Each month one of our Directors chooses an art.earth member to become ‘Artist of the Month’. What follows is a conversation with that artist, together with some examples of his or her work.
Thoughts about my practice
As a practitioner I don’t have a particular ‘process’ for a reason: each new idea for a project or new ‘problem’ to be solved requires a fundamentally different approach, both in tactics and in media selection. I gain most from listening to others, much of my information and insights are transcribed and adapted from those who have been immersed in specific experiences or undertaken focused paths of research, both contemporary and historical. I believe that the one of the greatest strengths an artist can possess is an honest, far-reaching curiosity and an ability to say “Yes I am completely ignorant of this, so can you tell me about it.” People are generous with their time and for this I am always grateful.
I do apply an academic rigour throughout the creative processing of an idea. Accuracy is important, however this does not necessarily lead to direct translation. My aims are to communicate or flip facts into artworks, offering the viewer a number of ways into the piece, emotive, political or through curiosity. Through creative play I aim to convey intriguing narratives, promote conversations or ask the viewer to question their preconceived perceptions or predilections towards a subject.
Artists have certain responsibilities for their output. On a recent project in Israel and Jordan, as a total outsider, I found it immeasurably difficult to produce working responses to the ecological damages impacting the Dead Sea: a ‘Westerner’ commenting on Middle Eastern issues about which I had but the very most basic grasp of the complex religious and socio-political histories. I needed to create works that began conversations without being didactic as nobody likes being told what to think. I believe artistic proselytising should be handled carefully and with empathy.
Motivations behind my work
My primary interests in the natural world were embedded early on. I was brought up in a rural Lincolnshire smallholding and from the age of 12 was flying and hunting with buzzards and other birds of prey. I left school at 17 and spent a year working as stockpersons on various dairy, pig, and sheep farms across Europe before training as a vet at Bristol University. It was shortly after this I ‘converted’ to a career in the arts, it had always been an option for me, it just took me time to see that this was my preferred path. My scientific background has certainly moulded my research methodologies, modes of questioning and subject interests as an arts practitioner.
Because I am curious about so many aspects of the world, I tend to flit from topic to topic. I will invest all my energy and research abilities into a theme for a period of time, a year, a couple of years, but then move on, as many artists and arts projects do. It not easy to reconcile this mutability with the grounded specialists who proffer their time and advice and forever stay true to their core interests and yet despite this transience are generous enough to trust my ability to communicate their hard-won ideas.
One of the most enjoyable, intellectually acrobatic and rewarding projects I have worked on was a collaboration with Hull Geological Society and six artists (Michael McKimm, poet; Jo Ray, Fine Artist, Cath Keay, Fine Artist; Desmond Brett, sculptor; Carlo Verda, jeweller). We studied the cretaceous and quaternary landscapes of Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, through a series of field trips, discussions and literal digging for narratives. The geologists were remarkably patient with our unregimented approaches and vastly differing perceptions of the time-based ‘readings’ of landscapes. More information and a catalogue PDF can be found at www.ontheendlesshere.com
Influences on my work
Influences on the way I have ‘evolved’ as a practitioner primarily come from individuals I have encountered along the way, whose approaches to life or quirky obsessions have drawn me unwittingly in.
Dave, the biology tutor, as mad as a box of frogs, threw tricky and absurdist questions at me as an HND student. I tended his pet lichens, milked his goats and learned from him the wonder that is the rat-tailed maggot. He taught me that life was one eternal question often with many surprising answers and that humans were the craziest species of all. During this time there also was Russ who introduced me to freezing midnight cod fishing, incessant rock pooling and the joys of keeping native marine species tanks. Since then much of my work has been primarily in this area of interest, I could no longer live anywhere but by the sea.
I worked in a specialist art materials shop, the legend of which is Cornelissens, for a number of years. Through working alongside Nick Walt, the owner, I gained a deep and abiding respect for the wealth of artists’ pigments, the history of their discoveries, the chemistry of their properties and the concocting of arts media from their component ingredients, the knowledge of how brushes are made, the myriad possibilities of gilding and the preparation of mediaeval gesso panels amongst other wonders. A course with Pip Seymour at the Princes Drawing School furnished me with further impetus to harvest pigments from natural sources and experiment with their use. I still do that, and pass the methods on to my BA Fine Art students at Hull School of Art & Design.
I realised early on that ‘being an artist’ necessitated being reasonably astute in the matters of business too. I sought a mentor early on, in the form of Lee Corner (who has just been made the new chair of Culture Company, the organisation set up to deliver the Hull UK City of Culture 2017 legacy programme). Her global knowledge of arts businesses and her wisdom of staying true to your core values in the face of the financial bear pit of creative industry funding and distracting opportunism has been invaluable.
These days travel with my partner Quentin forms the core of my influence as a practitioner: studying diverse methodologies of cultural practice, discovering new belief systems, encountering idiosyncratic objects or places of strangeness. It is not a journey in cultural appropriation, but an enrichment of the possibilities of ideology and practice that as an insular British individual I could not have considered before.
Some literary (or other) inspirations
This is a difficult one, as my living quarters are synonymous with a library- so I shall just put down a few that spring to mind rather than regale you with a virtual bibliotheque:
Tenby – A Seaside Holiday by Philip Henry Gosse, 1856
I admire Victorian naturalist illustrators enormously. They possess both the unrelenting gumption of the scientific explorer alongside the observational and practical skills of an artist – what a fantastic combination. Here Gosse explores his holiday destination through field forays and evenings at the microscope producing a fascinating prose illustrated by exquisite lithographic plates. I have collected a number of his books.
Museum of Innocence – Orhan Parmuk
A love story from Istanbul. The narrator is also a collector, stealing memorabilia from his time spent with his unrequited love. The author took this narrative one step further and created an actual museum of innocence in Beyoğlu, filled with these collected objects and memorabilia echoing the Turkish culture of the 1970’s, the time in which the book was set. Visiting the museum after reading the book added another enriching layer of experiencing the story. I try to bear the importance of literary and physical duality in mind when making works myself.
On Being an Artist – Michael Craig-Martin
This is a refreshingly candid, thoughtful and sometimes blunt series of reflections on the experiences of Craig-Martin’s life as a practitioner. I admire his honest, no-nonsense approach to a life spent in the arts sphere that is regularly full of jargon and bluff.
Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour – Philip Ball
Putting stories, science and contexts to the origins and uses of pigments across the ages. This book along with its fellow shelf mates’ equivalents by, for example, John Gage, Cennini, Agricola, Albers Mayer and Seymour etc. form my library section on colour histories and materials to which I refer constantly.
Smoke, Ashes and Fables – William Kentridge
I saw this exhibition in Bruges this year and it blew me away. It was one of those rare ‘complete experiences’, where the content, narrative, artistry, audio and imaginative curation across a number of sites left me quite stunned and a little emotionally exhausted. ‘More Sweetly Play the Dance’ was quite frankly phenomenal. I think I watched it 5 times. There is an accompanying book – Kentridge is a modest and very fine multi-disciplinary artist.
Derek Jarman’s Garden
This is a reflective book. It highlights the importance of pottering, where something takes time to make things, for them to come to fruition, bit by bit. There are too many enforced and rushed deadlines these days, not enough time is given to people for quality of thought, or to experiment effectively. Jarman’s deadline in this gentle venture was the end of his life, which after all, is our only real one.
Travis Perkin’s catalogue
I believe there are few things on this earth that bother me when I have this, or equivalent, on my bedside table… within these pages there is a practical ‘makerly’ solution to almost everything!