The SALA Podcast aims to engage South Australian visual artists and arts industry professionals in interviews about their arts practice and creative lives, and in discussion about topics relevant to the arts.
See below for the latest episodes (newest first) and accompanying show notes, images, and transcripts. Click the plus symbols to expand a section. Some older episodes have been moved to the Podcast Archive.
Episode 37 / Shirley Wu
Steph catches up with artist Shirley Wu, who is known for her glass sculptures containing coloured oils.
They chat about how her work is informed by previous training in aromatherapy and bodywork, and ultimately underpinned by mindfulness. Shirley is currently an artist-in-residence at Nexus Arts and gives us some insight into her upcoming exhibition Find that Pace as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival 2023.
- Interview Transcript (PDF)
- Nexus Arts
- bodywork (noun): therapies and techniques in complementary medicine that involve touching or manipulatingthe body.
- aromatherapy (noun): the use of aromatic plant extracts and essential oils for healing and cosmetic purposes.
- Shirley Wu, Holistic Therapy 3, 2019, Blown glass filled with essential oil, cork. 30cm x 20cm x 15cm
- City Rural Emerging Artist Award: a SALA Award sponsored by City Rural Insurance. See past winners.
- Peter Minson
- FELTspace – Artist-Run-Initiative / Gallery in Adelaide
- Ursula Halpin
- Canberra Glassworks
- Chinese calligraphy [wikipedia]
- joss house (noun): a Chinese temple
- Kuan Ti Temple [sa.gov.au]
- Architecture Museum – UniSA
- Out of Site, curated by Melinda Rankin at the Lounge Gallery (SASA Gallery) in 2006, featuring Stephanie Radok, Annalise Rees and Qi Zhang. [PDF]
- Find that Pace as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival
Shirley would like to acknowledge Bridget Currie and Jingwei Bu, her mentors for her current project; Dr Christine Garnaut and Dr Julie Collins from the Architecture Museum at UniSA; and Dr Eleen Deprez who is writing the essay for Find that Pace.
Hello and welcome to the SALA podcast. My name is Steph and today I’m catching up with artist Shirley Wu in her studio, sort of… are we underground in Nexus Arts?
Yes, I think we’re in the basement
Anyway, it’s very cool. I’ve never been in this room before and yeah, so that’s where we’re catching up. We are meeting on the traditional lands of the Kaurna People and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. Alright, Shirley, thank you for making time today. I know you’re very busy. I’m excited to hear about your practice and where you draw inspiration for the work that you make and what you’ve got on the go. But for those who might not have seen your past work before, can you share what kind of materials you like to work with?
Sure. Thank you, Steph, for having me today. So although I’m more recognized as a glass artist now, but I have been working in a wide range of materials such as found riverstones, silicone, ceramic, metal, slime form
Did you say slime?
My gosh, you’ve got everything. And do you consider yourself like a…? Because I know you’re a jeweller, you’re… is it sculpture? Or do you… I don’t know. I guess you’ve got many hats, I guess.
Yeah, I would like to explore more and more, you know, art form, medium materials as well, because I don’t take that as
not sort of limited to one identity of [medium]?
no, they’re my tools to express or interact. Although glass has been a dominant medium for me in the last two, three years. So I I’ve literally been have been mainly making with glass and also with clay. But even in my glass sculptures, I work with other mediums such as sola wood, essential oil, I like to you know, get to know the characteristics of each material.
And how do you sort of simply describe or sum up your artwork to somebody new?
So the key words in my works are like sensory experience in body to experience healing, they can be involved in the process of making or creating, or the expressive or interactive physical works. Some of my earlier works encouraged people to touch to feel the temperature, the tactility, to smell. My practice is also about personal development and exploration of identity, a healing journey, and meditation.
I can’t wait to get into the use of the oils. But first, let’s just quiz you about the progression of your education. So you’ve got three qualifications from three different countries, a Bachelor of Arts in jewelry and accessories from Middlesex University in London, Master of Design and Contemporary Art from UniSA, but the sandwiched in between those you studied deployment of aromatherapy and bodywork in Hong Kong. And you mentioned that this particular area of study, holistic therapy, that’s a source of inspiration for your work. And I do get that very strongly looking at your work and the use of you know, oils and things like that. Can you I mean, maybe explain what holistic therapy entails so that we can understand how it connects to your work?
Sure. It’s interesting that you mention the aromatherapy diploma I did in Hong Kong. It brings me back to the last project I did before I left London to China. It was about massage. I made a series of hand-held body objects that can be used as massage tools. Yeah. I think that was a seed planted in me.
Yeah, that was an early work, wasn’t it?
Yeah. And that was healing. I think that was a big theme and becoming like continuously a big theme in my work as well. And that’s what brought me into doing art therapy later.
And to answer your question: the idea of holistic therapy was coming from the training in Hong Kong, aromatherapy and bodywork training in Hong Kong. It encouraged me to see myself as a whole.
as a whole?
Yes. Yeah, like as a whole experience.
Yeah. This I guess that’s in the word holistic, isn’t it?
Yeah, literally. So this body and mind are connected to the wider world in many ways.
That’s a great entry point for a practice, actually. Because, yeah, you’re not just thinking materially, you’re thinking on many levels of connection.
Yeah, thanks to the great tutor I had in Hong Kong. And like, that literally brought me back to the memory when I was traveling intensively between Mainland China, where home is/was, to Hong Kong across the border every weeks for a year.
To do the training? Yeah wow.
Yeah. Yeah. It was like I was between different transportations from car, to high speed train, to Metro, to train again, to bus, literally, you know, you have to go through four, five different kind of transportation.
ironically, you would have needed a massage after all that.
And it was crowded as well.
Yeah, wow. What an interesting time of your life that would have been.
Yeah. And then like when I sit and in the class or lay on a massage table, it was all of a sudden a different world. Very relaxed, very therapeutic, self paced. And it was surreal experience.
Yeah. What a contrast. Yeah.
And this was a mirror of my life as well. Traveling in between places, different cultures. And that’s, like, to me, that was a constant loss of stability. And also the sense of belonging, the displacement. And I needed something to anchor me. And so jewellery making, aromatherapy, now glass and Chinese calligraphy, they were, that’s, I think that’s how it come.
Yeah. So that sort of intentional mindfulness of making and being present. Is that sort of clawing back a bit of that, you know, time and control?
Yeah, literally. So when it comes into my practice, the idea of holistic therapy helps me to integrate my separated mind and body; to meditate through making. My body is like, also become the material as well. My breath become part of the process. Yeah.
So it’s so actually the as much as we can look at the objects that you’ve produced, the process is significant and very important in the making. And you know, it comes from a place of this process benefiting you first, and then you know, expression of that. So that’s, that’s really cool.
Did you end up becoming a practitioner of aromatherapy and bodywork as well? Or do you continue to do that alongside? Or is it blurred with your practice?
That’s an interesting question. Yes, I did actually go on to practice as a massage therapist for six years.
And that wasn’t the plan after I finished the training. Until I moved to Australia. I didn’t know it would become my survival skill to support my living and art practice. But it was great. The massage practice also kept me doing repetitive movements, and build up rhythm as well of my body. I get to know my hands really well. It requires me to focus on the sensation of my hand, how to handle my hand. And these, were essentials in healing of touching,
Yeah, no hearing you talk about massage. It just sounds like you’re talking about your practice. So yeah, that is a very clear connection. That’s really cool. And I do really like those early works. The sort of forms that… yeah I get that impression. It’s like, yeah, I can almost feel the hands on my back, you know, looking at those objects. Now you were the winner of the 2021 City Rural Emerging Artist Award as part of SALA Festival with a glass sculpture that kind of like undulated and was filled with a yellow liquid, I’m assuming that it was an oil. And I’ve seen similar ones from you with blue, green, orange liquid inside. Some of them are full, some of them are partially full. And they usually have these rather sweet little corks holding the liquid in. This is probably one of the types of works that people would have seen of yours. Can you tell me about this series?
Yeah, sure. Um, I think this body of work that organic hollow glass forms were made of test tubing where like laboratory used tubing.
Really it’s made out of test tubes?
Yeah. Well, that’s where it comes from
Also people call them borosilicate glass or hard glass. They have their very specific property. Compared to other glass, like window glass, soft glass, optical glass. Um, the starting point, for me was a process of trying to find a solution for scent, and to storage and diffuse the scent. And then that led me to start learning lamp working, which is a technique that in glass I’m using today. And so during this process, I was taught to make regular shapes to bend glass to join glass together, like in scientific glassblowing. But for some reason, my character just didn’t like that. I like make mistakes. So I did, I started making the glass into very organic shapes. And I really just resonate with it with my heart. So I started develop the glass or the glass has their own mind
mind of its own. Yeah.
And then they developed into quite quirky shapes.
Yeah, it’s hard to describe them almost. They just kind of go in their own direction.
Yeah, that’s literally how I would describe it as well. They have their own mind, they go wherever they want. And I often don’t have physical imagination of what it comes out and
you just have to see
I just have to see and follow its mind.
Wow, that’s so cool.
And also, later on, it became a process for me to meditate, to rethinking, restructure. And it’s also a space for me to be able to rethink, restructure my thinking, like, my
like, the way you think about your practice the way I think about my practice?
yeah, also rethink my way of thinking about my life and my culture, my identity. So there was a space there.
So that process of making allows you that time.
That’s so cool. Yeah. And I guess you’ve got a, when you’re in that unpredictable space of I don’t know what this is going to turn out like, you do just kind of have to come back to basics and come back to yourself and just be in tune with the material. Yeah.
Now that you said that, it literally brought me back to when I was making a, because the unknown of the result, I have to focus on the present moment; to focus on my breath; to focus on the state of the glass. Whether it’s molten, what’s the reference point? What’s the reference color? I have to focus on my sensation, my hearing my smelling my eyesight, and how I feel the temperature as well. It’s all of that. It’s the weight of the glass, the gravity, the rhythm, the movement…
It’s all connected isn’t it. Well, yeah, I guess there would be nothing that makes you need to be more present than working with glass. Yeah, you can’t be not paying attention.
It is a very risky and dangerous process. If you take that, you know, the torch can go up to thousands of degree. It will burn anything, basically.
So you need to be in that zone
super intense, super focused, but also very meditative in the time. In a way it’s very weird.
That is weird because the results are so… and you know, what you get out of it is so meditative and the sort of risk and the danger is such a strange contrast. But yeah, I guess it’s that’s what balance is, isn’t it? That’s that’s sort of one thing against another, so, very cool. I had not thought about the danger.
I guess it will be the evidence of the processes as well, like glass as a material. The transparency, the honey-like consistency in molten state. In my previous mentor, Peter Minson‘s words, he describes glass as a frozen fluid.
So what you did to it, it literally has its own mark-making. Yeah, if you, you know, take that. And, of course, it developed itself in the process as well.
Yeah. That’s so cool. Thanks Peter. Now, my first encounter of your work was at FELTspace during I think, Fringe Festival in 2021, and it was in the backroom gallery and you like walked in, and there were these really tall columns of, I think, parchment, -but I could be wrong- on the back wall. And some of those sheets of parchment were decorated with Chinese calligraphy and some of them were, like, decorated with the shadows of suspended glass sculptures, but they still evoked that mark-making on the paper. Can you please talk about this work?
Of course, I remember those beautiful photos.
Oh, yes, I took photos of it
of my work. That was great. The body of work was for the first time I bought elements from my traditional cultural heritage, which is Chinese. The series of work was part of FELTspace award program, where I had the chance to be mentored by amazing glass artists Ursula Halpin, and worked with the supportive FELTspace team. It was an incredible experience and also that connected to my next opportunity: the Graduates in residence in Canberra Glassworks. And also later on I became part of the FELTspace Committee.
What a great springboard. I think FELTspace is like that; you sort of get in that circle and you just get absorbed – in a good way.
Yeah, totally, totally. Um, so talking about the work, it was, it was a process for me to restructure my knowing about my traditional culture, and also to re-establish how I see my upbringings, my culture and my surroundings. And also, it was a stage that I didn’t focus on what the Chinese calligraphy content was about. And one of the reasons why I this structure of the of the calligraphy into parts and strokes, because at the time, I was trying to focus on the process of breathing on both practice either Chinese calligraphy and also lampworking. It was a focus of the movement, the breath, the lifting up the brush, and dropping down and holding the breath and also relief the breath along moving with my brush.
Wow. So it’s almost like the breath work in mark making or you know, whatever practice it is, that is really cool. Did you slow like, did you do that then slower to time with your breath? Or did you just be mindful of it?
I was more of be mindful of my breath. And that takes a lot of practice to do so and often I just get in and out in and out. It’s like practicing meditation,
oh like losing the focus and then bringing yourself back?
Yeah losing your focus and coming back to the focus coming back to the breath again. And I think that also brings my Chinese calligraphy practice into align[ment] between my how my hand moves, how my mind moves, how my body moves, at the same time. And then lamp-working takes that practice to another stage, which is slowing the whole process of making one stroke. So it will take me, I don’t know, 10 times more or even longer, I don’t know, to make one stroke in glass, than doing it in Chinese calligraphy.
Wow. Yeah, that’s just when you think like you’d already slowed it down. You take it to another level, it’s like, yeah, trying to make one stroke of a character, is it? Would you call it a character?
Yeah. And then you’re glass forming it.
So that slowness really helps me of thinking about the shape of the stroke, and how it starts, how it transformed, how it go down and up again, and then it ends sharply, or dully, or rounding shapes. So the shapes was very much about the process, the movement, the breath itself. So then, at that stage, I didn’t want to bring any content. I remember at [the] exhibition when I was sitting at the gallery, there were quite a few visitors specifically asked me about ‘what’s the content’,
Like what do what do they mean?
Yeah. And then I was, I wasn’t prepared for the answer at the time. But now when I think back, I really wasn’t actually trying to focus on the content at all. I want you to see from either first perspective or second perspective, as in, it’s a shape. It’s just like someone who cross culture, doesn’t understand the language, but see it as a beautiful mark making.
Now, seeing as we are catching up within the Nexus building, I can only assume that there is a associated project or outcome that we can expect to follow. Can you please tell us what you’ve got coming up?
Sure. I’m doing a three month studio residency at Nexus at the moment. And that would cumulate to an exhibition at Fringe Festival next month.
Wonderful! That’s so soon.
I know, it’s only a month away. The opening is on the 16th of February, I think.
Wonderful. Yes, that is very soon, no pressure, no pressure. And what kind of work or practice have you been doing?
In this project I’m doing a durational performance that focus…
Performance, that’s new for you!
Yeah. It’s a totally new area, for me a first time experience outside of my comfort zone. Yeah. Never done performance before. Not sure later on. But I’m very much enjoying this process.
And it even though it’s a new, medium, I guess for you, it still makes a lot of sense, given the goals of your practice, and you know, what you’re focusing on. So yes, please, please tell me more, sorry I’ve interrupted.
So in this project, I focus on the embodied experience, where I use my body as a tool for healing, through mindfulness, through connections, through self regulation. And that coming through my walkings, and also my other meditative actions on the site, more specifically at Nexus courtyard on the disability ramp.
Oh ok yep the ramp that actually leads down into [Nexus]. Yeah, because if anyone hasn’t been to Nexus before, you kind of got to go down to get to it. Yeah. Okay. So it’s so you’re actually moving around the site and drawing from that experience?
Yeah. Actually, back to the question previously about material in my work. I think this time, my body is my material.
Because my project is site-focused. I have been doing walks, and a head-to-toe fully grounded ritual at the Nexus courtyard on the ramp, which led me to be curious about the history of the site.
Yeah, so like, head to toe, like you’re connecting, you’re lying sort of on the ground.
I’m literally horizontal on the ground. On my belly, on my face, on my thigh. Being present and fully touching the ground.
Yeah. And what did you say that led you to after that?
So it led me to be curious about what’s behind this site, like, what’s the history? So I started digging the what was before Nexus.
Right? Yeah, what was here before Nexus.
yeah. Like what was it like in here like 100 years ago or even longer. And what I didn’t expect was that I found there was Joss House at this corner of Hindley Street and Morphett Street, which is literally where Nexus, Jam Factory, and Mercury Cinema are today.
And what’s a joss house?
A joss house is, I think the term of joss house is from Portuguese language. It’s a Chinese temple.
Specifically, it was a Kuan Ti Temple, which is more of a local Chinese belief.
Yeah. Here! Amazing.
Yeah. And it was used by the local Chinese community here who lives and works and obviously, you know, around this area, and where Hindley Street today, it used to be a center of Chinatown.
Wow I had no idea.
I had no idea until I went to one day I went to the Architecture Museum at UniSA. And there was a staff there and she has worked in UniSA for more than 20 years.
Oh, wow, what a wealth of knowledge.
That’s the Yeah. She had the rich knowledge and memory about an exhibition [that] acknowledged this history
Oh, wow. Yeah.
But otherwise, I can’t see any recognition and any road signs, anything about this vanished history?
Yeah nothing to indicate what was there?
No. And that joss house was sitting there for almost, it was 94 years.
Yeah, almost 100 years unto 84. That was when it was demolished.
Wow. And so how then, like, knowing that, how is that feeding back into this project?
I think like as the very important meaning of it, as a new generation Chinese immigrant artist as well. This bonds me to the place, to the site, to the land, even further. Apart from the physical bond, which I’ve been doing, I developed a sense of belonging. Also the emotional bond as well, the cultural bond that more than 100 years ago, there was a group of people who were who were like me,
yeah, and they were here.
Yeah, here, travelled all this way. It was even longer, harder traveling then, and try to survive here; try to make a living, try to you know, develop their family here, their life here. So this was a fantastic discovery for me.
Yeah gosh, I almost have chills. Oh, wow. And so what kind of… like to picture the outcome… like you’ll have the exhibition, will you be doing regular performance? Or will there be remnants of performance? What will be in the space?
The space will be focused on bringing that performance practice into the gallery space. There it will be shown as installation work. Where outlining more of a focus on internal experience of the performance that I have been doing at the courtyard. So I have things like I have been wearing white, specifically using my body as a canvas and trying to pick up whatever it’s on the ground with the experience.
Oh right, so I’m looking at it behind you, so that I can see a white t shirts, some white pants and gloves, some socks. So that’s the sort of debris of what you’ve been, of those performances and that wow, okay.
Yeah. So for me, that’s my process, but also it’s documentation, as well as it’s a work by itself.
That capsulated the time, the environment, my body as well as in the skeleton. And also the land.
Yeah. Wow. Very different to what you’ve done in the past. It’s so exciting. Oh good.
Yeah. As I said, this is totally new. it’s totally out of my comfort zone. Very exciting. Very scary. But I think this is a turning point. It’s a great turning point for me, that I have been using my body -my hands more specifically.
Yeah, you always have been.
Yeah. But yeah, now I wanted to extend it to my whole body. I want to, you know… this, this body with memory, with trauma, with all this tracks, marks of time; How do I release it? How do I open it up? How do I get embodied experience and use this body to heal me.
I don’t think we can top that. We might have to end there. Well, we’re very, very excited to see so yeah, 16th of February is when it opens. Oh, and you mentioned before that there’ll be some workshops? So tell me about those just quickly.
The workshop will be open to public, having people over to join me to do the performance experience what I experienced. So that will be a group workshop or group performance. If you take that. The audience will be able to pick up the whole experience.
Wow, that’s fantastic. And they’ll just, there’ll be booking information, actually, we’ll put it in the show notes. Perfect. Oh, what an opportunity. Oh, well, on that note, I think we’ve tickled our brains plenty. So maybe we’ll leave it at that. I think I’ve worn you out. Thank you so much.
Thank you Steph.
And yeah, put all that information in there and we’ll have to get to that exhibition.
Episode 36 / Caitlin Möhr
Steph catches up with self-taught painter Caitlin Möhr after a busy year that included her debut solo exhibition ‘An Introspective Journey’ at Collective Haunt.
- cadaver (noun) a deceased human body that is used to study anatomy
- introspection (noun) the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes
- breathwork (noun) conscious, controlled breathing done especially for relaxation, meditation, or therapeutic purposes
- mindfulness (noun) 1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. 2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
- Viewpoint, 2022, Caitlin Möhr and Miles Dunne at The Lab
- An Introspective Journey [image gallery] [Essay by Connor Foley]
- Caitlin Möhr, Embracing, 2022, oil, googly-eyes and gap filler on canvas, 122x91cm.
Accompanying floor-text: Love yourself. Truly. Wholly. Deeply. The earth is crying for it. To resist yourself is to resist existence. Resist resistance?
- Solomon Kammer [website] [painting workshops]
- down pat (adjective) learned, mastered, or understood perfectly
- Floating Goose Studios & Gallery
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast. My name is Steph and today I’m catching up with Caitlin Möhr, who is a self-taught artist working primarily with oil paint, but also clay and installation as well. Caitlin had two exhibitions in the 2022 SALA Festival, so we just had to get her on the podcast and hear more about her practice, and hopefully find out the secret to pulling off two shows one after the other. Before we get started, I’ll just acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Kaurna People and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
Thanks for having me in your lounge room
Thank you for being in my lounge room.
Now we should I want to start from the beginning,
the beginning; how did you find your way to visual art.
Um, I was really into art as a kid, just like I was quite a quiet child. So always like drawing or like making things with sticks and leaves. And just being alone and just like scribbling and stuff. So that’s that’s like the earliest I can remember being into art. And then I just did it throughout school and then in like, year 11 and 12. I took it a bit more seriously, but I was also really into, like science, and English and stuff. So I never really
Such a spread!
Such a spread. It’s so hard to make decisions sometimes. But um, yeah, so as I never really thought of art as like a career, or like as a serious thing in my life. It was just something that I loved to do. So yeah,
yeah. And it’s tricky. Do you keep it as a thing that you love to do? Or do you pursue? It’s such a tricky thing isn’t it?
Well, yeah. So where I am now: I’m pursuing it as much as I can. ’cause I went to uni, and I studied health sciences.
You did go with the science
I went with the science and I was gonna do my masters in osteopathy.
So after I did my undergrad, I had a year off, and then I was gonna go do my masters. But in that year, I was like, ‘ART’, like, it was just really calling to me. And I was like, Oh, I think I’m gonna change my life around and go do that.
wow, that’s actually massive.
Yeah, it was massive at the time. Now I feel like I’ve redirected, so I’m used to it now. But at the time, I was like, yeah, it was really intense. But really good. And then after that, yeah, everything started kind of making sense for me and I felt like it was really good decision.
