When you have formed a magazine that showcases women artists, you will tackle huge subjects such as the under-representation of women in the art world - a difficult subject full of pitfalls made a whole lot worse when paired with the sheer perception of change that accompanies the late 2000’s regarding gender equality.
Women artists, according to various sources over the years (there was a flux around 2017-20), are consistently and majorly under-represented in the art world (meaning in galleries of all sizes, auction houses and museums).
In an era of equality and fighting for rights, why is this? There are plenty of women gallerists about, yet they are not pining for the representation of women artists – in the sense that they are not choosing to represent more women than men in their galleries. There are no (obvious) institutional limitations that women artists experience in comparison to men - women actually outnumber men in art schools. Thus, it is not institutionally made impossible for women to study art itself. So what's up? The articles that I have read on the matter seem to present the problem, and then fire off percentages and facts about which gallery did what to show more women in their exhibitions, which organisation employs more women teaching artists etc., etc., – drivel that barely changes the situation and prolongs the issue by throwing a band aid at it. This is not a case where reading catchy, stereotypical headlines that seemingly favour women in the arts, and patronisingly call us ‘divergent thinkers’, who ‘thrive in collaborative settings’ will sort out the issue of under-representation and promote proliferation of women artists in the arts scene.
We are not labeled animals in a performing zoo – we have independent thought processes, emotions, feelings, sexualities, logic, working within variable genres, life backgrounds, and arts training and/or education.We are only a biologically defined group (hence the existence of ALKALI to represent this group). We are all different, and have the ability to tackle the same issue with a completely non-identical way. Historically, there is such great distinction between women and their work as artists, with no common links of visual imagery.
Taking a historically oppressed group, such as women, with different sexualities, beliefs, personalities, ideologies, lifestyles within it – and then instructing it to create a stylistically and/or thematically body of work that has specific feminist, and/or feminine qualities in order to create a sort of rebellion, or mass of art against art created by men, is oppressing again the oppressed group to follow a certain vocabulary just to raise a supposedly united voice. This compounded visual language just makes it easier for the onlooker to label and feel comfortable in its presence - and this won’t work for us. To make the art world function for us, we have to see beyond creating similar forms and schemata in our work, and look within. Through researching, I came across –‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ (Linda Nochlin, 1971). I started reading it with a question, continued with anger, proceeded to hide it away, finished it, and then pondered the prevailing title question with a huge lump in my throat. As negative as Nochlin may have sounded in her work, I have to say that she did pinpoint core sociological, cultural and economic issues that have slowly and steadily paved the way for inequality - some perceived, some increasingly cemented- between women and men artists. She highlights, in her piece of writing, many battling issues that are situated deep inside of us.
Nochlin mentions that it is not a case of a biological difference between men and women, in regards to who has the capacity to make great art. It is essentially a historical matter that women have been steadily raised and bred within various societies across the world to always choose between the labels of ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’. It is not hard to see why our mind is constantly occupied by unnecessary reflections, questions and undue criticism.
We lack the time, be it through actual hours to work, or wasting our available time, by crippling our efforts through abhorrent self criticism and doubt.
I can see that in us women, in ourselves, we indeed can find our worst enemies and critics. But, I can also see that we hold the power within us to deconstruct labels, change definitions, and truly seek what we want - whether that is a business, a relationship, children, fame, money - whatever. But most of us don’t. Most of us are held back by these condemnatory voices. Perhaps these internal critics and enemies are manifestations of a bad childhood, an abusive relationship, a tormenting workplace, or some other dreadful experience - but they are there. While these happenings may provide us with a certain amount of wisdom and capability to recognise impending potentially dooming trends, their critical associations with having done something to deserve them as women, daughters, wives, lovers, employees, employers and friends are crippling our need and right to play and to take risks - in short to live without constantly revisiting and appraising the past.
Taking risks in your work, does not correlate with the quality of the work. This means that if you do take risks, you will not necessarily produce a body of work that is technically better than someone else. Taking risks correlates with working with, and showing a brutal honesty and confidence that then sets the tone for your overall communication within the arts world. Taking risks and being honest with your work sets a visual boundary; a boundary that leads you to having your work taken seriously, on par, with any artist – be it a man or a woman. And, taking risks and playing with your work shuts that inner critic down – which is how you will create your best stuff.
To begin the fight into the galleries, into the museums, and into collections, we have to fight to experiment, to make, to fail, to play. To claim our space in playing with our work, allowing ourselves to have a totally whole relationship with it – a relationship where we can express the totality of our being of whoever we are without employing the use of overworked imagery and the status quo of the status of women and feminism.
These questions have become silent, passive aggressive orders and patronising reminders rather than true change making queries. This is why I refuse to ask questions like this in the artist interviews – if a woman artist wants to bring her personal life into her answers, it will be her own prerogative, on her own terms, within her own boundaries – taking charge of her being, rather than being questioned on very personal matters.
But are there other reasons, internal reasons, that have the capacity to create the outcome of us not being equal in the art world? Perhaps since most of us women are subconsciously sociologically and culturally trained to feel that the right thing to do is for us to be selfless and almost, yes, martyrs in our life, we will never create art that fully allows us to engage our full being and create work wholly. To feel, at the back of your mind a critical voice that tells you that you are selfish for spending time, funds, thoughts, on your work, will never allow you to flourish. It will always be a net that keeps you back. If you cannot create work honestly & wholly then you cannot have that confidence for the art world.
Linda Nochlin (1971) writes that ‘the making of art involves a self consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation’. And this is what we lack as women.
When you look at the ‘enfant terrible’ culture of male artists who adorned the 1970’s to early 2000’s, they play around with ideas, contexts, political correctness, forms, meanings, textures, biological products, political ideologies and more. And they spend a lot of time doing so. Men artists have played around with their sexuality, mistresses, various jobs/careers, and wives. When I see my work next to theirs, it sometimes angers me. I get angry at their aloofness, their daring and childishly provocative nature, the complete brutal honesty of it all, and I think to myself that these individuals just never stopped working. Never took a day off – a day off from dreaming, materializing, experimenting, throwing away, jesting and allowing themselves to feel and simply go with the flow without criticizing and minimizing their best work away. These individuals never had that critic. The critic of making the ‘correct and right choices’.
It is also not hard to see why we deem ourselves okay to be essentially trapped into a mill of constant, similar questioning surrounding children, the home, and the idea of balancing career and personal life.
All these questions will help to start to re-write our own personal boundaries. It will make the mention of our personal life a directly personal choice, which under these terms will be powerful and not apologetic. It will help us to remember that it has to be about the work and our relationship with it. We have to demand for our work to be the focus. All the time. When we then make the work, and keep making it under as many circumstances as possible, we can understand what is happening in the art world regarding men artists and their representation.
Overall, the lack of the women who are represented in the art world, does not correlate with the lack of quality in their work. It correlates with the fact that women will, more often than men, stop a job, or change jobs to suit circumstances of life, (again choosing ‘selfless’ over ‘selfish’), and not sounding their boundaries. It is strange to think, but there is a logical algorithm.
With a high amount of presence, there also comes further demand. If men artists are represented more, exist more, get paid more, are talked about more, a sense of wanting more of their art develops. Their work seems abundant – so much so, that a gallery owner will never wonder if it will stop being produced. Their working persistence and output, paired with their air of nonchalance they emit, is a practical danger to women artists. To focus on work, to consistently make work, will lead to women artists have a greater degree of presence, then representation, and then sales.
In order to change things, and to begin setting our boundaries and making honest work, we have to question and resist. In order to change things, we have to shut that internal critic up & accept any potential failure.
Question and resist, even an interviewer, 'Why are you focusing on my personal life instead of my career?’. Ask yourself ‘Am I really happy with having this amount of exhibitions this year?’ or ‘Did I price my work correctly?’, ‘Do I want more?’, ‘Am I really giving it my all, my whole self, when I work?’,‘ Am I creating my language, my schemata, my forms?’.
Fighting back for equality in the arts world is a case of every single woman artist around the world being totally honest with herself, with the things that keep her back in her confidence, with her self esteem and her art, understanding her own negative loop of criticism. Organically, each woman will then join up with others who have done the same. It does take the majority of a strong voice to change things radically, not accepting the status quo and allowing it to affect our work – in ways that can change its orbit forever.
If the majority of us do not change our approach to working, do not fight for our right to play, do not unapologetically and painstakingly focus on our work, labour towards shedding guilt, and do not deflect any type of false encouragement that points to anything less than what one really, really, deeply wants & aspires to – we will never achieve equality, and more, in the arts scene.
G) Tell us all about your current practice and new work.
VB) I think my marks are idiosyncratic. I think that is what makes a good painting. Honesty. If mark making relies on artifice then that will be evident in the work. I try to be honest. I like to experiment and try new tools and surfaces thus mark making emerges from the materials rather than having a particular iconography. I also love to be destructive so my hammer is a favourite tool too!
G) Welcome to ALKALI magazine Valerie, and a massive thank you for taking part in the artist interviews. I have been following your work for years now, and I have always noticed and felt a great sense of positive energy and known / unknown or even hidden and revealed come through your pieces. How do you embrace the unknown in your work?
VB) Thank you very much for having me Georgie! I admire what you are doing with ALKALI and it is an honour to be included. I do embrace the unknown in my work. I don’t have an end game with my painting and begin and try to remain as open as possible whilst working on a painting. I let the work evolve through its making. The process itself leads to any decisions/revisions that happen on the way. I trust that process implicitly. It took time for that trust to be built. Painting requires dedication and patience. I have also learnt to embrace failure.
G) Have you a particular iconography when it comes to mark making?
VB) We recently built a new house and a new studio. It very rural and I am loving it. I think my work is adapting to the pace of life here. My new work is larger in scale as I have more room in my studio. I have also changed support too and am working on MDF [Medium Density Fiberboard] panels. It’s a big change so I am taking my time to find my feet again but I love the challenge. I try not to repeat old work, things learned, rely on what I can do and prefer to explore new ways forward. My latest work is much more about colour for the first time am I am excited by new possibilities.
Studio View, Stroumpi, Paphos, Cyprus
G) Are there any colours that you naturally gravitate towards, and others that you more intentionally work into your pieces for visual balance / non balance?
'How we carry pain'
G) Do you have a favourite material to work with, for example, because of its qualities, or lack of particular qualities?
'The night becomes the day'
VB) Yes indeed very much so. I have had to recalibrate and physically it is so different not to be bent over smaller work. I work on the ground a lot. Also it’s on a solid surface so I cannot just cut things up as before. I am using oil paint again. I have carried forward some elements of adding and subtracting to the surface with canvas, burlap or any other studio detritus that I find interesting. So the scale and collage elements combined are now working together for me.
G) Did COVID-19 affect the way you make work in any way (such as for example approach, feelings etc.), or the materials you had available to work with?
VB) I love big bold colour. I love the strength and immediacy of bright pure colour. Colour gives me joy. I don’t have a specific tactic I employ when making colour choices. I get excited buying art material its starts there, I gravitate to strong undiluted colour, it’s one of the reason I loved my oil sticks, they are so pigment dense. Now I am using paint straight from the tube Van Gogh oils have a beautiful viscosity. I love strong primary colours. I don’t decide in advance what colours I will use. After working on a painting I will sit, observe and think about how the colour works or doesn’t.
VB) Yes it did immensely so. First lockdown I managed to get a lot of pre-stretched canvases and that started a new series of work that continued until I moved studio recently. I really enjoyed the freedom of working on the canvas just completely stripping it back to just the stretcher bars and reconstructing it. My previous studio was much smaller thankfully it was in my home so I could work every day.
VB) When the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I know a work is done when no single element is bothering me and it all coexists in a kind of symbiotic harmony. When every nail, pin, mark or piece of fabric is indispensable to the painting. If I can take it out will it work? If yes, then it doesn’t need to be there.
G) Perhaps a more universal question, yet one that really pinpoints the overall feeling of an artist’s practice. When do you know that it is the right time to stop adding, or taking away from your piece?
VB) Always. It’s a bit of a safety net for me. I always work in groups, usually I will order a batch of panels in the same size and work on them together. I like to work on panels of the same size at the same time. It’s important for me not to feel stuck on one painting but to have the freedom to move across a few. If one is going terribly wrong then the crises are less devastating unless of course they are all going terribly wrong…..
VB) I have many. I love burlap for its rawness and agricultural associations. The wonky weave it usually has and its roughness. It is not easy to paint on. Raw canvas too is always a pleasure to paint on. String, nail, tacks, cardboard, plastic…I like to recycle material, to use found wood for example. Some materials have a character of their own. They speak to me.
G) Would you work on several pieces together at a time?
G) Has the transition to a greater size in your work been challenging?
G) Valerie, we’d be so grateful and excited to learn what a day in the studio is like for you.
VB) Women have always been underrepresented in the art world historically and still today. I do see some improvement, I see more female curators in museums and Biennales etc., and more prominent female artists in major shows; it is improving, albeit slowly. I have noticed that the same questions are still doing the rounds, can you be an artist and mother? It is asked to a lot of women in the art world, nobody questions male artists. As artists and mothers, we can be both, we can be neither or one. We can do anything.
