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From Pulp to Playboy

Lucy Sparrow talks felt, the Chapman Brothers and the Turbine Hall 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Bath surrounded by lots of fields. It was a really nice place but you don’t really recognise that when you’re little. It’s like: ‘Oh God! Boring.’

And what did your parents do?

Mum worked in a shop and Dad did bits of writing. They were both quite creative.

How did the interest in felt begin?

I think I made my first thing when I was eight or nine years old. I remember my mum buying me sheets of felt and saying it was our craft activity for today – she was always giving us things to do, watercolours and the like. She was very arty. I ran with it but my sister wasn’t really interested. For my birthday my parents would take me to Hobbycraft, give me a £20 spending allowance and I’d buy all these things.

Were you always interested in felt or did you experiment with other materials?

You know those samples they give away at Marks & Spencer? I used to go around grabbing them when I was little and I used to try and make stuff.

Lucy Sparrow in her Corner Shop, 2014

Was there much making at school?

We had quite a good art department, but there wasn’t sewing in it. Sewing was taught in Home Ec. I’d go around doing everyone else’s work because I loved it so much.

Were there artists or designers you looked at when you were growing up?

Claes Oldenburg was the main person that I was interested in – his giant, soft sculptures. I like things to do with scale. I was really fascinated by stuff that was bigger than real life. Who else did I like? Duchamp. I liked that he put everyday objects into settings that they weren’t supposed to be in. I’m totally obsessed with doll’s houses as well. I’m fascinated by things that are really tiny or really big or different to how they are supposed to be.

Are there artists now that you look at and draw inspiration from?

I absolutely love the Chapman Brothers. I think they are so naughty. I remember the first exhibition that really blew my mind was Sensation. It just totally changed everything that I thought about art and what could be art and how it could be presented. It is like going to your first rock concert. I was like: ‘Oh my God! I’m in love.’ British stuff is very important to me. I like gritty British films that show the seedier side of life. I particularly remember reading Brave New World and thinking it was amazing. Oh, and I love Pulp, too.

How do you go about deciding what to make?

It’s based on nostalgia. A lot of it is based around a theme. I made a porn mag because I found some vintage porn magazines in this old farm that a friend and I were looking around. I thought a felt version of this would be great and then it snowballed from there, and then we had two floors of a shop in Soho that’s dedicated to felt sex. So it’s about nostalgia and memory.

Playboy, Lucy Sparrow, 2014

Is that where the corner shop in Bethnal Green, made entirely of felt, came from?

My first job was in a corner shop. I’ve got such memories of going down there and earning £3 an hour, heating pasties in the microwave for people who came in. 

Did that project’s success surprise you?

I didn’t even know anyone was going to come so it was quite overwhelming. It was 31 days of absolute madness.

Did that put you under pressure for the next project?

Yes. I did want to get away from The Cornershop because there is this danger of making cans of beans for the rest of your life. There’s also the sense that people might think that you’re doing it for fun, or you’re a sewing enthusiast, but don’t necessarily take you seriously as an artist. I don’t worry about not being taken seriously, but if you’re using an alternative material people like to put you in a little compartment. If you don’t belong to a certain genre, you’re constantly up against people thinking that you make cuddly toys. So that helps explain the sex shop in October and the gun shop I did in May. It was a fight to make something a bit more deep and meaningful.

Do you have plans for the future?

I want to turn Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall into a supermarket. I think that would be awesome. I just need to convince Nicholas Serota to let me. I remember going to my first show at Tate Modern – I must have been eight or nine – and thinking I really want to make something in here one day. 

Lucy Sparrow’s Felt World is published by Prestel, PB £16.99