And art became more meaningful for me as well
Yeah, so it sort of fell into place.
Yeah, definitely. Definitely.
So good. But you do work in the health industry though?
Yeah I do!
That’s very cool. I think that’s, you were saying before that, that you can draw on some of those [experiences] – we’ll get to that.
We’ll get to that.
And then, for anyone who’s listening that might not have seen your work. How would you describe your work?
So with fancy words
or just non-fancy words
I describe it as abstract figurative surrealism.
If you’re thinking of like a genre,
Yeah yeah. But give us the
but so yeah, I describe it as sort of using figures and symbolism to explore our inner worlds and our way of connecting to our inner worlds. So yeah, that’s like a lot of bodies looking into themselves or like, weird positions or conjoined bodies to kind of show like dualism or like unity or things like that.
Yeah, I get a lot of like, very visceral dream kind of thing from the work.
I think because I studied health. We had this one topic where it was in the last year of my degree, we had this topic where we actually worked with cadavers – I think that’s how you say it. So like preserved bodies, and we had to like identify all the nerves and muscles and stuff. And I think that really contributed to just like, I don’t know; I feel like I have a strong understanding of like, the physical body and how our kind of like psychological relationship with it
because I feel like that’s influences like the my overall style a lot
Yeah, gosh, that’s amazing.
I also don’t know how to say cadaver
Cad-ah-ver I think,
okay, cool. You’re the one that knows.
I hope I know!
So you said that inner worlds is one of the sort of main things that you’re looking into. What kind of like, is that through dreams? Or like reflection? Or how much of that is your inner world? How much of that is like other people telling you about their inner worlds?
Yeah. So I feel like I’ve always been in touch with my inner self. I feel like it’s kind of a hard concept to understand if you’ve never been in touch with your inner self. And if you’re constantly relating to your existence as an external experience. For me, it’s always been very internal. And yeah, that’s been since like, a really young age. So I think I’ve always just, the way that I’ve thought about life, and about things that I’ve gone through have been very much like, okay, like, what is this? Like, where, what is this coming from? Like, what can this teach me? When I go inside, and I see how I can grow from this, like, how does that affect me in the way that I relate to things that I go through, and the people that are in my life? So with my art, it’s not so much that my artwork is a reflection of my inner world, it’s more of a reflection of that experience of looking inwards.
Okay. And that sort of framework
that kind of framework of sort of how I do that, I guess, or,
and maybe the language.
Yeah, I feel like it’s the way that I talk about that experience, but not what I’m experiencing.
Yeah, no, I get that. That’s great.
You know, yeah. So
it’s almost like ‘here is the vocabulary’ of that.
Yeah But I feel I feel that changing in my practice a little bit. Like since my exhibitions that I’ve had this year. I’m feeling like I’m moving more towards more. Like, I don’t know how to describe it, but more work that is coming from my inner world a bit more not so much of…
so you’re daring to be a little bit more like, ‘actually’
yeah well, I think it’s because I’m understanding it a little bit more for myself. So it’s less of, I think my art is sometimes a reminder to myself as well, to like, tap into that, because I find a lot of comfort in being introspective and being reflective and trying to see things from different angles. So I think I tried to pass that on to other people. But at the same time, it’s like a big reminder for me, but I think I’m embodying that theme a bit more. So now that I’m embodying it. I feel like my art will change.
Yeah, I mean, and that’s the whole- I love that the word for doing art is a ‘practice’. So you know, it’s nicely that you’re like, ‘actually, I’m starting to pull into this area’. Yeah, that’s so cool. And yeah, it’s, I mean, it’s gotta serve yourself. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be called to do it.
And I guess that kind of answers my next question of, yeah, what compels you to do it? So yeah, perfect. And did you like that introspection? Is it through any particular vehicle, like, I don’t know, like a sort of yoga or meditation practice, or
Yeah so through a lot of things, definitely like yoga and meditation, and just mindfulness. And just when I’m faced with certain challenges, like how I deal with those is a practice for me. And each time that I have a new challenge, I kind of see how… I’m not always like, ‘How can I’… I’m not like that neurotic,
but like, looking back on things. I’m like, Oh, I handled that situation differently. And from a place that felt more like true to my deeper self. Yeah, so that is a massive part of it. For me. It’s just like, my daily life.
Yeah. And I guess it’s like a muscle.
Yeah, but yoga, meditation, and like breathwork stuff is such a massive vehicle for that, because it kind of keeps me in touch with the body, and the mind and bringing the two together.
Those relationships are so cool.
Yeah, it’s very powerful. Yeah, but in saying that, so other things that do, like compel me to create work is definitely like, I feel like more people need a bit of that in their lives is a bit more like just to just kind of pause and take a minute and just reassess what’s important and reassess how they are functioning in their little worlds. And if they can do it, from a place that’s more peaceful or kind, or just authentic to themselves and kinder to themselves.
Do you think it’s a pace thing or just not having thought… it’s tricky isnt it?
I think it depends on the person. I think it was like different. I think some people do just maybe need to slow down. And some people maybe do need it. Like, just actually think a bit about stuff, you know, ya
yeah, because if you’ve never been introspective, it may not come up that like, ‘oh, there’s something wrong’, but when you do, it’s like, ‘oh’.
and that’s I think I’ve had a lot of moments where I’ve had, like, whether it’s through, you know, thinking about something a lot, or like through yoga or something. I’ve had a lot of moments where I’m just like, ‘oh’.
haha yeah, that’s the lightbulb
I feel like I remember what I want to do with my life, you know, and I forget that often. And I’m just like, ah, like, no shit like, this is what’s important. Like, ‘ah’, so
yeah, those moments are great.
Yeah, totally. So I’m like, I feel like everyone needs a little bit of that.
Yeah. Is there a word for that? Apart from the light bulb?
The light bulb moment, I feel like the light bulb moment is the best one. Yeah I don’t know.
Funnily enough it’s more a visual than a word. But yeah. Which makes sense. Well, then, maybe because I this is how you came to my attention is through the two exhibitions that you had in SALA. One of them was a two people. It was you and Miles?
Miles Dunne, yeah
Yeah. And that was at The Lab?
Tell us a little bit about that one.
Um, yeah. So me and Miles have been friends for a while, we always wanted to do something together. And he was sort of doing a lot of work at The Lab. So we kind of had a bit of a foot in the door to do something there. But because I’m a painter, and the lab is a very digital kind of space, like a lot of the people that come through, they’re doing digital, or like audio stuff. And I was like, How can I enter the space? But I had already done. So last, was it last year? Yeah. start of last year, I created four paintings. And these were the first four paintings that I had made after I like decided I was going to commit to art.
So I wasn’t really intending to put them in a show. And then once I had chatted to Miles earlier this year, or or maybe it was the end of last year, I was like, Oh, I’ve got these four paintings. And they they really did go together. Well, like we were all talking about the same thing and had like the same kind of color scheme. Yeah, the same feeling. And so it kind of fell into place. And he sort of interpreted my work, and then kind of responded to that. And then we collaborated together in that in the way that we would install the exhibition and with the audio that we made to play over the top over the top throughout. Yeah, yeah. Throughout the exhibition. So cool. Yeah. And it just came together really well.
That’s so nice, because it is a challenge to go ‘How do I bring my practice into this arena without forcing something?’
And because The Lab has so many events on it was it was like a pop up exhibition that went throughout August. So we had to install it, and then de-install it and then install it and then de-install it.
Wow what an experience!
Yeah, it wasn’t too bad. Yeah, it was it was fine. And the way that we had… the system that we had for hanging and like taking down the stuff worked well. But that was that was kind of the some of the problems that we had to solve. How are we going to… How are we going to make this like really functional and safe and not too heavy? And yeah,
And sort of unique to that space as well
That’s Interesting. Well, that’s different, I guess then, to the show that came straight off after which was your first solo exhibition?
That was my first solo exhibition.
‘ah’ at Collective Haunt? Please tell us about that show.
So yeah, so that was like, I feel like that was my baby. Like, I just had a baby. So, so yeah, after I had finished those paintings that went into The Lab show, after those paintings, like they… I kind of just had this feeling that they weren’t ‘it’; like I just feel like it wasn’t… feel like I hadn’t hit the nail on the head in terms of my style. And the way that I wanted to paint and like the colors that I used, for example. So after those paintings, I once just did this little sketch on my iPad, like really brief and then I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I should turn it into a painting’. And then I did and it was amazing. And I was like, Oh, like this is it! Yeah, and so then I was speaking to my mentor, Solomon Kammer, about this painting and she sort of helped me kind of figure out how I could turn the the themes in that painting into a body of work. And because I have so many ideas and so many different influences, yeah, I felt very at the time I was like, I don’t know, I had so many ideas for the exhibition. I was like, I don’t know how to bring these together. And so Sol really helped me like, kind of brew it down to like the most important stuff. And so then from that first painting, the rest of them kind of grew.
That’s such a great momentum to go from that one and distill into a series like that must just be so satisfying.
It was! It was. yeah. And it was really fun. And I felt like it that style really… I felt like I had a lot of movement in there.
We had the tell me about the line, the thread
oh the blue strand?
Yeah. Tell me about that. So just to explain: it was depicted in the paintings, but then physically existed in the gallery space to connect most or all of the work?
So yeah, each painting that was in my solo show had, I painted a blue band. And so when I put it on the walls, I connected it with like a ribbon. It was like velvet threads, which extended from the lines in the painting. So it kind of made it look like
Yeah, the line went like through the paintings, and then up the walls, and then like back under. One of the superficial reasons that I did that was because I like to, I wanted to fill the space a bit more, I didn’t want it to just be paintings on white walls, I wanted it to have a bit more of like an immersiveness to it; I wanted people to kind of feel within the walls a little bit. But then the real meaning was, because so that exhibition was called an introspective journey. And each painting was like an exploration of a way of being introspective based on my own experiences. So for example, there was a painting that was like someone meditating. And there was lots going on around. And for me meditating is a, it allows me to be introspective. So I wanted to, through introspection, I find, I remember that everything is connected in so many ways. And yeah, just even the way that life unfolds and like good things that happen or bad things like I feel like they kind of all lead to certain places. So I feel like this is continuous, just like changing nature in the world, and within ourselves. And I wanted to just a really simple way to just express that. Yeah. And so I just thought, I’ll just connect all the paintings because yeah, each thing is connected. Yeah. And what I’m saying so,
and I guess if you’re talking about those different ways of being introspective, they’re different inroads to one experience.
Yeah that is very cool. Yeah. Well, it was very, very good.
Yeah. Thank you. I loved it.
And did you have like, what was the response from… or did you have a favorite response from people seeing that show?
Yeah, um, well, I think with the opening night, for that exhibition, I had like a really good turnout. And Collective Haunt’s not a massive gallery. So it filled out really quick and it just made me really chuffed. I was like, ‘oh, yay; people are seeing my art!’ And I had just been working on it for so long, and putting so much energy into it, and not sharing too much, so that it kind of teased people to come along. And then like just finally being able to let people see what had been going on for me for so long, was really good. And with each of the paintings, I had a little, like a little bit of text that was on the floor below each painting that was
oh actually on the ground?
Yeah. So it was, like really poetic. And just like a simple way of just kind of tying together the painting. And I think that was because I feel like I’ve had a lot of responses to my work, where they’re like, ‘uh, what’s that?’ ‘What’s going on?’ You know, and I’m just like, that’s fine. I don’t expect people to just be like, ‘Oh, I understand’.
Yeah. But I wanted to just have like little prompts just so people could kind of see what my angle was with the painting. And there was this one painting that I did, which was based on myself. It was like two of me connected like holding myself. And it was kind of expressing the duality that you can feel with yourself, like being in one place, but then feeling like you’re not where you need to be and like there’s this kind of separateness and with this painting, I just wanted to kind of bring that together and like, remind myself and people that like you need to accept all of yourself. Sounds a little bit, you know, ‘eh’, but like it was that was one of just the main themes and I had a lot of people come up to me and be like, oh, like I really resonated with that painting
Oh, that’s so good
and I was like *exhale* yay. Like, I feel like those little moments where people were just like, oh, like, yeah, that was I felt that you know it kind of it just like, that’s why I do I did it, you know, like I was kind of wanting, not wanting but that was my intention was to make people feel reminded of their inner strength or whatever it be.
And touch base with that. Yeah. And I mean it’s funny because you say, Oh, this sounds so silly, but it’s the painting that had the most connection. So it’s like, well, some things you can’t say with words, you say it visually. Perfect.
Yeah. So that was really good.
That is good. I’ll have to put that particular painting in the show notes.
Yeah, for sure.
And what I mean, not to rush you, because you’ve just done two shows, which is a feat in itself. And I’m glad you’ve had a little bit of a rest time. Because that’s a lot and a lot of a changing pace to have such an intensive of making and then have it all out in the world and be like, Oh, what do I do now? But do you have next steps or future goals in your practice? You know, not that they have to be right now. But
Yeah. I definitely want to do more exhibitions. I think I want to do bigger paintings maybe.
Just a little bit. Maybe? I don’t know, maybe not. I definitely have things that I need to work on, just in terms of actual painting and technique. And I just did a workshop with Sol, Solomon Kammer, which just reminded me how much like; I know that I can paint good, but there’s also because I’m self taught. I’m like, I cut a lot of corners. And I know that I could take time to like, learn things a little bit more and finesse things a little bit more. So at the moment, I’m really focusing on doing that.
Yeah, that sort of development.
Yeah. And then I feel like once I kind of down pack… down pack? that a little bit,
get that down pat, I think
Yeah. Then I think I know what I want to paint next, because I have some really big ideas, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to tackle them just yet.
Well, that’s a good position to be in.
Yeah, but I definitely am wanting to do some more exhibitions. I’ve got a group show at Floating Goose in May
on topic of menstruation.
I love that,
which is really cool, because I’ve been really getting into like learning about the womb and like, the body
all that interest in the body
Yeah, so I think that’s gonna be really nice.
How many people do know in that show? Roughly?
I’m actually not too sure.
Okay. Well, we will stay tuned.
Yeah, but it’s in May.
Yeah at Floating Goose.
And I think it will be really cool exhibition. And I’ve got some little projects for some bands for like album covers and stuff. But that’s just
oh I can definitely see your work on album covers, yeah.
Oh, and I’m also like, I’ve been making music.
Oh, what don’t you do!?
Yeah, in this last few months. I’ve just been really into music. And I’m thinking about how I can bring together my art, like my visual arts with my music practice. And I have some really cool ideas. I’m just like, stay tuned.
Yes. When you have the light bulb moment, you will know Yeah. Oh, that’s so good. Nice, and comforting to have the ideas and be like no I’ll get to that when I get to that, when I’m ready, when I’ve built those foundations more or
as much as you want to. And very cool to have Sol as a mentor.
Yeah, she’s amazing.
I know she’s also self-taught. So very, very cool. Yeah. And was that just one of the recent workshops that she did?
Yeah, that was was that last week? Yeah, it was last week.
honestly that recent
Yeah, it was really good. And intensive.
Hopefully she does some more of them, if they’re quite good.
Yeah, well I think she’s got one coming up in January and then two workshops in June and July.
Servicing the needs of the people!
Excellent. Thank you Sol! Wonderful. Well, I won’t hassle you to give me any more details about what you’re gonna do next because I feel like you’re still catching your breath from the year that was. But for people that want to follow along with what you’re doing where can they find you and keep in touch and up-to-date?
I’m so I’ve got Instagram.
Yeah and a website.
Oh, good on you.
Yeah. And people can sign up to my mailing list if they want to hear about what’s coming along.
Excellent. Well you’ve made it very easy. Wonderful. Thank you for your time and we’ll see what you do next.
Episode 35 / Ash Tower
Steph catches up with artist Ash Tower during the exhibition Studios 2022 at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE). They chat about ‘knowledge systems’ – from library shelves and scientific journals to the honor board at the RSL – which may sound like a dry subject, but looking at Ash’s work reveals a contagious reverence for the humanness that surrounds the growing and organising of knowledge. There’s also talk of architecture, gaming, Baz Luhrmann film trivia, and coffins.
- Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE)
- Postcards from the Bibliopolis, 2013
- Barr Smith Library, Adelaide
- Studies of Nature, 2017
- Nature (journal)
- RSL: The Returned and Services League of Australia is a support organisation for people who have served or are serving in the Australian Defence Force.
- The Burning of Vision, 2021
- Baroque architecture
- Via Purifico, 2021
- Romeo + Juliet (film), 1996, Baz Luhrmann
- Final Fantasy X (game), 2001, Squaresoft
- … underneath the grove of sycamore
that westward rooteth from the city’s side,
so early walking did I see your son.
(Romeo and Juliet 1.1.119-121)
- 14 Things You Didn’t Know About Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet [cosmo article]
- underneath the grove of sycamore, 2021, ink on paper. 760 x 560mm
- ACE Studio Program
- Studios 2022 exhibition at ACE
Photo: Thomas McCammon, courtesy ACE
Music: Slow Mango, courtesy ACE
Hello and welcome to the SALA podcast. My name is Steph and today I’m catching up with artist Ash Tower in the upstairs studios at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental, or ACE for short. I just want to acknowledge that we are on unceded Kaurna Land and pay my respects to the Kaurna People as the Traditional Owners of this land and these waters. Hi, Ash, thank you for making time to chat today.
Thanks for having me.
I’ve been reading like lots of bits of biography that are attached to various projects that you’ve done, and I have no shortage of questions. But I really wanted to start with something that sort of isn’t always captured in those official texts, which is: what actually drew you to art-making to begin with?
Yeah, it’s an interesting question, I actually can’t remember a time that I wasn’t going to become an artist, I think, or at least that I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time making things, I think there was always that inflection as you start to finish school, where you look towards maybe design or maybe architecture, or those kind of allied creative professions where you can maybe have a little bit more of a stable sort of professional life. And I sort of tried them out and work experience in bits and pieces, and I just didn’t like them. So I think it was it was sort of, well, I guess I’m off to arts.
I’m sure a lot of people can relate. And any particular medium to begin with, or just knew that you had that creative bent?
I think I drew the most as a kid. And in retrospect, I also did a lot of a lot of kind of sculptural stuff and making and crafting, but I never really understood those to be kind of an art practice until I got to art school and sort of, you know, thought about them as aligned with that kind of drawing that I did a lot.
Yeah, there’s a lot of that learning the validity of materials as you go “oh, okay, yeah, this is… I’m already doing it.” That’s so good. How -this is a tricky one, but I’m gonna throw it to you- How would you describe your current practice in layman’s terms?
Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I mean, I think it’s kind of hard to start with materials, because I’m generally pretty, I suppose promiscuous materially.
You said it, not me.
So it kind of starts with sculpture and installation. But I also I draw, and I paint and I make prints. I’m very non committal, I guess, I suppose to my material investment. But I think the one thing that has followed me throughout my practice, and I’ve come to phrase it in lots of different ways over the course of my life is I’m always interested in knowledge. And I’m interested in the way that knowledge is connected to culture and connected to what we know about the world. And while it’s kind of often relegated to, you know, knowledge and knowing and the act of learning is really relegated to like this kind of cold institutional place, I find that it’s actually a really rich story of human intent and human behavior. And I would say that the one thing that’s always that, you know, the common thread that runs through my practice is that it always comes from a place of research and enjoying research and enjoying learning either new ideas, or learning new techniques. And so I will often look to places like libraries and archives and museums, as these places that sort of make knowledge, not just store it, but are actually responsible for like sort of constructing it and giving it shape. But more recently, I’ve come to open up that understanding of knowledge to include lots of lesser institutional practices as well. So things like, you know, science fiction, or pseudoscience, even or, you know, spirituality, or all these different things are different ways of knowing about the world. And they tell us a lot about our humanity, I think in how we how we use them.
That’s so interesting to bridge from, yeah, the classic, yes, museums, libraries, and then go actually knowledge is in all of these places as well. That’s so cool. And so yeah, would you say that the medium often follows like, the idea comes first, or the line of inquiry comes first, and then the medium kind of makes sense afterwards and falls into place?
Yeah, absolutely the medium, I tend to usually employ media that have an established language or an established history with the ideas that I’m investigating. So if I’m looking, if I’m looking archaeologically, then I will often try and emulate the kinds of materials that I use that the artifact in the artifacts that I’m looking at. I focus a lot on you know, when I’m looking at libraries and museums, for example, I’m looking a lot at bookmaking and papermaking. And the way that word encounters page and you know those different things, and so the medium kind of always follows the idea. Yeah,
I’m just picturing all the clear books put back in the shelves. I do like that work. Can you quickly just explain that one for?
Oh, that’s an old one. Yeah, that was ‘Postcards from the Bibliopolis’, which was actually art schoolwork away back in I think maybe 2013. But it’s still a very fun one i That work was made in response to the Barr Smith Library, which is the library at the University of Adelaide. And I was often I was going through this library and sort of just wandering the shelves and thinking about the library as a sight, you know, frequently or as a piece of as a field. So often when we think about research, we think about, you know, back the, you know, back at the institution, which is home, and then outside, which is field. And so we do field work. But I was interested in this space of, you know, something within the institution, but actually considering it as as a kind of wild as a kind of untamed, or untamed or variable kind of ecosystem unto itself. And so when I was walking through the library, I sort of encountered these, like, handwritten notes that people would leave in the stacks and things like that. So the old system, I suppose, a system that’s a little bit archaic now as you would go into the library and search on one of the terminals that was in the computer that was in the library. And that would be, you know, like a little tray of scrap paper and a pencil that you would, you know, note what you needed, and then take it into the states to find and people would often leave those bits and pieces in there. And I became interested in those things as quite resounding like artifacts of intent in their own right. And they wouldn’t just be, you know, call signs for books, either there would be like shopping lists or letters or, and that would be on the letterheads of, you know, pharmacies, and you know, like lawyers and like, all these really rich bits of information to find in this vast network of information. And so I gradually started collecting them and noting where I found them, and then I would resin embed them into like a larger book sized block and working with the library, re embed those books, that resin books back into the library field. Yeah. That’s so cool. Yeah. And the library was really wonderful as well about, you know, giving them radiofrequency tags, so they worked like library books, and, you know, they kind of circled through the system as Not For Loan books, and you know, I got most of them back, and then some of them are still out there in the world.