VB) I don’t have a set routine really. My kids are more grown so I tend to work more in the afternoon whilst they do their own thing or at weekends, no particular set hours. Having a studio next to the house really works for me so even when not working I can go a sit there for a while or pull out paintings to look at.
G) Finally, what do you believe about the under-representation of women in the art world – and how do you believe this lack of representation potentially has affected or may affect your choices, work, and artistic career? As a follow up question, if you have fought against any effect personally noted, how is it that you have approached the matter to see success?
'' Perhaps this is the time for us, women, to catch things, fellow people, and status quos by surprise ''.
Realising a truth becomes a moment that never leaves you. It' s like walking in the dark with just a few fireflies trailing around, when suddenly a massive chandelier slides down from the sky and floods your path with light. I had such a moment the other day. Searching through my photograph archives for an interesting face to include in my work, it hit me that my street photography has changed dramatically during the last year and a half.
For the first time since COVID-19 entered our lives, I realised the surreal strands webbing in our current surroundings in all their depth; in terms of social interactions and quality of connections amongst people; in choices, preferences and actions of individuals as separate entities and those of countries as collective entities; in human rights and abuse of power. Last but not least, these surreal strands are now intertwined ethics – who is worthy to live and thrive and who is not. At that moment, I saw surrealism being materialised in front of my own eyes and in a worldly twist, being real. The leap from the above realisation to the next one is very short. Once it is accepted that the baseline of our everyday lives has changed in an unprecedented and irreversible way, then it becomes inevitable to see that in order to comprehend and address such surrealistic happenings one needs to follow an even more surreal approach in all aspects: communication, advocacy, problem solving, and implementation of solutions. And why? Well imagine being able to tell truths as an automaton, without censoring through political correctness.
Focusing on subjects that although uncomfortable and hardly spoken about weigh heavy, affecting everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, beliefs, personal history or socio-economic background. Presenting these subjects within contexts rich in uncommon links and connections, providing a holistic, nonconformist approach. Employing a language, spoken or visual, that although sharp, or even at times painful or shocking, is able to delve into the deepest parts of human mind, being received and recognised by all; all in all, challenging our ways of life honestly and confidently. Who is the one among us who has not seen at least one surrealistic dream in his/her life? Or has not recognised at least once the symbolism of seemingly unexplained, non-existent, mythical creations presented to us in various art forms? Even more importantly, who is the one who has not murmured the words “this is exactly what has been tormenting my mind for so long!” at least once when faced with a surrealistic artistic subject or reading a surrealistic writing?
Surrealism stems its myriad branches from a unique iron clad thread that links with every single human soul, and if one has to address issues that are affecting us all, is there another way that can truly and deeply touch and connect with myriads of people? On a parallel, perhaps equally important line, the term surreal has grown to indicate something that is almost unbelievable at first sight, something completely unexpected that caught one by surprise, pleasant or not.
Surrealism encompasses all – magic, beauty, horror, fear, hope, desperation, death and life. It acts as an umbrella of thoughts, dreams, emotions, and feelings. Couldn't one say that this is the same as the soul, heart and mind of a woman? Interwoven within each single one of us, it can spring every time we have to look at extremes, work against obstacles, think with great imagination, problem solve, attach humour to the gravest of situations, suggest and implement possible scenarios and solutions; in essence live, work and thrive despite any human imposed boundaries on us, thus being limited only by the boundaries of our own minds.
Surrealism is a force that allows us to transform the possible into probable, and the probable into real. Then being surreal is a natural ability of women. Whenever this ability does not shine through in one way or another, most probably one has to look for underlying reasons in external social influences, either in the core or extended family environments and/or the particular social setups where these women grew up. In these unprecedented times that breed challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and its mishandling by humans it becomes even more important to educate women - us women who hold all the qualities stated above - us women, who represent the 50% of human population, 50% of parents, 50% of our future - about how to discover and use their abilities in full. And how? Well through borrowing examples, work and knowledge from the fountain of the surrealism movement.There one can find a plethora of vocal, talented women talking and presenting their inner thoughts about their reality, their everyday life, thus paving the road for finding solutions for problems.
One of the most important lessons unearthed in the writings and art of surrealist women creatives is the necessity, if not the obligation, for our gender to question objectively with no fear. Question our current place in society, our roles in the now and in the future, the validity of status quos, the weight of social norms, the logic behind any of our actions or inactions, whether we are following our true nature. And why not, if it is time to try different, completely novel perspectives, whether the ways we are running the race for being equal actually keeps us going back to a tired and fruitless starting point, and so much more. Perhaps this is the time for us, women, to catch things, fellow people, and status quos by surprise. Do the unexpected act; surprise even ourselves with wise boldness; act surreal. At my age (over 50s) I can look back at the times I was challenged or overlooked as a woman, and I can retrospect on the ways that I fought, but also the times that I did not fight. And for the latter I wish I surprised myself much more often by overcoming the boundaries set on me by my fears; personal ones -as a daughter, a partner, a mother - and social ones - as a bystander, a professional, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. This would have led me to have been more vocal, questioned actively and conversed with the other parties. I comprehend that each decision I make and each action I take stand within certain, bone individualised contexts; but now I know that if I dig deep enough into my surreal self I will always find a way through my fears and create space for a solid self esteem and the strength to fight for my rights, and most importantly for the rights of the women of my future, my daughter, my granddaughters; and your daughters and granddaughters.
I understand that for some the above may sound insignificant in the context of our big, complicated, globalised world. I also understand that for some others it may sound like a tall ask in the context of the mundane, everyday life. Regardless, one has to remember that even the tiniest surreal action is big enough to fuel the next one. All together, surreal actions by you will make a difference for you; all together, surreal actions by many of women will make a difference for us.
I am wearing your t-shirt. The sky today gives everything around me a dirty grey hue. I am sitting at my laptop, watching your Spotify activity, watching you listen to Frank Ocean while I match you in a private session. I don’t find his music very emotive, but I can imagine you resonating with the lyrics, I can imagine you thinking about Clem. Our names start with the same letter, which is one of the things that makes me the angriest. You have such a lack of originality; you have such a type. I wonder if you still text your mum ‘C is coming over tonight,’ in that same way. I wonder if she distinguishes between the two ‘C’s in her mind, or if we merge together, like last week’s blurry dreams. I miss her too sometimes. During these times, I miss her more than you. She was like my second mother, she made me feel so easy. I wish I could hug her again and when I think about her face it makes me cry. What a kind face. You don’t deserve her, and yet you have her. You don’t cherish her. You didn’t cherish me.
I wonder if Clem feels cast aside too, or if she is still in the stages of enjoying the half-hearted playlist you made her. It’s nothing compared to what you made me. That playlist had pain in it. Pain, love, joy, grief. It was hours long and I could never finish listening to it in one sitting. Now I could die before I listened to anything but it. I wish you hadn’t deleted it. I close Spotify and then I close my laptop. I do not stop thinking about you, but I do push you to the back of my mind when I get a text from Asa. It is hard to love both of you at the same time. It has been over a year now, since I left you, and I know that you have long forgotten me. I still think about the things you promised me everyday when I wake up. I hope that at my graduation you will be there. My mind is wandering. I see Asa’s message and it’s meaningless, mundane.
I clear it from my lock screen and throw my phone onto the bed, far away from me. I have been trying to use my phone less, because I cannot help but scroll through our photos, our memories. I would scroll through them like clockwork every morning when I wake up. Sometimes, when I’m in that dreamy state right when the sun is pouring in through the window and I am nearly up, I imagine that I am in our yellow room, sleeping next to you on the world’s lumpiest bed. It makes me feel comfortable. I wonder if I will ever be able to love Asa as much as I love you. My mind is wandering back to you again. It is hard to do any tasks without my thoughts lurching in that direction. In your direction. London is one of the greyest cities in the world. Looking at it from Google Earth was one of my most recent mistakes. I hate living here now that I know what it looks like from above. Soon I will be moving. Then I can escape you. You torment me, your presence in the same city as me. Fate sent me mixed messages when she did that, when she put you here. Sometimes I just want to ride the overground to Clapham and visit you. Except I have no idea where you live, and I have no idea what I would even say. When I leave, I want to write you a postcard. I will be moving to New York, just like the man in that song you love so much. I personally always thought that song sounded tinny. Still, I know all of the lyrics, and when I listen to it on Spotify, I weep like I’m the first rainstorm in a drought. I will send you this postcard, and it will detail my graduation details and address. You will arrive in four years and we will go for a coffee, exactly as you promised. We will be okay again, we will be us again. I miss your voice. I miss your laugh. I know that I will never send this postcard, and that that hug was our last. I know that you will not be at my graduation, I know that we will never be kids again. It has been a year so why am I in so much pain? Why do I suddenly miss you so much? I still feel 16.
SB) Water is so ubiquitous to my life, I’m named after a river in Ireland, I grew up in Florida so was swimming by age 2 and have always needed to be near water as much as possible. I also love how mysterious water is, there are so many scientists that seem surprised by its actual structure. There is also the fact that we are made up mostly of water, and I often wonder what parts of ourselves are evaporating without us even knowing it. All that being said, the big impetus for using water in installations has a very specific origin. We live by an old Flax Mill site. It’s a pretty magical spot. The sound of running water is constant. Last winter after a huge storm the old mill dam broke. The sound of the water and the concrete that was thrown as a result was deafening. The transformative energy was palpable. After that the pond behind our house drained and the creek bed eroded 10 feet in a matter of hours. The whole outside landscape had been completely altered and all that remained seemed to be an endless supply of old tires, broken glass and general debris.
G) Are there any hidden meanings, allusions and specific references in your work?
G) Shannon you are a very prolific artist. What I find particularly interesting is that you take your work to the outside space – often almost physically incorporating your pieces in nature itself. Can you tell us all about your practice, its emergence and where its core lies?
SB) First off, thank you Georgie for this opportunity to discuss my art and practice. The act of going into nature can be very meditative and requires observing and adapting. I find that painting and photography require much of the same attention. There is always some new trick the oil-medium-canvas-composition-subject-or bugs want to reveal. At its core my process is about observing the natural blemishes that transform into the very character of each piece. It’s kind of how I operate in all aspects of my life I think. My practice is so entwined with who I am as a person and who I am as a person genuinely longs to be outside. I realized that even when I was painting inside I was always taking the paintings into natural light to photograph, regardless of the season. The natural world not only encompasses my studio and often my medium but is a reoccurring subject for my paintings. We humans are not separated from the wild. I’m focused on communicating that relationship and because of that goal sometimes the pace can feel feverish. You mentioned prolific, it’s an interesting word as it has some allusion to the natural world, a prolific tree for example. I feel a connection to that idea of fruitful artistic bounty. It turns out reassessing the works in various situations and scenarios outside allows me to slow down my process. Essentially I can squeeze a little more of that creative energy out of the painting if I allow it to take a walk in nature.
SB) Creating the work either painting or installation has a beautiful physicality to it. As the artist my movements are the work. Movement is also pretty key in terms of composition. Working outdoors certainly enhances these aspects. The dancing shadows of dancing trees on the canvas, the movement of my body as I hoist tree limbs, the inevitable perambulation of composition and assessment. Essentially, I think of my art as the shadow of a dance. My paintings have been described as sensuous and I think this is apt. I am looking to create an experience and not simply a visual one. When I am creating the pieces I often pick one song and listen to it on repeat. I do this so I am not distracted by trying to figure out what song to put on next and loose the rhythm, and also so that my heartbeat begins to sync with the music. Sometimes I am listening to Fugazi, sometimes Agnes Obel, sometimes Ali Farke Touré. I am finding however the more I am outside the less I am listening to music. The outdoors has built in music and allowing that to seep into the work is important. As for being finished, I’m sure I’m not alone in having the sensation that a painting is done when it is no longer asking to be changed. Some paintings stick around in the studio for a while, those often end up being more minimalistic as if they are feeling exposed and are asking to be sheathed from sight. Each piece or series has their own rhythm and recognizing that allows me to communicate with the work and determine when it is ready for the activity to turn to the viewer. The viewer puts on the final filter, maybe even the heartbeat of the work syncs with that of the viewer and the melody becomes theirs.
SB) YES. YES. And YES! I studied Art History at college and that informs much of my symbolism. My thesis was focused on the legend surrounding the wood of the crucifix as well as the larger tree symbolism prevalent in Italian Medieval and Early Renaissance art. I looked specifically at the work of Piero della Francesca as well as the images of Trees of Virtues and Vices. The seven virtues and seven vices were often represented as fruits hanging from a tree (maybe even a prolific tree, haha). Beyond their art historical symbolism trees fascinate me. The systems that trees themselves create incorporate a lot of key elements of what we think of as exclusively human. Like the community between trees could we humans also be communing in ways we cannot or will not see? In a similar vein to tree symbolism, medieval and renaissance annunciation paintings showing the immaculate conception required the separation of the figures with a lily. The idea of purity being described in such a way is interesting to me. I play with flora, obscuring it to a point where it might take on more human characteristics or I make it the focal point, a portrait of the flower. I am not anthropomorphizing plants rather wondering in what ways people are like plants?
G) The mark making in your pieces, for me, has melodic qualities. When do you feel that this dance of painting has finished in each work?
