Marianne Parry mythological sculpture

Marianne Parry



The quiet simplicity of a portrait can be a powerful, resonant call to understand and sympathise with the private, inner worlds of others. A reconnection to our capacity for deep compassion towards complete strangers.

My portraiture aims to create a sense of recognition in an unknown face, a shared understanding of unspoken struggles, joys, vulnerabilities, passions. Though never fully revealed, the ‘wrestlings’ captured in the portrait are somehow able to reflect our own.

Sculptor, traveller, lover, doctor and patient.

My abstractions are a way of combining knowledge of the architecture of the body, it’s anatomy and physiology, with an intuitive sense of other bodily ‘ecosystems’ – energetic, erotic, traumatic. They draw on my experiences of the body’s vulnerability, power, fragility, distortion and magic. Observed in others, and experienced in myself as traveller, lover, doctor and patient - in clinical neutrality and in the raw technicolour of the real world.

The pieces attempt to embody these unsettling but vitalising tensions and pulls. Light and dark, playful and serious, sensual and material.

Marianne Parry at work in the studio

My art is shaped by my life-journey. I am a medical doctor, so the body and it’s inner workings are my familiar and intimate place of inspiration. Doctoring has taught me about the body as a ‘machine’, but moreso about how our relationship to it creates some of the most powerful emotions and experiences of our lives. It’s triumphs and failings dictating our emotions, possibilities, challenges and acceptances.

After working in the NHS, I specialised in Tropical Medicine, which led to an international career with Emergency Relief and Development organisations. Starting with a year in the conflict-ridden Congos, then working widely across Africa, Asia and Latin America. I often travelled alone to remote areas, to work with local ‘Medicine People’ of all types. They and their patients allowed me to witness ranges of human experience I had never encountered before, a witnessing embedded in my deepest self, emerging later in my art.

A major road traffic accident whilst working overseas changed everything, and gave me new insights ‘from the other side’ as a patient, with a gradual adjustment to my different body. Several years into my recovery, I began my 3 year training in Figurative Sculpture at Heatherley School of Fine Art and The Art Academy, in London.

Sculpting the bodies of others helps me heal my own.


She sees me fully and I find myself willing to open myself to her as if she was performing surgery.

“Close your eyes” she says. “I need to touch your face.” Marianne takes two quiet steps toward me and places both hands on my head, tracing the outlines of my brow, temples, the bridge of my nose. I feel her lithe fingers searching for clues in the contours of my face. How deep is this cleft? How sharp is that angle? Her fingertips are cool and smooth, softened by the moist clay that she’s been massaging for the past hour and a half. There is purpose in her palms. Part giving, part taking. It’s seductive but not sexual. Serious but never solemn.

She looks deeper with her hands than with her eyes. The shapes and textures of my face answer other questions beyond the physical: How does he love? Does he value his life? Is there enough meaning to balance his suffering? These answers, too, are sculpted into the clay.

I sense familiarity, as if this isn’t the first time she’s manually surveyed my facial features with forensic intent. We share the contact, both of us aware that what she takes from me is offered freely. This is more an exchange of ideas than simply information gathering.

She asks me if I know that my right jawbone is flatter than my left as she goes back to the clay to translate what she’s learned. I did not know this. But in the brief time we’ve spent together I’ve come to trust her observations more than I trust my own understanding of myself. She sees me fully and I find myself willing to open myself to her as if she was performing surgery.

I’ve entered a comfort zone that is simultaneously grounding and inherently unnatural. Just inches away, at head height, my clay likeness is taking shape. Layer by layer; detail by detail. I wish I could see the finished bust today, yet it’s the act of sitting for Marianne that has already convinced me this is meaningful.

After six sessions – about fifteen hours in total – we’ll be finished. I don’t want this to end.

Marianne had invited me to sit for her a few months before I first arrived at her studio, a ground floor room in a terraced house in Queen’s Park, north London. She’d been one of my memoir-writing students and had written superbly about being a doctor in Africa, about her family and about art. She said writing didn’t come easily to her. I assured her it doesn’t come easily to any of us.

