The following piece is adapted from a speech given by artist Tess Jaray's at Kim Lim’s memorial in 1997.
I t is nearly twenty years since Kim died. We were close friends, and had worked along similar lines for something like forty years.
We first met at St Martin’s School of Art, which was then at the edge of the renowned ‘fifties Soho’, when she was 18 and I 16. Her slender look, wearing her Cheong Sam, made a very exotic impression on everyone there. London was not yet the social mix it was to become. In her second year she started in the sculpture department and made an immediate mark with a small carved figure. Anthony Caro, teaching there at the time, was impressed and they became friends.
Three years later we both continued our studies at the Slade, where she had very much less support from the sculptor Reg Butler, who was not known for his sympathies with women artists. She found it so difficult to work there that she rented a studio and continued her work in some isolation. It was around then that she fell under the spell of Brancusi, from which, along with many others, including myself, she never recovered.
She discovered her identity as an artist early. Although the body of work she made over her lifetime has been categorised as ‘Sixties’, it really dates from before then. It has been said that the late fifties in England – not yet the UK – is the least documented period of the twentieth century, and it would be very difficult to say precisely what the general influences were at that time, although Paris still really dominated the art scene. In some strange way there was a great freedom for art students then: no one was obliged to work within current trends, at least until the advent of the Abstract Impressionists, so students could look anywhere for their inspiration. Perhaps this early artistic freedom helped her to marry so many Western influences to those from the East, which she really only rediscovered after leaving it.
All her life she travelled extensively, and from this came many sources that would surface again and again over her life’s work: from the East, to India and Egypt and Japan, as well as Europe and the US. And she had the desire and the ability to extrapolate from those things that she saw on her travels the essential elements - essences perhaps - that she could absorb and stockpile for future use.
So when she wanted to make a reference, however fleeting, to the Lotus flower, the movement of bodies, the flow of water, she was able to anchor these references in a geometry that was inspired as much by Luxor as by New York. Although I don’t want to suggest, however, that she was merely accumulating a vocabulary of references. What she was doing was sorting out those values that conformed to her vision, focussing on images that could all go into the melting pot and emerge transfigured, but still part of the flow of that cultural river that she was dipping her toe into.
As with all sculptors of course, materials were her primary interest. Somehow she managed, in the stone carvings made over the last twenty years, to release and express the material she was working on with apparently minimal interference. She loved her materials, and they often sat outside her studio for long periods of time, waiting until the moment was right. The slowness of the process was something she understood and accepted, and back in the sixties might even have referred to it as having a Zen aspect. Her methods of understatement function also as an articulate act of respect for that material. The effect of this was to communicate very directly, with no barrier between the object and the viewer, so a person is drawn in immediately to the work. Because of the subtlety of the pieces, however, this is not the end of the story, and the works also reveal themselves slowly and gradually through time, their three-dimensionality being part of this.
It is interesting also, that I don’t think she was really concerned with image as such, but rather with a mood, a thought, a reference being somehow so integrated with the material that it became a whole, in some magic way almost a ‘found object’.
It is perhaps ironic that her search for a form of expression that transcends the period in which it was made, in fact may well turn out to be a particular characteristic of that same generation.