That’s so cool. i Yes, I do get the impression that you’re very comfortable in a library setting, comes through loud and clear. I did have a question specifically pertaining to knowledge systems. But I think you have, yeah, already touched on this being a sort of, you know, you’ve got that interest in research and you how you are very much an academic, you’ve got your PhD, and you teach and lecture and all sorts of things. Do you have? I got that, right.
Yeah. So I think I got my PhD at the end of 2018, at the start of 2019. And somewhat related to the practice, it was on the relationship between arts and sciences, and how they, and how artists and scientists work together in the laboratory. And as much as that documents sort of looked in a very different direction, I think, from my practice, now, the one thing it did, or the one great gift it gave me was that it really unseated Western Imperial science as the predominant way of knowing about the world. Learning what I did over my PhD was really a process of learning the ways in which knowledge is constructed. And so some of those, like nascent or really latent ideas that were in my practice, prior to my PhD, you know, I was looking a lot at systems and the ways we organize knowledge, you know, the PhD sort of blew open the doors to that and made me realize that there isn’t only one way or one correct way of knowing about the world. And that, you know, really caused the crisis in my practice, almost of realizing this thing that I was like wedded to is like, actually not, not so monumental and monolithic as it as it makes itself out to be. Wow, that’s huge. Yeah, I think there are, sometimes I think PhDs, you know, contribute a lot to knowledge and a lot to the world. And other times, I think they just really serve to completely undermine the reality of the person that gets them. Mine was the second one.
But I think he do quite nicely make room for acknowledging -I don’t know what the right term is- but I’m referring to works that memorialized, like the scientific papers that were rejected -is that the right word?- and still acknowledging that they existed. And can you speak to that body of work?
Yeah, yeah. So that was a work called ‘Studies of nature’. I think that was maybe 2017. And I became really interested in I became interested, I was, you know, just entering academia just starting to put papers up and just starting to have them knocked back and becoming really interested in the ways that you know, all of this labor was poured into these, you know, really from the outside quite dry written documents, but once you become familiar with and they can actually be quite rich things. And so I took, you know, I did like a survey of three or four years of the Journal of nature, which is the kind of massive umbrella name for a group of scientific journals. And I looked at all the papers that have been retracted from the Journal of nature. So instead of the ones that would be rejected, which is probably in in the scope of 1000s, across papers that were published, and were then taken down, right, as a, and sometimes I think people attribute a retraction of the paper has been quite a sinister thing, like it’s been falsified, or there’s something fraudulent in it. But a lot of the times, it’s kind of a the honest mistake, or the fact that it hasn’t been able to be reproduced by the rest of the scientific community. But I became interested in these papers that sort of went up and came down as a kind of science fiction in their own way, like they still describe the world, not necessarily in a way that science lacks, but they are still artifacts of labor and love. And if anything, the fact that there are so many of them boils down to the scientific communities kind of great efforts to sort of keep a high standard of kind of scientific activity. But one of the things that happens when you retract a paper is that the publisher issues a statement as to why it’s been retracted. And sometimes those are quite salacious things. And other times, they’re quite earnest things of this, you know, this figure was accidentally or we accidentally use a version of this figure that had been color corrected, which is, you know, as much as that seems like a really insignificant thing, it does invalidate the paper in the in the eyes of the journal. And so I took the citations for all these papers and listed them on an on a board that you might see associated with, you know, sporting veterans or war heroes, or all those sorts of people and just as a way of memorializing them and giving them some sort of
they had a space to occupy I guess, after…
definitely Yeah, and I think that, you know, the scientific community, you know, it has a, it has a mandate to uphold those really high standards. But I think that the wonderful thing about art is that it has the free potential to acknowledge those things, even though they are sort of cast aside by the scientific community.
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s quite a strong work in you know, that the board is really commanding, you know, quite tall. And yeah, perfectly has that… is that gold lettering?
yeah yep, the whole ‘down to a tee’.
Yeah, I’ve become like I think one of the things that has started to emerge over the last few years is my like, absolute fascination with this kind of curious Australian RSL clubs that I mean, we’ll probably get to talking about architecture eventually because that’s where it will make discussion seem to end up but the ways in which you know, Australia is just I spent a lot of time in RSL clubs as a kid growing up in original Western Australia. And I was always so fascinated by you know, like the kind of unadorned cinderblock, RSL Club with these beautiful elaborate crafted on a boards and sort of on a rolls that sort of hung in the space. And I was so interested in the the absolute kind of jarring contrast of those visual languages,
it can be quite stark.
I think the culmination of my career will truly be making an exhibition for an RSL club.
you heard it here first folks.
I will take you up on asking you about architecture. I think we all knew it was gonna go there. You also teach architecture, but it comes through on your work heaps. Imagine you’re just super passionate about it. Is that fair to say?
It’s a really funny story. I think the teaching led to it finding its way in my practice.
Oh, not the other way around!
Yeah. So when I started my PhD, I took on a little bit of work, just tutoring at the university. And they didn’t need art theory tutors, they actually needed architectural history tutors. And you know, the story of architecture runs quite parallel to the history of art. So with a bit of extra studying that great to take it on. And I’ve been teaching or tutoring rather architecture for about six years now. And I think it’s just, it’s a really convenient or a really useful parallel language to art history. They often follow quite similar movements in quite similar themes. But the nature of architecture as being somewhat utilitarian, but also maybe sometimes a little bit more survivable than art in the kind of historical record. Makes it a really useful kind of parallel current to draw from. And so yeah, it’s a I often describe architecture within my practice as a kind of vehicle for meaning. And what I mean by that is that it’s just a good way of giving form to a certain set of ideas that run underneath the practice of Western art. picture. And so yeah, the more I sort of, you know, taught this and learned more about it and studied up on it, I started to realize how much potential it had in a creative practice.
So cool. I just assumed it would have been the other way around. There you go. And then I think we see, drawing on some more recent work that you’ve done. I know I’ve cast back to some older stuff. But you had a show recently at Flooding Goose called ‘The Burning of Vision’, which I think it’s fair to say, brings some of that architectural language, although also tabletop gaming. Do you want to talk about that show a little bit?
Yeah. So I think this is maybe one of the reasons I think I sort of partition my practice into projects is because it may be enables me to stretch out a little bit further than I otherwise would than if I had one kind of clarified statement for all of my work. The Burning of Vision was a really fun, really frightening, really interesting show, that consisted of a lot of cardboard sculpture. And it was it was deliberately riffing on baroque architecture, particularly, or specifically, which is, you know, the sort of the architecture or technique that arises from the Catholics in, you know, Italy in the, for the purposes of a Counter Reformation, to contest this schism that happens in the church, at that particular period in history. And so it’s pure theatrics, it’s all about bums on seats, it is creating a celestial grand spectacle that is so revelatory to people who see it that they can’t help but believe that the Catholic way of knowing about the world is the only way of knowing about the world. And so while it is the utricle, it’s also extremely persuasive. But it’s also extremely high art, you know, and it appeals to the, the metaphysical, the celestial like all these issues of beyond the world beyond life, these massive ideas. And I sort of became interested in what might happen if it were crammed into this sort of crude visual language of tabletop gaming and terrain building. And I think like, most people, my age with my upbringing, sort of went through a lack of bit of a tabletop gaming phase, where you would build terrain and model foam and cardboard and you know, flock with little
exactly, yeah. And I was sort of interested in how this like really kind of high art architectural language could be rendered in these really crude materials. And so it came from a lot of there were a lot of ideas that the show picked up on the way but that was the original premise of it. And so yeah, the exhibition culminated in quite a large cardboard installation of all of these different I call them tombstones, I think, because they have an obvious relationship to tombstones being this kind of large, flat faced thing was sort of pointed top, but also because I was interested in the role of, they sort of seemed to want text on them, like they, because they, they were these, you know, Tombstone things that were expanded to the scale of honor boards. And so they seem to want this text on them. But also, they’re connected back to this kind of Italian Roman tradition of writing on tablets. And that’s not that’s like a quite a storied thing in western archaeology. And so the resulting work was really supposed to feel quite overwhelming in the way that a Baroque cathedral might but also quite flimsy in the way that a teenager’s tabletop gaming efforts had resulted in.
What a great two things to try and marry.
While we’re picking apart works that have caught my eye, I really have to ask about the work is it ‘Via Purifico’?
Terrific. Fantastic. I have to ask what does Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet have to do with Squaresoft’s 2001 video game, Final Fantasy?
In short, nothing.
But I think that that was the purpose of the marriage. Yeah. Not unlike the sort of quite jarring influences that were behind the burning of vision. I was interested in. Well, first of all, I just have a deep and abiding love for that film. The ’96 Romeo and Juliet
Who doesn’t; [it’s] pretty iconic
with Claire Danes and Leo DiCaprio. And originally, the show was just going to be about that film.
In particular, it was going to be about the set of that film that has a particular story behind it. So there’s a scene in the film that set on this kind of miami beach style scene. And there’s like a ruined stage set called the Sycamore Grove Theatre, which is a reference to the original Shakespearean text and the character of Mercutio’s death scene plays out on that stage is and it’s Luhrmann making a filmic reference to the original theatrical play of Romeo and Juliet. But an interesting piece of trivia about the movie is that, you know, after they’d recorded Mercutio’s death scene, you know where he dies, and then curses, you know, ‘a plague on both your houses’, and then a storm rolls in in the film and destroys the beach and everyone runs away. The filming location in Mexico City was actually hit by a typhoon after they filmed, and destroyed that set.
And so there was a kind of curious art-meets-life thing that happened where that storm sort of punches through the different fictive layers of the film. And so the whole show began with the drawing that’s in that show, which is ‘underneath the grove of sycamore’, which is an attempt to forensically reconstruct the stage set, given that there are no drawings available. And so I sort of had to work with a few surviving, like the scenes in the film, and then a few surviving bits of Super Eight footage from the production material to reconstruct this thing in a drawn architectural diagrammatic form. And from there, I sort of was thinking a lot about ruins and a lot about the ways that ruins have been used in the history of Western architecture. And, you know, particularly in something like the neoclassical tradition, ruins are always a call back to a previous time, ruins are used architecturally to evoke a lost golden age or some kind of great knowledge that has been… that has been lost or subsumed by, you know, the ebb and flow of time. And that drew me to another formative influence, I guess, in my childhood, which was this video game called Final Fantasy, which I think not many people know about. It’s a category of games called Japanese role playing games, which is, you know, just a particular style of video game that comes out of Japan. And it was translated to the West in 2001. And it follows a kind of a similar kind of Hero’s Journey arc that Romeo and Juliet does. There’s a you know, a lead romance as well. But it also takes place in a world that seems to be cyclicly destroyed every 10 years. And so everyone lives in the ruins of a precursor civilization. And so I sort of became interested in the way that the ruin connects the two texts. But also, there’s a particular… there’s a pivotal scene that plays out in the video game, not unlike the one that occurs in Romeo and Juliet, where the two characters stare out over a sunken arch that’s slightly off shore. And it looks quite similar to the arch or to the sunken theater in Romeo and Juliet. And so that quite flimsy connection became the basis for the entire show, which is essentially imagining a kind of speculative world in which these two fictional works actually take place in the same universe.
Wow, that’s so cool.
The more and more I sort of make, the more I realized that I, I really enjoy placing a lot of weight on this quite flimsy connection.
And then the work of the practice is to try and expand them out into a kind of rich logic of their own.
Yeah, well, I suppose once you start looking, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m finding more ways I can connect this’.
Yeah, absolutely. And so yeah, and so the work was almost about trying to build an evidence base for this insane theory. And I was also thinking a lot about how that fits into these previous, you know, themes of knowledge systems and things.
Yeah, it does tie back.
Yeah, it presents a it presents a logic of its own, it presents a world of its own. And I think that’s what is draws me to this this kind of speculative angle, which has been emerging recently. Just because they you know, just because it’s speculative. It’s still presents a logic about the world, which is not too dissimilar from the way that we report the world through science or through fiction.
Now, coming to more of the present; I think we’ve been quite chronological. One of your most recent things that you’ve been doing is you’ve had studio space at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental for is it most of 2022? Tell us how that’s been.
It’s been great. I haven’t had designated studio space since I left art school, been really wonderful to get back and sort of claim a space for making again, because, you know, everything has just occurred on the kitchen table and you know, in just absolutely kind of frantic mess of life. And it’s really nice to have a designated space and really, also important to have time to think about my work in larger timescales as well. Like there’s a there’s a designated place for the practice and it doesn’t have to work with the cycles of home and the cycles of funding and the cycles of semesters and all those sorts of things. So it’s been a really significant opportunity as well to work with Megan Robson, who’s the curator at the MCA, but who has been working with ACE this year to sort of mentor myself and the other studio artists towards this kind of studios 2022 exhibition, which I suppose is the culmination of everyone’s work this year and the things we’ve been working towards.
And how many of you were there in the studios this year?
There are five of us. So aside from me, there is also Chelsea Farquhar, Dani Reynolds, Shaye Dương and Cecilia Tizard. And it’s been really wonderful to get to know them as well and bounce ideas back and forth. I think we’re all really fast friends now, which is just an awesome thing to have coming from a home studio and where you just work silently into the night. It can get a lot sometimes.
Oh, cool. And so yes, Studios 2022 is the show that has culminated, so everyone’s got work represented in there. Is that all recent, like work that has been built over this last 12 months?
Yeah. So fortunately, ACE was in a position to be able to commission new work for the show that’s downstairs this time. So the th offerings that are in the studio show are all new work that have all been made this year in response to the different investigations that people have been undertaking. That’s great.
And while we’re talking about it, what are the dates for the exhibition?
It runs from the 12th of November to the 17th of December, in 2022 yes. Shout out to those of you listening from 2023. We made we made it everybody.
this is a ruin of the year before. Excellent. And can you talk about the work that you’ve got in the show?
Yeah. So the work that is in the show downstairs is kind of the first iteration of an idea that sort of came to me when I was drawing, spending a lot of time drawing the theater and the last work in the last body of work. I’ve been really interested in a long time companion, I think in my academic life has been the history of technology and looking at the way that technology tells us a lot about the cultures and histories from which it arises. And I’m not just talking about technology in terms of iPhones and things, but technology in terms of you know, stone tools like shipping, like you know, all those kinds of expanded built things that enable us to sort of control our environment and work in the world. And I’ve got a long standing interest in archaeology as well. But I was thinking a lot about specifically the materials of lead and glass and how they have a really long archaeological legacy, like they exist quite far back in the historical record, but also the extremely relevant materials today for a number of things. And one of the things that was kind of emerging, maybe this was just because of the stuff that I was watching when I was making it watching listening to when I was making the previous exhibition, it was it was a lot about nuclear technology and nuclear weapons. And, you know, following this kind of premise of how do I draw, how do I use my practice to draw together these two kind of quite distinct aspects of history and culture, I decided to sort of look at the materials of lead and glass and use them as a way of connecting our contemporary understanding of nuclear technology. And what that tells us about modern history and modern life, with the archaeological uses of lead and glass and how that tells us about historical cultures and times. And so one of the historical uses of lead has been as a writing implement, you know, it’s quite a soft, supple metal that supports the written language quite well. But it’s also been used historically to line coffins. And the reason being is because it’s so soft and supple, it enables it to create a seal, essentially, sort of preserving the remains of people who are interred inside it. It’s a historical tradition. It goes back actually, I don’t even know how far it goes back. But it lives on today in the way that actually the British royal family is still buried in leadline. coffins. So if you look at the footage of Diana’s funeral, for example, you’d say 10 pallbearers straining under the weight of what’s actually a quarter time coffin. But the the other use for leadline coffins is in nuclear accidents. Because the Yeah, because the victims of nuclear accidents, their bodies are still radioactive. And so by burying them in leadline coffins you’re essentially containing that radiation.
This is such dark information.
And I think that’s been a real challenge of this work is to look at it from you know, the, the inevitability of looking at it from a purely historical perspective, because that’s where I depart from but then it draws on you know, it touches life so much that that actually becomes quite sinister. And I think a bit of that shines through in the in the artifacts downstairs there hopefully it’s not too overwhelming
Amazing. I definitely have to go back and sit with that work again. Oh my goodness.
But if my work becomes too overwhelming just look over at Chelsea’s acrobats and it’ll all be okay.
There’s a nice balance in that space for sure.
Amazing. And where can people follow along with your next projects and what you’re up to?
Oh, well, I’m on Instagram, you can follow me at @Ash.Tower. And that’s where people can stay in touch with all this sort of zany things I’m getting up to and it’s also got links to everything else that I do.
Excellent. Well, thank you. Thanks for letting us pick your brain. And yeah, we’ll see what you do next.
Episode 34 / Ruby Allegra
Steph catches up with Ruby Allegra ahead of their solo exhibition ‘From My Room’ at Newmarch Gallery. Fittingly, their chat takes place in Ruby’s room, where they discuss the concept of the bed as a workspace, (a key theme of the exhibition), accessibility in the arts, and a love of Matisse. See also: blanket forts, and what spoons have to do with artmaking.
- @RvbyTheArtist on Instagram
- ‘From My Room’ by Ruby Allegra at Newmarch Gallery
- @NewmarchGallery on Instagram
- From My Room Opening Night, Friday 4 November, RSVP for physical attendance or keep an eye out for online attendance option. [Eventbrite link]
- What is Spoon Theory? – Happiful article
- Post Office Projects Gallery & Studios [website][Instagram]
- ‘Only use your bed for sex and sleep’ [Guardian article]
- ‘White cube gallery’ [Wikipedia]
- ‘Visibility’ at Wyndham Art Gallery [Exhibition Catalogue]
- POC: abbreviation for ‘person/s of colour’
- Ruby Allegra, Disabled Nudes
- ‘The Blue Nudes’ by Matisse [Wikipedia]
- Frida Kahlo [Wikipedia]
- Photo of Matisse in bed
Music: Siddharta Corsus – Star of David via FreeMusicArchive.org
[gentle upbeat music]
Hello and welcome to the SALA podcast. My name is Steph and today I’m delighted to be interviewing Ruby Allegra ahead of their upcoming solo exhibition ‘From My Room‘ at Newmarch Gallery. It’s super relevant that we are catching up in Ruby’s home, in their room, quite contextually on-point there. But before we go ahead, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that we are on the traditional lands and waters of the Kaurna People and pay respects to elders past, present and emerging. Ruby, thank you so much for finding time to chat in the lead up to your exhibition.
Thanks for having me. And welcome to my messy chaotic room.
It’s good, it looks inspired. And yeah, definitely things happening, which we’re what like, a bit under a month out at the time of recording?
Yeah – my mum texted me exactly like, on the day of a month out of my show being like “a month!” and I was like ‘thanks Mum’. Love you, mum.
I love it. Well, before we get stuck into this interview, I just wanted to ask about how you define your practice. So do you think of your art making as separate from your other pursuits, like tattooing, zine-making, makeup artistry? Or do they feel interconnected and do you sort of consider them as one thing?
I feel like it, they all kind of connect together to form my practice, or like, the medium that I’m using, I guess kind of depends on the work that I’m wanting to make and like, what the message is, or, you know, what I’m wanting someone to feel from receiving that work. And so that’s kind of what informs where I choose to go in terms of direction of like, what medium I’m gonna use for it. So I think, yeah, having all of those different elements, I definitely think it’s probably very closely linked with like, my ADHD as well, and autism in terms of getting hyperfixated on specific hobbies or skills or things and having a having a hyperfixation, really intensely, and being like, Oh, I’ve just discovered this new skill or this new medium. And it’s really cool to use. And I’m going to really over hyperfocus on that for a very long time. And I’m just kind of accumulating different skills and formats of knowledge and communication. And I think that kind of sums me up as a person as well, because I don’t really sit with any binary or box of
That’s a nice parallel.
Yeah, I mean, in all sort of areas of my work. I don’t really like the idea of just sticking to one thing, and I guess, like putting all my eggs in one basket,
or being defined by one medium.
Yeah, yeah, I think it I think there’s too many rules that we’re taught growing up about art and what it should be and what it shouldn’t be, and who should be allowed to do it and access it.
And how to do it, yeah
and I think that that’s… umm… I don’t agree with that.
Yeah – we could drop a bleep in there. [both laugh] Oh dear, Yeah no, I totally get where you’re coming from. Well, I guess following on from that, did you always know you’re gonna be creative?
Definitely. I was actually, um, the other day I was looking, my mom found a box of all my old artwork from when I was little,
oh, gosh, that can be an experience.
Oh it was pretty funny. Like looking through some of the stuff that I was doing. And I was like, I haven’t changed at all. I haven’t changed at all in terms of style, or,
-I love it-
you know, colour or whatever.
Was the pink and red thing back then?
pink and red. Absolutely everything pink. Absolutely. For my whole life. My first wheelchair was pink, like hot pink.
But and rainbows and like butterflies and flowers. And I think I’m like, as an adult, I’m kind of like revisiting my childhood.
Yeah, and those motifs.
Yeah. I mean, like, particularly as like disabled artist like growing up. And my childhood was not. I had to grow up in a very different manner to everyone else my age and so there wasn’t a huge amount of time for being a kid, it was just like very informed by medical trauma and being surrounded by adults at all times, and social isolation and all of that kind of stuff. So even though I was a kid with a really vivid imagination, and like, love for colour, and all of these different things, I didn’t always have access to that either socially, or because I, you know, was dealing with being a disabled child in a non-accessible world. And so like, as an adult, now, it’s kind of been fun, being able to revisit some of the things that I loved as a child and allow myself to, like, revisit my love for them. And just be like, Yeah, I don’t, I don’t give a shit. Like if, you know, if I want to make art that’s just like, covered in rainbows and flowers and pink and, you know, revisiting things that might seem childish, or whatever.
It’s underpinned by something actually, quite meaningful
Yeah but yeah, but I can remember drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I mean, like, as a little child, I’ve had, you know, physical therapy pretty much for my whole life, which I’m very lucky to have, you know, accessed. But, you know, a lot of that therapy was quite painful. And drawing and art was what I would do, you know, during some of those times to manage that pain, and to pass the time, like, even just at appointments, lots of waiting around, and lots of like, sitting around with a bunch of adults kind of having adult conversations about me and about my body and all of this kind of stuff. So, yeah, art was definitely a good escape from that.
So it’s always been there. Yeah. And how would you describe your art to someone you just met? A tricky one.
It is a tricky one. Because I think it would also depend on the person that I’m meeting,
and how much time do you have?
Yeah, exactly. But also, like, you know, who is that person? Is that person a child?