Marianne Parry at work in the studio

I jumped at the chance to witness the mysterious artistry and craft that goes into creating a bust of my head. Not for my vanity – indeed I have little faith that my head has much worth gazing at, let alone recreating – rather I sensed immediately that this would be more than simply sitting still for hours while she went about her business. I’d been to enough art exhibitions to recognise there is as much of the artist in the work as there is of the subject and that somehow a relationship is crafted along with the creation.

She welcomes me inside, out of the chucking spring rain and into her unpretentious studio. She’s recently transformed the space, ripping out the old carpeting, applying a coat of white emulsion to the walls and frequenting eBay to sell the needless items that had been stored in here. Only an unsold unemployed glass shower door remains leaning against one wall. Blackened wooden floorboards are splattered with paint and clay dust. Five head-shaped figures wrapped in plastic bags of various colours – works in progress – sit on a table next to the storage bins overflowing with sculpting supplies. There is a radio on the mantle next to one of Marianne’s earlier pieces representing the legend of Sedna, the Inuit sea goddess whose fingers begat ocean creatures. In the centre of the room, her stage: a swivelling platform atop which sits an upright dowel – a wooden stick – with a paper ball on top, all wrapped in plastic. That will be the root of me, I presume.

She wastes no time getting started, grabbing handfuls of terracotta clay and applying it to her small scaffold. She’s rolled up her sleeves and tied her hair back but disobedient blonde wisps explode from Marianne’s head like capering flames. Working quickly, her fingers dance in the clay that glows darkly against her pale skin. She is at one with the material.

Within minutes the figure is head-shaped. She wants me to maintain a gaze forward; I choose a pink rose in the garden outside the back window to help keep my focus and my head fixed. Yet, sat on my stool, I can’t help glancing over at the form magically materialising under her hands. So far I look like a miniature, luscious brown Voldemort, noseless and sinister.

‘Your father was an artist?’ she says, remembering our brief discussion weeks earlier.

‘He dabbled,‘ I say. ‘Watercolours, oils, ceramics … He was finding his voice using wood and steel but he died when I was seven.’

‘So you learned about loss early on.’ She recognises the misfortune and I appreciate the unique offer of sympathy for a loss that happened more than forty years ago with barely a memory.

‘The funny thing is,’ I say, ‘I thought his death inured me to grief and sorrow. But actually, because of my age, it merely left me ill-prepared for facing genuine grief years later when my wife Susan died.’

I spend a few minutes sharing details about being a young widower with an infant son and how it compelled me to write my memoir, Immortal Highway. Marianne never takes her eyes off me, listening and studying at the same time.

‘It’s a happy ending, though,’ I say as if to reassure her. ‘I fell in love again and moved to the UK and got married to Deborah. Life is wonderful now in more ways than I can count.’

The alarm goes off on my phone. She’d asked me to shift position every fifteen minutes, explaining how she must see me from every angle in order to build me in three dimensions. ‘It’s better than 2D,’ she says.

She lets me touch the clay as she applies modest deposits to where my nose and ears will be. Cocoa brown, cool and silky, it moulds to my fingers with the slightest pressure and I instantly recognise its appeal. I can smell its earthy scent and although it came from British earth it immediately reminds me of a forest I’d hiked through in the Western Ghats of south India, its dusty red dirt roads running through the hills like blood vessels.

Marianne wants to know more about my father’s artistic journey, but I’m too curious about hers. How did she go from practising medicine, working with international charities across Africa and Asia, to sculpting terracotta busts in London?

‘I was in a road traffic accident,’ she says plainly. ‘During my recovery and for months afterward I re-evaluated what was important to me.’

There’s a long pause. She looks at the clay figure as if for answers, examining its form, the curves, lines and emotions she’s shaping.

‘I don’t like to talk about the accident.’ I don’t press her, but she continues after a cleansing breath. ‘But I suppose what you and I have in common is that both of us have had a time of great challenge and worked through it to find happiness and value.’ Then as if to emphasise her point, she adds: ‘We’ve found meaning after suffering.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And the meaning is all the more meaningful because of the suffering.’

‘Have you read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl?’ she asks me.

