Weird world of Ross Gilbertson

Inspired: Polymath artist Ross Gilbertson with some of his work in his studio at the Yorkshire Art Space studios in Sheffield
Inspired: Polymath artist Ross Gilbertson with some of his work in his studio at the Yorkshire Art Space studios in Sheffield
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Fish with screws for tails, men who turn into frogs, dragonfly aircraft with seats for people passengers - and all opposite The Rutland Arms in Sheffield. Rachael Clegg is welcomed into the weird world of city artist Ross Gilbertson.

THE huge bronze screw-tail dragonfly-cum-human in his studio gives some indication of how Ross Gilbertson spends his time.

Ross, from Sharrow, doesn’t sit in front of the TV in the evenings, nor does he idle on the computer.

Instead Ross spends his waking life creating a dream world - one in which fish have screws for tails, humans evolve into frogs, and dragonflies have seats in which to carry passengers.

The 53-year-old artist, cabinet-maker and furniture restorer, has been creating his strange parallel universe for several years.

The pieces are for sale, and range in price from £184 for the tiny one to £20,000 plus for a human dragonfly in mahogany cabinet.

But they aren’t just random creations. They are all part of a saga that revolves around a fantastical clump of islands - the ‘Southern Floating Isles’.

The objects are ‘specimens’ from the islands, and include a ‘lepto-chorpan’ - a strange human-like creature that sheds its skin and mutates into another form. They come in all sizes, some are tiny, and some have wings.

Ross traces his interest in the bizarre to his upbringing.

“My father worked on oil rigs in Borneo so we had lots of Malay and other exotic artefacts at home,” he remembers.

And Ross always had a fascination with creating.

“I’ve been making things since I was about eight years old. My grandmother taught at the Royal School of Needlework and helped restore the stained glass at St Paul’s Cathedral after the war, and my great aunt would buy me paint brushes for Christmas.

“There were some very good artists in our family.”

The turning point in his career as a craftsman was making an articulated monkey at school.

“It was on a stick, I remember it. The whole class did it - it wasn’t just me. You’d never get eight-year-olds making something like that in school now. The advent of television has meant people stopped making things.”

Ross has the aura, and indeed the workshop, of a mad professor or eccentric inventor. He strides energetically around his hallucinogenic haven with boundless enthusiasm, describing his creations as if they are real scientific specimens.

Examining one, he says: “These are little insect-like lepto-chorpans, which are considered to be little angels.

“The lepto-chorpans reproduce by metamorphosing into another form. And some of these creatures cross-breed, so the dragonfly has a screw-tail behind because it has cross-bred with a screw-tail fish.”

His studio is peppered with beautiful bronze-cast fragments of this strange civilisation.

In one glass-fronted case stands a lepto-chorpan whose skin has shed. “This was actually a happy accident - the bronze casting hadn’t quite worked but it left this fragile, shell-like form,” he says.

The process of casting in bronze is very technical, as Ross explains. “I put it in plaster cast, then I make a wax cast and then I make a ceramic cast from that which I fill with hot metal.”

Many of Ross’s creations are in stunning, museum-style cabinets, adding to the myth that these are real specimens from another land. It’s a myth, of course, that Ross has created entirely from scratch.

And like any myth, each creature has its own story. Ross has even written journal entries, scientific definitions and recorded histories of the creatures from the Southern Floating Isles. The collection is similar to a Victorian curiosity cabinet or freakshow, only it’s a modern version, made here in Sheffield.

The exhibition-like appearance of the collection, displayed in its exquisite cabinets, is thanks to Ross’ experience as an antiques restorer and cabinet-maker.

And, dotted around the studio, is evidence of his talent as a furniture maker. In the corner of the room is a huge, curved oak cabinet around the back of which is Ross’s trademark symbol - a tiny beehive.

“That’s cabinet has got me so many commissions,” he says.

Such commissions have come from the Sheffield Freemasons and from a wealthy antiques fanatic in Derbyshire, who wanted parts of his 16th century home interior to be panelled in oak.

“He had one original door and wanted another door making, which I did, and then he asked me to make oak panelling for the rest of the landing,” says Ross.

Another commission was for a huge oak coffee table. “Someone’s wife rang me and said she needed a coffee table for her husband and all his pals.

“She said, ‘They like to have a few beers and it needs to be strong enough to withstand several men dancing on it’!”

And furniture tells us more about society than we think, according to Ross.

“Take an 18th century tea caddy,” he says. “There’s a lock on it - that’s because tea was a valuable commodity in the 1700s and worth pinching.

“It’s the same with linen chests - linen was precious and valuable so it had to be locked away.”

And, like the tea caddy, Ross’ own creations point to a different world, one in which evolution has speeded up and gone off piste, producing dragonfly aeroplanes and mini humans with wings.

Only this world, however bonkers, is only two minutes from Sheffield railway station.

From design student to French polisher, to furniture restorer and to artist

Ross’s first ‘creation’ was an articulated monkey, which he made at school when he was eight years old.

He moved to Sheffield from London in 1976, and studied industrial design and sculpture at Psalter Lane Art College.

He started work as an apprentice French polisher and antiques restorer, then moved into making furniture himself.

His restoration work soon became part of his art, and Ross has been creating strange bronze sculptural objects encased in mahogany cabinets for 20 years.

Ross can be contacted by email - ross@rossgilbertson.org.uk - or by calling 0114 279 6382