You know, am I am I explaining my show to a child?
Oh, my God, how would you describe it to your younger self?
Oh that’s such a cool question. Well, I really wanted to honour on my younger self in this show. Like, I think that’s a huge part of it. And I didn’t know, when I was trying to make decisions about creative decision-making through the process of building the works. I was just thinking about, like, what would six-year-old me love? What would six-year-old me get really excited about, and allowing those decisions to kind of be informed by that. So if I was talking to young me about this show, I would probably say it would be a sparkly pink, Rainbow world that talks a lot about both how wonderful and joyful it is to exist in my body, but also how tricky and painful it can be as well, in the world that we live in. Yeah, I think…
That’s gentle enough for a child to hear
honestly, but like still, with. Yeah, lots of fun, and things that you can touch and feel and interact with code.
So there’s another rule broken there, you can touch some of the artwork. I love that.
yeah, there’s a lot of different sort of interactive elements of the show, which will be fun.
Yeah. And what -I mean we’ve dived right into the show itself-
How many different like mediums I have you got in the show, like it sounds like there’s at least there’s 3d stuff, 2d stuff…
Yeah. So that there’s quite a few I guess I’ve got furniture pieces that I’m painting and that will include a bed because I guess the concept of the show, The show is ‘From My Room’, so it’s kind of set up like a bedroom
Oh that’s so cool!
and so you’re coming into my room and my world and my space. And yeah, so there’ll be some furniture pieces. There’s digital works which will be printed. There will be painting works – oil, acrylic; there’s lino-print, clay work,
embroidery, crochet and like other textiles.
There’s a lot. When I… there’s a lot of different… zines,
You know, like lots of different… I wanted it to be reflective of like how I work naturally as a artist. And I think, and I guess it goes back into your question earlier, like, I have a lot of different methods of making work because I really need to be prepared and on any given day for what my body is going to be capable of doing. And so, you know, like, if I wake up, and I’m in huge amounts of pain and I can’t leave my bed, what can I do so that I can keep making art. Because that’s what that’s how my brain finds joy and peace is through making work. So what can I do when I’m having a really big flare with my chronic pain or whatever. And so that might be, you know, drawing on my iPad in bed, which I have been doing lots of. It might be crocheting in bed while I’m watching TV, but then, you know, when I have energy and spoons -I’ll explain Spoon Theory in a little bit, so I’ll like jump to that in a bit- But when I have energy, and I can make it into you know, the studio, what sort of things can I do there, I can work on my clay, I can do painting, I can do linoprint. And so it honestly, like the fact that there are so many different mediums, I think is more an access component for me than anything else. And and I think, yeah, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to have access to a studio space for the last coming up to two years now down at Post Office Projects Gallery and Studios in Port Adelaide. And so I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to spread out my practice a little bit more and start to experiment with creating some bigger works. Because up until that point, a lot of my work I was creating in my bed or at my kitchen table, or you know, wherever I can fit
There’s so many people nodding their heads right now haha.
Yeah. And then like getting so overwhelmed, because there’s no room to sit and eat dinner. As we are currently speaking, we’re sitting on one half of my double bed and the other half is entirely covered in materials for making work. I’ve got yarn for crochet, and my blanket in progress. I’ve got my invitations printed. Yeah, you can have a sneak peek if you want. Yeah, you can have a look at it. Yep.
Yeah, I love it.
Um, yeah, so. But I think that’s the like, that’s comes back to the theme. And like the title of the show, ‘From My Room’, which is really about, you know, this idea that for a lot of disabled people in general, not just artists, but any disabled person, particularly multiply marginalized disabled people, a lot of the time, our beds and our rest spaces are also our workspaces. They’re also our community-building spaces, our protest spaces. And that’s not always out of choice. Quite often, that’s a factor of, you know, an inaccessible and ableist environment outside in the world. And so we retreated into these spaces to, to access what we’re not able to physically. And so that’s where, you know, social media and online connection come in. And yeah, so it’s essentially it’s really, it’s really about how that concept of what it means to like, be able to show up or to build community, what does that look like, you know, if you can’t do that, physically, you can’t show up physically, because of the structure of our society.
And it is quite a concept if you aren’t someone who’s in that position, and your room just has one purpose
You know, that’s a lot to wrap your head around.
Having so many modes within a single space.
Yeah. Well, I mean, like, people talk a lot about keeping your rest space and your workspace separate, and, you know, only using your rest space for sleeping and sex and, you know, whatever,
you know, and then doing other, you know, work elsewhere. Disabled people don’t have that option. And, you know, I’m also a privileged disabled person because I’m, you know, white, I have access to community support and family support networks. And I have a house, space that I can live in, I have a bedroom, I have a bed, you know, so it encourages you to think more about people who don’t have access to safe or stable housing and all of that kind of stuff. But yeah, I think I went on a huge tangent.
I love it.
[brief upbeat musical interlude]
And actually, we should go back and revisit Spoon Theory. Not that it is your job to explain it. But just for anyone who doesn’t quite grasp what that is, we’re not talking about literal spoons.
No, no spoon theory is a concept created by a chronically ill disabled person. And it is, I guess, a method of terminology and language use, which is designed by and for predominantly disabled chronically ill sick people. And spoons are a concept that kind of explains…
Is it kind of like a unit of capacity?
Yeah, basically! So like, the basic idea is that if you are not a disabled person, if you’re not chronically ill, you’re healthy, you’re neurotypical; the idea is that you each day, you wake up kind of with, I guess, an unlimited supply of energy to do whatever you want to do during the day. To do, you know, basic tasks around the house, whether that’s like having a shower, or eating breakfast or whatever
and you wouldn’t even think about it,
Exactly. It’s just an unlimited sort of supply of energy. And sure, there are different things that might make that fluctuate. But it’s very different to where spoon theory comes in, which is the idea that, particularly for disabled people, chronically ill, sick, neurodivergent people, we often don’t wake up with an unlimited supply of energy. So it’s kind of; spoons are used as a, I guess, a measurement of like energy usage through a day. And so it’s this idea that you might wake up with only a finite amount of energy or a finite amount of spoons in your day. And each day, you have to use those spoons to do all the tasks that you want to do in that day, but you’ve only got a certain amount of spoons, so you need to be very careful about rationing how you use those spoons, or those little chunks of energy to do the things that you want to do.
It’s almost like a currency isn’t it, you’ve got to decide where you spend them.
It is! It absolutely is a currency. And, you know, different tasks might require a different amount of spoons. So you know, you might wake up and you’ve got like, 10 spoons – I’m using numerical values just to explain it. Like I don’t wake up and I’m like, [sarcastically] ‘I’ve got seven and a half spoons today’
[laughter] ‘my spoon-dar’
Yeah, exactly. But like, as a way of explaining the currency it is a really good analogy. And I’ve actually got a piece specifically about spoons as currency.
Oh I love that.
I like going spoon shopping, grocery shopping. Yeah. And so this idea that, you know, if I wake up, and I have 10 spoons in a day, and I want to have a shower, and that takes 5 spoons; I want to eat lunch, and that takes another 5 spoons; already, we’re at 10 spoons, but I might also want to do something else, like I don’t know, see a friend or whatever, that might take another 5 spoons. So I’m either going to have to sacrifice doing one of those things on that list, or I’m going to push myself to do all of them, and I will potentially have a lot less spoons the next day, or it will send me into a flare up or I’ll be you know, where I’ll be in lots of pain, you know, and heavily fatigued. And that’s where fatigue and you know, being tired after a long day are two very different things.
So, you know, I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to fatigue and burnout and a lot of that kind of stuff. It’s like that, but like a lot more intense and it informs every area of your life. You know, I have to think very, very carefully about how I plan my days, so that I can do the things that I need to do but also things that I would like to do without sacrificing my physical and mental wellbeing in the process. It’s not an easy thing to learn.
No, it sounds like you almost have to plan, not just what you’re doing, but plan the energy use, days in ahead.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Often I will write a list before I go to bed of things that I have to do or things that I want to do the next day and I will then review that list the next morning when I wake up and I can feel how my body’s feeling. And often I’ll have to cross lots of things off that list when I review it and realize, like, oh, I actually don’t have the spoons or capacity to do any of these tasks today, and I can only afford to get out of bed and brush my teeth, something, you know,
which makes the fact that you’re about to have your first solo show even more amazing!
Yeah, I mean, it’s been very difficult. And certainly, the pandemic has not helped. I actually had COVID, three or four weeks ago, and that really hit me hard. I’m thankful that I have managed to avoid getting it until this moment, but it really knocked me around. And I have gotten sick a couple of times after that. So it’s yeah, the kind of like managing the spoons over the last sort of year or so has been not an easy thing. But it’s kind of, I guess, having this show sort of, you know, I guess, in the back of my mind, you know, as something to look forward to has definitely been a motivating factor. And, like, knowing exactly when it is; I’ve got this date, this deadline to work towards. And I’m just like, it’s just something I’m so excited about, you know, preparing that. A lot of the work that I’ve made for this show I’ve been making, in my bed, from my room, you know, I’ve got pieces that I made while while I was in bed with COVID, not being able to breathe,
but you could make art Yeah,
I could make art but that was mostly because if I didn’t, you know, because my brain was feeling active and needing to be stimulated. And that’s a big part of like, my autism, as well is needing that, like stimulation and making art is sometimes the only way that I feel like I can manage that energy. And so, yeah, when I had COVID, when I wasn’t sleeping I couldn’t really even, like sit up enough in my bed to look at my TV or, you know, so drawing was something that I could kind of focus on while I was lying down.
That makes all the different mediums makes so much more sense.
And I can’t wait to see them all in the [space]. And actually speaking of the space, you said you’ve gone and seen the space itself. Is this the first time that you’ve worked with the sort of classic white cube kind of gallery?
Yeah, I would say so. I I’ve had work in other shows before like in group shows, I was in a group show called ‘Visibility‘ curated by some wonderful people Pauline Vetuna and Hannah Morphy-Walsh. And that was all disabled and trans or disabled POC artists. And that was presented at Wyndham Art Gallery in Victoria. And that, I guess, was also sort of working with the gallery space, but because that was an interstate show, I didn’t have anything to do with the actual installation process.
So yeah, this is my first solo show. And I’m my first time kind of working in a like a gallery space.
And it sounds like you are enjoying that level of control.
You know, when you say like, ‘I’m setting up like a room’, it’s like YES!
Yes, I’m so excited. The thing I loved about when I sort of went to see the space was being able to chat to Ed who works there, about you know, the different ways that the space can be used and sort of adapted to fit your needs in terms of like, moveable walls and stuff. I kind of went in, like guns blazing and I was like, ‘Okay, so can we paint the walls pink? Can this be rainbow? Can we have this and this…’
Look. if you don’t ask…
Exactly. If you don’t ask, you’re not gonna know. And you know, he was like, oh, you know there’s there’s stickers on the windows with the artist’s name and like little bit information about the shore and I was like, ‘Can it be a different colour?’ and he was like ‘Let’s ask!’ and so it’s been really cool being able to have the vision that’s in my head because I have a very visual like,
oh so you can see it
brain and imagination. Yeah, very, very visual in terms of my thought process is I can really strongly visualize how I want it to, to be and to have the space that I can use in whichever way I want for this whole month is really cool
It’s a lot of power, isn’t it?
It is, it is a lot of power. And I don’t take that lightly at all, you know, because I’ve been given the amazing privilege of having this gallery space and this exhibition. And I don’t take that lightly at all, because it is such a difficult space to, to be working as a disabled trans artist in a very mainstream art sort of scene. And representation and even just depictions of disability and mobility aids in art is almost nothing. But also like I have this platform, and community is very important to me. So, you know, there are other people who don’t have access to platforms, who should have access to them. And so, you know, if I’ve been given this opportunity, I’m absolutely going to take it and use it to the best of my ability to uplift community and build community where I can. And that’s a huge part of my sort of value system in planning all of my works is, you know, there’s lots of, I guess, some political, well not political.. political and…
social I guess
social conversations, and
they’re sort of imbued into the work then I guess aren’t they
Yeah, and I, you know, I even had a chat to one of the staff members at the Prospect Library, which is joined on to the gallery, about working with them to set up a display of books specifically curated for the show.
So that I can, you know, say, Okay, well, you’ve, you’ve received my artwork, you can process that however. I’ve given you a starting point of one perspective of being a disabled trans person in this world. And this is where you can go from here; these are the people that you should be reading and watching and supporting. These are the people I’ve learned from. These are the people that you know, should be getting platforms as well, who have platforms, some of them,
that’s a great bit of co-programming. You know, here’s the continuation.
Exactly. Because like, often, you know, people’s response to coming up against something that they’re not really familiar with, or, you know, don’t really understand too much about is: ‘well, okay, what can I do? How can I be a better ally?’ and that can sometimes get a little bit grating on multiply marginalized people who are just working hard to survive this kind of bullshit transphobic, racist, ableist world.
And so, if I can take some of that labour and, and sort of just like, condense it down into like, a reading list? Yeah, at least or something that people can be like, Well, no, I’m, I don’t know if I’ll be an ally. And it’s like, okay, well, we’ve done the work for you. Yeah, here’s a literal reading list. I am going to have a reading list at my exhibition. I’m not even exaggerating. Here’s a reading list, take it and go. Go and support these artists. Read this writing, read this work, consume all of this knowledge, that I don’t own, that has been given to me by other people. And, you know, you add to it as you go, but it’s like one kind of like, it’s a big, just kind of goes in so many directions.
Like a library of things
Yeah, exactly. a library of things. I think it’s really cool that we can tie it in with that.
Yeah. And nice to have that supporting the show. And because I think that’s one of those things is that yes, there’s a lot of really fun aesthetics, and like you said, borrowing from that childhood kind of feeling. But also it is underpinned by this great interconnectedness, this community; there’s a lot going on. So to have that evident and tied back…
And um, did you there’s gonna be a catalog as well?
Yeah, there will be currently designing a catalog for actually yeah, I’m just starting. I’m kind of thinking about having pages kind of go in a rainbow order. So having like a set up like a rainbow. But yeah, there’ll be a catalog with some pictures of some of the works, and I’ve got a couple of I’m amazing disabled writers that I’m going to be commissioning to write some words for the catalog.
And, yeah, we’ll hopefully have like the reading list in in there as well.
well that’ll be a great resource
And QR codes and things like that. Because a big part of my practice is accessibility as an art form. And as just a way of thinking from the beginning. So yeah, fantastic catalog is coming along.
[brief upbeat musical interlude]
And on that note of accessibility, I noticed that you’ve got a lot of considerations noted in the Eventbrite listing for the exhibition from, you know, the exhibition will be viewable online throughout the month, which is fantastic. And a suite of physical, communication, and sensory things listed. Yeah, there’s a lot there.
Yeah, there is. As there should be. I think a big part of my practice is, considering access methods, and accessibility of art and art work, from the beginning stages of any work that I create, or any kind of planning process is thinking about: who’s going to be wanting to access this work? And how can I facilitate that? And I guess that’s where my university education comes in, because I studied speech pathology, and so I have a pretty good understanding of things like communication access, and all of that kind of stuff. And then obviously, my own, you know, physical access needs and sensory access needs. But I think it’s really important that art is made with accessibility at the forefront of thinking because, I mean, if anyone has, you know, the privilege of aging, regardless of whether or not they are currently disabled, they will become disabled. And the fact that you know, like, ableism kind of intwines into every kind of facet of, of human existence. And it goes hand-in-hand with so many other structures, which uphold things like white supremacy, and transphobia, and fat phobia, and queer phobia and all of that. And I yeah, I strongly believe in not viewing accessibility as something that is an add-on. I think it’s something that is considered an afterthought -if it’s considered at all. And often within art spaces. It’s not. It’s not. And, you know, that might make some people uncomfortable, but it’s a fact. That’s a fact is the arts, for a very long time, art spaces have been notoriously not accessible physically, financially, socially, class-wise, you know. And I think that it’s something that everyone should be able to access, and make, and own, and do, and engage with. Whether that’s being able to afford to collect art, or being able to afford to make art and not have to spend all of your money and resources -as a poor artist- on things like bringing your own access to spaces or things like that. And so when I’m considering things like accessibility, it’s not just about, you know, if I can get in the room, even though that’s one consideration. If I can get in a room. Most people with mobility needs can also get into the room because I have quite a large and heavy powered wheelchair. But that’s not the only thing that determines what access is or should look like. And it’s not to say that things should or can be universally accessible because that’s not possible.
No, it’s not.
because what works for one disabled person might be completely inaccessible to another disabled person. But it’s something that needs to be considered. And the only reason that things to do with accessibility are so costly or supposedly so hard to find and do is because people don’t think about them, they don’t use them. And so those resources aren’t becoming mainstream and therefore affordable. And people leave it ’til the last minute. So I think there’s something,
There’s something up there. Yeah.
Yeah. And it’s, it’s, I really think it’s, it’s time; it’s past time. It’s absolutely past time, that exhibitions, and art spaces, and artwork, and anything to do with creative arts, whether that’s visual arts, or performing arts, or, you know, whatever. It is way past time that those spaces and institutions be allowed to remain completely inaccessible, and exclusive of disabled and deaf and chronically ill people. Particularly those who are also people of colour, First Nations, trans, etc. And so a big part of what I wanted to provide with this show is yes, it’s going to be pretty and cute and joyful and happy. But it’s also going to -hopefully- encourage some people in the industry to question their methods and make some changes to their practice and the way that they engage with disabled artists; the way that gallery spaces work to incorporate accessibility in shows, whether that’s with things like Auslan-interpreted writing, or braille, or audio description, or image descriptions. You know, there are so many different things that can be done. You know, like, if I, one disabled person, am doing these things; institutions, galleries, organizations that have access to much more funding than I do, absolutely can do these things.
So, yeah, um, and that goes for accessing the artworks too, which is why I’ll be incorporating tactile artworks that people can touch, sensory artworks, I’ll be building a giant blanket fort
that people can go inside that’s going to be accessible. I have a friend who will be doing some Auslan descriptions of works, because Auslan, of course, is a separate language to English. And I’ll have, you know, image descriptions and audio descriptions. And yes, it’s a lot to think about. But I consider it as a part of my practice, not as an addition to my practice. And so that’s just something that I weave into my thought processes. I don’t have this list, you know, next to me when I’m doing all my stuff. Yeah. Because I’m like, Oh, well, I know that not every single piece is going to be accessible to every single person. But you’ve got to start from somewhere. And it’s about trial and error. And, you know, how can you creatively make your work more accessible? Or how can you creatively incorporate accessibility and access methods without hiding them, because it’s still important to incorporate those things as things of beauty and they can be beautiful. And I think if disabled people had complete autonomy over the way that access was designed and implemented in the world, it would look fundamentally different to what we think about now.
Isn’t that’s so interesting.
Yeah, it is, it is. I think about it all the time. And in my work, I’ve done a few future kind of scenario works of designing, say, my dream lounge room that and how access might be incorporated into that. And I have representation of mobility aids and disabled body parts in the works. Because it’s so, so rare that you see that representation of those things in Fine Arts in ways that aren’t, you know, pitied or medicalised or clinicalalised or seen as, you know, broken or inspiration or…
I feel the need to mention the disabled nudes at this point.
Oh, yeah yeah yeah, disabled nudes!
The series though, are they lino cuts?
No, they’re not. They’re digital pieces.
They’re digital prints? I’m just being indulgent now.
No, no, no! I did think about doing them as lino cuts, I just haven’t got around to it. Because sometimes I’ll do a piece and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, okay, this could actually work well as this form’. And so when I was doing those, I was like, Oh, these would work well as lino cuts. But they kind of came out of doing some sort of studies and -not studies but like, kind of observations- of Matisse‘s collage works, the blue nudes, because I love Matisse’s work and use of colour and shape and form and especially with his collage works. I actually have one of them tattooed on my leg.
Yeah. And I didn’t realize until after I had this tattoo on my leg, that he was also a disabled artist. And there are photos of him making work from his bed of painting on a huge canvas up on the wall, I think I’ve got a photo. And I had no idea until
until I googled it and I my brain just sort of imploded. This was after I had started making works for this show.
Yeah wow yeah.
So I already had developed this concept of, of making work from my room. And of course, you know, there’s also there’s been so many artists throughout history who have been disabled, and you know, their disabled identity has been erased. But there are artists throughout history who have made work from their room; you know, there are artists now making work from their room. But, you know, another artist that comes to mind is Frida Kahlo, who also was a disabled queer artist, and there are photos of her making work in her bed as well. But yeah, there’s, here’s a photo of Matisse in his bed with this very, very long, almost like a metre long paintbrush, and he’s painting a big kind of minimalist face on his bedroom wall. And I saw this photo and I was like, wow, this is, you know, this is also another representation of, of, you know, he obviously had, you know, privilege and access to resources so that he could have this studio set up from his room. But it’s this kind of documentation that we don’t see through history of artists, working in unconventional ways and places and with disabilities. And I want to change that, you know, I want to be able to see representation of disabled existence and disabled joy and disabled art through history.
Well, I dare say, you are being the change, as cheesy as that is, and I’m very much looking forward to the show.
Yeah me too!
I’m hoping that it will be open pretty shortly after we publish this episode. And yeah, and I hope that people take the time to enjoy the show and soak up the different the dynamics of what’s in it, because there’s so much packed in there.
So much. Yeah. And I wanted to make sure that the show would be accessible, like online as well. So that, because I have a lot of friends and people who follow my work from interstate and overseas, and especially, you know, going back to disabled access and all that kind of stuff to the world. That’s why I wanted it to be available online so that people can still
view it from their room!
Exactly! They can view it from their room. And I think that’s something that will resonate quite heavily with a lot of disabled and chronically ill people. Yeah, yeah.
Wonderful. All right. Well, I think we’ll leave it there and let the work speak for itself.
Absolutely, thank you so much.
Episode 33 / Julia Robinson
From scythes to smocks, the Burry Man to the Wicker Man, witchfinders and gourdfathers; Julia Robinson’s practice covers a range of cultural, conceptual, and material considerations. Tune in to this conversation between Julia and Andrew Purvis to hear more about what drives her work and inspired the exhibition The Beckoning Blade at Hugo Michell Gallery.