G) Can you tell us more about water and its significance in your outdoor installations?
Detail of 'But Can You Cross Me?',
SB) Any great day, studio or otherwise, starts with drawing. Sketching the movement of my children in the morning, or a plant or chair in my home, It’s my meditation. I am always so present when I am creating so sketching the things around me is really grounding. It also allows me to scratch the figurative itch. I can be quite abstract in my execution but there are often very real figures or ideas tethering it together.
From there I wander into my studio (or outside) and assess all the markings and paintings from the previous days. I paint multiple canvases at a time so assessing each as an individual work and in relation to the larger whole is a constant. Each series often have a starting layer of paint or texture that connects them and from there they appear to unravel in terms of their connectedness.
For my series “Oh Dam” the paintings all have a variety of colour, medium, texture but the subject and size of each piece is the same. For a series like Limb/Limn all the paintings have the same coloration so their uniformity helps contain them a bit more which is why installing them with tree limbs helps to initiate the questioning of connectedness. For me, exploring connection is the work. One of my most recent favorite days “in the studio” was when I was down in the creek bed filming a painting while it was floating. I heard a rustling behind me and no more than 4 feet away two geese and 8 goslings came down to cross the stream. I realized I was at the most convenient place for the little babies to cross so I moved away to allow them safe passage. It was a magical moment, I felt very connected.
SB) My earliest work was actually all muted figures or objects on a textured black surface. I wanted the work to have an emotional gravity to it and the dark background lended itself well to the chiaroscuro I was looking to create. Eventually that method became too confining and I began using blues. Titian and Yves Klien both have famous blues and so I thought why not focus on that color and slowly bring in more. In some pieces early last year I was using many colors based on the natural environment around me. I noticed how especially in the winter when we think the natural palette is so muted that in fact color still abounds.
G) What is an ideal day in the studio like for you?
G) Do you find that you prefer working in a particular size (either smaller or larger)?
At that point, color then became another of these connecting filters for my tool belt. As you mentioned however there are some pieces that are purely white. For example in my piece “Shroud”, (painting 2019- and in creek installation seen above 2021), the focus is the light and shadow of the sculptured surface. The movement of the textile, it’s fluidity, is the story. Shroud has been a great piece for outdoor installations because of its minimalist qualities. Like the dance of movement we discussed earlier I think the push and pull of palette is another way for me to play. I see benefit in both techniques and I love how they can complement each other as related bodies of work.
SB) Even when I work small I work in multiples to envision a larger piece. The small paintings are always pieces of a larger work or series. The idea of multiples stems from my love of diptychs but is also clearly a result of my curatorial background as well. Scale is exciting and now that I am creating installations outside scale is somewhat limitless. The parameters of my interior studio no longer dictate the space allotted to any particular piece. This expansion is really thrilling to me right now and I find I am drawn to artists whose work pushes boundaries of genre and scale. Also - I am quite tall so working large lends to a physicality with the work that as I mentioned is pretty important to me as an artist.
SB continued..) As the spring months allowed more exploration, and some trash removal, I began to find comfort in this new landscape. The whole experience felt like such a metaphor. I created the series “Oh Dam” to communicate the poetry of nature. Simultaneously, I started pulling out these beautiful dead tree limbs. I wasn’t sure what I was doing but I was getting so much inspiration. If the creek could make itself anew, could my art evolve similarly and if so, how could I incorporate the creek into my practice? One day I just decided to drop a painting in the creek and observe it as it was floating downstream. Since then I’ve been scheming up different ways to incorporate water.
So I tried to mimic the green of the lichen, the red in the dried pine needles, and the purples of the trees shadows on snow.
G) I can see that in your work you mostly employ colour, yet in other pieces pure white, cream, and neutral hues prevail. Is there a symbolism behind the use of either, and how do you decide what to go for each time?
'Shroud - Creek'
'Reflection No.3 - From the Series 'Oh Dam'
SB) Well carrying on from the theme of connection. My inspiration is connection. A connection to self, to place, to presence, to the larger context. I genuinely get excited by the idea of cascading possibilities that art provides. My challenge isn’t often in the struggle to keep going but the struggle to stay present while I am making. When I can manage to have the routine in place to get myself into the studio door, and the absolute presence in the studio (and out), to be able to sense inspiration, that is when things get really interesting. Currently the incorporation of the outside into my studio practice has created a ripple effect of inspiration, I’m constantly writing down notes for various projects in my notebooks.
SB) I do think that parenthood has definitely challenged and in many ways enhanced my concept of an artistic career. Becoming a mother changed a lot of the value I put on my practice. For so many years it had felt like such a silly battle to try and create and show, trying to prove externally why it was important I kept creating. Once my kids were born I immediately understood that I was important. Not because I had given life but because I instantly knew the importance of the small people who had just entered the world and if they were important than so was I and so was the work that I was creating. It’s also been inspiring for me to see my children growing up surrounded by my art practice and in turn by other artists. Time constraints are a definite impact especially in early parenthood, my strategy has been schedule time and always be ready to paint.
G) It is not very often that you meet an artist that also has a strong sense of a curatorial practice. What do you think, in your opinion, is the most important part of curating a piece to showcase it in the best possible way?
'But Can You Cross Me?'
G) What inspires you to keep going and to keep making your art?
Reflection No. 8
From the series 'Oh Dam'
G) Have you had any challenges as a woman artist in your career, and if yes, how did you manage to navigate through them?
SB) Wow, thank you so much for that high praise. For me, a curator is an artist. It is that simple. The curator’s medium is space, lighting, timing, etc. From there just get excited because there is always opportunity to take an artwork and magnify or illuminate something from it based on curatorial context. You are creating an experience of the work. Consider anything and everything. When I was living in Brooklyn I began a curatorial collaboration with Berit Hoff called NUDEwithaGOOSE. Our whole goal was to get art in spaces all while having a real curatorial focus. Our first show was entitled Execution -an exhibition to counter the idea that contemporary art presents the demise of technique, the execution of execution. The work ranged from interactive performance art by Lisa Sikorski, video installation by Dana Kash, a range of painting techniques from Christine Wang, Clintel Steed, to Tatiana Berg. It was a thrilling first show and from there we conceived of a number of shows around the NY metro area in various locations, from a big gallery space in Chelsea to a city park in Bushwick. The plein air park show really stuck with me as it was such an intimate and ephemeral event. We had two artists Salome Asgega and Julie Torres install and discuss their art. All the formality of a white wall space was gone, the sound of the cars on the adjacent BQE meant we had to speak in close proximity. It was just fun. Curating around this time was exclusively about other peoples art. I was making art myself but was not even considering my art and my curatorial practice as two ways of creating that could eventually mingle. I am there now and I think I’m home. I do want to start curating other people’s art again as well and am open to opportunities when they present themselves.
If the kids are amenable and it’s a beautiful day they will often be playing around me while I am painting or prepping or installing. I simply can’t be physically around the art world the way I was when I was working at a gallery, docenting at the New Museum, and curating pop up shows. That inability to be around has meant my focus can really be on the art making itself. That has been the biggest change for me thus far. A freedom from seeking acceptance allows me to create the way I need to with an openness to simply explore. I am reimaging for myself what community involvement means and allowing the fact that others may not see my value because they see a series of labels, “mother”, “woman”.
SB) I love this question. Sally Mann is an immediate. I’ve always been drawn to her work. I’ve read Hold Still and feel a kindredness to the way she makes art. I also think that her life by a river in Virgina was much of the subconscious determination I had to get out of the city and live by a creek. It took me a couple of years to realize I wanted to make art with the creek, hahaha. Cecily Brown has certainly been informative to my work. The movement of her work is incredible. They almost make you feel like you are tilting as you look at some of them. I also like how fluid her style is and how confidently her paintings take on the new changes of style. Maya Lin – I remember going to the opening of Three Ways of Looking at the Earth, Selections from Systematic Landscapes at Pace back in 2009 and it opened up a lot for me in terms of what a living artist could and was doing. Her work StormKing Wavefield is incredible and now she has an installation up in Madison Square Park entitled Ghost Forest. She is just amazing. Clintel Steed – I met Clintel working for Mark Borghi. Clintel is an artist, the type of artist that makes you remember what that really entails.
Clintel is a magnificent painter with a style all his own and an energy within his work and life that is intoxicating. The level of painting authenticity and beautiful poetry of subject matter from each of his paintings is spectacular. Yevgeniya Baras is another contemporary artist whose work I adore. I had the absolute treat of having adjoining studios with Yvgenia years ago in Bushwick at Splinters and Logs (Run by Caroline Woolard and Christine Wang).
I’ve recently become reacquainted with her work and her use of texture and palette is super inspiring. She has endless talent and each piece is beautiful, surprising and yet familiar. These are the types of paintings I’m eager to see in person again soon.
SB) Oh I have big plans! I’m very excited because I have amassed the gear to set up a dark room as part of my studio so I am excited to get back into analog photography and printing. I have so many ideas there and so many adventures to go on. Also my videos have really taken off so I think finessing and playing more with that as a medium and not just a documentation tool is high on my priority list. Curating as I mentioned before is something I hope to get back into in the near future. Also, ice, I am super excited for some outdoor installations this winter involving ice, so stay tuned!
SB) I had really recommitted to an everyday studio practice about January of 2020, so I was already in the mindset of a daily practice. I was confident I could and would sustain the commitment to the practice as actually 2019 was quite a challenging year for my family and the practice had not suffered. However the other commitment I had made to myself early in 2020 was to build up an artist community again. I have two young kids and we left NYC right after my son was born so my arts community involvement felt like it disappeared overnight. Having started the year (2020) with a renewed commitment to connecting I immediately thought, well I guess that will have to wait. I was so wrong, I have actually been able to cultivate a wonderful supportive artist network now of local and international artists. Some people whom I was familiar with before and some I did not know pre-pandemic whose connection both artistic and personal have been silver linings this year for certain. I am very excited to keep up the momentum and to finally be able to see other people’s art (and faces) in person again.
G) Do you have any favourite past and/or contemporary artists that you find yourself drawn to again and again?
G) Are there any other media that you see yourself experimenting with in the future, and why?
'Mama Move Your Mountains' series
G)How did COVID-19 affect the nature of your practice (if at all)?
MD) I grew up in Newfoundland, of Lebanese/Scottish descent, left home at 18 to study at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, then New York in 1964; discovered experimental theatre - Caffe Cino, became immersed in theatre, art and the peace movement and read with remarkable poets. In the early 70s I moved to Woodstock, NY, where I raised my daughter in the beautiful Catskill Mountains, started a children’s theatre, fell in love with collage and exhibited extensively. Woodstock had become a haven for artists of all genres and the Catskills are perpetual inspiration. In the 1980s I was involved in AIDS activism, and buried 23 friends, many from my foundation, Caffe Cino. AIDS effected my life and my art. I was drawing skulls and empty spaces for a while. It was almost impossible to transfer the grief to paper. I’ve written two books, “The Queen of Peace Room” and “Street Angel” and co-authored the “H.M. Koutoukas” book. In 1985 I co-curated “Caffe Cino – History of Off-Off Broadway” at Lincoln Centre, and donated papers to the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre in 2011 establishing The Magie Dominic Caffé Cino Archives1:
Additionally, my art and writing archives are with NYU Fales Library Permanent Collection in New York2. My writing is in numerous publications and my art has been exhibited in Canada and the United States. “The Gown” was exhibited at The United Nations. In 2019 I received The Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from New York Innovative Theatre Awards. I’m still in New York, after a thousand detours.
G) Magie, first of all welcome to ALKALI magazine. I am ever so grateful for you supporting this venture for women artists. You’ve had a long career in the arts, on many levels. For us to get to know you better, would you be kind enough to give us some highlights?
G) What did being a very active part of Caffe Cino mean to your life? (For the readers of ALKALI, Caffe Cino was an Off-Broadway theatre founded in 1958 by Joe Cino in New York. Art, theatre, writing, poetry, were all combined into a place of around 18 x 30 feet. It was a hive for emerging directors, playwrights, actors, lighting and set designers).
One morning Joe called me at home. “They’re doing the umbrellas for “Dames at Sea”, he said, " and I won't let anyone touch them until you get here. Come in now,” and he hung up. "Dames at Sea" was a 30-minute musical on the tiny stage with a teenage, undiscovered Bernadette Peters. I spent hours gluing sequins to open umbrellas because open umbrellas were forbidden but plastic bubbles with magic raindrops were allowed for "Raining in My Heart”, Bernadette's signature song. Thousands of productions worldwide have sequin covered umbrellas. This is how it originated.The Caffe was Joe's gift to the world. Magic is why people stayed and worked for a sandwich. It had nothing to do with money, no one had money including Joe, and everything to do with freedom and creativity and working so hard you thought you'd collapse and never get up again. We worked together like parts of the sky, pushing boundaries, defying limits. Performances were done with or without an audience. They were done for the room. I learned to be daring in my approach to art and writing.
There are people from the Caffe Cino who are some of my closest friends to this day.
