Once part of an avantgarde community of artists on what is now the Olympic Park, sculptor Paula Haughney is now firmly embedded within the local community, carving stones on commission and teaching sculpture to young and old.
At Haughney’s studio there are feet on the table, fingers on the shelves, and a giant rabbit standing guard outside. Thankfully, they’re all made of stone. Specialising in carving, Haughney has woven her way through the creative fabric of East London for over 30 years. Now based in Bromley-by-Bow, she has settled into a more community centric role, balancing teaching with an evergreen curiosity in her craft.
Haughney was born in Aldershot. Her grandparents were in the British Army. She studied sculpture in Portsmouth and then Illinois before gravitating to East London in 1983, one of a wave of artists attracted to the freedom of the East End. ‘No-one really wanted to live in London at the time,’ she says. ‘It was quite run down, had lots of old buildings.’
It was during these early years that Haughney settled on stone as her material of choice. During her studies the focus was largely on materials like latex or paper. She wanted to make things that would last. Wood didn’t fit the bill. ‘You have to go with the grain,’ which limits what the sculptor can do, ‘and if you want big bits you have to wait for it to season. You’d get a bit and have to wait six years.’
In 1985 Haughney moved to Acme Studios in Bethnal Green, and rented a studio for nine pounds a week until 1990. From there she moved to the former Yardley’s perfume factory on Carpenters Road, the road that now cuts through the heart of the Olympic Park. In 2001, when redevelopment came calling, Haughney moved to her current home at the Bromley by Bow Centre.
The artists community around Carpenters Road was like a village. Some people had been there 20 or30 years. I’d been there 12 years. Some people never did art again, it was like the breaking up of something. But I know it’s been good for the area. Things change.’
In 1989 she was commissioned to produce a piece for at Homerton Hospital, and has been in high demand ever since. A number of her carvings can be found in Bow on the Monteith estate.
Haughney produced 30 carvings of Portland stone to sit above front doors on estate, personalising each design to its residents. ‘One woman was quite religious and she had Noah’s Ark, a cypriot man liked shooting birds so he had a pheasant. One man was Welsh, and his liked beanies, so I did a Welsh beanie dragon. I forget what it was called. Scorch or something?’
Haughney has sculpted across the UK, carving everything from Turkish head knots to chunks of old London Bridge. (The one sold to an American.) Working at St Katherine’s Dock was the only time she was paid to stop.
‘Disney was interviewing someone on a junk and I was bouncing off the Thistle Hotel with my chisel. So they sought me out and paid me to go away for a bit.’
Teaching has become a central part of Haughney’s life. She first went to Bromley-by-Bow Centre to do an evening class on stone carving. When the American who taught the class had to leave, Haughney took over.
She now teaches two classes at her studios, which are focused on general art rather than sculpting specifically. Once a month on a Saturday she does a sculpting workshop. She does an evening class at the Brady Centre on Tuesdays. And if that wasn’t enough, she also teaches stone carving at West Dean College in Sussex five times a year in blocks.
In a sense Haughney has become Bow’s resident sculptor. Her studio window is visible from the street. In fact, when she arrived the centre’s cafe was directly opposite. It was a marked change from Stratford. ‘When I first came here from there I wasn’t used to people staring in at me. ‘You’re much more exposed, but on the other hand now I’ve got to really like that. When people look at things they come in and they talk to me.’
After decades of belonging to a community of artists, she is now an artist in the community. As we talk in her studio, the sounds of schoolchildren playing drift from across the road. When children visit Haughney’s studio ask funny questions. Where do you sleep? Do you eat enough? ‘They think it’s very untidy,’ Haughney says. ‘They say, “You’ve got a lot of stuff.” I say, “Well artist’s need a lot of stuff.” ‘
The studio is indeed full. Stone carvings rest on every surface, including the walls. Tools of all shapes and sizes bulge out of metal pots. Great wooden worktops, installed by Haughney’s father, are arranged in an L at the studio’s end, and two shelves above them are piled high with items she likes — stones, carvings, trinkets, masks.
Every so often the shelves fall down. ‘It’s quite good at culling bits,’ Haughney says matter-of-factly. ‘Once it collapses I go through it and throw broken things away.’
It’s an outlook in keeping with the creative, expressive character of the space. Artists don’t need suffering or fatalism to tick, a fact Haughney has enjoyed sharing with the community. ‘It’s important for people to be inspired, to know artists don’t need to lead a tragic life. A lot of the people they have in books like Van Gough, even Egon Schiele. It’s nice for them to see that you can do things, and you can make money, and you can be creative, and happy.’
And busy. Inspiration continues to flow freely for Haughney, who draws chiefly from the feelings and happenings of her own life. Various sculptures around the studio reflect Haughney’s relationship with her daughter, while bunnies have been a recurring fascination. When a rather enormous piece of stone crushed the tip of Haughney’s little finger, that sparked a run of carved digits. (‘Very popular with South Americans.’)
She’s currently working on a pair of feet. ‘Recently I’ve got a thing about feet. I think as you get older — my parents are both 93 — mobility changes. You have to look after your feet.’
Are hers itching to move somewhere new? Not any time soon. Haughney seems settled here, content in her work and her teaching. And she can’t picture herself leaving the city. ‘I did for a year in America in the middle of nowhere. Not for me.’ As Haughney’s career has progressed, East London has been the constant backdrop. It doesn’t create artists, but it gives them the freedom to create themselves. ‘In London you can be whoever you like.’