- The Beckoning Blade at Hugo Michell Gallery
- Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General
- The Burryman
- The Wicker Man (film, 1973, directed by Robin Hardy)
- The Song of Master John Goodfellow
- gourd (fruit)
- The Gourdfather
- Beatrice in the 2020 Adelaide Biennial at Museum of Economic Botany
- Rappaccini’s Daughter
- The Names of the Hare (poem, translated by Seamus Heaney)
Hello and welcome to the SALA podcast. This episode is a live recording of ArtSpeak which is a series of talks run by the Adelaide Central School of Art that have been recorded in collaboration with SALA Festival.
Andrew Purvis 00:23
Hello, thank you very much for joining us. I would like to acknowledge that the land that we meet on today is the traditional lands of the Kaurna People. We pay our respects to Aboriginal Elders past, present and emerging. Today we’re very fortunate to be joined by Julia Robinson, a supremely talented visual artist and an Adelaide Central School of Art lecturer. Julia has exhibited as part of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art twice, and the National at the MCA and Sydney Art Space and CACSA. Julia currently has a wonderful exhibition The Beckoning Blade currently showing it Hugo Michell Gallery. The show features a sequence of works that uncannily combine weathered antiquated farming equipment, and intricately crafted textile works to create an unusual brightly hued apparitions which haunt the gallery space. The exhibition is a tour de force and one of the absolute standouts to this SALA season. Julia is here to talk to us about this exhibition, her processes and some of the thinking behind the work. Welcome, Julia.
Julia Robinson 01:24
Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew Purvis 01:26
The Beckoning Blade feels like such a unique, idiosyncratic amalgam of elements. But I know this body of work connects very deeply with your cultural background. Would you like to talk a little bit about that? Where this comes from?
Julia Robinson 01:39
Yeah, sure. So. So I’m a second generation Australian. So my parents emigrated, and I was the first of my family line to be born here. And my parents are originally from England, they met in Colchester, they’re both from Essex and Suffolk. And I had been really fortunate growing up that my parents wanted me to be really connected with my kind of my family over there, maybe not so much my cultural heritage, although that’s part of it. And so I’ve been to England a lot of times, and I spent a bit of time over there on family holidays and extended trips. And I feel like it’s just been so much a part of my upbringing to have this kind of almost dual identity, this kind of connection to what I couldn’t would almost kind of call a spiritual homeland, I feel really, really deeply connected to my kind of cultural heritage and my ancestral roots. So yeah, so a lot of the things I’m really interested in, from, from the British Isles, from England, from Scotland, a lot of the folklore and the superstitions that I refer to, in my work and the mythologies come from connecting very deeply with that, that part of my my identity in my kind of ancestral past.
Andrew Purvis 02:45
because there is a there is a romance to that second home, that sort of desired location as well. And when you talk about sort of folklore and folk traditions, I think something that might not be immediately obvious to viewers that see your work, but I think is a big sort of influence for you is a lot of those kinds of folk festivals, the kind of costuming and a lot of those kinds of mythological creatures that are so prevalent in the folk traditions of the United Kingdom. What are some of those standout?
Julia Robinson 03:16
There’s so many. And I think this is the sort of thing that I’ve connected so much with over the years, and increasingly in my practice, and I really look at folk traditions now that are currently being performed across England, and Scotland. And they often might be kind of folk traditions, or festivals that are centuries old, or have been kind of revived or kept alive by communities. And I think that’s really interesting to me as well about people currently performing these festivals, but kind of linking back to their past as well. So I think that’s something that particularly kind of connects with me in terms of specific kinds of connections, a couple of examples. So my paternal grandparents, just for kind of context lived in Essex in a town called Lawford, which is right next to Manningtree and Mistley, which is where Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General did a lot of his foul work. So there’s always been that kind of connection to me of like really significant kind of historical stories really landed right on the doorstep of my my grandparents. But in terms of current festivals and things that I follow, I haven’t been to to any of them yet. I’d love to get there. But my favourite would be the Burry Man, which is this man completely who… so this festival takes place in the second Friday of August every year in South Queensferry in Scotland. And it’s a man completely covered in the burrs of a burdock plant from head to toe. You can’t barely see his eyes you can just about see his mouth. And he parades through the streets on about a seven mile walk, moving all around the different locations and all the local community come out and they feed in whiskey through a straw. And it’s really good light to be seen with the Burry Man have your photograph taken with them and it’s meant to they believe that symbology of the Burry Man is he’s a sort of scapegoat for the community carrying the evils out of the village each year and ensuring a good sea harvest, for example. So he’s one of my favourite bucket list festival that I really want to experience that I’ve only experienced via social media and online.
Andrew Purvis 05:17
And I think he stands as a really fascinating example because to encounter him today from a contemporary context, it might look humorous in many ways, but the folk traditions that are tied up with that figure are often quite ‘life or death’, certainly in that sort of start of those religious festivals or those sorts of folk festivals, this idea of good harvests and so forth. If that didn’t happen, entire communities will be at threat. And so I suppose that what I’m getting at is that underneath those kinds of seemingly humorous elements, there are darker undercurrents. And I think that that’s really something that comes through in The Beckoning Blade as well. This feels like a dark a body of work for you. There are elements of humor there is there often are in your work. But there are elements of violence and sort of disturbing oddity deformity as well. Is this body of work connecting with other cultural touchstones for you?
Julia Robinson 06:08
Yeah, so I think that obviously leads me to talk about folk horror. But a folk horror is, you know, like the Burry Man and things like that there is this kind of, I think of it as this knife’s edge between sort of the sort of positive energy and kind of negative things that can happen. So the harvest is literally life or death, in many cultures and in the past. So folk horror is the kind of real touchstone for this body of work. And that’s probably why this particular beckoning blade leans much more into that darkness that you were talking about, and maybe pulls back a little bit on the humor. Folk horror to describe that it’s a funny one, because it’s such a nebulous territory, and lots of people have tried to describe folk horror and not you know, it’s a very … they talk about it like trying to describe fog. It’s really kind of edgeless and it changes with different contexts. But I think about folk horror is this really kind of neat conjoined kind of words, folk and horror, or folklore and horror kind of splicing together. Folk horror could be seen as the kind of violent conjoining of pagan and pre-Christian traditions or customs with horror tropes or horror themes. And it frequently manifests/mostly manifests in the filmic tradition, and also in literature as well. But there are a lot of artists really engaging with folk horror as well. And obviously, that’s the lens that I bring to it. Although I do look at a lot of films and read a lot of folk horror fiction as part of my as part of the research into that topic.
Andrew Purvis 07:37
And I think some of those films that you’ve been researching formed quite a strong influence with this exhibition. Is there one that stands out amongst the others?
Julia Robinson 07:45
There is one that stands out, Andrew, and it is the 1973, Robin Hardy film, The Wicker Man, which has been a really influential film in my practice for many years. And it’s just been slowly sifting to the surface. So I’ve often cited The Wicker Man. It’s a seminal folk horror film, almost, I think that’s where folk horror comes from that that particular film or around that area. And that I’ve often cited it as a kind of a latent influence in my practice. And when I started devising the work for The Beckoning Blade, which didn’t have a title back, then obviously, I thought, you know, I’m just going to lean into this, I’m going to make this the folk horror show, and I’m going to cast The Wicker Man right, you know, front and center and bring it right into the foreground and kind of, yeah, make it make it my kind of homage to the Wicker Man. I don’t expect that if you know, if people haven’t seen The Wicker Man, it’s not that you won’t get the show. It’s not like a kind of key to unlocking it. But if you have seen it, it definitely would sort of bring some of the narratives to the surface, or you probably look at the works in a slightly different way, or maybe notice little things about the film that I’ve directly referenced. But I was really using it as flavour. Yeah.
Andrew Purvis 08:56
Yeah, there are sort of visual resonances and echoes, particularly in the palette of some of those outfits that directly reference some of the visual imagery in The Wicker Man
Julia Robinson 09:04
and the and the installation of the work too, as well. There’s this really famous scene in the wicked man is mayday procession, which is not specific to The Wicker Man obviously -mayday processions are a really old tradition in many, many cultures. And I look at a lot of mayday processions when I’m researching- But there is this particular Mayday procession in the Wicker Man, which is the kind of climax of the film. And I particularly thought about that with the installation of the work that the pieces in the gallery would form a kind of eerie pageantry along one wall with these kind of the objects, the sculptures being kind of almost like characters in that procession, or costumes or objects that might be used in a ritual for a ritual purpose.
Andrew Purvis 09:44
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting observation and something I wasn’t aware of. Certainly, the way that they’re installing the exhibition is not a sort of eye-level, all-in-a-row hang as that that description of pageantry might suggest that kind of move up and down, almost like musical notation on a scale. or a kind of that kind of hurly-burly of a parade as well. I think that’s really nicely done.
Julia Robinson 10:05
Thank you. Yeah, the works had been in my studio, obviously for two years accumulating and my studio is not incredibly big, but I’ve got these quite tall walls and I was sort of storing them up on the walls. And I was thinking about that some of them as being like, ‘they are the high up ones, they are the eye-level ones, there are the below level ones’. And some of them have, I think, have a particular energy or movement to them that I wanted to kind of invoke it as well in that that kind of wall of procession.
Andrew Purvis 10:29
And I suppose talking about pageantry and talking about these sort of folk traditions like the Burry Man, that kind of costuming, the works involves such prominent textile elements and textile elements that evoke clothing very clearly and costuming as well. The techniques you use a remarkably intricate and complex. I believe that there’s a particular process that you’ve used in these works that has particular relevance to the context of the work itself.
Julia Robinson 10:57
Yeah. So in this particular body of work, I have used this garment called the smock or the smock frock, which is traditionally a handmade garment, women would have made them but men would have worn them. So then they’re not they look like a dress in a way, but they’re actually a garment for traditionally for men. And they the smock frock is this kind of very boxy, almost apron dress-like garment with a really complex pleating across the front and the back, which is then embroidered over the top top giving its name, the smoking or the smoke. And they would have been worn in the 18th and early 19th century by field workers or farm laborers as being these kind of really durable loose fitting garments that would just be thrown over other clothes to protect the other clothes, and then you could take them off at night, you’d have your other clothes protected. So it’s a sort of it might be sort of an interesting one to like, Why did I use the smock, but I really was kind of leaning back to that kind of agricultural influence of it. That’s where they’re located. And the smock has a kind of almost a mythic status in British kind of folklore and culture. It’s very much tied to this idea of a pre-industrial, idyllic British countryside where honest people worked the land. And were really connected to the seasons, which is obviously partially true, but partially a kind of romanticized version of that. But the smock then had a resurgence in the 70s with women’s wear and children’s wear, when little girls started wearing these little kind of smocked garments and women were wearing sort of more what was called the kind of ‘peasant-inspired’ fashion. And that was also about this kind of leaning back to that into like, romanticized past. And the relevance of that to the show and folk horror is that folk horror often undercuts that pastural idyll, it’s kind of often described as the antidote to that, cutting through this idea of Britain in particular, as a kind of green and pleasant land full of quaint country folk and villages and, and often sort of sifting the darkness inherent in that to the surface. So when I decided to use the smock in the show, it was not just because it’s a garment, and garments are so wonderful, and I’m really engaged with the social history of garments. It was also to tie it back to that kind of that folk horror idea of like, here’s a romantic vision that we can then kind of slice through, unpick, unpack, modify, and disrupt, which I like to do in my practice a lot, especially disrupting garments and disrupting expected things.
Andrew Purvis 13:17
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like that’s something that’s very strong in the show the sense of disruption of assumptions. In particular, I think the show works on that level. But hearing you talk about that, as well, I find it really interesting to shift the way that we encounter these works, because the smock has become a very gendered garment item now, and it will be much more typically seen worn by women. And to read that into the work they read, at first glance, very much in a sort of typical Gothic Horror, sense of peril of violence perpetrated on a female protagonist, but to then understand that these figures might represent male agrarian workers, there is that kind of uncanny sense that we have to readjust our, our expectations and our assumptions about the work. And I suppose if we’re talking about agrarian workers, it would it’s really significant to talk about the found materials that are incorporated into this show. So in The Beckoning Blade, you’re repurposing old farm equipment, including scythes and sickles and so forth. In The Song of Master John Goodfellow, an earlier show, it was gourds. Does this process present particular challenges or does it inspire different forms of creativity?
Julia Robinson 14:32
Yeah, so working with found objects?
Andrew Purvis 14:33
Julia Robinson 14:34
Yeah, it’s sort of it’s interesting. It’s something that I haven’t always leaned into. I’ve often been much more kind of constructing things from scratch. And over recent years, I’ve started incorporating more found objects and let’s say quite loud, found objects isn’t the kind of carry is of history and meaning or symbolism. I’m really drawn to that though, particularly things like the scythe like I’m drawn to the fact that it is a completely mundane agricultural object. But it’s all So got wild kind of symbolic connotations with death and the Grim Reaper and stuff like that. So I feel like, you know, when I’m working with an object like that, I’m trying to balance those two things, and then also find my own way into it. So yeah, working with found objects is, you know, it carries a lot of weight with that. And I’m often trying to balance that, and also sort of not rely too heavily on the weight of that object, particularly something that is so beautiful. And so inherently loaded with history, you don’t want to sort of just ‘well that’s the only thing it’s doing’, but you’re also trying to sort of find your own way. And with that, and kind of work with it. The gourds were interesting, because a gourd is a kind of, I feel like not a particularly well known object, you know, it’s a fruit, but it’s not a particularly well known or recognizable fruit. So that one I had, I feel like I had to work a lot harder to kind of sift that the meaning to the surface to kind of get that idea across. But they’re also really kind of overt associations of the gourd with kind of plant matter and vegetation and, and often sort of referencing bodily parts as well. So I was sort of trying to hold them up a little bit.
Andrew Purvis 16:05
And I’ve been fortunate enough to visit your studio, when some of these works were in preparation, I’ve seen the meticulous sketches and the kind of ideation that you do in preparing a work, but I imagine working with a found material, that governs some of the outcomes of the work and dictates its shape and so forth. Is that a, is that a way of compromising with materials that you enjoy? Or do you struggle.
Julia Robinson 16:29
Um, I mean, unlike that, the objects will set the terms a little bit for me, but then I also like that I can kind of, I can wrench them a little bit to my own will. So I probably bought at least 12 scythes overall over the course of a couple of years, and sickles, and I would have them in the studio, moving them around, and then started cutting some of them up or swapping out that blade for that handle. So I guess in in some ways, the material or the object dictates a little bit how I can work with it. And sometimes I’ll sketch something in my book, and then I’ll go to mock it up, and it won’t behave that way at all. And that’s quite frustrating, because you’re like, ‘I wanted it to hang this way’, and the scythe won’t do that. So then you have to have a kind of call and response with the object. So when I’m when I’m working with something like that a pre existing thing, yes, I do a lot of sketches. But then I move very quickly to a mock-up stage just to see how is this operating. And I’m not going to come unstuck, hopefully, by working something out planning it to the nth degree and then going to do it and be like, Oh, okay, well, that didn’t operate at all how I thought it would. So a bit of a kind of call and response, I guess.
Andrew Purvis 17:32
And I suppose an element of the work that may be less visible to people than the intricate textile work is the very clever engineering that goes beyond behind the scenes as well, the way these things sit on the wall, their way, the way they’re arranged. And I hope I’m not revealing any technical secrets here: but there are magnets installed in some of those works to ensure that the fabric falls in the way it’s intended to. I think they’re quite marvelous.
Julia Robinson 17:56
Thank you. Yeah. And like the engineering of them, like getting something on the wall, I often sort of say, like, as a sculptor, like gravity is my enemy, because it would be so much easier if I could just hold something up, and it would just stay where I wanted it to go. But also think if there was no gravity, I wouldn’t have as much fun as I do, trying to work those things out. So I do put a lot of energy into the engineering of these things, getting them on the wall. I think about that a lot with garments because garments have been displayed in so many different ways over the years, both in art practice and in costuming, and in museums. And I think about what am I bringing to that, for the current show, for The Beckoning Blade, I worked really closely with James Dodd who’s an artist but as well a fabricator, showing him my designs, like this is how I want this piece to hang on the wall. This is the aesthetic that I wanted to and then he would bring some of his engineering know how as to, well, this might be a simple way to do that or to mock it up that way. But I do think about those fixtures as being, in this show in particular, very very much part of the work; not hiding them, not concealing them in a way that some other works have done that but really sifting them to the surface and just kind of leaning into it and… but I like that engineering like I like that problem solving. That’s really exciting to me to be like how do I make this thing float on the wall but also acknowledge the substrate that it’s on.
Andrew Purvis 19:17
And I suppose this process of sourcing found materials they’re not always sort of found on the side of the road, it brings you in contact with other communities, other collectors, other potentially people that might grow gourds or collect farm equipment or something like that. What was the process of like sourcing these materials like Well,
Julia Robinson 19:38
I’ll start with the gourds just because it’s a great thing, but like when I originally had this idea, I had a gourd that my friend had given me from their garden. I had it for about two years before I decided I wanted to work with gourds and then I quickly realized I’m gonna need more gourds so I googled ‘buy gourds Australia’ and the Gourdfather was the very first website that came up. So I saw sourced one of my gourds from the Gourdfather; he is a New South Wales-based grower
Andrew Purvis 20:02
I wonder what comes first: the gourd or the name gourdfather? and you think ‘I better grow some gourds’.
Julia Robinson 20:07
It’s been doing it since the 70s. So I feel like you’ve probably lent into that. Yeah, and then the scythes. I mean, I can’t remember where I got my first scythe genuinely, I think I just might have Googled the Scammells website or found one in an antique store. And then you start to turn your lens on it and hone in and be like, right where are these objects? I would just regularly check Scammells, regularly check Gumtree, and check every single antique store I pass, but then, you know if I like do a little post on Instagram about ‘I’m collecting scythes’ people would start ringing me. I remember you rang me once and ‘I’m in an antique store in the Barossa or or whatever, I found a scythe, do you want it?’ And I’m like, yes, yes, yes, buy it. So I really love it when people reach out to me with stuff like that. And often just send me pictures of tools. And like, ‘Would you like this?’ and I can sort of jump in with that. But I also for this project collected floral embroidered handkerchiefs, or floral embroidered pieces of fabric like tablecloths and stuff like that. And I was kind of aware that it would take me ages to scour shops for those things, and I potentially needed hundreds of them. So I did a little Instagram callout saying, ‘Hey, friends and family like, I need these floral embroidered handkerchiefs, if people can contribute’. And that was a way as well, for me… that kind of actually has a conceptual link to the show, which is that a lot of these festivals, particularly let’s say May Day festivals would be about communities -and even the Burry Man as well- gathering flowers or natural organic material to make the costumes for the special parade. And that that kind of community involvement is really important. But I’m not a particular, I’m a very studio focused solitary worker, I’m a very traditional in the studio worker. So that was my kind of way of kind of doing a community kind of callout like helped me gather flowers, but they just happen to be embroidered flowers instead of natural flowers. And that was a way to sort of do my own version of the May Queen collection if you like,
Andrew Purvis 22:02
it’s beautiful how that sort of concept ties into the process. So, so neatly, as it were. Now I remember speaking to you in your exhibition, and describing some of the physical forms on the wall as quite human, and seeing sort of different arrangement of limbs. But you suggested to me that there are other echoes there about a ways of honoring farm equipment and farm machinery and how that might be… how clothing might be used differently with those. Is that something we can touch on in this in this conversation?
Julia Robinson 22:38
Yeah, yeah. So I think that, you know, the first few works I made for The Beckoning Blade where the highly figurative pieces because I was just first becoming comfortable and familiar with the smock garment and trying to work out its sort of edges. So there are several kind of full figure kind of works in there that are meant to sort of stand in for that figure, maybe be a scarecrow kind of character or something like that. But then when I hone in on a particular technique, what I want to do is start tearing it apart from the inside and like, yeah, like changing it and, you know, making incursions in it and sort of seeing what I can do with that technique. So I guess the works. That sort of, I guess, there’s works where the the tool kind of the scythe maybe kind of comes higher up in the hierarchy and the garment slips away, or there’s a kind of equal footing with them. And there’s some works in there where the garment’s not present at all and the tool is kind of doing the work or the manipulation to the tool was doing the work. But yeah, they they sort of variously sit in kind of figurative or semi figurative, or just kind of some kind of weird manipulation of the smock. I’m not sure if that kind of answered the question or not
Andrew Purvis 23:45
Yeah, totally. Yeah, that’s wonderful. Thank you. Do you have a different approach from making work for a commercial gallery outcome like the The Beckoning Blade, it’s on at Hugo Michell Gallery, as opposed to exhibiting in a group show in a large scale exhibition in a public gallery? I’m thinking of your work Beatrice that was part of the Monster Theatres show at the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, how do you approach those different types of projects?
Julia Robinson 24:14
Look, look, I do approach them slightly differently. Because you have to sort of be cognisant of what the space is that you’re going into. I would say that my kind of my benchmark is like, I would never compromise the work, I would never kind of change what I’m thinking to fit a particular need. Like I wouldn’t sit back and think well, now I’m making commercial work. And then that’s, you know, something else. But I do think a little bit more about like, okay, that Hugo Michell is a commercial gallery, there is a kind of need to engage with the space in a slightly different way than if I’m engaged in a biennial space. So Beatrice was, I consider, a much more site-dependent work. It was located in the Museum of Economic Botany as part of the biennial so and because it is a biennial I think I just went in hard with like, let’s just make a big grand gesture kind of sculpture. Let’s make something that’s kind of a single piece, for example, that perhaps has a different kind of ambition to it. As in the ambition is kind of wrapped up in the kind of that moment in that time in that place. And that that opportunity of the Biennial. So yes, I did sort of approach that in a slightly more Wilder manner. And then I sort of turned my lens to Okay, well, now I’m Hugo Michell. So it’s a white cube gallery. This is a different parameters there. So I just tried to move towards those parameters, but not not, I mean, I don’t really know what… I wouldn’t know what like making for a commercial outcome particularly looks like because who knows what, what’s going to work, I just go well, that’s the work I want to make and happens to be wall-based at the moment because I’m thinking about a wall gallery.
Andrew Purvis 25:45
Absolutely. I suppose touching on some of those older works like Beatrice that was at the Museum of Economic Botany and some of the gourd works that were in The Song of Master John Goodfellow. I’m really interested in, and I think this is a testament to your versatility, the textile techniques seem to change and shift according to the different body of work and the different contexts they’re alluding to. Can you just touch on what how you choose which technique to pursue.
