. The question of time always comes up because classrooms are such rushed environments these days. They never get the right answer, and when you say 12 years, they are perplexed because their concept of making art is one that can only exist within a set time frame, there is very little time for consideration and risk taking. It all begins to make sense when I tell them I stopped and came back to it 12 years later!

Work started can be taken back home, worked on in the evening or at the weekend. When you demystify the artistic process, you’re giving people the tools to have a go themselves, using the tools that they find accessible, and affordable. I think it’s still very possible to do that these days.  

People will say to me, ‘you have shown me how you make your work, so I can have a go myself. But how do you do that, what’s the secret ingredient?’ It’s me! It’s nothing more than time, effort, and perseverance. I am self-taught, all the successes are hard won and by no means guaranteed.

Photograph of James Lake hot-gluing a scaled down model of himself made of cardboard.

James working on a scaled down model of himself for his upcoming animation, Another Day. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shape Arts: Were you worried about translating your practice to a digital world? 

James Lake: It’s a very tricky question. Having your work in some kind of digital representation is really important because people get to see it more easily, especially if you aren’t working in digital formats or media day-to-day. Having new ways and opportunities to share work is very important, especially if you have an analogue practice.

And digital can be good for collaboration, too. You can exchange ideas remotely, like we did for the animation, compared to how it usually is for artists like me, working in a solitary way. Which way is best depends on circumstances. 

Shape Arts: You’re often called ‘The Cardboard Man’ and, for those familiar with your work, the association between James Lake and cardboard sculptures is instant. How do you expect people will react knowing that you’ve been working on an animation? Do you think you’ll surprise people?

James Lake: I think people will definitely be very surprised! I mean, they’ll be surprised that I’m involved in an animation because I’ve really stepped out of what people know for me. I think the nature of the animation’s story has an element of surprise in itself, too, especially when you realise that cardboard is a central element in its look.

It has all the elements that I would have wanted. It has a disabled protagonist, it has some social and political undertones to it, which you can engage with or not – these elements aren’t so strong as to dictate your response to the film, but I think it’s important they’re there.

I think it works so well in terms of its capacity to be accessed by all age groups, which is true of my sculptural work to this point, as well. It has a disabled character in it, but I think its relevance is there for anybody, whether or not they consider themselves to be able bodied or disabled. I think it works for all because the focus is on the art as much as anything else. And making something – the act of making a piece of art, in this instance – is a positive thing.

Want to know how James Lake made his new animation Another Day?

Watch our first behind the scenes film now!

Banner image: still from Another Day by James Lake. Description: still from a digital animation. Centre screen, a close-up of a paper posted to the side of a phone box reads 'Another Day'.