MD) Caffe Cino was family as well as theatre. It represented the most important group of people and most important years of my life. It became a permanent measuring stick for the word family. It was friendship and safety during the combustible 1960s and affected my writing, my art, my outlook on life. It was as if we’d discovered a world that no one knew existed, like discovering a planet. That big and that different.(Description in my book The Queen of Peace Room, pp.52-61). The Caffe consisted of a small narrow room with a tiny 8-foot stage, mismatched ice cream parlour furniture, and the tiny kitchen. In summer, a breeze drifted through the open door. The ceiling was a maze of intricate lighting equipment, fluttering stars and wind chimes. The walls were a collage of saints and twinkle lights, movie stars and divas. Opera, Shirley Temple, and Kate Smith overlapped with Christmas carols in August. I felt as if I'd been beamed there from another planet. It was a mountain of fantasy rising out of thin air. Acting, clearing tables and directing were synonymous. It began as a little café with poetry readings and art exhibits, then in two years full productions of one act plays by new young playwrights, some of whom went on to win multitude of awards including the Pulitzer - link to Maggie Dominic's video presentation3.
MD) An actual real image of the word peace, an example that can be photographed, would be the image of “The Gown”. “The Gown” is an installation that invited people, globally, to send me their personal image of the word stillness or peace. That material,The Gown, is a manuscript written in a multitude of languages, in thread, and based on a single word - stillness/peace. So that would be one image for sure. The Gown contains the voices of dozens of people in dozens of countries voicing the same word – peace. Peace, for me personally, is in nature, oceans, forest, mountains, in gentle stillness. A quiet, forest/ isolated ocean image.
Image from 2019 exhibition at Clampart, New York
'Landscape with Sky 1'
G) Do you find that you express different parts of yourself via different media (e.g. displays, live performances, painting, drawing, fibre art, writing, collage), or would you say that you can equally convey your thoughts, feelings and emotions through all?
MD) There are times when I’ll rewrite something a dozen times, then finally surrender and leave it for later or never. With writing, I make a copy and cut and edit and retain the original. That’s not possible with art; once it’s taken apart it’s lost forever and becomes something else. For me, art is risky. I have to work slowly sometimes and work cautiously. Also, the physical connection with tools is different. I use items from nature in my work quite a bit, so nature memories weave their way into things - the forest in particular, and coniferous trees. They remind me of the years when I walked in the woods alone as a child and the solace I found there - that’s part of the story of “Street Angel”. Computers don’t do that. Writing is a different textural experience. A very different part of the brain, I think. But I use both art and writing to convey the same thoughts.
'Landscape with Tree'
G) In this world of turmoil, full of economic, racial, gender and political inequality across all social strata, what does the word ‘peace’ mean to you? What would it look like to you at the moment?
'Landscape with Sky 2'
MD) Your description –“different lives, thoughts, and memories – all in a wonderfully designed piece of clothing”, is exactly what “The Gown” represents. In 1994 I had an idea of creating a large piece, maybe a quilt, something huge, with fabric, and it would represent peace. That’s as far as I’d gotten- fabric, peace, large.
I began contacting writers, artists, peace groups and like-minded groups through newsletters mainly, whatever was possible pre-email, and made a simple request - a small fabric piece that represented, to them, a hope for peace in the world, for stillness and healing. Their fabric would be used in a project that I was creating.
At that time, I called the concept “ The Gown of Stillness”. Now it’s simply“The Gown”. There was an instantaneous metaphoric response that was unexpected. The majority of people, worldwide, sent lace. Lace became a global metaphor, without discussion or direction. It was a slow, gradual process - receiving letters with fabric, mulling ideas. That went on for a couple of years. I still didn’t know what shape all these pieces should take, how to unite them.
One day I was in a Salvation Army store, a goodwill store and there was a long rack of hospital gowns. Healing! So I bought a large hospital gown and that became The Gown’s foundation.
A gown with a global cry for healing; for peace.
Will it ever be finished? I don’t know.
Every time it’s on exhibition, I’m certain, this time it’s finished. Then I’ll receive a note from someone who’s seen it, and they’ll include a piece of fabric, with a story of the reassured memory it holds, and the hope, and it gets added to “The Gown”.
Each piece finds its own place.
The truth is, I don’t know how to finish it. Maybe I should bequeath it to someone one day, someone who’ll be responsible, and continue to display its message of peace.
G) Your work, ‘The Gown’, for me, is a visually haunting piece that one cannot stop looking at and processing. It almost palpates an amalgam of different lives, thoughts, and memories – all in a wonderfully designed piece of clothing. It can remind of a wedding gown, an ancient garment full of wisdom – or even a still image of purity, almost withheld in some type of preserving liquid. How did you conceive the idea for ‘The Gown’, and how did you feel when it was finished?
Chapter One, brief excerpt
My parents were married in 1943. Non-Catholic partners in marriage have to swear that they’ll raise their children in the Catholic faith and not in whatever their own religion might happen to be. That’s the rule and everyone including my mother abides by it.
In 1943 Newfoundland was recovering from the poverty of the Great Depression and its economic collapse was tragic. The main export was fish, and the prices for fish plunged. Malnutrition was widespread. People relied on the help of family and friends but in most cases one family was as destitute as another. It drove some people insane. I'm told there was no meat in the stores on the day I was born. I'm also told I was born close to midnight, almost the next day.
The year was 1944, year of my birth; Germany had surrendered Paris, the Soviets had declared war on Bulgaria, the Newfoundland Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery landed in Normandy, Mount Vesuvius had erupted in Italy and the top song was Bing Crosby’s Swinging on a Star. The world was filled with madness, sadness and fear. World War, a second time. American bases in Newfoundland, U-boat threats in the water off-shore. Ads with soldiers selling toothpaste and Coke. Hitler.
The SS Caribou, the Newfoundland ferry boat, torpedoed by German submarines off the Newfoundland coast - 137 passengers perish. Mussolini. Detention camps; concentration camps. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. More than fifty million people are killed worldwide - half of them civilians. Machine guns; fighter bombers; light bombers; heavy bombers; gasoline restrictions;Abbott and Costello. “White Christmas.” Rationed food.
And somewhere in here I was at home and helping with the housework. I was polishing a wooden coffee table; had my own dusting rag with polishing wax. I’m four years old and polish the table until it’s glowing, until I can see my own round face in the wood; then climb up and stand on top of the oily surface and start to polish the window, slid off the table, onto the floor and knock myself completely unconscious. I was told I was out for a very long time. I don’t know if it was seconds or months. No one defined it.
G) The materials utilized for ‘The Gown’ could all be described as paper thin, fragile, delicate. Could you tell us why you chose them and what they meant to you?
MD) The angel collages and ‘Street Angel” don’t intentionally connect but when I was creating the collage that would become the cover for “Street Angel”, I was working with a very old photograph of me was over seventy years old. (I’m dating myself). There’s a ray of light behind me in the photo, almost as if it’s connected to my back and I kept trying to “clean up” the photo and erase the light, but couldn’t. I told the publisher and he said to definitely leave it. It was as if the little girl who would tell the story in
“Street Angel” had her own set of little wings. Maybe we all have our own protective energy or our own set of wings. I lend to use very, very light weight material when I construct the angels – antique thread, small pieces of lace, gold leaf, petals. Despite the fragile material they represent strength to me.
'Angel with Feathers'
MG) I’ve always worked with it in one way or another. When I was 15 or 16 I used to make summer hats for church using a headband with net and lace. I attached lace trim to collars. I started using lace in my art as soon as I began to work with collage. It’s easy to work with and can be transparent depending on the design, giving it a layering quality. Really thin lace can be like delicate tissue, which makes it perfect for angels.
In “The Gown”, I had no involvement in choosing lace. It was what I was sent; dozens and dozens of weights, designs and ages; some of the lace is quite old. I couldn’t have asked for anything more appropriate and beautiful.
It definitely lent its qualities to ‘The Gown’.
'An excerpt from “Street Angel”.
'Angel with Thread'
G) What do you think about lace fabric? Do you believe that it lent its qualities well to ‘The Gown’, and did you utilize it again for the same qualities in your ‘Angel’ series?
MD) “Street Angel” is a companion to my first book “The Queen of Peace Room”, although they are completely separate. “Street Angel” is told through the voice of an eleven-year-old. “The Queen of Peace Room”, is the adult voice, a lifetime later. “Street Angel” is in two parts. Part One chronicles eight hamlet days, and shows through a series of flashbacks, how important those early years are in shaping who we become as we age. Part two moves with quick brush-stroke chapters to the 1960's in New York, to the millennium in Toronto, and to the present. There’s a line from a “Street Angel” review that will always be close to my hear. It captures the soul of the eleven-year-old voice (my 11-year-old voice) who is telling the story: "Dominic writes as Julius Caesar spoke (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”), as Dickens wrote, and as Toni Morrison writes. The style is immediate and emotive’’.
G) Do your pieces ‘Angel 1’, ‘Angel 2’, ‘Angel 3’ & ‘Angel 4’ connect with your memoir ‘Street Angel’? If yes, how so, and if no, do you have a particular fondness for angels and what they may represent to you?
G) Would you be kind enough to immerse us into learning about your memoir, ‘Street Angel’ and perhaps share a small snippet with us?
MD) I didn’t choose the fabric. This is what is so astounding. I put out the call for fabric that represented a personal hope for peace, for stillness. I received fabric from people worldwide, from all walks of life, the majority strangers to one another. Embroidery created by a woman living in a safe house in the Former Yugoslavia. An actor dying from AIDS. Pieces from wedding veils, a child’s dress. I didn’t choose the fabric, only the foundation, the hospital gown. I designed the installation using the fabric I received, mainly lace. Lace = Symbol = Language. People worldwide used the fabric as a vehicle for speaking to me, and through me, to one another.
MD) Well, there is the artist and writer, and there is the artist/ writer who is also the teacher.
Both have important roles to play. I gave a week of writing workshops in Toronto at a shelter for at-risk youth. There was one First Nation teen who refused to write. He wasn’t disruptive, he simply refused to participate. At the week’s conclusion I gave each student a pen and a notebook so they could continue their writing. When I offered the pen and notebook to the boy, he refused it. He said his people didn’t write stories; they spoke their stories. He said it defiantly. I told him that I understood that, but I also knew that his people understood the importance of symbols. I told him that the pen and the paper were a gift from me, but he didn’t have to use them. They were just symbols of stories and traditions. The ice melted and he began talking to us about his early years, his pain, his childhood experiences and fears. He told his story in his own way. That child had such an impact on me, I remember it in detail. I think I had an impact on him as well. Sometimes a person just needs a symbol.
As artists and writers, we learn how to hold the brush and the pen, how it should feel in our hand; but as a teacher, nor only do we have to show, we have to teach how to get beyond the fear and let the tool speak.
I think we have a bit of a responsibility to show people how to use the tools, but also how to be brave and hopeful; to not be inhibited with ancient rage and fear. Bravery and hope are important for both artist and teacher.
G) Can you describe to us your art practice at the moment, and what lies in the future for you?
MD) I’m working on a series of small collages created with items from forest, four-leaf clover, bitch bark and feathers combined with lace and mirrors. Little delicate pieces.
And I’m working on a new manuscript. I’m thinking about a window of time between 1960 – 1969. I touch on those years in “Street Angel” and “The Queen of Peace Room” but I’d like to expand on the dichotomy. I’d like to expand on the ten years that I saw - the people and stories; the violence and creativity; the enormous joys and unbelievable tragedies; the amazing people I worked with and read with and experienced. To look back on it now, it seems like complete science-fiction – except I have photo documentation!
Links from Magie's interview:
Chapter Two (an excerpt)
It was an ordinary day, not my birthday or a feast day. Sister Bernadette walked to my desk and quietly handed me a scapular with a soft, gold cardboard cover. A small silver medal of the Immaculate Conception was attached with thread to one side, a plastic oval-shaped image of the Sacred Heart is attached to the other. The heart was on fire and circled with thorns. The scapular edges were embroidered with minuscule pink and gold stitches; the kind of stitch that can make a person go blind. The two sides were hinged together with the same pink and gold stitch.
Did you make that, Sister, someone asked.
Oh no! I would never give Margaret something I made myself. Meaning what, I wondered. That something she created herself was unworthy of being a gift? Or I wasn’t worthy of something she made?
She didn’t say why I was the only one to receive a scapular. She didn’t explain anything. She simply put the scapular on my desk, smiled and walked away. Maybe it was supposed to make me feel strong. Or cure my ongoing feet problem. Or maybe she was fortifying a child who she knew was in need of fortification.
Anxiety and stress had permanently set into my body, even at six. Something else to add to my bent head, tragic look on my face and feet pointed inward. This gentle nun may have seen everything. This would explain her kindness with every child in her crowded classroom. If we were allowed to remain in her class for the rest of our lives, I doubt any child would have relinquished the opportunity. But we’re forced to move elsewhere.
We’re all here to learn and we never know who the teachers will be or what time they'll appear. But if we're vigilant someone will walk into our lives. This person will be light in the dark. Hope where there was none. We have to pray for this person's appearance. Hope for a miracle.
Watch for a saint.