Julia Robinson 26:10
Yeah, so The Song of Master John Goodfellow with the gourds was a sort of a gosh I’ve got to get thinking back to that work now, but it was sort of a body celebration, it was playing very much off to sort of sexuality of the fruit and the and I was particularly looking into Tudor and Elizabethan costuming techniques then, and in particular, because of their lavishness, their kind of colour and palate and the sort of silks and the, the kind of excess of that. And I was trying to bring that language of access to the gourds like sort of as a counterpoint to their humble, earthy kind of origins, they’re a very dirty kind of fruit. But the Elizabethan techniques I was particularly interested in is this sort of slashing and cutting and this underlining coming through and it sort of spoke to me of kind of revealing and concealing stuff and about sort of hidden desires kind of being pulled to the surface. And I guess that really linked well with the gourd kind of concept of these sort of body, undergarments coming to the surface or kind of revealing, revealing this sort of like prudishness and sexuality kind of like playing off against each other.
Andrew Purvis 27:18
Yeah, they reminded me a little bit of the way the pomegranate splits open and the seeds come out. That’s another sort of very sexualized fruit.
Julia Robinson 27:24
Yes, and I was thinking a lot about fruit when I was doing those bodies or works around the board and thinking about, well, I don’t want to do that with the board itself. But I want to sort of dress it in such a way that it feels like it’s this explosion of ripeness, or just on the turn, as well, kind of on the turn fruit. And that was very much something with the National works at the MCA, this sort of sense of ripeness, and kind of skins splitting open and insides kind of coming out. So revealing that that kind of lash or plush interior. So that felt very, an appropriate costuming technique to use for that language, which I then carried forth into Beatrice. Although when I was thinking about Beatrice, she was sort of more on the rot kind of on the turn. And I was looking at sort of the garden, there’s a bit of space in the story and Rappaccini’s Daughter, but there’s this sort of garden in there with these poisonous toxic plants. So Beatrice kind of leant more into the toxicity of plant life and the ruptures in the silk skins for her was sort of more about that fruit on the turn, or that kind of decay setting in. And then when I started The Beckoning Blade, I, you know, I still really wanted to work with colour, but I just couldn’t think I couldn’t think in silk anymore. And the introduction of farm implements meant I was like this, this, these languages don’t speak to each other. And it was a big wrench in the first six months of thinking, to put the silks aside and be like, okay, they’re not working for this, something new needs to come in. And I’d worked with linen before. For these kind of homespun techniques, I brought the linens back in but I brought in these wilder colours. So rather than traditional linen, linen palette, like muted colors, and grays and earthy textures, I was like, Nah, I need to kind of bring the violent colours of the silks but but marry that up with the linen and kind of get that kind of crossover and that lead to all these sort of really quite Yeah, really quite what tend to be quite a rainbow show, which was a bit of a surprise when I put it on the wall as well. It’s, it’s really colourful, like and I like colors that are on the turn as well like a little bit of an uncomfortable colour, like sort of an off-yellow, or a sort of pucy- pinky color. Or, you know, there’s like a sort of turmeric-y baby-poo colour in there, which is sort of like nice, but you wouldn’t quite wear it and I like that, you know, and in dying them and bleaching them these other colours kind of came out that were really unexpected and I really liked that sort of just just colours on the turn on the nose a little bit.
Andrew Purvis 29:55
I suppose this might be a bit of a cheeky question, but thinking back to to the A Song of Master John Goodfellow with the gourds and Beatrice is placed in the garden of Economic Botany in the Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. And then with the farm implements, are you a keen gardener Julia?
Julia Robinson 30:12
I wouldn’t I would not say I’m a keen gardener. A few years ago, we we regenerated our garden from from the scrap heap that it was and put some nice flower beds in. And I have since discovered that I quite like the idea of gardening and having a nice garden to look out on. But I have mainly planted things that I haven’t been able to kill, that’s my baseline is like, if it doesn’t die in the first season, I’ll plant more of that. That’s the level of gardening that I’m at.
Andrew Purvis 30:42
That sounds like something that I can aspire to; that sounds like a good level of gardening to be at.
Julia Robinson 30:46
no fruit or anything like that. It just like really hardy plants in there. I don’t mind going out there and weeding a little bit. But like with a lot of things, in my practice, I’m really kind of interesting the idea of them, maybe not the kind of literality of them.
Andrew Purvis 30:59
And I assume your home garden is a little less dark than The Beckoning Blade or the poison garden of Rappaccini’s Daughter?
Julia Robinson 31:06
I think it’s full of non toxic things.
Andrew Purvis 31:10
You think. Wonderful. Maybe this is a good opportunity to open up to some questions, if we have any questions for Julia?
Audience Member 31:18
Is if a gourd is a fruit, is that… and you’re making art, is there an expectation that it will deteriorate over time or?
Julia Robinson 31:28
Yeah, well, it’s really interesting because a gourd because it is literally a fruit, but they, unlike all other fruit, instead of rotting, if you don’t let them get wet, they harden from the outside, all the seeds dry on the inside, and you’re left with essentially almost a brittle, firm, kind of skin, which if you shake it, you can hear the seeds rattling around inside. But there are literally gourds in like museum collections that are hundreds of years old that they just don’t rot. So of all the fruits to use, it is the most archival one. And I was very conscious of that. Because you know, not that I’m always seeking a kind of archival commercial outcome. But I do think like I’m showing it in a gallery, if it sells I need to be able to say that it has a life. But I was also partly using the gourd for that reason. So the the fact that they don’t rot and they have all these seeds has made them symbolic of fertility and longevity and resurrection because of this sort of this long lasting quality of them. So they’re quite fascinating objects. They’ve been used for like musical instruments for vessels, penis sheaths, all sorts of different uses over multiple different cultures.
Audience Member 32:37
Just wanted to ask about smocking, did you do all this mocking yourself? And did you do it by hand? Or was it machine?
Julia Robinson 32:44
Yes so it’s all done by me. It is all done by hand. All the pleating is done by hand as well. It’s quite time-consuming. But I like that, like that’s, you know, I get off on that. But also, it’s not that complex a technique, you know, pleating’s not that difficult to just dot everything out. So, you know, the hard thing was working out how to make the pleates work for me, or how deep to to do them, not the actual physical smocking, that was just sort of surface embroidery. The biggest challenges I face in my work is looking after my body and making sure I don’t do too long stints because I would happily sort of sew or smoke for eight hours, but then I might wreck myself for the next day. So I have to do it and kind of sections but it is all done by hand. And you might have seen a picture there before of the Dorset wheel buttons which looked like little kind of embroidered wheels, and they’re all done by hand as well. And that’s just like a little loop like a little key ring that I weave all the fabric round, make a little spiderweb of the threads and then do a little weavy under-over. So yeah, everything’s done by hand where possible.
Audience Member 33:50
I was just gonna ask about the significance of the the gold plated sections, some of the metal is gold.
Julia Robinson 34:01
Yeah, so the I’ve used a lot of gold plating in previous bodies of work. And so I actually had my I had two scythe blades gold plated quite early on in the piece when I was still playing around with ideas. So I had one that was done on a rusty blade, so you get this matte finish, which holds the texture of the rust. And then one that I asked them to polish it so I can see my face in it. And it’s a sort of it’s nearly an anomaly in the body of work because I was thinking much earlier on about the ceremonial as part of ritual and thinking about signifiers of that so that you might have your best scythe blade or your special ceremonial one that you use for let’s say the ‘right kind of job’ which in folk horror might be the sacrifice. And so I sort of wanted to allude to that with the blades, that there was a higher purpose or a different purpose to them and that in the context of everything else in the show, that that purpose might be. You might not know what it is is as a viewer, but it sort of signifies there’s something special about that. And gold plating is so lush, you know, like, and it’s strangely not that expensive in the context of stuff. So yeah, that’s how I was trying to use the gold. I mean, just super appeals to me having like a gold plated scythee blade like, just it’s just it’s partly an indulgence. I gotta be honest, it’s also an indulgence.
Audience Member 35:25
The fabric that you’ve used linen, I take it now all the dyeing that’s done I presume you did it. But I’m asking did you do it? Was it organic? What was special about the dyeing? And the thread I noticed too.
Julia Robinson 35:38
Yeah, sure. So the linen was a choice. Because of the original smocks were all made of linen. So it’s a historical reference there. None of the linens I use started out white. So everything had a base color, except that the white linens. And then the dip dyeing gosh I’m trying to remember why I sort of, I think I started with this highly figurative piece, which is the sort of two interconnected garments that are like a four-armed scarecrow in a field. And I was thinking about, it’s called The Lurker at Dusk, which is a sort of traditional name for a hare, which is another story from the time but there we go, and a very evocative sort of title. And I wanted the work to feel like something that you would sort of see on a threshold time like dusk or dawn. And so I started with this kind of vaguely uncomfortable purple colour. And I thought about dip, dyeing it in orange to get this sort of idea of sunset or sunrise kind of coming into it. And I just wanted something that would disrupt the blankness of the color, there’s a lot of fabric in a smock, you know, six meters personal, and I just felt like, one big block of color could be a bit, almost a bit bland, and I wanted to introduce something that would just change that a little bit. And then it just opened up from there I was oh my gosh, there’s like so much I can do with dip dyeing and dribble dyeing and spatter dyeing. Some of the colours are derived from bleaching the fabric and seeing what a cut, what kind of colors come out of that, which is always very unexpected, you don’t know what bleach will bring to the surface. There’s works that reference, kind of dirt and the earth, for example. And then I would just for each one, I would think, Okay, well, what do I want the thread to do. So sometimes I was dip dyeing the thread to match it, or spatter dyeing it. So you would kind of have that feeling of a rusty kind of effect. Or sometimes I was over stitching with the base color. So you’d get more contrast, or just using one color across all the different colors, one color thread across all the different fabric. So you get different points of contrast and interest. So that’s kind of how I was using it. But yeah, just to sort of, yeah, disrupt the expected with the colour and give it a different kind of tint or taint.
Audience Member 37:46
I was just wondering if the names come first, or, you know, did they come at different times? Or just start with the farm implement? And you know, which? What order is the process?
Julia Robinson 37:59
Yeah, so the so the question of like the title, the work of the object, it’s all a bit of a washing machine effect. So it’s not always the one that leads to the other in some cases, I would start with the tool, and I would have the idea for the tool. In some cases, I would start with the sketches and kind of improvising around that I have, I had just like a kind of plain garment in my studio that was throwing over things to try and manipulate that. So that would lead to the the idea. And then sometimes the title would come after. And sometimes I would start with a title. So there’s this yeah, there’s this famous poem called The Names of the Hare, which was translated by Seamus Heaney, I think and it’s this sort of, I guess, kind of magical poem where if the hunter is going out to kill the hare, he has to list all of the names and it’s like dozens and dozens of names and it’s a way of controlling it’s a kind of like performative magic, if you like. Controlling this, this hare that you can then shoot. anyway, the reason I’m saying that is because hares are very prevalent in folklore and folk horror, and a lot of the names of the hare like the lurker of dusks, the stubble stag, the Nibbler at dark, all this sort of stuff. They’re really evocative titles and so I gleaned a few of them and was like, I’m farming these out in the show, like they’re really great titles. ‘The purblind one’ is one of the titles and one of the, the connections, ‘the raker of mud’ is another title for the hare and for the work. So really evocative titles. There was one title that came first amongst all of them, that’s a work called ‘Borrow Mump’, which is just the name for a little hillock. And I was like, that’s just such a great word. It’s almost onomatopeic, sort of, so I was like that I need to make a work that fits that; that was quite a hard challenge to fit the work to the title and I was persistent in that. And then I you know, I bought a lot of job lots of farm implements and rakes and hoes and scythes and I would just have them all around my studio. I mean, two years. This is two years in the making this; so some things I would have around literally for two years. And I would be like I’m doing something with you, I just don’t know what I’m doing yet. And I needed to like learn more about the body of work before I could include that object in there. So the rakes came quite late. There’s a flax hackle, which is looks like a kind of really angry nail comb on wooden surface that I bought, I think a year ago but didn’t work out what to do with it until about three months ago, because I was just sitting with the object, learning its properties, working out of all the millions of things I could do with this, what’s the kind of dominant idea I want to express in that particular object? And how do I work with something so loud? So yeah,
Andrew Purvis 40:34
I’m sorry, I think we could talk to Julia all day, but I’m also aware that she has a another class to get to and teach in about 10 minutes. So let’s give her a 10 minute reprieve and please join me in thanking Julia Robinson for her time today.
Episode 32 / 25 Years of SALA
In this episode, we let our audience do the talking! To celebrate our 25th Festival, we asked you to share your fond memories of SALA over the years.
Episode 31 / Carly Snoswell
In this episode, Steph catches up with Carly Snoswell to talk about her practice and her new show, Day One, at Post Office Projects. They trace the development of her practice from learning to sew as a kid, through art school, residencies, and studios – shoutout to the ‘art wives’! Tune in for some lovely musings on fandom, textile practice, and too many accidental sewing puns.
- Helpmann Academy Sanskriti Kendra Residency in New Delhi, India
- Jenna Pippett
- Kate Kurucz
- Roy Ananda
- Feelin’ Fine at CACSA Project Space
- Why artist Carly Snoswell thinks Beyonce is a Port Supporter – [Adelaide Review article]
- Crochet your Character
- Steph Cibich
- Rosina Possingham
- Since 1989 (Port Banner artwork) at Floating Goose Studios
- Day One, at Post Office Projects, Port Adelaide.
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast. My name is Steph and in this episode I caught up with artist Carly Snoswell.
All right, Carly, thank you for catching up with me to have a chat about your practice. I know we didn’t go to your studio because there are some very friendly budgies making noise, so [it’s] hilarious that there are magpies also singing outside. Hopefully they won’t interrupt us. But maybe you’ll feel right at home? Before we get started all acknowledge that we are meeting on Kaurna Land and pay respects to Elders past, present, and future, and you also work your studio and exhibitions often are on the same land as well?
All right. So where do we start? Should we do it chronologically and start with how you came to be an artist.
Sure. Well, I guess I grew up, always enjoying making things. So when I was a kid, I used to stitch lots of things. And I learned how to knit from my mom when I was like nine. And I think when I was 12, I got my first sewing machine. So they always really into textiles and those kinds of processes. You see they’re stitched by number kits. And then in high school, I remember really want to do fashion design, I wanted to go into that.
You were a cool kid!
Maybe. And I can’t really remember what kind of made me shift, I think going to art school was more, I guess, knowing that I could do any different kind of art making and not being limited. So it’s like, Oh, I could go to art school and do clothing or fashion if I wanted to. And actually ended up steering more towards sculpture and installation through the, what’s it called, bachelor of Visual Arts SA back in the day. And I think I finished up there in about 2012 with honors maybe. And then kind of following that did a couple of residencies overseas. And I guess through art school, like the textile course at UniSA wasn’t huge. Yeah. And I actually didn’t enjoy it a lot. Because it was a lot of things that I already knew, I didn’t feel like I was maybe pushing myself or learning new skills. So I ended up doing things like jewellery, and ceramics and printmaking and other kinds of techniques, and majored in sculpture. And so coming out of art school, I was doing a lot of sculpture and installation work. And it kind of wasn’t until I went to India through the Helpmann Residency, and then did another residency for six months in New York, that I started doing textile processes in my practice, I think kind of realizing that, ah, I can use these really humble making skills that I’d learned when I was a kid in my art practice, and also kind of trying to scale down my practice a bit because I was traveling and make smaller works that I could take home with me or could travel well. And I guess that’s sort of where the textiles came from in my work.
Yeah. So did you sort of have to make a decision to go actually, this is a worthwhile technique, because there is stigma attached to textiles.
Yeah, and I think maybe at the time, I wasn’t seeing a lot of textile work around when you know, if I’d go see exhibitions, or I’d see what was happening in the art world as a whole. Whereas now I think Textiles is really really big and popular. And it’s definitely kind of a more accepted and more. It’s kind of in fashion in
Yeah it’s very in vogue, excuse the pun.
Yeah, so then I was like: stuff it. I’m just gonna do it, because it’s what I enjoy doing the most.
Yeah, and you know, a lifelong thing. I definitely didn’t know how to sew at twelve.
Yeah, I made my first pair of pyjamas when I was twelve.
Gosh, you were way ahead of us. Yeah. Cool. And so rounding that out. So yes, you work in textiles. And so and what other mediums still influence your work or come into your work? Or has it shifted back and is it dominated by textiles?
It’s pretty dominated by textiles at the moment. There’s a bit of mixed media kind of stuff and you know, using objects or using collage or things like that, but generally it stays pretty textiles. I’m pretty I like I don’t know how to explain it. I like how I like textiles being, everything’s attached in some way or sewn or woven, or, like I couldn’t make things where things were just stuck down or painted on. Like, it would feel like cheating. Whenever I run workshops with kids and they’re like ‘I just want to to glue these on’ I’m like nah-ah, gotta stitch it.
That’s great. And so there’s quite a history with those mediums that you have, you know, got that familiarity with and honed over the years. But the actual themes of your work, I mean, a cross section, a glance at your website yields, you know, references to Beyonce, Port Power the football team, Lisa Simpson; what’s kind of the thread that’s run -excuse that pun also- What are those themes that you’re exploring?
Well, I guess I it all kind of started I was doing ah, I just remember being in my studio and wanting to practice this particular embroidery thread that I learnt in India. And
Like a stitch?
Yeah, a particular stitch and it’s a stitch they use to sew the mirrors onto their saris. And I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want to be just doing the same thing. I just was interested in that the way that that was stitched. But so I wanted to stitch something circular. And so I ended up having getting like a hole punch thing. That was like about an inch, you know, wide and had these Beyonce calendars. And so it was just about like
as you do
yeah, I love Beyonce. And so it was just like, had that in my studio. So I was like, Oh, I’m gonna use it with last year’s calendar.
Yeah, good, you wouldn’t want to butcher this year’s.
Yeah, and stuff started like punching out one of the image to get just a nice like, warped, pixelated picture of Beyonce and kind of stuck it down really loosely, so that I could then stitch it onto the fabric, as just a way of practicing. And then from that, I then, you know, started to, using the same stitching method, sewed sequins around it. And that slowly kind of grew and grew. And I was like, Well, I think there’s like something in this.
[in unison] …something in this.
Yeah. And, you know, I spoke to a few… I was at Mint Studios at the time, which is on used to be on Wright Street with Jenna Pippett and Kate Kurucz and they’re my art wives. So always talking to them about whatever I’m working on. And I was kind of like: I don’t know if this can be an exhibition, but I kind of really want it to be. And through a bit of like, talking with them and talking with some other artists and curators kind of got that encouragement of that, you know, ‘these are great’,
yeah and tease that out.
Yeah. And like, spoke to Roy Ananda about fandom and that started.
The guru. And really opened up this whole world that I kind of didn’t know about, but it was so in already. Yeah, I was like, oh, cool, like art can can just be about, like, these wonderful things that are part of our identity in our lives. And yeah, so that show
isn’t it terrible that that feels wrong?
I know and it’s like ‘oh but it’s not art’ and it’s like, but it is.
But it is, yeah.
and so that kind of grew into this big show that was at the CACSA Project Space back in the day. And so that was sort of my first big show on fandom and it was all about with these Beyonce kind of shrines, they ended up being
they were very shrine-y and fringy
Yeah so had all the like, kind of natty, you know, tacky, embellishments, which is really fun. And, yeah, following that, I was in like, Oh, this is, it was a new world for me. In terms of my practice, like previously, I’ve done a lot of work about the kind of repetitive processes in textiles or in sculpture making and how that can be meditative. But it didn’t go much further than that. And then this felt like that devotion and obsession would come through that fandom and into these objects. And so I wanted to research that more. So I ended up applying and doing my masters. And it was all on fandom. And that’s where Port Power and the Simpsons kind of came into it. Because they’re two of my, well that and Beyonce are three of my biggest kind of fandoms. And they are all from such different worlds and different meanings to me. And so yeah, through that, I wrote my thesis and had my exhibition, ‘Beyonce is a Port Supporter’.
I love it
And that was all about projecting your own fandoms onto like, other fan… people.
it’s like this intersection isn’t it.
Yeah, like well, I’m a Port supporter, so Beyonce would have to be a Port supporter, right? Yeah.
Yeah. And that’s nice, because it is that proximity of the thing that you’re so invested in? Yeah, well, of course. Yeah. I can speak for us all.
I have kids ask me and they’re like “IS she a Port Supporter?” I’m like, yeah!
I’ll ask her; I’ve got her on speed dial. That’s so good.
Um, Yeah, and so I guess, through that, just researching, fandom more and finding the particular niche subcultures of fandom and how, particularly the kind of fan textile and handicrafting community is quite large and quite strong in there’s so many different little pockets in there of different amazing things.
Well I loved the… self confessed: I don’t know anything about football- but reading a little bit about the banner making and how interesting and ritual or you know what that process is like.
Yeah, well, I went and attended and participated in the banner making back in 2017, or 18.
And it’s the one that the players run through, isn’t it?
Yeah. And so that’s all part of it is like these people that make the banner. They do it in two hours as well. Phenomenal. Yeah, like, yeah, the size of a basketball court. And they do it in like a gym. Yeah, on the basketball court. And everyone has their like job and their role, like there’s people who do the big background, there’s other people who do the letters, and everyone knows what they’re doing. Everyone has like a place and a purpose. And they’re all there for this joint love of this footy team, and for a lot of them
for this thing that will be broken.
for this thing that will only last for like, five minutes on game day. But it’s all part that’s such a huge part of their identity is loving Port Adelaide and being part of that community. I felt so heartbroken for them the last few years when banners weren’t able to be made for the game, since like, for them, that would be a highlight of their week as well. And such it’s not about the like, actual physical thing. It’s about coming together as a community. And I think that’s what I really liked as well, is like making something together, and that connection you have with people. So that’s something that I try and strive for in my work as well. That kind of…
well I guess that object kind of represents that devotion? – broken or not.
Yeah. Well in this not many clubs that still do that anymore. Like a lot of them have, you know, reusable banners, they stick lettering on or stick things on
which is admirable
which is better for the environment
yes, just like as much as that is probably a smarter thing to do. It’s just like, doesn’t have that feeling. Yeah.
That’s I guess that’s what it is. It’s capturing that. Yeah, that feeling.