I haven’t, but after her short explanation of Frankl’s work I promise myself I’ll read it before our next session. Not so much for my own understanding of ‘meaning’; in the years following Susan’s death it was my job to examine what life meant to me and I’ve long resolved the issue. But I wanted to know what it meant to Marianne, the person with whom I’m sharing this experiment.

This talk of suffering – not a word I normally use – is bolstering, not unsettling. Death has been a character in the story of my life. It lives and breathes in me, walks and sleeps with me. It doesn’t hover or threaten like some hooded Grim Reaper; it merely suggests itself like the postman or breakfast. It exists as a reminder of the immortal presence of those I’ve lost. Acknowledging Death and his significance allows me to accept him but also ignore him without guilt or shame.

This object that Marianne and I are creating together will serve as a reminder of my search for meaning despite the presence of Death. And although it is just an object it will represent different things to those who know me. After I’m dead it will live on like a memory. A death mask.

This object that Marianne and I are creating together will serve as a reminder of my search for meaning.

Viktor Frankl, the Viennese physician and psychologist, and his family were deported to Auschwitz in October, 1944. One of his only possessions was a manuscript with his life’s work, a new theory of psychological therapy he called logotherapy. Frankl believed that we exist to find purpose and that we are most compelled to pursue this purpose after experiencing and acknowledging a great suffering. His writings were inevitably seized from him, but it didn’t prevent him from continuing his research during his internment.

When we meet up in her studio a week later I’m anxious to see if what Marianne has crafted is as I’d remembered and if it will feel as meaningful as it had a week earlier. She carefully unwraps the plastic dressing that has kept the clay supple and I can already recognise the shape of my head, the lips, the forehead. She’s even captured the curious flat plateau at the back of my skull.

I take my position, locating the pink rose in the garden as she starts her work without ceremony. Performing with ease and fluidity Marianne marks her territory like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at centre stage. Her back is always straight, her chin forward in an attitude of authority. I mention I’ve read Man’s Search for Meaning.

‘Freedom from suffering,’ Marianne says encapsulating Dr Frankl’s lesson in a nutshell. She appears comfortable in her own skin and I resolve she’s content with the choices she’s made. Her skills as an artist, like her manner, display confidence, sensitivity and warmth.

‘What I like about that,’ I offer, ‘is the recognition that we have the choice to seek freedom and happiness. We don’t need to define ourselves as sufferers.’

Marianne and I agree that while some people never find a way of breaking out of their penitentiary of sorrow, we had both chosen to welcome happiness after languishing in periods of heartache. My transformation turned me toward writing. Marianne’s guided her to the clay.

‘Can you turn to the side,’ she says as the alarm sounds after another fifteen minutes. ‘I’m working on your left ear now.’ She picks up a wooden tool shaped like a tiny canoe paddle.

I swivel on my stool but not before sneaking a peak at my new ear. It’s beautiful. So perfectly proportioned to my strangely familiar head. So ear-like. I marvel at Marianne’s obvious talent to produce such palpable art from a life I often consider to be less-than-palpable.

As she scrutinises every detail of my face, absorbing its topography, I wonder what she actually sees. Do the lines around my eyes, like tree rings, define the period of grief I endured? Do I look older than I feel? When she lays her hands gently on my head can she detect the waves of self-doubt that have plagued me since adolescence?

In all this talk about a search for meaning, is she in the position to find more value in me than I’m able to find in myself? More pertinently, could part of a ‘man’s search for meaning’ be the discovery of how he is perceived by others?

Marianne and I talk about passion, apathy, having children and suffering. I’m certain the clay is absorbing it all.

Recently I made the conscious decision to stop writing about Death: about the challenges and pitfalls of widowhood; about Susan, about illness; about how I’d changed. I was going to write about other things. Good things: travel, adventure, love, discovery, writing. After all, it has now been nearly fifteen years since she died; longer than the number of years we were together. I should have a raft of new ideas to write about.

The problem is that as a memoirist, Death keeps popping up in my stories like a recurring antagonist. When I write about moving to London, there it is. About becoming a writer, there it is. Death is an inevitable hangover that never recedes.