Bernadette probably wasn’t a saint, but when you’re six years old and there’s a moment in life when there’s calm and compassion and kindness - especially kindness, and a beautiful embroidered scapular, that’s about as close to a saintly environment as any small child can possibly hope for. Small children need warmth and space and time, like a seed. A child is the root of an adult. She knew this. Anyone can be a saint in heaven; you just need two wings and a cloud. Real saints are born here on earth. There were flowers on the chalkboards in her room in all kinds of weather. Every season. Every holiday. A moon in a starry sky and summer roses; snowflakes falling on dark earth; pine cones and poinsettias. In springtime, daffodils and crocuses; thin pastel lines of green leaves and vines - chalk so light it barely touched the board’s surface; in autumn, pumpkins and yellow leaves covered shivering things. A perpetual, glorious landscape revealing itself through a box of coloured chalk.
G) And finally, Magie, would you spare some wisdom with us and perhaps let us into your thinking regarding the future of women in the arts?
MD) I never have, but that is not to say that I am unaware of it. I grew up in an era - the 50's and 60's - and though it isn’t that far away, it was vastly different. The newspapers then listed 'Jobs for Men’ and 'Jobs for Women'. I just kept plodding through; one month at a time.
G) Magie you have been in the arts world for many years - as an artist, an activist, an actress, a writer, a curator; have you experienced discrimination and/or inequality, and if yes, how did you work against it?
G) Bridget welcome to ALKALI – I am very excited to be interviewing you. What are you working on right now? Tell us everything from how your day is in the studio, to what artists may be influencing you more at the moment.
BF) Firstly, thank you Georgie for the invitation to be interviewed for Alkali magazine, it is an honour. I am currently working on a series of landscape paintings that were painted in both Valentia Island, Ireland during lockdown and Kissonerga village, Cyprus where I have just spent the summer months. Valentia Island is rich and luscious, surrounded by dense and subtropical vegetation as a result of the gulf stream, it lies in the path of warm waters that flow across the Atlantic Ocean (The wild Atlantic Way). As I walk down a winding road to Glanleam Beach I could be strolling through a Rousseau painting; I find myself in a green jungle, a botanical garden without the tigers. I admire Rousseau’s work, his sophisticated colour palette, his tones of green and the harmony he creates between the landscape and sky. Cyprus on the other hand, a majestic Island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea holds strong ties with my work as I lived here for 16 years before moving back to Ireland in July 2020. It's still my home from home. I am literally painting what's outside my window. In Kissonerga, I'm nestled among the banana plantations, looking out to sea. The landscape is spotted with patterned fields, rows of vines, olive trees, endless land rich with abundant fresh produce, overgrown "paputsosika" (prickly pears). All this landscape and imagery have inspired my work over the years in Cyprus. I love the paintings of Milton Avery and see his seascapes with white horses and imagine them carrying the fishing boats home in the late afternoon in Valentia and often a ship washed ashore. In Paphos Cyprus, I did a series of paintings in 2011 based on this, when the Edro III washed aground after a raging storm at sea. A fine writer Lane Ashfeldt bought two works from me and wrote an interesting piece on her purchase1.
There are so many similarities between Cyprus and Valentia Island, the fact that they are small Islands, oceans apart. I live near the water in both places, nothing is stagnant, there is a constant change of colour, of the sea, the sky, the iridescent light that lingers at sunset. I like to think that my work changes too, evolves and moves with me as I tread through life. I believe that my paintings honestly follow my urge, to reflect, that they are connected to an energy that flows when I commence the act itself, paint to board or canvas. I sense there is a force that commands and drives my work and I get lost in this transition. I have done abstract painting mixed with expressionism; my recent works carry representational qualities mixed with being subtly abstract too. I believe that my paintings strive to be bold, concentrate on colour, I'm always trying to create a sense of serenity and harmony. And answering the studio question.... I have had three studios in Cyprus to date and one in Ireland prior to my leaving and have conclusively come to the realization that wherever my paints and materials are, that’s my studio!
I want to paint when I feel the urge to paint. I reminisce on when I had a studio and couldn’t get there to the paint, because it was too far to drive, too late at night. I felt frustrated! I like to paint when I'm in the moment...I do however plan a new studio on Valentia Island, it will be on site, separate from where I live but with very quick and 24/7 access.
BF) I paint from memories, fantasy, what's in front of me, what I want to see in front of me..I might have to remove a dead branch or an electricity pole. I'm always striving for harmony and perfection and maybe, I need to understand that this doesn't always exist?
'Old woman in Cyprus landscape'
G) Is there anything that makes you nervous when you approach a blank surface, and if no, why do you think? If yes, how do you handle that obstacle?
G) Do you mainly paint from memories, or from direct references (i.e. pre-sketches etc.)?
BF) Yes, I do have a piece that I love and could never sell, it’s one of the first paintings I made in Cyprus, it depicts a grandmother (Gia Gia) looking over the land that she has spent her life nurturing and that has also nurtured hers, there is a close connection between the local people and the land, a sense of love and pride, a sense of belonging. I believe in a strange way I have captured this in a nostalgic manner. The painting is titled ‘Old Woman in Cyprus Landscape’.
G) Do you have a piece over the years that you are particularly proud of, or perhaps would never part with?
'The town that climbs the mountain'
G) Where is your favourite place to paint and why?
G) What is your favourite tool to work with and why?
BF) I love to work with oil on board or canvas, I often start off a painting with an expired visa card swiping leftover colour across a blank surface, just to break the blankness. Oil is excellent for its flexibility and depth of colour. I prefer to paint on wood (board) for its resilience, scraping back, adding layers. I find it more forgiving than canvas.
'I want to take you to the island'
BF) A blank surface has always intimidated me, if I draw something and make a mistake... what if?? So much insecurity before I get going and often so much disappointment when I've realised I have overworked and over done it. I suppose it is the pain of being a painter. Now I tend to just splash lots of colour, kill the white and work from there and try to realize it is not so precious.
BF) I enjoy painting on Valentia Island, Ireland and in Cyprus. Indeed, I love to paint anywhere that inspires me, I always carry a visual diary sketchbook when I travel and collect information from my surroundings, be it sketches, notes, photos. I'm always looking at artists like Van Gogh, Millet, Chagall. I often wonder how they would approach what I'm looking at? (Or if they would choose to at all?)
'Glanleam through the trees'
BF) Yes, art can also serve a sociopolitical purpose should that be the artists intent. For me, painting landscapes, people working in the environment where I live serves as a reminder, this is where the olive oil comes from, these are the people collecting grapes for your wine. These are the banana plantations that thrive by the coast and are becoming fewer each year. They are being replaced by concrete jungles. In a way, I'm glad that I lived in Kissonerga for 16 years and captured the old days and ways. It's sad to see a plantation diminish before your eyes and be replaced by a huge development.
G) Your work has wonderful colorist qualities and shows a mastery of hues and forms. Have you considered going into printmaking at all, and if you have already tried it, were you happy with that process?
BF) Well Georgie, I'm not sure success in the art world means anything, I have sold paintings to people because they match their curtains or couch. I suppose, success is really someone who really appreciates my work and mostly success for me is that I enjoy what I'm doing and feel free.
BF) I moved back to Ireland in July 2020 and spent practically all my time on Valentia Island with my parents and my 14yr old daughter. We enjoyed spending quiet, tranquil time there and yes, I have seen a shift in my work and certainly the colours have changed somewhat. But Ireland and Cyprus share a lot of similar characteristics, windswept trees, mountains, goats, sheep, passionate people about their land. Rural areas untouched, famine houses in Ireland deserted, Turkish/Cypriot, Cypriot /Turkish abandoned villages in Cyprus. I see the sea bluer in Cyprus and angrier in Ireland and then the next day the sea is flat calm in Ireland, and we can kayak across to Beginish. Irish weather is more unpredictable, and I believe that’s the beauty of Ireland and its people.
G) It’s somewhat inevitable to talk about COVID-19 and how your practice may have been affected by it in any way – I think actually this is one of the small number of questions that may overlap in the interviews in this issue. So in this spirit, do you believe, or have felt at all that COVID-19 had an effect on your work, your approach, readiness of materials etc?
Links from Bridget's interview:
G) Do you believe that art should serve a sociopolitical purpose (be it of past times or contemporary times)?
BF) Colour, tone, shape, pattern have always been distinct characteristics of my work, I like to apply bold, pure colour to a canvas and combinations of surface marks. Experimentation and creation of new textures and the constant play between colour have become distinctive characteristics of my work. The surfaces of my paintings are reworked and scraped back, marks are buried and rediscovered. A gradual process of layering and accrual is applied, always allowing the traces of the paintings construction to be revealed. I did some printmaking in college, and they were always monochrome.
BF) COVID-19!! Well yes, this pandemic brought me closer to my immediate environment. I spent the first lockdown in Kissonerga, in Cyprus with my daughter, we had one permission transmitted by text to leave the house each day. We were so restricted! It gave us a chance to become closer and more observant of our immediate surroundings, many hours looking out the windows into fields and staring at the cruise less sea. My daughter wrote 7 songs during lockdown, and it sparked her inner energy. For me I felt very confined and restricted. It didn’t really help me inspirationally. However, you start noticing the shapes of leaves, the slant of a palm tree, sounds of birds, the bells in the village. You aspire to become a better gardener, cook, a better home decorator. ...In July 2020 we moved to Ireland. We enjoyed a semi normal life there and were surrounded by family and friends. It took me a few months to find my feet and then after Christmas we entered lock down number 2. We were restricted but not so severe, early morning walks each day with my dad helped me digest my once familiar environment. We went for endless drives within a 5km radius, I was back home with my family and felt very well. I ordered oil paints online from Bratislava, (Van Gogh and Rembrandt) and I was ready to go. I became excited to paint again and started promptly. I painted the driveway up from our house, I painted birds that ate from my brother's and mother's bird feeders. Everything was right before my eyes. At the end of March, I was offered my third residency at Cill Rialaig Village, I enjoyed working in my studio that sat on a cliff-face on the very edge of Western Europe. I felt free there, and free with my thoughts. I made a substantial amount of work and enjoyed the tranquility and rawness of the place. I met many interesting artists, and it was a relief to share our stories, reminiscing on the year that had passed.
G) Lastly Bridget, what does success in the art world mean for you?
G) You recently moved back to Ireland from Cyprus where you had been for many years. Do you feel that this shifted your work and practice at all?
'Picnic by the river'
G) What do you think drew you to cyanotypes in the first place, and especially to Anna Atkin’s work of‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’?
G) Martha welcome to ALKALI magazine! Even though artists use chemicals and science all the time (paints, special papers, clay, latex, plastics and so on and so forth), it is not common to see an artist actually prominently and knowingly blend art and science through a specific program like the one you are studying (MA Art & Science, Central Saint Martins, London, UK). What brought you to this direction?
MG) I have always really enjoyed learning about science, but I didn’t find the subjects very accessible at school, and was never exposed to the fact that art and science are actually very intertwined disciplines. This resulted in being subconsciously drawn to analogue photography, which has a huge overlap with chemistry when it comes to the darkroom, and then extended to alternative processes like cyanotype. Going to university really opened my eyes to the interdisciplinary nature that photography has, and led me to discover the MA of Art & Science at CSM. From here it just clicked that the intersection of art and science was what I was interested in, and had always unknowingly been interested in.
'BioCyan: Sea '
G) Can you explain to the readers a little about how a classic cyanotype works, and then how a bioplastic cyanotype works?
MG) I first started working with cyanotype because the darkroom on my foundation course wasn’t accessible for most of the year, so I had to find some other way to make work. Once I started working with these early photographic processes, I inevitably became fascinated with the history of photography’s discovery and its pioneers such as Talbot, Daguerre, and Atkins. In response to this new part of history I was discovering I traveled to a UK beach in winter, similar to where Atkins would have collected her algae specimens, and photographed the landscape to create images to print as cyanotypes and salt prints. I’m quite impatient, so ended up enjoying the simplicity of the cyanotype process more than the process of salt prints, and just haven’t turned back since. I really fell in love with the complete construction of an image from your own hands, and began experimenting with creating very abstract prints by layering and cutting up the acetates of my beach photographs. After this initial experimentation with cyanotype I began to become involved with the contemporary alternative photographic community and art and science based spaces. It would be about five years before I would revisit Atkins’ work and begin to reflect on how her legacy has impacted my practice today.
MG) How the cyanotype process works is through the combining of the two chemicals potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate with distilled water, which produces a photosensitive solution that can be applied to absorbent surfaces. Cyanotype is exposed using ultraviolet light, which is why it is often referred to as sonography. Once a cyanotype has been exposed it is then washed in a bath of cold water, which develops and fixes the final image. Generally, a cyanotype printed through the application of the photosensitive solution onto paper, is considered to be the traditional version. Another version of printing with cyanotype is the glass cyanotype process, which uses gelatin on glass as a base instead of paper. I was inspired by the glass cyanotype process to experiment with bioplastic as a base for cyanotype as a more sustainable paperless and gelatin free alternative. This began as part of my project for my participation in the LAPC Sustainable Darkroom Residency, so there was a key focus on sustainability. The process of printing with bioplastic is very similar to the traditional method, as it follows the same core stages of production. For my process, I expose an image with ultraviolet light onto my bioplastic cyanotype photosensitive solution which I have applied and waited to dry on glass, then wash in cold water to develop and fix. Once the image has fully developed I remove the bioplastic from the glass and transfer it to a surface it won’t bond itself to, then once dry I can peel the bioplastic off resulting in a self-sustaining structure.
