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SCULPTING with PJ HARPER

20.07.22

Featuring PJ Harper
Photography by Alex James Aylin
Styling by Tamara Turnbull & Graham Peacock
Words by Graham Peacock

PJ’s sculptures arrive at the studio in a brown cardboard box, filled high with styrofoam and bubble wrap. Whether contained in layers of packaging, laid out across the dressing room table, or placed around PJ himself, they centre the morning’s conversation. There’s a presence to them.  

There’s a self awareness as well – as much a celebration of femininity as they are an eye-roll to the expectations put on the female pop culture icons Harper has been inspired by. They’re tangible manifestations of the sculptor’s own influences – his family heritage, his cultural fascinations. The women appear calm, indifferent, playful, effortlessly cool. Some of them sit in neon two-pieces, others lounge stretched out with mermaid tails. Some are nude. Some are busts that stop at the neckline. They’re all carefully handmade by PJ in his studio. 

With a soaring online presence, the sculptor, who also goes by @pig.malion, creates sculptures that feels equally at home on a bedroom table as they do in a gallery for a global exhibition. Talking us through his process, his plans, and future ambitions, PJ sheds light on the mystery behind his work.   

Hey PJ, nice to meet you. It’s nice to be around your sculptures this morning. How does it feel being so close to your work?

It’s nice to meet you too. I’m doing good, thank you for having me. It feels good, actually. It’s always interesting to see my work in different locations as opposed to just sitting around in my flat or studio space.

Why sculpture? How would you compare sculpture to other art forms, and have you explored any of them?

It’s got to be sculpture for me. Ever since being very young I’ve always had a fascination with small figures and dolls which has led me to where I am today, creating my own. I’ve dabbled in a bit of everything, whether that be painting, printing or video work, but nothing has my heart like hand sculpting.

You talk a lot about lineage through your work – your sculptures are often based on women who’ve impacted your life. What is it about family and femininity you’re so drawn to?

Yes of course, I’m incredibly proud of my black heritage and I want to represent that always. My mum has definitely been the biggest influence for me, and my grandad. Despite all the hardships they have endured because of their ethnicity they have always maintained a positive outlook on life and I find that super inspiring. You know, I think it’s because I’m gay. Haha! and ever since being young I’ve always been obsessed with women, divas and all things feminine. I’d like to think of my work as my expression of the divine femininity.

Tell us about your relationship with masculinity and the masculine figure in art?

Well, as I just mentioned my two times Mr Universe grandad is one of the major influences on my work. I suppose it all really starts with him and what he was all about. Originally he was from Antigua and Barbuda, and was a competitive bodybuilder who also did a little bit of acting. This whole idea of body culture and black excellence has just been something I’ve always known, so it’s only natural that I want to push this within my work.

You’re bridging a lot of influences. Mythology obviously plays a big role. What else are you looking at and taking notes from?

Pop culture now and from the past, for sure. I’m a very nostalgic person and I love to look into the past as I find that this informs the future. I’m a sucker for anything 90’s – whether it’s movies, music or fashion. This is definitely the era I find most inspiring. I think had I not been a creative person I would have been a historian.

As a former Glasgow School of Art student, how do you feel about creative institutions?

I think it totally depends on the individual and how well you deal with that kinda thing. I didn’t really enjoy my time at GSA. I found everything to be too fast-paced and I couldn’t handle the essays, although I learned a few things for sure. I will say that my portfolio prep course at Tramway to get me into GSA was my artistic awakening. They really helped me to develop my understanding of what was important to me.

What advice would you give to someone about to leave art school, looking to transition from university to a career in their field?

Be sure of yourself. I wish I had known this sooner – it’s the most important thing that you believe in what you’re creating or doing. Having integrity will get you far.

People talk a lot about how difficult it is to establish a creative career from Glasgow as opposed to elsewhere in the U.K., but you’re proof that that’s not necessarily true. Do you see yourself always being here?

It’s incredibly difficult but it happens and it’s important not to give up if things aren’t happening fast enough. I don’t see myself staying here for too long. I’d love to take my work to other countries. I want to do America just to see what it’s like, but these are plans for the future. Right now I’m quite happy in Glasgow.

You’ve worked with a lot of big names. We loved the sculpture you did for Jorja Smith. Who’s your dream collaborator?

Thank you, that was such an amazing opportunity for me. Being a fan of Jorja for a while then getting to collaborate was truly fantastic. That’s a difficult one, there’s so many people I’d love to collaborate with. I’d maybe have to say Erykah Badu, Rihanna or Megan the Stallion, but the list of dream collaborators is endless!

We imagine there’s been a shift in your relationship to your work since gaining a bigger profile. How do you stay focused with all the noise going on around you?

The main thing for me is that I want to make all my ideas and I end up overwhelming myself with a ridiculous amount of work, I’m now starting to realise I can only do one thing at a time. But I’m so lucky to be in such an amazing position with my work right now and it’s exciting to see what the future has in store.