Then, interesting. I’m definitely jumping around a bit here. But the Crochet Your Character project with Steph Cibich, and a few other hands involved. Like that was interesting that it built on your practice a bit more in that you then got audiences involved in the making. They weren’t just witnessing it or being told how great it was. It’s like, No, you’re involved now. Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah. Well, Steph invited me to be part of that project. And I think it was immediately following my master’s degree. And I was super kind of hesitant, but interested. And I was like, Oh, I don’t really know what to do for this, but it sounds really interesting. And so I had to, like, really think about my practice, because, you know, the work I make is so detailed and involved. Like, I can’t make, like 100 artworks to fill a vending machine, because I don’t know how I would do that and be able to keep the like integrity of my work. And, you know, it’s a bit, it’s different if you make something that’s easy to replicate, like on a physical level, but my work just isn’t like that. So, and I had been to Japan on a residency not long before that. And I was super interested in the vending machines in Japan, and a lot of the kinda, they do a lot of the, like, lucky dip kind of thing, where you just get a thing and you don’t know it’s gonna be a mystery box, or there’s another word for them… anyway. And so, I had made the Lisa Simpson coat as part of my masters
which part of the research had been looking at these crochet and knitting patterns that fans make for fans to make their own fan object. So it’s like, as a fan, creating something that other fans can engage with their own fans? So this is funny, like, it’s not making something of that thing that someone just buys and has, it is about making an experience. Or making the experience of fandom. Yeah. Which is a little bit like convoluted and funny, but so that’s like, oh, I can make something similar or like making the experience of making one of those artworks. So through that I developed the crochet pattern and made these little kits. And yeah, I worked really closely with Steph and Poss, Rosina Possingham, on the kind of graphics of it all. So to make it this really cool packaging design, because we wanted it to be accessible as well. But then still wanting to make some kind of artwork for it. So I did, part of it was like one in 10 of the packs contains a mini artwork. So it’s like you could get the kit to make your own or like, you could be lucky and win the little artwork. So I liked that kind of chance element to it as well, which was really fun. And then it was fun seeing people get them and, you know, show them unboxing it and if they got the prize, or I think the like only one little downside is crocheting can be quite tricky. Some people, like got them for their kids, and they’re like, oh, it’s way too hard. I was like, yeah, it’s not super appropriate for like little kids.
They might come back to it
But then some, you know, diehard crocheters and craftspeople out there would send me their little creations and got Yeah, quite a handful of funny little creatures, which is really, really nice. And yeah, it just went absolutely bonkers. Like, it sold out in a week I think of being at the art gallery, and we’re like, Oh, my God. So I’m madly. Steph was like making packages like putting kits together and I was madly crocheting little artworks.
Will I mean, yeah, that went pretty good then.
Yeah, I think in the end, like, it was about 500 or so that was sold through the thing. And So I was making like 50 little characters.
Wow You had to be productive.
Yeah, I felt, I did feel like a bit of a machine.
yeah you were the machine!
And now, by the time anyone listens to this, it will be SALA Festival and your exhibition at POP / Post Office Projects will either be open or nearly open. Can you tell us about this body of work? Because it’s yeah, it’s been a little bit since your graduate work. And it feels like it’ll be a big one.
Yeah. So it’s yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had kind of a major show of just my work or something that’s not in a group show or like another kind of workshop project or something. And there has been probably a bit of a kind of thematic shift in my practice in the past couple of years. So this work is basically exploring themes of fertility, motherhood and homemaking through small textile pieces. So basically, for the last couple of years, I’ve been tracking my menstrual cycles, for fertility reasons, and also health reasons. And I guess through that tracking, I found myself quite obsessed with this idea of like, ‘what day am I in my cycle?’ And ‘what does that mean?’ And what ‘how should I be feeling?’ And ‘what should my body be doing right now’ and going through this like, real emotional up and down, both of hormones and then of kind of wanting something and then feeling like a failed or feeling like things aren’t going to plan? And so I guess I wanted to harness that obsession into something. And in a similar way to the fandom and that kind of idea of obsession and devotion, creating something out of love, this was out of something cathartic for me, was making these pieces. So taking kind of all of these, these numbers and tracking and making something helpful out of it, I suppose. Because often the kind of obsessiveness can be really unhelpful too, but it’s hard to like break out of it.
yeah, or do something with that.
Yeah. Yeah. So yeah, for the show. It’s going to be I think, about 25 to 30 works, each work representing one of my cycles over the past couple of years. And with the numbers reflecting like the length of each cycle, so you know, one piece will be say, have 24 on it in some way. And one piece might have 28 and kind of goes, fluctuates between all those different numbers and
That’s quite a lot of time represented, isn’t it?
Yeah. Yeah. And kind of looking at that as like this idea of passing of time, but also, I guess, giving a bit of a moment each of those cycles and
everything that was in that
yeah, and giving some importance to the, the tracking of it all and the you know, it’s something that a lot of people don’t talk about a lot as well. And so trying to give voice to all those feelings and emotions,
yeah, all the energy spent. Yeah. And there’s such a nice, well, nice, interesting parallel between, you know, how disciplined and meticulous and constant you’d have to be with that tracking. And, you know, this sort of similar devotion then of the techniques of textiles. And there’s sort of data in that, you know, yeah, -I don’t know a lot about individual stitches- like on-one-off-one or whatever. There’s some sort of parallel there, I’m sure. Yeah. And just that discipline, I guess. And it’s quite interesting.
Yeah. Well I like to kind of set myself challenges when I’ve got projects or shows or big work sort of having like, I want to do this much. And so I guess it seemed like a really mammoth task at the beginning. And now that I’ve kind of gone through it and coming out the other side. It was a lot, but it felt like it needed to be done as well. So yeah,
I love that you’re like, ‘I’m going to do this impossible thing’. And just do it.
It always works out.
Oh, dear. I know, you said that the theme of this work is a bit of a departure from what you’ve done in the past. Are there any -I’m trying not to say the word ‘threads’- running through that? I mean, perhaps not specifically to fandom, but through that honoring of textile or anything like that?
Um, yeah, I think, because I did think it was like a huge departure, like you said, and making something quite different. But I guess I can see the connections between that sort of obsessiveness and repetition, and using textiles and craft making as a means of pouring those kind of feelings and emotions into something. And then, similarly, I think, in my past work, I’ve used a lot of, you know, traditional ‘woman’s work’ techniques, in a way of like, elevating that crafts, making techniques to a more, you know, high art. Yeah, that kind of the dissection between highbrow and lowbrow still follows through in a lot of my work and still seeing it. And I guess it’s that same of like it follows that kind of idea follows through in lots of maybe health concerns, or, you know, with ideas of fertility or health concerns of people with uteruses. And those kind of challenges that in the past, people wouldn’t speak about, because like, ‘oh, no, no, that’s TMI’. And that’s, you know, that’s not our business. So we don’t talk about that, or it’s like, uncomfortable or a bit,
it is almost a similar dismissal of
Yeah, and you know, those things traditionally happen to women as well, which is a kind of common theme in all these things. So, like, I work with lots of different people of different ages in my kind of other jobs and have had some, like, older people say to me, like, ‘Oh, why would you want to talk about that?’ Because coming from a very different generation, it’s just not spoken about. And it’s quite amazing how, through making this kind of work, and having these conversations with people so much is, so many people are coming to me and talking to me about all these things I had no idea about within their lives. And I think, which is really nice to
like a catalyst
Yeah, I guess for people to share and say, oh, yeah, you know, ‘so and so I know went through all this’ or ‘I’ve had similar struggles with this health thing’ or, you know, giving people permission to talk about it as well, which I think is nice
if they hadn’t had the space before to be able to share that. It’s so interesting.
I know that you said that you had some great interactions with the vending machine works. But do you have any other great, maybe in-gallery memories of people interacting with what you’ve made?
Yeah. I think making work about fandom is always good, because it’s a point of entry for the people. And that’s always a goal of mine, when I’m making art or thinking about art, is trying to make things accessible and I don’t want to be excluding people and thinking art isn’t their thing or something. And yeah, particularly when I had the big Port Adelaide banner at Floating Goose. And that was part of SALA in 2018, I think. And yeah, it would sometimes get like people walk off the street that just like, oh, this is about Port Adelaide, isn’t it? I’d be like, Yep!
So good because that’s got the, Floating Goose is just all one window on one side.
Yeah such a great frontage in such a public space, which is really good.
And that was a very glimmery work, real visual feast.
Yeah, And it was just fun to then talk to people about it in that way of ‘Oh, and this is art?’ like, yeah, sure is.
That’s so Good.
So that’s always a fun, I guess, side product of making art. That things that are Yeah, just, you know, pop culture.
That they are probably also fans of as well. Yeah. It’s funny connections. Because I think yeah, I think you did talk about in some past interview about the that nature of the fandom and those connections can be unlikely but then so intense based on you know, that inherent knowledge of you know, whether it’s Simpsons quotes, or, like knowing, you know, you’ve always got that friend that go or they’ll love this, you know, little niche little meme or something like
that. And I, I always, I do make a lot of particular Simpsons works, that are works that are kind of like little nuggets for fans of Easter and other people like, that doesn’t make sense. Yes, it does.
But it’s worth it for the one person that goes,
yeah, pretty much just Roy and Jules. Yeah.
Hahah Roy you’ve been outed. Love it. Well, thank you for chatting to me. Can you let us know for anyone who’s been intrigued by this conversation: where can we follow along with your work? And and where is the show again, this SALA?
The show will be at Post Office Projects (POP), which is in Port Adelaide, St. Vincent Street. And yeah, so people can find out more about my practice on my website, which is just http://www.carlysnoswell.com/. They can look at my Instagram, but I haven’t really been using it lately.
We’re all guilty of that.
Yeah. So trying to kind of separate myself from that sometimes, but But yeah, I plan to start some kind of mailing lists. Hopefully.
All right. Thanks so much Carly
No worries, thank you.
Episode 30 / Mark Valenzuela
In this episode, Andrew Purvis chats with Mark about his journey as an artist and his current exhibition, ‘Still Tied to a Tree’ at Adelaide Central Gallery. Tune in to hear about his influences and connections to his practice – from Filipino culture, to chess, to the fictitious villain General Zod.
- 2022 SALA Feature Artist
- Still Tied to a Tree at Adelaide Central Gallery
- Book: Mark Valenzuela by Belinda Howden, Anna O’Loughlin [Wakefield Press]
- Paul Pfieffer
- Cristina Taniguchi, Maria Taniguchi
- General Zod [Wikipedia]
- Agimat (amulet) [Wikipedia
- Opposition (direct opposition) in chess [Wikipedia]
Kate Moskwa 00:01
Hello and welcome to the SALA podcast. Each year SALA’s Feature Artist is aligned with the recipient of the SA Living Artist publication. This year, that’s Mark Valenzuela. In addition to this publication, his work is featured in a solo exhibition at Adelaide Central Gallery. Please enjoy this interview about this exhibition and his practice.
Andrew Purvis 00:42
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land we meet on today is the traditional lands of the Kaurna People, and we pay our respects to Aboriginal Elders past, present and emerging. We pay a special welcome to any First Nations Peoples joining us today. Adelaide Central School of Art is very proud to be hosting the SALA Feature Artists for 2022, Mark Valenzuela. Not only has Mark pulled off a pretty spectacular installation of work in our gallery with his exhibition, Still Tied to a Tree, but this year sees the publication of Mark’s new monograph, which has been written by Belinda Howden and Anna O’Loughlin. And you also have an installation of work at the Art Gallery of South Australia Mark. This talk is happening outside of the gallery for the simple reason that it is just so full of work at the moment that we couldn’t possibly hope to cram all of you in there, alongside an exhibition full of drawing, painting, ceramic and installation work. If you haven’t had the chance already, I urge you after the talk to head on in there and check out the show. But, Mark, I thought for our conversation today… Hello, welcome.
Mark Valenzuela 01:56
Hi. Thank you. Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew Purvis 01:59
It might be an seeing that this exhibition and this conversation is happening at an art school. I thought we could start by talking a little bit about your own training in visual arts. Yeah. So reading an essay in your monograph, I can see that you didn’t have access to a visual arts course at your university in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, you had to design your own arts training, didn’t you?
Mark Valenzuela 02:21
Andrew Purvis 02:23
Can you tell us a bit about that?
Mark Valenzuela 02:24
Yeah, sure. Well, there was Dumaguete is the central part of the Philippines. And that’s how I met Anna as well. And that’s where I met Anna. And it’s a small town, university town. And there’s plenty of writers it’s sort of like the center of the writing world in the, in the Philippines. But the problem is, there’s no fine arts there yet. So during my time -at the moment, there’s two or three now- but during my time, there’s no fine art. So the closest to fine arts was engineering. But before that, I even went to accountancy and management.
Andrew Purvis 03:07
These are not things that people consider very proximal to the visual arts.
Mark Valenzuela 03:11
Not very, but in terms of materials. The reason why I took engineering because of yes, the closest thing to fine arts. Because of that, they talk a lot about materials and research about different materials. And I said to myself, like, oh, this could be the best approach to it. But other than that, I’m also practicing by myself already by going to, you know, sorry, you’re not meant to do this, but, stealing books in the library. In the Philippines, you can’t borrow books, you can’t bring it home, so or else you’re going to be staying in the library, up to 7pm or 9pm, during weekend. So in order for me to access all of that, I have to throw them in the window, and then yeah, but I return them. So. So that’s one way of educating myself in art.
Andrew Purvis 04:03
I love that we’re starting off this conversation with a confession.
Mark Valenzuela 04:06
Andrew Purvis 04:07
I think you had a pretty interesting strategy for the books that you selected as well by examining the library cards as to who’d been reading them in the past?
Mark Valenzuela 04:17
Well yeah. Yeah, yeah. So I look at the artists that I admired, because in that town, it’s actually an art, art, art artists’ haven. So people like Paul Pfeiffer used to study there. And you know, work. Cristina Taniguchi and her daughter, Maria Taniguchi. They’re pretty well known in the art world at the moment. And and I just look at the names that, you know,
Andrew Purvis 04:17
yeah. So you’ve read everything that Paul Pfeiffer’s read.
Mark Valenzuela 04:42
Yeah. I think so.
Andrew Purvis 04:48
I think the fact that you are self taught and you kind of designed your own artistic course probably explains a lot about the diversity of your practice; you seem equally equipped to work across drawing, painting, ceramic objects. But this was all self taught by you?
Andrew Purvis 05:04
Well you were telling me about this and I found it really interesting: the access to materials and this concern with materials that drove you towards engineering, it is quite a different environment that we might take for granted here in Australia, to collect materials to pursue your ceramic practice was a lot more involved than going over to the shop that’s adjacent to an art school and buying a kilo of clay. What what would be involved for you?
Mark Valenzuela 05:04
Yeah, it is. The reason why I’m doing drawings and paintings a lot in my previous life is that because that’s the only it’s quite conservative the place as well. So, you know, it’s still painting, painting and drawing drawing. So that’s why it’s probably a good one because I was able to really learn more about drawings. But way before then I’ve been drawing and making paintings. But when I went to the study, when I went studying in the university in Silliman University, provide me a lot of competitions, because there’s a lot of people like creative people around. So yeah. And then, of course, engineering, ceramic. That’s how I learned about it
Mark Valenzuela 06:11
Well, I used to gather my own my own materials, like I source my own clay, I dig my own clay, I go to the mountains and look for clay paddy, that works with my work, but it’s just basically terracotta, like, lower firing clay. And before I went to engineering, it’s all about just, you know, randomly learning it on the spot, like, but engineering provide me a research background to my practice. So like, I tested clay and how high I can reached temperature with the local clay we had. And it’s a bucket material is, everybody knows, Clay, if you’re, if you’re in the Philippines, like everybody knows terracotta, everybody does use terracotta as a material for the, for their practice, because you can really access it. Like you can access it in your backyard. And indeed and that was a start. And then I go on and on and processing my own clay, drying my own clay, building my own kilns, and yeah,
Andrew Purvis 07:16
I think that sort of DIY ethos of having to make do with what you’ve got, but also not stop with what you’ve got. But to actually sort of like build your own kiln and your own firing.
Mark Valenzuela 07:27
Andrew Purvis 07:27
Equipment and things like that has really served you well, in your practice, it has opened up doors to not being limited by processes that you’ve been taught or materials or facilities that you have available to you.
Mark Valenzuela 07:39
Yeah, it does. And also like, it gave me a like, unlimited resources of creativity, because during the process, the process itself is an art practice. And it’s an art form, you know, like even building a kiln, there was a time that I build the kiln around the work. And when I noticed that it like, oh, the work inside looks really good. But the outside too, you know, the kiln itself, and the art to firing as well. So, so on the way, there’s plenty of things like you sometimes, you know, take it for granted in exhibitions because an exhibition is a product or it’s an object. But there’s a lot of things going around that or before that before you see the object,
Andrew Purvis 08:31
or the process of the making the work can be as interesting
Mark Valenzuela 08:34
or even more interesting. So yeah, for me.
Andrew Purvis 08:38
When you were in the Philippines, a lot of your activities and some of the work you were making was tied up as your role as a protester and thinking about that political dimension of your work, did that heavily influence your art practice?
Mark Valenzuela 08:52
Yeah, with us? All everything in the Philippines again, as well. Sorry, if I keep on mentioning the Philippines, because I live there.
Andrew Purvis 08:59
It’s pretty fundamental to you, to your life!
Mark Valenzuela 09:01
I lived there for 32 years. So anyway, up almost everybody like artists, I know, it is a big part of their practice, because it’s the only way to actually change the system. So artists plays a big role in the Philippines, like they are the front-liners of change in my country. Right. Yeah. So this speak a lot about the administration, whoever the administration, who said whoever running the administration, so and I’m part of that, so and, yeah,
Andrew Purvis 09:36
So it’s an ongoing thing for you.
Mark Valenzuela 09:37
Ongoing thing for me. And so I go in and out of that, because sometimes it can be scary, too. But yeah, and
Andrew Purvis 09:44
and dangerous for you
Mark Valenzuela 09:45
and dangerous for some artists. But yes, part of our, the way we operate our practice.
Andrew Purvis 09:54
And I mean, I think that that goes back to that point that you were making about the process of making work. A lot of political work gains its power by how and where it’s engaged with, it’s often exhibited in the public space. It might be displayed at demonstrations or things like that. And I think that that’s something that is part of your practice as well, this idea of A) putting work in the public space. But also this real concern about the performance of installation or display. Can you tell us a little bit about maybe the works of yours that you’ve made in public space? And how that works?
Mark Valenzuela 10:32
are talking about the Philippines?
Andrew Purvis 10:34
We can talk about Philippines or here. Yeah.
Mark Valenzuela 10:36
So the ones that I made here is, yeah, so it’s reinforced by my act of putting works around public places and public spaces. And I get fascinated, I guess, this this these things are quite -to be honest- came later in my practice. So and that’s the reason why probably because the when I started exhibiting in Manila, Manila could be like there’s hundreds of exhibitions every day, and… No not every day, every week. But there’s a lot of exhibitions, hundreds of galleries, and you can you can even make a living out of it, you know, like, you know what, I mean? You don’t have to cook dinner, you just go exhibitions every night, so
Andrew Purvis 11:23
Oh that kind of living, Okay, all right. I think that was different from what everyone was imagining.
Mark Valenzuela 11:30
And and yeah, so it’s very space-bound. Not very performative. There are few, but you can only count them in the fingers on your in your fingers. So when I came here, this provide me a lot of having a big spaces to do things and, you know, your work don’t get damaged or you know, things like that. So there’s a lot of freedom in the street to so there are spaces like that in the Philippines. But as far as I said, it’s not that much compared here. So most of my, the street part of my work is actually when I moved in Australia and visited Indonesia as well, because Indonesia is very big in performative art and street art as well. So yeah.
Andrew Purvis 12:22
And when we’re talking about here, you the street art that you’re exhibiting, it can range from stencils, but also include some ceramic, which is pretty unusual.
Mark Valenzuela 12:30
Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. Because it’s the idea of occupying space. So yeah, so the object will leave it there. To it occupies space for a little bit. But sometimes forever. And, yeah. So and then and then stencils of course. The only problem with stencils is that it occupies space longer, because with ceramic, it becomes an object. And people love objects.
Andrew Purvis 12:33
Mark Valenzuela 13:04
Andrew Purvis 13:08
But this idea of territoriality, of occupying space is certainly something that is very much an undercurrent of the current exhibition. But it runs through quite a lot of your work. Do you want to talk about how that idea of territoriality stems from both your upbringing, your life in the Philippines and what you encountered when you came to Australia? Those differences in public space maybe.
Mark Valenzuela 13:35
Yeah, that’s a very difficult question. Yes. Well, I’ve been talking about territoriality in my work for like, ages already. And that’s probably because of my upbringing as well. And I live again, I came from the Philippines and the Philippines is always subject for outside forces all the time. So there’s always, you know,
Andrew Purvis 14:01
there’s colonial influences
Mark Valenzuela 14:02
yeah, yeah. And there’s always a threat of invasion, you know, like people grab our lands and stuff like that. So that’s an ongoing problem and phenomenon in the Philippines, even up to now. So that probably is one major reason as well. So and but also my dad used to be in the military. So there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of that. And when I came here, it’s a different world again, right. So the way we define the rat race here is very different again.
Andrew Purvis 14:34
Yeah. From our conversations, it ranges from this geopolitical sense of like national boundaries and territorial borders. But also when you arrived in Australia, you were telling me about the way public spaces divided up the sort of backyard fence; the difference between noise and density you experience in the Philippines as you experience here. Can you talk a little bit about that that different experience into the environment, of moving through these different cities.
Mark Valenzuela 15:04
You know, the I forget that the which, which Superman movie it was like when General Zod came to Earth and sort of like the
Andrew Purvis 15:20
is that with the Phantom Zone
Mark Valenzuela 15:20
Yeah, and chasing Superman somewhere. And that the edge of Superman is that his system adjusted already to the environment. He can hear things but he can also block things. Like, you know, background noise
Andrew Purvis 15:35
his super hearing is so sensitive but he’s learned to live in a noisy planet.
Mark Valenzuela 15:41
Yeah. So and then Zod can’t take that right, because it’s new for him. So it’s a bit like that for me, you know, and I’m not saying that I’m Superman or
Andrew Purvis 15:48
you’re General Zod!