G) The pieces of BioCyan feel like organic, contemporary extensions of photographic history. Expanding from this, where do you think contemporary art lies at the moment in regards to themes & movements?
G) Is creating a sustainable artistic practice in regards to materials important to you, and if so, how do you achieve this?
MG) In a literal sense, I am challenging the principal that physical photograph images can only exist via the application of photosensitive chemicals to complying surfaces. When I create my bioplastic prints I incorporate the cyanotype chemistry into the bioplastic solution instead of applying the cyanotype separately to the surface of a bioplastic that’s in a solidified state. This results in the production of a print where the cyanotype process is the autonomy.
MG) The bioplastic I use is derived from red algae, which led me to begin thinking about Anna Atkins and her work ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’. There is an intrinsic connection between my contemporary collaboration of cyanotype and algae to Atkins’ pioneering collaboration of cyanotype and algae. I started to look more critically at the narrative that is presented as truth when it comes to the history of photography and the influence of the canon. In ‘On Photography’ Susan Sontag discusses the assumed truth that the photographic image presents and the aggressive, more masculine language and culture of photography. I found there to be a disconnect between the male centric narrative and predominant number of women identifying peers I have around me today. I also felt frustrated at the ‘othering’ of Atkins' legacy through an approval of legitimacy only after the discovery of her work over a hundred years after her death by male art historians, so Atkins' legacy has only really been viewed through the artistic male gaze. Atkins is hugely respected and rightly deserves to be, but Atkins’ legacy has only existed in a continuous system built for the men in relation to her, to profit over Atkins. Alternative processes and cameraless photographic techniques where deemed an acceptable pastime for women of the 19th century and have strong roots in Victorian era's ‘craft work’ due to its sexist correlation to reproduction over invention. This is what I believe has led to this unique kitsch commercialisation aimed specifically at Atkins' algae and botanical cyanotypes, which stems back to an ingrained societal bias towards the devaluing of ‘ladies work’. This made me think more and more about how a photogram felt like the most truthful image. The object keeps autonomy over its depiction by being able to dictate how much information would be left after a direct contact with a photosensitive surface, which is the antithesis to lens based photography where an object is ‘captured’, ‘shot, or ‘taken’. So, I wanted to replicate that notion of autonomy within my work, even when not specifically creating photograms. That is where the irregularity of the perfect imperfection in shape, texture and size’came into play. In my bioplastic cyanotype process, the process ultimately decides its final form and how that affects the printed images appearance by how it decides to settle on the glass. I could try to have more control over the final formation, but that doesn’t appeal to me, because I don’t want to have total control over my photography. Through allowing my photography to be imperfect I am rejecting and challenging what a traditional photograph is deemed to be, since that notion of traditional represents a history written by the canon that I don’t assign to be the truth.
G) What principles and laws of photography are you challenging in your work with the bioplastic cyanotypes?
G) Would you change anything about your artistic process, or are you fully content with it?
G) Does the actual product of your artistic process have any sociological meanings? For example you mention the ‘irregularity of the perfect imperfection in shape, texture and size’ in your artistic statement. Would you say that this can reach social, political, or even gender issues, or is this something that you have not envisioned for your work / or do not want for your work?
MG) I’m quite sporadic when it comes to making work, which can be frustrating. I can suddenly produce a month's worth of work in one week then struggle to create anything for another month, so I’m always on schedule but the timeline is a bit messy. I think that might just be the name of the game, though I am slowly learning how to have more stability over my creative impulsivity.
MG) Photography as a medium was only able to come into existence due to the technological advancements of the industrial revolution, then subsequently was an important aide in the rise of industry. You can see this in the passive consumption of digital photography today, and excess of consumption of water, gelatin, and toxic chemicals in analog photography. So it can be easy to let sustainability in a photographic practice slide under the radar, as it just isn’t in the nature of photography to be actively sustainable. So it’s important as a photographic artist to take the personal steps to creating a more sustainable practice. It’s amazing to see how many artists working with analog and alternative photography are developing and sharing how to take these steps. Personally, I’m planning on learning how to develop and fix my own film using plants, caffenol, and salt water instead of potentially environmentally harmful chemicals traditionally used.
MG) I’ve found it quite difficult to answer this question because I feel like I exist in my small corner of the art world. I’m a bit overwhelmed trying to conceptualise contemporary art as a whole, but I think this is also what gives me my answer. Social media and the new digital world has allowed communities of artists to find each other on an international scale that previously hasn’t been possible. I feel I have personally found this with the online alternative photography community, which has been so beneficial in expanding my knowledge and experience of other artists working with similar themes and practices. This also allows more marginalised voices to create their own platforms and audience to be heard by, disrupting previously established discriminatory pathways. This then has the potential to disrupt and dismantle the systems that have been built to benefit the few over the many. Unfortunately, the platforms that exist have proven themselves to not care about being ethical, and still aim to benefit the 1%, which has become especially transparent in the pandemic.
Fortunately, there are individuals and collectives who are utilising these platforms for positive change within contemporary art. Such as, artist Melanie King on YouTube who shares free video guides on how to create a more sustainable photographic practice. As well as the collective the White Pube on Instagram, run by Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, who are actively challenging discrimination within the arts. I think, for me, this is being reflected in the growing movement and theme of sustainability within alternative photographic practices, which will be exciting to see continue to develop.
MG) I’m not totally sure what direction I am taking when it comes to my work currently. Graduating into the instability of the pandemic, and unfortunately Brexit, is a bit overwhelming. My main goal currently with BioCyan is to simplify my process, so that I can help others create with this bioplastic medium. BioCyan is a very visually abstract series of work, so I’m playing around a bit with more literal photographic imagery as well, to see how diverse this process of photography can be.
'BioCyan installation view'
MG) Definitely developing! I have a hobby of analogue photography for memento’s sake, keeping photo albums is really important to me. But when it comes to my artistic practice, whatever image I produce is always a representation of the process that I see to be the artwork. I just really love to make things I think.
G) Did COVID-19 affect your practice?
G) How do you plan to expand your work BioCyan?
MG) There definitely does still need to be improvement in terms of actively addressing inequality of the contemporary art world. My experience so far in arts is still relatively new and has been based mostly in the art education system and that’s probably where I can best comment on. From my time studying at art universities in the UK there was more male/male identifying tutors and technicians in permanent full time positions. Whereas women/women identifying, non binary, and trans staff members where more likely to be in part time roles, and not the head of departments or courses/year groups.This is being made more difficult by the continuous funding, and staff cuts within UK art universities, creating even more instability and lack of diversity.
MG) It definitely did and not necessarily in a negative way which was lucky. I found out just before the first lockdown that I have quite bad ADD, which explained why I was currently struggling, and always have struggled, in education. So while the pandemic has not been an easy experience, it did allow me to slow down and understand myself better. It has been important to the personal development of my practice to have had this time to learn how I work best when I am not trying to conform to the prior conception I had on how to work ‘properly’.
G) Where are you happiest, taking a photograph or developing it?
I found the perpetuation of the canon in regards to the teaching of art history that I was receiving to be really frustrating. I had very little knowledge when it came to the history of art when I entered university, so I didn’t expect anything in particular from the lectures I was having in this subject. It became apparent pretty quickly that art created by artists that weren’t cis-men was generally not interwoven into the teaching of the narrative of this history, but would be presented as its own, sort of, subcategory. Personally, I feel this is a pretty redundant curriculum to still be following as we are well aware of the influence of women artists have had within artistic movements. Yet, we still discuss them with a narrative that the societal discrimination that disallowed them the mainstream notoriety that their male counterparts where awarded, makes them not as important to discuss when talking about artistic movements. We should be dismantling the male driven narrative of art history by incorporating the stories of women artists, which includes an active discussion of their discrimination as part of the story as a whole. Instead of this perpetuation of the male genius and subsequent sub-categorisation of women and feminist art. I’m not sure what is the best route for achieving equality and positive representation, but I hope that challenging this notion of men being the primary players in the historical, and contemporary art world, will be a step in the right direction.
G) And for the closing question,Martha what do you think about the position of women artists in the contemporary art world? Do you feel that there is more to be done to achieve equality in representation and sales? And if yes, what do you think is going wrong /what is missing?
Is Beatrice Abbott a surrealist? An inevitable question to be asked, as she was taught photography by a surrealist, and worked and socialised alongside core figures of the surrealism movement, both in France and in the United States. Surely her perspective has been touched, if not influenced by surrealism, and within the thousands of images she produced one can identify these that noticeably stemmed from this movement. Still, the core, and large volume of Abbott's work remains unquestionably objective and realistic, and it is my belief that if surrealism runs in its veins then this is accomplished via far more subtle, perhaps even more effective, ways. Namely, by using very ordinary, typical symbols, thus employing a language that touches everyone's hearts and minds; or by driving a decidedly futuristic perspective in her images.
To my view, there is a solid common thread that cuts through the whole of Berenice Abbott's work: the eyes and hands of a true observer, a pure scientist who knew how to strip a creation from the unnecessary noise, thus producing harmonious and peaceful images. Images that balance perfectly the austere with the playful, the dark with the light, the presence of life with its absence. Regardless of the subjects beyond her lens Berenice Abbott was able to create unforgettable, strong scenes that act like gateways to information, history, and further questions. Only, unlike even the most well thought off and executed experiments, her work is flooded with emotions and unbelievable aesthetic.
True to her words and practice Berenice Abbott's viewpoints were given to us in the most purist way, without the use of any artificial sceneries, dramatic effects or montages. Crystal and unclouded, her images stand the test of time, but most importantly they endlessly give the power to us, the viewers, to explore and feel as far as we choose on our own.
'Triborough Bridge, East 125th Street Approach, Manhattan,1937'
'Fifth Avenue Theatre, Staircase,1938'
The photographer; the inventor; the science communicator
4,365 miles. Such an exceptional trajectory particularly for an era such as the first half of the 20th century! And yet, this physical distance travelled by a woman in the 1920s, was spectacularly surpassed by her creative voyages. Born in 1898 Berenice Abbott found herself embedded in the golden years of the surrealism movement. From an aspiring journalist to learning how to be a sculptress, occasionally publishing as a poet and working as a non-qualified darkroom assistant, she very quickly bloomed into a celebrated photographer, a dedicated archivist and inventor, and a science photographer. Her unbiased, rich view evidenced the spawning of a dramatic New York Cityscape, and opened the door ajar for science to be seen, heard, and loved by the masses.
pg. 59, 'Triborough Bridge, 1958', http://www.commons.wikimedia.org
pg. 60, 'Fifth Avenue Theatre, 1938', http://www.cameraart.ca
'Central Train Station, New York,1941'
pg. 58, 'Parabolic mirror, 1958', https://www.brainpickings.org
pg. 61, 'Central Train Station, 1941', https://www.thewomensstudio.net
JO) I think both things occur. I am a bit shape obsessed. I put the various shapes together as a kind of improvisational universe. I often see the negative shapes, residuals from the cut pieces, as a part of the new whole. Placement and organization is often determined by simple poetic impulse. I look for structure by moving parts around. Doubt is fundamental, I am constantly making changes to each piece. I am concerned with proportion, dimension, and perception. The process is a living experiment.
JO) The material lives as a sign of cultural excess. I would walk out my house and see the streets littered with boxes from Amazon and other deliveries. I call it the material of the “Amazon Generation”. I fell in love with the raw elegance of various kinds of corrugate as it conveys the strangeness, vulnerability, and complicated beauty of contemporary life. At first I collected a few pieces of different sizes and textures. They sat in my studio for quite a while before I started to make the wall sculptures. Once I began the process,the corrugate’s ease of use became pure joy and carried with it a sense of play. Viewers may see me as a rescuer of recyclables but I have a real love of these materials. Humdrum found materials are a celebration of everyday life. Still, sustainability cannot be ignored as a message in itself.
G) When did you first become drawn to using material that is essentially headed for recycling (or I suppose the landfill for some)?
JO) Art does not exist in a vacuum, we live in a world filled with potential. We can look at art through the things around us. Mundane, everyday objects are tools, 'shapeshifters' for our creative use. The corrugate imbues my wall sculptures with the conflict of permanence and impermanence. As wall sculptures they hover between 2 and 3 dimensions. They reside in a space that lies between solidity and fragility, however they are surprisingly sturdy. The throw away quality of cardboard reflects an almost organic life span from development through deterioration. I think the volatility of the object reflects time in a real way. As we see and understand sculpture reflecting time, revealing itself to us through time, deterioration seems to mimic real life.
JO) Thank you, I am honored to be speaking with you and to be included in ALKALI magazine. The sense of an idea starts the process, then, as it takes shape, the whole experience takes over. The process is instinctual. I create deliberately ambiguous natural or organic shapes that make subliminal connections. I freely use surprising and abrupt transitions to create a sense of flow or fluctuation. I try and explore my material with spontaneity. My work is not precision cut, so you can see my hand in each piece, keeping my humanity at the forefront. Without a color pallet the simple abstract, irregular shapes in various textures are combined and morph into a language dependent on position, shape and surface.
