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.
This month’s selected artist is Nicky Cornwell (Instagram @nickycornwell) selected by Katrina Brown (December 2018).
What are you currently working on?
Back in September I completed my Mlitt. in Fine Art Practice at Glasgow School of Art and I’m only now re-surfacing. The course was intense and often difficult and de-stabilising for me and I am still sifting through the experience and beginning to find direction as an artist in the world outside of it.
And I no longer have a studio! So, alongside applying for residencies and other opportunities, I am working in a makeshift way from my living room towards ‘Being With, Making With‘, a joint exhibition taking place at the Dartington Space Gallery in March 2019. It evolved from a short course I took part in last April called ‘Context and Form: Art and Writing’ led by land artist Chris Druryand writer and poet Kay Syrad.
I had been struggling at GSA to come to terms with the mercurial nature of my creative efforts….to corral them into a cohesive body of work. The bodily experience of making work has always felt so ponderous as opposed to the whistling projectiles of ideas and my intentions were becoming frayed and indistinct. I wanted to better articulate what it was I felt the urge to personify in an art object and have a keener understanding of where my subjective, intuitive impulses met the outside world.
The ‘natural world’ has always permeated my work and the elemental nature of matter feeds the process of making. Working with and being in nature empowers me as an artist. I have always been aware, too, of a reciprocity at the heart of my creative acts….the object I make feels present and active, my subjectivity is only a part of the story. So I was curious to find a course that talked about ‘impersonal enquiry’ and the idea of ‘thinking outward’ as much as heeding inward….and, importantly, explored in the physical context of the outdoors and viewing nature as participant.
The works that emerged from us at the time were tentative and sometimes ephemeral responses to each of our own experiences of place, acts of collaboration with nature: river ‘nests’, wordless mud poems, fugitive petal-coloured postcards, a voice given to a buried watercourse. In ‘Being With, Making With’ we aim to re-present what has evolved from these works over time since.
My own contribution relates to my time spent playing at the edge of the River Dart, acting with curiosity amongst the mud of the bank and the roots exposed there.
One of the pieces I hope to develop for the show dwells on the fleeting experience of sinking into the soft mud at the bottom of the river. After a cautious paddle I’d turned back towards the bank but must have chosen a slightly different path and found myself getting drawn deeper into the mud, sparking a momentary panic that had me comically making desperate strides for shore. I am interested in how unnerving this was, albeit briefly. How much of an alien I seemed there. How the mud held unseen things I could feel.
I started to imagine myself completely at ease and standing sure in depths of mud, seeing it no longer as a disconcerting environment but a known and familiar place.
Perhaps I would need roots to steady me instead of feet? And perhaps in the spirit of reciprocation I can offer the some form of my feet as roots to the river bank?
We shall see. These thoughts have become the starting point for sculpted pieces and drawings but their final form remains a mystery as yet…I want to concentrate on the notion of ‘form enacting experience’ (Klee), both physical and phenomenological, but the material-driven process towards this is a necessary participant and often the most exciting element for me.
I also hope to make another version of ‘Dirty Talk’ which was a piece I made at the time after noticing how tiny delicate pieces of organic matter clung in randon patterns to my skin after being in the water. I drew these at the time and they developed into ‘Dirty Talk’. Gathered river mud was used to fashion a kind of unspeakable ‘sonnet’ which took the form of painted and drying fragments of soil arranged into lines on paper. A silent voice that took on a known form but remained illegible, a poetic ‘speaking in tongues’.
[Being with, making with (work in progress)]
What would you say are the primary motivations for your work?
Sometimes I believe my job is to take note of things, dwell on them, extend those thoughts through research and craft them into something more tangible, for sharing. Other times my understanding of why I do things is less clear because I equally value the much more spontaneous, playful, anti-intellectual approach of simply investigating the matter of the world about me, its beguiling potential to change the shape of the world however minutely altered. I like getting my hands dirty and enjoy the haptic qualities of the materials I use (at the moment these include powdered graphite, wax and paper).
I watch closely until something resonates, a sort of mercurial pattern of restlessness and absorbtion, getting lost in a constant state of making, of becoming, of transforming, in response to materials and intuitions. I suppose I am chasing moments of perception, of relationship, between my self and the substance/object and attempting to work out whats happening at that point.
Though I relish the surprises of this approach, the novelty inherent in it, I can often imagine that I am saying nothing, that my work is content-less, that there is nothing for others to hear or feel.
The artist Richard Tuttle put it deliciously well: “I love a piece of tissue and the world doesn’t”
Chasing nameless things feels the right thing to do but eventually the blunt world of language intervenes and articulating my intentions can leave me struggling and exposed.
I don’t find it easy to balance the emotional, intuitive substance of my life, my creative selfhood with the external, shared arena of human understandings, but this is what I hope to get better at. I have to remember that I do not live in a vacuum and that what shapes me, shapes others.
[Making the Drawing (untitled)]
Artists or anyone else who has had a profound effect on you?
After a year in art school I have a daunting folder of artists that have offered help in self-understanding, but there are a couple who gave me the most memorable epiphanies and sighs of relief.
Berlinde de Bruyckere is a Belgian working in wax, fabric, leather and rope. Her work is a mixture of tenderness and power that I am consistently drawn to. She manages a bold kind of sensitivity, an emotional gravitas that I envy and manages to encapsulate the personal and universal that I aspire to.
Gillian Lowndes was a ceramicist working in the UK in the 1950’s & 1960’s and her work lives on the borders between fine art and craft, which I have a sympathy towards. She defined herself as a ‘material-driven artist’ and produced pieces by boldly ignoring the prevailing ‘rules’ accompanying the use of clay. She tested the material of her craft to its limits and tinkering with animate/inanimate life-forms producing ‘fossilized beasts from another planet’ They are experimental curiosities that need no identification but, to me, are full of presence.
My father, too. I’m sure that it was from him that I learnt to look closely, take heed of small changes and see plant seeds as tiny transformative miracles. Watching his un-tiring delight as a cutting ‘took’ or seeds sprouted, or seeing the gentleness with which he tended the living things in his garden I’m sure led to my respect and admiration for the natural world and how it undeniably shapes my creative life.
[Mother’s Egg Poacher (detail)] – also main image at top
Are there some writers or publications you would like to share with the art.earth family?
I can tell you what I’m reading… The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. This book was on the booklist of the art.earth course and introduced me not only to the idea of reciprocal perception between the human and non-human worlds but it’s articulation, and also to the philosophies of Merleau-Ponty. I read this in bite-size pieces – there is so much to consider!…and I am sharing its reading time with a book called Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson about the human bond with other species – ‘Wilson does not attempt to prove biophilia as a human trait so much as he seeks to reawaken it in contemporary readers’. And something that came through the post a few days ago that I’m saving for a binge read, Colour, Travels through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay.