Will Pocklington talks to Border's based sculptor Jason Sweeney.
Borders-based sculptor Jason Sweeney has earned himself a name as the go-to man for sculptures of Salmo salar. He recently completed his largest salmon commission to date – a stainless steel replica of a 57lb ‘fish of a lifetime’ from the Alta in Norway, and it’s truly something to behold.
“It’s not only large fish that people want to remember through art, though,” Jason reminds me as we catch up about his latest project. “It’s those with emotional value – perhaps their first on a new river or beat, or a family member’s first fish. All are worthy of celebration. Ask any fisherman to name their most memorable fish, and rarely can they give you just one story!”
Regardless of size, before setting to with the heavy tools, Jason always reaches for his pencils, creating initial sketches from any images and measurements he has been provided with. Given the excitement of the catch and the need to get the fish back into the water, often such information can be sparse. “This fish was caught a number of years ago, before the advent of good quality smartphone cameras. Fortunately, with computer enhancement, even a grainy photo can provide sufficient detail to produce the exact replica of a client’s fish.”
The nuances of Jason’s pieces exist as variations in shape and appearance of the original subjects, dictated by their home river and other environmental factors. “I’ve been making salmon for a long time and with the measurements supplied I can work out roughly the depth and girth of a fish. Using river records and factoring in alterations in size and shape due to season and location, I can ensure each sculpture is truly representative,” he explains. “For example, a spring run fish with a good shoulder will tend to be heavier than a summer fish. And a Tay fish will be shorter and stockier than a Tweed fish.”
Jason makes his sculptures from sheet steel, using a hammer to achieve curvature. “There’s no getting round it,” he sighs. “Taking steel large enough for this fish and beating it to create curve in several directions was bloody hard work and took a fair amount of effort! Even holding a fish of this size and trying to work with it is a challenge.” There’s a certain irony that such a physical and sometimes rudimentary method is used to produce what, when complete, are sculptures of stunning elegance.
The real challenge with wall-mounted fish, according to Jason, is to make them look alive. “The images I’m given are typically of someone holding the fish, but it doesn’t look like that in the river. I aim to create the atmosphere that the fish might at any moment swim off the wall and into the room.”
Will this piece pave the way for further mammoth salmon sculptures in the future? “Well, there are not many caught at this size,” answers Jason. “However, I’m curious about making bigger fish. Huge salmon and their history are infectiously hypnotic to a salmon fisherman. I’d love to try and recreate some of the fish featured in Fred Buller’s Domesday Book of Giant Salmon. I think Georgina Ballantine’s 64lb British record fish would look fabulous in stainless, too, and that is one that I will make for myself!” Watch this space!