At our third session Marianne and I talk about big themes: passion, apathy, having children and, predictably, suffering. I’m certain the clay is absorbing it all. I tell her that I consider my period of grief a fulcrum over which teeters ‘before’ and ‘after’ and I ask her if she considers her accident a turning point in her life.

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘It’s there with me all the time. The essence of it, I mean, not the details of the event itself.’

‘Would you prefer to forget about it?’

‘No. It’s more about appreciating the present; focussing on now so that I can have a happier tomorrow.’

It’s clear to me what she means. I’ve been told I live in the moment, possibly to a fault. I romanticise the past, and my future beyond next week is invisible to me. For me, today has as much possibility as any long-term vision. I love ‘this moment’ and most of the time it’s all that’s important to me, whether I’m writing, resting or riding my bicycle. Right now I love being in this room talking about right now with Marianne who is, right now, nervelessly slicing off my left ear that just last week I’d fallen in love with.

‘It had to be done,’ she says. ‘It was too far back and upsetting the entire balance of your head.’ With the help of her callipers she splices the ear back on in the proper location and does the same to the right one. Despite the vision of a tortured Van Gogh bleeding from the side of his head, I feel better knowing she’s realigned the balance.

‘Rarely a day goes by,’ I say, resuming the conversation, ‘that I’m not reminded about Susan in some context. When do you think about your accident?’

She considers this and I expect her to say that it’s too painful or has been fully resolved. Then she says, ‘I think about it when I’m reminded of before.’

There’s that fulcrum.

With all this talk about death and suffering and our search for meaning, I start to wonder if, in fact, I don’t need to search so hard after all. Perhaps, in this moment as in every other one, I’ve already found what my life means. Or at least what it means to me: Being in this moment fully; appreciating and acknowledging the importance of now with a knowing, thankful nod to the past and the future. Communicating, listening, providing a base in the present for others and, more importantly, for myself.

Marianne Parry at work in the studio

In this moment I am here for Marianne as much as I am for my own interests. There is meaning in that. Maybe I can’t see beyond my nose, but I see everything clearly.

My nose and the rest of my likeness are evolving ever toward the finish. I feel more and more like a part of a creative team, my contribution equally as important as Marianne’s. This studio is not simply her space – it’s ours. She caresses my head again to get the feel of me in her palms, her fingers absorbing sensations that lie below my skin and bone. As she releases I feel pieces of myself float across the room to the clay like a telepathic sculptor. I’m participating in this artistic mitosis, my cells dividing, my DNA embossed in the other me, miraculous and enchanting.

Two days before our fourth session I receive news that my former mother-in-law, Susan’s mother, has died. Although my relationship with her had been challenging, she was my son’s grandmother and they’d nurtured a loving bond that he – and I – will forever appreciate. But he’s now lost all of his grandparents in the last two and a half years – my mother and Susan’s father died within two weeks of each other in 2015 – so my main concern is for my son’s wellbeing rather than any other consequence of her death.

Still I can’t ignore the timing. Death has entered the scene again, briefly taking a position downstage and grabbing focus from all the other characters. Walking back into Marianne’s studio, sitting across from my mask I’m reminded that we often interpret people to suit our own needs. Even with Death in the room.

‘I wasn’t fond of the woman,’ I tell Marianne bluntly. ‘But my son deserved his grandparents.’

‘He’s old enough to keep memories with him for the rest of his life,’ she says, her soft voice laying claim to the studio space. ‘You’re responsible for that.’

‘Maybe in part,’ I say. ‘It took me several years to progress even toward something like indifference before finally appreciating the love she was able to give to her grandson. I could have cut her out of our lives forever. But mostly I recognised that for me to be present for my son I needed to be less attentive to the past.’

The sunlight forces itself through the rear studio window out of which I continue to behold the pink rose that’s beginning to wither. It’s early afternoon and we’re several days into a harsh July heat wave. I’ve been sweating since I left my house but I notice the clay has stayed cool. I try to channel the clay’s natural refrigeration in order to lower my core temperature. If the clay can take my soul, surely I can absorb its chill.