'Sun and Moon'
G) There is a sense of deconstructing a previously constructed reality (of an object for packaging and shipping) in your work – then giving new life to the said material; a sort of temporary safety net. Are these forms and structures that you create permanent, or do you think in the back of your mind that you will deconstruct them yet again, and renew their purpose?
G) Overall, would you say that the process of making the corrugate sculptures more reductive, or additive?
G) How do you begin forming your pieces?
JO) Initially, I actually had a dream about these pieces made out of the different textures of corrugate. I was intrigued with finding a way to make a timeless aesthetic but using materials that would deteriorate. I had the corrugate in my studio and began by cutting shapes. I have been making wall sculptures since the 1980s. So the process fell into place organically. I started by making organic shapes influenced by my drawings out of this stiff material, a visual contradiction. Then organizing the shapes and textures and developing a simple mounting system.
G) Hello Judith and a very warm welcome to ALKALI magazine. Seeing your work is a very interesting experience. Despite the omission of color, one is drawn to various parts of a piece, oscillating between depths – this experience creating a sort of vibration. We’d be honoured if you can talk to us about your current practice, and if this energetic encounter is one that you intended the viewer to have with your work?
G) The shape of the circle or oval, in your drawings, paintings and corrugate pieces, either in full or just the outline both seem to be prominent. Do these shapes have a significant meaning for you?
JO) Circles and ovals overwhelm most of my work. The circle is a universal symbol with extensive meaning. For me it represents notions of wholeness, self, infinite, eternity…all cyclic movements that represent or relate to 'Woman’. These shapes also relate to celestial positioning, emotions, sun, earth, eyes and feminine qualities. ‘Infinity,' is most intriguing as it is without a beginning or an end. Organic shapes relate to our humanity and sensuality. I want those qualities to be ever present.
G) Who are the artists that have inspired you deeply and why?
'Moon Phase 3'
G) Through using humble material like corrugated cardboard, the issue of what gives art value comes up (as you highlight in your artist statement). Can you expand on that thought for us — perhaps to even explore what you personally think/feel/believe gives art value?
JO) Many artists deal with this question especially when working in ‘unconventional’ materials. In a practical sense, galleries are hesitant to take on artists whose work might deteriorate and collectors might shun (except for those already famous). I’ve come across this issue several times. Galleries are driven and survive by sales. But as a cultural idea, it is mostly about how we value things as a measure of how we value life. Sometimes objects have a magic about them no matter what the classic sense of ‘value’ is. What art can reveal to us is invaluable. How we experience ephemeral experiences and thoughts are many times the most treasured and educational of encounters. We experience time through materials and an object (sculpture) is a monument that creates the experience.
JO) The original inspiration for my cardboard wall sculptures was the Nelson Rockefeller African Art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. The raw beauty and ceremonial context of the work is matched with wonderful materials like woven fabric, mud and straw. There is a modern aesthetic within the sculptures that had a great impact on the avant guard. It becomes clear when looking at this work how much it influenced artists like Brancusi and Picasso. Brancusi has always been a major button pusher for me. I saw Picasso’s cardboard guitars as a young child and have carried the experience with me ever since. Eva Hesse has also been a primary influence. Hesse struggled with anxiety and self-doubt and yet her work is fearless and inventive. She had courage fused with a dogged work ethic. She embraced absurdity and I celebrate all those qualities.
G) You mention that your sculptures are ‘intended to be thoughtful, quirky and fun..[and] reflect an irrepressible joy and optimism in a time of isolation’. How did you manage to find, and grab onto this joy in these difficult times of COVID-19?
JO) Humor relies on the subverting of expectations. Defying preconceived ideas of what sculpture should be made from by using the detritus material of modern life seemed like a fun idea. Creating organic shapes out of a stiff material is kind of humorous. My shapes are often childish, poking fun at the elements themselves that make up the sculpture. Elements like spirals and balls. Sometimes I think of the dioramas I made as a child for school. But most of all I have a real sense of joy when making my pieces. I think that joy is ever present in the work and sustains my work ethic.
JO) When I first started show in the late 1970s I felt I was blessed by not having to “throw my tampons at the MOMA” as the saying went. But by the 1980s the ‘mega galleries’ started to appear and the art world in NY seemed to be headed backwards. I feel we’re headed in the right direction now and a great deal of the credit goes women helping women. I will be in a show in October called ‘Exchanging Visions’ in NY, curated by a woman which includes all women artists. There are groups of women creating galleries and artist groups. ALKALI magazine is a prime example. I think it’s really important that women support other women.
G) Lastly, but very importantly, what do you envision in the future for your practice?
'Running in circles'
JO) Making art is a working process, every day, that engulfs your whole being. The work itself takes you places, suddenly and without reason. It is a process that overwhelms your thinking and instinctive reasoning. You dream about your work, you think about it. Every once in a while I take a step back and look at what I am doing in a new way. This inspires intentional change. Then the cycle begins again with the work itself taking me to places. Currently, I am trying to add new elements including clay pieces and found objects to work with the cardboard. I’m not sure yet what will work and what won’t. But I continue to refine and expand on subjects I have explored for years while exploring new terrain. I delight in things I do not plan.
JO) Currently it’s the box cutter and glue. Simple, but the working element of my process.
G) Is there a tool in your studio that you absolutely cannot live without?
G) As a magazine showcasing women artists, this is a question of perhaps a few parts that I vary in form but I like to ask everyone I interview. Judith what do you think about the under-representation of women in the art world? Do you see things getting better - and I suppose how do you define ‘better’?
G) In your personal statement you mention the names of 2 French philosophers, Henri Bergson (1859 -1941), and Gilles Deleuze (1925 -1995) - and that your work is inspired by these individuals. Would you mind sharing with us a little about this; maybe the ideas that have been of influence, or perhaps a favourite segment or quote you have from these two philosophers?
'Vessel, Tempus, Shore'
ERW) I began learning about these philosophers while writing my Final Year Project, which was an analysis of the depiction of time and consciousness in Tarkovsky’s Mirror1975. In particular, Bergson’s concept of ‘Duration’, and Gilles Deleuze’s writings on ‘Time-Image’ have been a huge influence on my work. ‘Duration’ describes an internal experience of time that speeds and slows, with no separation between the past and the present. Unlike the mathematical idea of time as a line, it cannot be divided into instances. It is a state of constant change, with no repetition. Bergson believed that language objectifies and limits our experience of reality and time, but that art has the potential to provoke a sense of duration.
This idea influenced Deleuze, who wrote a book called ‘Cinema 2: the Time-Image’, which described a shift in cinema after the societal instability of World War II. When things seemed beyond control, new perceptions of time and reality were presented. These narratives no longer followed a chain of causality, there was an emphasis on looking around, rather than fulfilling a goal, and images and sounds were no longer a means to a narrative end, allowing the viewer to see outside of a sequential perspective. These films don’t dictate a fixed interpretation, there is no ‘true’ or ‘anchored’ perspective or present.
ERW) Thank you so much for your kind words, it means a lot to me that you had such a positive experience of the work. I didn’t really have a specific emotion in mind for the viewer to have, I wanted it to be quite open. I intended this work to be experienced either as an individual piece, or as part of the larger installation. On its own, it is quite meditative. The boat stores evidence of time passing in the rainwater it has collected, and in the image of the sky reflected in that water. At times, there is a sense of anticipation as the reflections are interrupted by those near violent waves in the water, they build up, and eventually pass away.
I think it can also be read as somewhat unsettling, particularly when combined with the rest of the installation. There is a physical absence of people, the only human presence being the distant voice on the radio reading the Shipping Forecasts, which describe a terrible storm during November of an unknown year. Even though it’s very subtle, it’s important for me that the work is constantly changing and growing, that there is no exact repetition, so each viewer might have a different experience of the work. The work has the potential to evoke different feelings throughout the year even, as ‘November’ becomes something distant, then approaching, then present, then something past. Unfortunately this work hasn’t been installed yet due to COVID-19 restrictions, so it hasn’t really been experienced in the way I intended it to. I’m excited to get it out into the world some day, and to get some insight into what other people take from it.
ERW) Thank you so much for having me! This is my first interview, so it feels incredibly special! I’m from Ireland, and grew up in the countryside on the shore of Lough Ree, which has been a huge source of inspiration for my work. I make work to do with memory, time and place, and my most recent work uses imagery of weather, light and passage to reflect on our relationship with time. I’ve just finished up my degree in Sculpture and Combined Media at Limerick School of Art and Design - a wonderful discipline due to its lack of discipline. This course encourages a freedom to explore different modes of making and working, which eventually led me to experimenting with sculpture, lens based media, performance and sound art.
While I’ve always responded strongly to moving image work in particular, I was initially intimidated by the technical side of photography and video. In my second year, we had a photography module, and they started us off with analogue cameras and dark room techniques, which forced me to get off of ‘auto mode’. By learning how photography actually works, the transition to digital was made so much easier. That year, I also got in the habit of collecting things from places that I found significant, objects, casts, photos, and eventually sound recordings. I enjoy gathering a place’s sounds across the changing seasons, and bringing those different moments of time together in one piece.
G) Ellen-Rose welcome! I believe you are the first video and sound installation artist that has had an interview in the magazine, so I hope this is a special time for both of us. Tell us about your background, and what made you choose lens based media, and especially video and sound.
G) Your work, ‘Vessel, Tempus, Shore’ (Video 2) is incredibly evocative. I found myself almost traveling back and forwards in time, with various memories and emotions surfacing to the top - exactly like the images you show on the top of that water in the boat. It was amazing to see that with the constant movement of the water; the ebbing and flowing of energy, that the feeling of anxiety was released rather than built up. Are these thoughts and emotions ones that you aimed for the participant/viewer to have or am I way off here?
'Baidín, Beosach, Baidín, Deontach'
ERW) Back in December, I was interested in the concept of ‘liminality’, of being in between two states, places, or times. Liminal spaces are transitional spaces, such as thresholds and shorelines, where you move from one place to another. It’s also said that our experience of time can feel altered in these spaces. At the time, I was also becoming interested in the conceptual separation of time as we count it, from time as we experience it.
On a whim, I decided to place a door into Lough Ree and record the image from morning to night during the winter solstice. While the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, with 7 hours, 29 minutes and 57 seconds of light here in Ireland, that is an incredibly long time to look at a single image. I wasn’t really sure what would happen by leaving the door into the lake, whether it would open fully, or close over entirely, but interestingly enough it was constantly between opening and closing, never quite opening fully. I was intrigued by the anticipation and potential that comes from an image of the doorway, which threatens to open throughout the day with the movements of the water, but never opens fully. While seemingly little happens in the work, the island behind the door is slowly appearing and disappearing into the fog- it’s just too stretched out in time for us to see.
Huge thanks to our sculpture technician Pat for making the frame, and to my dad and boyfriend for helping with the very cold and wet install process!
'In the meantime'
G) A door, slightly ajar, conceivably there to provide an entrance, or a closure? A strong image on its own, with the video giving itself giving it life. Ellen-Rose can you let us know what ‘In the Meantime’ is all about?
G) The sheer feelings of both toil and for me, almost horror that come through ‘Baidín, Beosach, Baidín, Deontach’are soul-stirring. The performance appears to touch upon thoughts of being ‘rid’ of things, memories, happenings. And then the panic that comes with the possibility that it may rain more of these things, memories, happenings - and the boat will just fill up yet again with the agonising labour of emptying beginning again. What was the thought process behind this piece?
ERW) I really appreciate that reading of the work. The image of a boat full of water became a symbol of stasis and almost confinement for me this year, it signified a lack of movement. During the first lockdown, my family and I were supposed to travel out to the island nearest our home on Lough Ree, but either due to bad weather, or the engine being broken, we never did, and our boat was left to gather rainwater. The act of emptying the boat is an attempt to get somewhere, perhaps to travel out to the island. In the end, the boat is in an empty field, you can only faintly see the lake in the background. By the end of the performance, the boat is empty but I am still stuck where I am, and it will likely rain again.
This piece was developed during a performance workshop with the amazing Amanda Coogan, who, having worked with Marina Abramović, emphasised that performance art should not be ‘acted’, that if I was communicating frustration it needed to be true frustration, so this performance was repeated over and over, and I can barely stand looking at the final recording.
G) Do you believe that we are now living in paradoxical times? And if yes, what do you do to keep yourself grounded as an artist, and generally in your life?
G) A mythical scene, with roots and earthiness – I am writing here about ‘So Below’. Here the viewer can see a sort of stasis; yet with the energy being exerted by the human very obvious. Are you hinting here at the inevitability of it all – that sometimes, whatever you do, you really cannot see a difference?
ERW) So far I have no particular aim other than exploring something I’m curious about. I suppose lately I’ve been making work kind of blindly, in isolation, but looking back on it, it’s been about feeling like you can’t move on, like you’re stuck, which was a personal experience for me this year, but obviously has been a shared one too.
G) What does nature mean to you and can you explain to us its meaning and link in your work?
ERW) It was actually around the time I moved home from college at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of fear in the world and it was very obvious how out of control things were. While at home, out in nature, I found myself attempting to travel underground, digging into the roots of a dying tree. There was a desire to go inside, to cocoon, to rest for a while. The deeper I dug, the more difficult it became. There were layers and layers of tangled roots. My own body felt too big, and my bones couldn’t bent around them. I felt like I was a giant and the roots were keeping me out. They formed a natural labyrinth, a protective or defensive structure. So it became a kind of impossible journey, and looking back, that was definitely when my working started to focus on imagery of stasis vs transition.
ERW) Oh for sure, especially with the pandemic. It’s been a period where both our personal and collective relationship with time has been highlighted, we’ve become more aware of the contradictory impressions of time. For many people, this past year has been endless but short, simultaneously slow and fast. There’s also been contradictory feelings of transition and stasis this year, moving forward and going nowhere. Artistically, I’m drawn to work that reflects on these feelings, and that centers the quieter moments that are left behind or unnoticed in between it all. Similarly to what Deleuze writes about in ‘Cinema 2’, I respond to work that does not present a clear sequence or chronology, as there are no clear answers or narrative for what we are living through.
I think we can all understand that it can be difficult to make things, or even just go about your day to day while it feels like the world is falling apart. I’m very lucky to have a really solid network of friends and family that can support each other emotionally and creatively. Today I’ve decided to go to the drawer of junk in my house and fish out an old ‘blockia’, and see how I manage with that instead of the iPhone for a while, my brain needs a little bit of TLC.
ERW) Nature has always been a huge source for my work, but I think I used to take it for granted in a way. My attitude towards nature changed this year in particular. I was at home in the countryside for more or less the entire year, uninterrupted by school or trips away. So I saw the land around me go through the changes that time brought in a much more intense way, almost hyperfocusing on it, as there was little else to do. I think it was a really beneficial experience, and something I probably wouldn’t have gone through only for the pandemic. It actually makes me a little sad to leave home, as I feel a much closer relationship to the space itself. It’s probably the only place I’ll ever know fully, and see entirely. You can probably see this in the more recent work, but I’ve been fixated on the different stages of light, and of the sky, the changes in the shoreline, and the movements of the wind - because that wasn’t a cycle, it was more random, unpredictable, and it would keep me up at night. I became really fascinated by the language we use to describe weather and time, and how they are related - even in terms of the etymological relationship between the word ‘tempest’ and the latin word for time which is ‘tempus’.
G) Do you have an overall, grand aim when you are making work? For example affecting a particular strata of society, a movement etc.?
ERW) It’s definitely a huge issue that in the art world, and of course in other female dominated professions, men somehow tend to succeed at astoundingly high rates. In thinking about my answer for this question, I looked at the names of my graduating class this year, and noticed that out of 75 Fine Art graduates, only around 16 of them were cis men.
It’s a societal, systemic issue. It might be that women are socialised to be modest and submissive, in Ireland particularly you don’t want to come across to be ‘full of yourself’ or to have ‘notions’, whereas this attitude is not applied as vigorously towards men.
I don’t think there’s an automatic fix for it. There actually weren’t many conversations about issues like this during my four years studying, so I’d hope to hear more of that. In particular, surrounding the discussion of curation, if people were encouraged in art school to centre more diverse outlooks and experiences. And of course, I would love to see more efforts like ALKALI magazine in particular, Georgie, this is such a beautiful way to centre women’s art.
ERW) Agh! A terrifying question for a recent graduate! I’m actually packing up to move back to Limerick at the minute, which I’m very excited about. I’ve just joined a local artist collective in Limerick called MisCreating Sculpture, an absolutely wonderful group of emerging artists who’s work can be found on instagram @miscreatingsculpture, and at www.miscreatingsculpture.com. It’s so great to have that creative support from people offering different insights, resources, and just generally being exposed to the creative energy of others has really eased that transition.
I’ll be travelling back and forth to Dublin from September to mid October, fulfilling an artist residency with Ormond Artist Studios in Dublin, which I’m so excited to get stuck into! An actual real studio, around other artists sounds like a dream right now!
G) On the whole, exhibitions in the art world (ranging from smaller galleries to museums) continue to be unequal in their percentage of women and men artists - with more men than women being shown/represented. What do you think about this, and if you had the power and funds to do everything and anything what would you do to overcome this issue?
G) What’s next for Ellen-Rose Wallace?
KW) I work across painting, sculpture, collage and drawing. I think they’re all equally valuable and really important to one another, they definitely feed each other. At the moment I’m working primarily in painting, but I’d probably not characterise myself as a painter as I don’t have the right approach to it. They’re definitely not very ‘painterly’ paintings.
I also deliver visual art based workshops to groups of adults and teenagers with learning disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum. This really feeds into my practice as I love the playful and intuitive approaches that the group members employ, as well as discovering their formulaic ‘rules’ in art-making.
G) Hello Katie, and of course a very warm welcome to the magazine. Can you tell us about how you would define yourself as an artist?
G) You mention in your artistic statement that in your series ‘Methods of Construction’, that ‘crucial pieces of information are retracted, removing inherent functionality’. Is this a nod to sometimes the lack of crucial and necessary information that exists in contemporary times?
KW) I actually think we have access to almost too much information, which perhaps creates a bit of a sea of it which is actually really inaccessible and we’re all a bit lost in it. In terms of our attitudes toward information, I guess there’s a feeling that we need to resolve everything, we love resolving and making sense of things…and that’s something I want to play with. There’s lots of fun to be had in the unresolved.
I do enjoy the process of fathoming things out. We look for things that feel familiar and we try (not always consciously!) to piece things together from there. So it felt important to me to examine how that works when you only provide crumbs of information yet no solution. That frustration is something I really enjoy.
'Tailgate', detail, 2020
G) For me your paintings have a sculptural quality and ‘Tailgate’ especially so. Is this characteristic something that you aim for in your work, and does it denote anything in particular for you?
KW) Yeah, I see my paintings with a real objecthood and when I was at art school I was in the painting studios but I definitely felt my work wasn’t really ‘proper painting’. The way I treat material and the values I consider are probably closer to sculpture than painting. I suppose the materials contribute to this, as I work more or less exclusively on plywood, a material traditionally used for fabrication. Even when I’m drawing I tend to use graph paper and set about drawing as though I am designing a three-dimensional object. Recently I have been thinking more and more about how my work is exhibited and have been making various ratchet-strap-hanging systems and playing with other building materials to act as supports…which I think is pulling my work even further away from the traditional values of painting.
KW) While I was in my final year at art school I started investigating symbols, punctuation, icons, etc.…and I think what felt most significant to me was the notion that we can communicate in a way that is sort of devoid of linguistics,and instead is a completely visual language. The universality of communicating with entirely visual methods is a very direct and functional method of sharing information. And if it wasn’t universal, it wouldn’t function. I think a lot about the role that motifs play in the everyday - they’re mundane yet so recognisable that you simply stop noticing them. So I kind of wanted to deconstruct that and re-stage it as something with some elements of [that] recognisability, but those identifiable elements are altered and removed from context, skewing this functionality and communication. The act of re-examining something so banal is something I find really exciting.
Through an interest in the changing attitudes to ‘fix-it’ culture, I began collecting assembly and maintenance manuals and various other diagrammatic material. I then started removing the figures and re-contextualising them… I ended up making some pretty odd assemblages – but had lots of fun playing around with materials and motifs.
G) How did you gravitate towards essentially deconstructing contemporary forms of visual information?
KW) I tend to start with one element – usually a single found property… the shape of a deconstructed and discarded Happy Meal box, a really bright orange cone on a building site, the shadow of a wet floor sign….. and then I work in layers. I only work one layer at a time, I never really plan what the next one is going to be until the one before it has dried and is ready to work with. One thing oil paint is really great for is it gives you time to think and react. I never begin a painting knowing what it will end up looking like, I never do sketches of whole compositions or assemblages, I think the step-by-step process is really important, and it’s sort of similar to the material I use - with instructional manuals you have to complete each step before moving on to the next. I don’t think I started doing this consciously but that process just makes loads of sense to me.
G) Do you feel that COVID-19 affected your practice, and if so how?
G) Your piece, ‘Forecaster’ really draws the viewer in - I mean you almost find yourself trying to work this out like a D.I.Y project. It proves to be very frustrating that you actually can’t – and deterministic that in a way, we can never predict the future the way we would want to. Does this experience as an onlooker have anything to do with what you had in mind, or could it just be my own thoughts going wild here?
KW) Yes that’s definitely what was in my mind when I made ‘Forecaster’. My dad watches weather forecasts obsessively and we’re all ordered to be completely silent when the weather is on. I always enjoyed watching the symbols dancing around the screen to depict wind changes and so on. Last summer, while I was making ‘Forecaster’ I was spending a lot of time camping with friends – usually in leaky tents in wet fields in Northumberland [UK] so I was feeling particularly conscious of weather and I think that’s a good example of how sometimes things just filter in to the studio by accident. I think weather forecasts – like the ‘fix it’ culture I mentioned earlier – are very clearly a generational thing. Now people are used to being in control of lots of aspects of their lives and we have access to almost too much material. But weather does its own thing, we can get a rough idea of what it’s going to do but ultimately we can’t know everything, it could change its mind and there isn’t really anything we can do about it. It’s maybe another example of how we strive to have comprehensive information, even about things that we have no control over. In a way it reminds me of the car maintenance manuals I work with, something is happening which is out of your control but with the right information you can negotiate it, or at least feel like you have influence.
KW) I feel really frustrated by our attitude to usage. The mindset is now ‘it’s not worth fixing, it’s cheaper to just buy a new one’ and that really pisses me off. When I made ‘Backdrop’ I was collecting lots of old toy manuals, I think that particular one was loosely based off a template for some Playmobil Christmas trees. Toys now are just fuel for landfill and our attitude to belongings is very distorted. Which is extra problematic because then these attitudes are learned when people are very young. It’s a shame because fixing things is so enjoyable and worthwhile. I learned to mix cement when I was about seven years old on my neighbour’s driveway… I think I’ve always been very inquisitive and felt a need to explore a material’s properties and possibilities.
G) Talk to us about ‘Backdrop’: are there any links in with waste, usage, recycling and/or nature in general?
KW) Yeah massively. I didn’t have studio access for a long time, but I was lucky to have a little temporary set up where I was staying, so I could keep working on drawings and small paintings. The Matthew Burrows Artist Support Scheme was really motivational and although I was very frustrated to be away from my studio, it was great to have some time to reflect on my practice. I think long term it’s been useful, when I came back to the studio after around six months it felt like I was looking at everything with fresh eyes and had all the ‘answers’ to paintings I had been squabbling with for almost a year.
G) Do you have a fully formed idea of the final piece from the beginning, or do you work with sketches first?
G) Would you ever work in black and white, or do you utilise colour and its properties in a thematic way?
KW) When I talk or think about abstract form I suppose I move away from the literal definition. Really, abstract form I guess would be any object or thing which is non-representational and does not include recognisable forms. I would always describe my work as abstract but I guess it includes all of those things, so maybe it’s quite contradictory. In relation to my work, abstract form is more about abstracted forms. What I mean by that is the skewing of representation and recognisability.
KW) I think it’s great that artists identifying as women are starting to be more represented, but I think we still have a long way to go. Obviously the playing field is nowhere near level – There isn’t enough opportunities for women artists, or for jobs in the arts. I’ve been really lucky to get a creative job that I enjoy and feel supported – in an all-female team! I think there’s a real ‘take what you can get’ attitude towards female artists, and you end up burning yourself out doing minimum wage jobs to support your own studio practice so that you can do exhibitions for ‘exposure’. Being a practising artist doesn’t feel like a sustainable career to 99% of artists and that really needs to change. While at school I was never encouraged to study art, but that may have been affected by growing up in in a heavily working class area. I was never shown any work made by female artists, which was so demotivating, I’m very grateful for my Mam for giving me the tools to decide I wanted to be an artist.
The three things I would change are:
Encourage [with incentives] young women to study art
Educate young people PROPERLY about art – stop leaving out all of the mind-blowing women artists!
Stop fetishising female artists.
G) What does abstract form mean to you?
KW) I have been ‘mentally painting’ something monochrome recently actually! It’s something I’ve had a few attempts at and I’ve always ended up giving in while I’m mixing my greys and accidentally mix a gorgeous vibrant colour… I just really enjoy seeing how colours behave when they interact with others. That’s something my Mam taught me when I was really young when she was at art school. Her practice centers around the exploration of colour interaction and relation, so I was always encouraged to play with colour.
G) Katie, as I ask of all women artists taking part in the interviews, what are your candid thoughts about women in the contemporary art world? And if you could change 3 things, what would they be?
KW) I think sometimes if you try and cram your own political views into art, the art and the politics both really suffer for it. I don’t think it’s something I do intentionally but you can’t really help it sometimes, your views do come across and I’m fine with that. I don’t want my work to be labelled as political…because I’m not really trying to get people to feel differently about a subject, it’s more about getting people to look at things in a new way.
G) Do you feel that your work has a sociopolitical context, or perhaps is a message of some form to people out there? And if yes, how do you plan on expanding on your message for the future?
'Backdrop', detail, 2020