Marianne tells me she didn’t think she’d talk as much as she has been. ‘Usually these sessions are quiet or the sitter does most of the talking. I’m delighted to learn I can talk and sculpt at the same time.’

The alarm sounds and she asks me to shift again so I move away from the window to the other side of her platform.

‘Having said that,’ she says, ‘I need to stop talking now. We’re entering a particularly delicate part of the process and I don’t want to be distracted.’

I sit quietly, wondering if she really needs to concentrate or if she’s just had enough of my venting. It’s possible my perspective of us as co-creators is unique and that she’d just prefer to get on without distraction. I might be the only one here evaluating my search for meaning.

In the absence of conversation I peek at her technique. She’s applying tiny, fingernail-sized pieces of clay to the bust like miniature brickwork, adding texture and nuance to my otherwise expressionless face. Occasionally biting her top lip, her face is a study in concentration. The heat and quietude are making my eyes droopy, but Marianne looks fresh with a gentle smile embossed on her thin lips. She doesn’t seem to sweat.

‘What do you think about when you’re sculpting?’ I venture, violating the silence.

She breaks into a broader smile and responds all business-like. ‘I look at the relationship between your features. And even when I’m just looking with my eyes, I’m looking at what it feels like.’

Her eyes and hands perform the same tasks, interchangeable and equally essential. She is proof that artists see things with their entire body. Those of us who are being seen can’t help but respond in kind.

If my clay likeness represents death, I realise, then it must certainly also represent life.

By the time we meet for the final sitting it’s autumn and raining again. The light entering the studio is muted, greyish. I notice the glass shower door still hasn’t sold. The pink rose in the garden has died. As Marianne unwraps the bust it breathes in the crisp air after weeks under plastic, replenishing its pores and moistening its lips.

If my clay likeness represents death, I realise, then it must certainly also represent life. One cannot be without the other. My head takes the shape of a life lived and a life to come. Long after Death has claimed me, it will have marked this moment, my thoughts and sensations, as well as Marianne’s interpretation of me. I’m grateful.

What more do we need to accept meaning in our lives than to have shared ourselves with others? Even if it’s not the meaning, it can surely be a meaning.

Among the discoveries I made during my period of grief was one of cynicism. Aside from having been granted a kind of strength born from grief and the luxury to write about it; aside from acknowledging – as Frankl would insist – my new love as being so much greater for having suffered, grief made me cynical. Cynical about our society and the priorities we are guided toward. Cynical about people’s intentions and attentions. Cynical about art.

Artists are commonly at odds with our muses. We are compelled to practice our craft yet we must wait for those impenetrable moments of inspiration where vision and intuition take over from thought. We pour our liquid emotions out of the dark decanter of our soul into whatever vessel we use to supplant the requirement of words. Even writers. Our words are merely the method, not the message.

But too often we are forced to identify a difficult, painful relationship with our art. Indeed, that impulse to create often comes directly from a pain we’ve long clung to as the source of all our creativity: songwriters sing of broken hearts, painters display their emotional struggles in every brushstroke, dancers channel grief into bodily beauty.

So what might happen if we somehow fall into contentment; if we achieve an acceptable balance in our lives, equal parts stimulating and contemplative? What if the good starts to outweigh the bad? Does the well of artistic impulses deplete until nothing can be sourced?

Can we be happy and still be creative? For me the answer is no answer at all: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Today, though I am generally happy, I still create. But sometimes when I bore deeply into the hearts of my creations and examine the substance contained within, I wish I could find just a little more suffering to fill the well.

During our final session Marianne loses herself in the clay even more profoundly than before. I consider whether our discussions about freedom from suffering have been translated into the clay as too much suffering and not enough freedom. I ask her how she feels about this process.

‘A large part is pure elation,’ she says reassuringly. ‘It liberates me from any downcast feelings.’

I genuinely – or perhaps cynically – believe we can be happy and miserable all at once. There is comfort in solemnity, joy in the struggle. We crave happiness and also fear it. As artists we can lament the journey of creativity and revel at its glory at the same time.

Every life is multi-dimensional. It’s better than 2D.

Extract from My Head in Her Hands By Jon Magidsohn. Published in Yes & No Magazine, May 2018.