Mark Valenzuela 15:50
you know, but it’s a bit like that for me, like, you know, I even made a show about that called Terraforming. So it’s about, you know, how you adapt a space, right. And then also, when you come to a space, there’s a pre-existing noise or background noise that you it’s you’re not accustomed to, you know? In the Philippines we hear a lot of background noise like roosters crowing because they’re farmed and farmed to fight, and stray dogs, hundreds and millions of stray dogs and stray animals and then and of course, we live really close to each other, you know, that provided us, you know, like a beautiful background noise that I sort of missed. When I came, I used to be critical about that when I was there. Because there’s some there’s no private space, you know, like, When can I have privacy? I have to climb a mountain, -which is for real- I have to climb a mountain to get my own space, you know? So yeah,
Andrew Purvis 16:50
and you can get some clay while you’re there.
Mark Valenzuela 16:52
Yeah. But here when I arrived here, it’s a bit different. It’s so quiet for me. And I can hear my, you know, my tummy rumbling. You know, I can hear it. Like literally, I told my friends about it. One in Thailand said like, ‘isn’t that beautiful? You can hear you can hear everything?’ Yeah, it’s beautiful. But sometimes also it could be isolating as well. Oh, you hear a lot? You see a lot. I know. Yeah, you hear a lot. You see a lot, but not so much noise that so much background noise, but you hear a lot. Because everything gets magnified.
Andrew Purvis 17:32
Yesah, To use another superhero analogy, it’s a bit like Daredevil, who’s able, whose smell and hearing is more amplified and can sort of like pick up on things that other people don’t notice. But there’s a really nice work in the Still Tied to a Tree exhibition, which is the ceramic leaf blower and on the end of the leaf blower is a is not a nozzle to blow air, but is a human ear.
Mark Valenzuela 17:56
Yeah. So the human ear is like way, way back, to my probably 10 years in my practice. But I just use the ears now as you know, as leaves. I made this leaf blower actually inspired by a work because of this guy
Andrew Purvis 18:15
You’d better say who this guy is, for the recording
Mark Valenzuela 18:17
It’s Andrew Stock. And he showed me this work of a student of yours?
Andrew Stock 18:23
Mark Valenzuela 18:24
That is a leaf blower. And I said to myself, Oh, this is really I thought this was really an Australian thing, you know. So in my neighborhood, like, wherever I go, I can hear leaf blowers -that’s probably the new background noise. And it’s beautiful, because I tried it. It’s beautiful when you’re on the side where the trigger is, you know, but if you’re the opposite of that side, it’s not so much. It’s very, like annoying. So that’s probably is the the background noise that I’m talking about here.
Andrew Purvis 18:54
And it’s a background noise that speaks so much about control of space and sort of like pushing the leaf out of your little plot of land and things and
Mark Valenzuela 19:01
and making everything tidy. Yeah, yeah. Has to be tidy.
Andrew Purvis 19:10
So that that leaf blower, the human ear, I think evokes a lot of your your work which, while it can deal with political ideas, they’re often couched in very surreal, sometimes humorous, but often disturbing imagery. Can you tell us where these strange creatures, severed body parts, and sort of odd amalgamations come from? Is that just the way your mind works or?
Mark Valenzuela 19:34
Yeah, a little bit of that, yeah. Probably drinking so much coffee as well. No, another thing is animism, which is again during the pre-colonial Philippines, that’s our belief system. And even now, you know, when the Spanish arrived during the 1500s, they brought in another belief system which is Christianity, and then Islam as well came in from the south. And all of these, you know, get sort of like, mixed up with animism. So our belief system now is quite combination of those different religious belief system and, and plus animism. So I’m quite familiar with it. So that’s another thing like in terms of figuration when people make in the Philippines, you can say you can see like, oh, it looks very surreal was actually way, way before then. Yeah. Because it’s, it’s about our culture before… before colonialism. So. So there’s a lot of we believe in, like, the world is inhabited by good and bad spirits. Like, almost everything, even natural disasters or natural phenomenon. Like, we believe that that’s the spirit guiding that or
Andrew Purvis 20:56
and objects as well
Mark Valenzuela 20:57
and objects as well. So that’s why my work is like that, like, they look like, you know, animated objects, you know?
Andrew Purvis 21:06
Yeah. And it feels less unusual if these objects like a leaf blower suddenly takes on this kind of organic life of its own. That’s really interesting.
Mark Valenzuela 21:16
Yeah. So, and then also, the way I put my works together, even I have this big idea, but in between the works this tiny little, yeah. meanings into it. And I love I love that in my work as well. So and then in in that is, again, that is again, very backed up by the by my my background, cultural background, which is, you know, mythology belief system and stuff like that. So, if you go in the exhibition there, that particular work there in front of you, the banana heart that is
Andrew Purvis 22:04
so Mark’s referring to the banana hearts that are suspended inside these steel armatures that kind of that hold them in place and look like they’re kind of draining them
Mark Valenzuela 22:13
That’s really an amazing work, not because it’s my work, but I just love I just love the way I was able to manipulate the material or the whole, the whole idea and put it here. And, and it’s actually those three banana heart there that the transformation of the banana heart into this… you know, Superman, what do you call that, the logo of Superman?
Andrew Purvis 22:41
yeah, Superman’s sort of chest emblem with the ‘S’ inside
Mark Valenzuela 22:44
And then it turned into that,
Andrew Purvis 22:47
yeah, so they object to that marks describing as a banana heart that on one side features the silhouette of Superman’s distinctive sort of diamond shaped chest emblem, that then morphs into an intermediate shape and then finally changes into the ace of spades,
Mark Valenzuela 23:03
the ace of spades.
Andrew Purvis 23:04
Yeah, and I really like that work because there is such a kind of polar philosophical difference between what Superman represents and what the ace of spades, that sort of reset Motorhead kind of symbol of chaos maybe?
Mark Valenzuela 23:17
Yeah or even, you know, the spikes of gates and fences? Yeah, so, there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of, again, that goes back again to territoriality and gatekeeping. Again, which is big, big, you know, layer in my work. Yeah. And, and, and I tell you a little bit of story of the mythology behind bananas.
Andrew Purvis 23:37
Please, Yeah. Go for it
Mark Valenzuela 23:38
Well, it’s, it’s, at a certain time, you have to catch this sort of like a pearl before the banana heart blooms. So according to our belief system, way before the Spaniards again, you have to catch it on the right time, and to give you like spiritual… if you catch up on the right time, you have to wait there under the banana tree or the banana shrub. You have to wait for that little pearl or sort of like
Andrew Purvis 24:11
Mark Valenzuela 24:12
that drops from the bottom of the banana heart before it blooms. And it gives you it was believed that it gives you a supernatural powers like powers and makes you invincible and somehow like, you know, impenetrable by bullets and stuff like so. So amulets and stuff are, you know, big thing in the Philippines too.
Andrew Purvis 24:35
Wow. So that artwork is sort of showing an almost kind of mechanized factory production system to extract that mystical essence.
Mark Valenzuela 24:44
Yeah. And based on an animism again, there will be like creatures from the underworld waiting for it as well. Like, but they cannot access it directly, they have to wait for a human being to catch that right moment before it drops. And then suddenly they’ll take -these creatures waiting- will take that away from the whoever capture it. So this, I like the metaphor of that in terms of a lot of things in the Philippines and here from patriarchy, you know, even violence as well as well sort of like accepted phenomenon.
Andrew Purvis 25:23
I think that’s an interesting thing to touch on, because while your work is very dense with this kind of mythological and cultural elusions, there’s also an undercurrent of violence in in a lot of your work, these sort of severed body parts, but also, the current show is filled with these ceramic versions of curved rebar that have been bent into butcher’s hooks. What does this motif of like the butcher’s hook, and this kind of undercurrent of violence represent in your in your practice?
Mark Valenzuela 25:51
Well, violence and fragility, they go hand in hand. So and that’s one reason why you ceramic, so I just use the object without, so I’ve been using ceramic for that reason. And, and violence, obviously, it’s my background again. So you know, and how, you know, the beauty of clay, the beauty of clay is that it can, it can mold it, it can, it’s very malleable, you can touch it, and it’s very therapeutic at some point. But you can also freeze its form. And you can also mimic other materials without losing its, you know, its own personal characteristic and identity. And you put it in a kiln, when you put in the kiln, it becomes an object. Because you fired it, becomes solid, and yeah, it lasts forever. But if you drop it, it breaks. So there’s a lot of, sort of, like violence in the material, if you if you just look into the material itself, and even firing in a kiln. I mean, who wants to be inside a kiln?
Andrew Purvis 26:58
Mark Valenzuela 26:59
So yeah, so I love that with clay, I love that. And, and then the butcher’s hook, of course, like when you look at the butcher’s hooks it’s… the form itself is very violent already. And then, and then you get this hooks made of clay. For me, that’s really fascinating. The, the, you know, the opposite. Sort of like they have opposite, you know, purpose somehow, you know, like, the butcher’s hook has to stand weight, and, you know, and then but Clay; Clay defies it by saying like, ‘Oh, it’s fragile’. In the streets in the Philippines, it’s a lot of butchery, metaphorically and literally. So there’s a lot of, you know, butcher’s places in the street, that’s one of those things then cock houses as well, the fighting cock roosters and the tires, the vulcanizing tires as well. So these are the streets, these are the street art in the Philippines.
Andrew Purvis 28:00
Yeah, and that sort of furniture of the streets in the Philippines comes into the gallery and fills the space in your exhibition.
Mark Valenzuela 28:06
Yeah. So in have been talking to Anna about this, about the theory of opposition. And just by the way, my, the structure of my work is about chess; the structure of my work is based on chess, because I play a lot of chess. And there’s one thing in, you know, in chess, that’s called the opposition, that theory of opposition, direct opposition in particular, which, you know, you left with a king and on both sides King on the same file on same rank, and then you get a pawn, that if that gets promoted at the eighth rank, it becomes easy for you to win the game, of course, obviously,
Andrew Purvis 28:49
because it becomes a queen
Mark Valenzuela 28:50
it becomes a queen, right. But if you’re the defender, you prevent the king from occupying a space in the middle. And you don’t want the pawn to… because once the king occupies that… a king with a pawn that occupies the middle already the space in the middle, because there’s a gap between two kings. Once the king with the pawn occupies that, that automatic, automatically the pawn behind the king becomes a queen. And and then the other way around, if you’re defending it, you prevent that by doing the opposition. And my work is it’s it’s it’s like that. So when I first came here you know, it’s a bit quiet for me. So, I said to myself, I’m going to fill the gap, like there’s plenty of gaps and spaces, I’m going to fill it up a bit. That will that will actually help me navigate the space as well.
Andrew Purvis 29:51
So your art strategically is like a counter-move to the environment that you’re in.
Mark Valenzuela 29:55
Exactly. And when I go to the Philippines I do the other way around. I make this like really pristine in one work, minimalist one. Like, ‘what? It’s only two works?’ Yeah, because it was different there as well. It’s crowded so. So I like that, I like that.
Andrew Purvis 30:13
I really like it. That sort of connection to chess, which I understand is a really is a huge interest for you and something drives you, it’s probably not something that is visible on the surface of work. But this understanding of the strategies of chess or the approaches to playing that game really inform the way in which you work even on a meta level of how you decide you make your exhibitions. And we were talking before, and you were describing the show that’s in the gallery now, as an ‘intermediate stage’, I know there are intermediate moves in chess as well. But what did you mean by by this exhibition in the gallery now as being an intermediate stage for this, this work?
Mark Valenzuela 30:52
Well. I always find a space or a gallery or any other spaces for exhibition, sometimes it stops a certain time, certain moment, it begins in a certain time, it stops on a certain time. So sort of like, I want to expand that because for me, sometimes, or most of the time, my practice is about now it’s more of like putting things together. So I have this creating an object thing, and and the object thing, and then put them together and make an immersive installation. But sometimes it’s tough. And I don’t want it to stop. So my way of doing it is, this is just happens lately, because I sort of like find it very, very, you know, like, annoying at some point that we get accumulate, we get works accumulated, particularly artists like me, that makes a lot of things, right. And they culminate, most of the time after the exhibition in a storage.
Andrew Purvis 32:02
Mark Valenzuela 32:03
So part of the big part of my practice is reconfiguring and putting things up, bringing new meanings to my work again,
Andrew Purvis 32:11
and when we were talking about this from a kind of animus perspective, maybe, you were describing things that end up in storage is, they’ve died.
Mark Valenzuela 32:17
Yeah. So they sort of like they die, or they become dead. And because you know, how work becomes dead when you don’t look at it, or you don’t engage in it, but it becomes alive again, when you look at it. I just want my work to be at some point dynamic. and I want it moving. You know, so this exhibition, I sort of somehow design the structures and, and the works that will fit in my studio in the future. So my studio is the another space that I could keep on reconfiguring keep on changing the meaning of the works. And it’s endless, the endless possibility that it’s like, again, it’s one of those chess thing again, like, you know, when you’re when you when you you’re playing chess, you get, you have this, plenty of lines that you can go and branches and branches. When you go to your space. That’s, that’s millions of possibilities. And, and the meaning changes from time to time, the way they’re very different to the way we put an object and its function. And look at an object and its function is sometimes boxed into one meaning. So
Andrew Purvis 33:33
I think it’s a really interesting way for an artist to think about their practice to not consider an exhibition as a terminal point as a culmination like, this is now done. And you take works from previous exhibitions, sometimes you reconfigure them rework them, but sometimes you just transplant it from one show to the next, and it feels a lot more sustainable. And a lot more integrated into a continuing practice.
Mark Valenzuela 33:57
Yeah, exactly. Because that’s, that’s what probably all artists are facing right now, after an exhibition, we’re gonna throw these things. Not everybody gets acquired or, you know, being loved. So, I mean, not everything this end up in a bin or sometimes recycle bins, or they sometimes, you know, grow what I mean Grove, you break them if they’re ceramic, so, yeah, so I, sustainability is a big thing. Like, how do you? How do you do the I think it’s time to do that as an artist, you know, planned it ahead, probably, that’s the planning stage that I that every artist should reconsider. So that they just, I mean, from timber, to nails to everything, they shouldn’t just go in and be and they should.
Andrew Purvis 34:47
I’d love to touch on some of the specific works in this exhibition as well while we’ve still got a little bit of time. One of the most distinctive techniques that you use is using the surface of a ceramic object is a space for drawing. That happens a number of times in the show, but I’m thinking particularly about the aliwarus creature that is suspended high up on the wall in the gallery. How do you go about achieving this effect of using the ceramic surfaces as a surface for creating a drawing?
Mark Valenzuela 35:17
Well, also, I really love drawings at lot. love to draw a lot. So I used to draw everybody that shows everyday anyway, including you right?
Andrew Purvis 35:29
But to varying degrees of proficiency, but yeah, I think you’re better at it than I am.
Mark Valenzuela 35:33
But again, like the sculpture itself, I will or the installation itself, I love to look, I love to look at it as a drawing. And one one thing that I actually get fascinated with is like when you covering instead of glaze covering the work. And I used to put drawings a lot on the work on an object, but that will give you again, you focus to an object, right. So now I look at the work now in a distance, more from a distance of drawing makes sense, it looks like the whole installation is a drawing. So ceramic ceramic pencil is one thing I sometimes use acrylic stencils and stuff but I seldom do that in my work in my on my ceramic, what I do, what I use is the pencil, because it looks like it looks like pencil but it’s not. It’s a it’s made of clay. And then you fire it high, and it’s retains, it becomes part of the clay. So it’s like
Andrew Purvis 36:39
there’s a huge sort of textural similarity between that clay pencil on the surface of the clay and the wall drawing that you create in the gallery as well. They look very similar but they’re actually completely different substances.
Mark Valenzuela 36:51
Yeah, because it can erase. I used to make fun of, when I was in the Philippines I had exhibition like when material is quite new there. And I used to used to tell people like because some some some collectors in the Philippines it’s funny because they tried to erase it, like, Oh, can you erase this? Yeah, I’ll give it to you if you can erase it. It’s gonna, it’s quite funny, it becomes embedded in the work and becomes the work itself. So that’s the beauty of it.
Andrew Purvis 37:16
But this new body of work also shows a lot more experimenting with glazes. I feel like that’s, that’s quite a bit of a departure for your practice is that can you tell us what’s been going on in the studio?
Mark Valenzuela 37:26
Well, well, I tend to, even though I have in forms I have I have this, you know, I don’t want to control the form, I just let let let play with the form the way I play with the clay and then let the form sometimes comes out. But in terms of glazing, I’m worried about it so much. And I think I mentioned it in one of the talks in AGSA that I never… I build kilns, right and I fired anagama kilns as well I even built an anagama kiln on here with my partner in the south in Normanville. So I used to fire with anagama with using other people’s work, not my work design. And I’m worried that it doesn’t come up, right. I’m not experimenting with other people’s work.
Mark Valenzuela 38:16
But it’s just I know that it doesn’t work with my work because there’s a tendency with object that when you put it there with all the glazes you’re wasting your time, you could be a waste of time, you know, the whole thing. And as sort of like even the same, the same concept with glazing that could the firing could ruin a work, you know, and then it’s not like a cup that you could, you know, make it into one of those seconds that you can, you can still reuse it but when it comes to sculpture, it’s it could die quickly
Andrew Purvis 38:48
well it’s really interesting. I mean you you are a chess player, and that is a game of skill. And glazing is a game of chance, I think is what you’re telling me.
Mark Valenzuela 38:57
Well, it’s not a game of chance – with natural ash it is a game of chance, but with glazing using glazing materials that is a precise science as well as a science that and that’s pretty predictable. At some point, my only worry is that when I put that in my work it I could I couldn’t imagine it as quick as that it just just doesn’t work yet and I can so glazing is new to me. So no no no not sorry. not new to me but new in my work. And this time around, I just let it loose. So what you see there is a mixture of different glazes that I don’t even know why I just put them in one one thing work out and I just repeated it.
Andrew Purvis 39:43
It’s a really exciting sort of variety of different surface textures and colours and an effects of the glaze.
Mark Valenzuela 39:49
Yeah it’s amazing because it it’s it’s a kind of glaze that flows really when it’s high temperature it flows down and I’ve sacrificed a lot of shelves.
Andrew Purvis 39:58
Yeah you were saying
Mark Valenzuela 40:00
Yeah, because it gets it gets stuck in the shelf. Right. But also the movement can see the movement. Yeah. Like the movement of glazes makes the work alive. Yeah. So that’s why, like, probably I’m gonna sit over that surface for a bit. Yeah, not but not forever.
Andrew Purvis 40:22
Another element of the show that I really like is there’s a sequence of small drawings, which you call your ‘brewing drawings’. And these are part of a daily ritual that you took, can you tell us a little bit about the role that habit and ritual plays in your practice, and for listeners at home, I will just let them know that before we sat down to talk, Mark has brought his entire kit in here to brew us, he’s going to get a top up, he brought his kit in here to brew us a cup of coffee, and he’s just getting a little top-up of coffee now. So I think that this is a this is a big ritual that’s a big part of your work as well.
Mark Valenzuela 40:54
Same as a space-making too, like I’ve been thinking and been saying about this forever to my all my friends that I want to make a space same as, very similar to tea ceremony, and then I make a space made of ceramic, like or other found objects, and then I brew coffee there, and then have conversation because that’s… usually with the coffee, it’s it’s quick, it’s fast, we love to just drink it and go, right. So sort of like I want to put back ritual in my work. And brewing drawing is again, a thing that you know, I do I do everyday, every morning. So every morning I draw parallel to if you follow my Instagram, you can find that there. So this drawing is this brewing. And so related and and the reason why I love that is that it, it brings me back to the detail of my practice, you know how chess is the structure. And almost like, my strategy in my art practice in my art making. And each line, in order to go through each line and opening, you go back to the detail, which is very important as well. And then coffee, give, gave that back to me, you know, that attention to detail again. So and then focus into making fun object I used to the problem is I used before, I used to have this conflict in myself about making an object a non-object. And it’s a beautiful comment that I received from an artist somewhere I met in Northern Territory and a really good artist, and she she just called my work as an object. And at that time, I got really, you know, like, it went into my head, in other words. So I said, like, I’m not gonna make I’m not just making an object. So there was this conflict in me, like, how can I make an un-object? You know, and, and then the performance probably is one way to do it. But also, and then I just this, you know, like, I was able to have this, you know, realization like, well, it could be an object that criticize an object, you know, could be an object that is an anti-object. So now I just said, like, Alright, back to details. Don’t worry about the object/non-object thing they’re just all, you know, a perception thing so.
Andrew Purvis 40:55
But I think that’s a really nice comment, because it kind of takes us full circle back to what we were talking about before this idea of your practice not being restricted to the to the object in space. But considering that process by which it’s made, considering how something is fired, what it’s surface is like and how it exists in space, and how it might move and change over time. I think that’s a really fascinating aspect of your practice that I love that we have this opportunity to have this conversation because it really comes out. And I hope people get the opportunity to revisit Mark’s show during its run here because it will grow and change
Andrew Purvis 43:52
It will grow and change. And the more you go in there -it’s an it’s an immersive work- the more you grow in there, the more you see things as well. Yeah, yeah. So it brings you back to the individual piece, the object, which is not necessarily an object.
Andrew Purvis 44:13
Mark’s right, you will see more things that more often you go back there, he has an incredibly dense and complicated practice, which maybe can’t be unpacked in an hour’s talk, but maybe you might be able to find more by reading this book. But we also have a few minutes now for some questions from the audience. So does anyone have any questions for Mark?
Audience Member 44:37
How do you think traveling has… do you think it’s improved your work or do you it’s changed it in a certain way?
Mark Valenzuela 44:44
Yeah, it does actually. Like even just coming here in Australia. There was a time in my life like probably the five years of my life when I live here, I still consider living here as travelling because I still I perceive my, you know, my where I come from, or the country where I come from as the home and I found it very difficult to. Anyway. So yeah, it does a lot. So when I came here it changed my, my practice, it changed my practice a lot. And then of course, going somewhere going to exhibitions in Southeast Asia, every time, it’s important. Traveling is important. It opens your, you know, your world, in many ways, you know, sometimes we, you know, as a practitioner, you end up like just staying in your studio. And working, traveling provides you a community that you realize that, oh, in other parts of the world, you get community there as well. So and you see other people’s work other people’s properties, and it helps you a lot. It’s like a natural critic. When you see they’re like, Oh, I’m doing worse than what she’s doing. And then you change, you grow from that.
Audience Member 46:08
I just want to go back to what is perceived criticism of being working toward an object is, is it possible to sort of see what I’m thinking anyway, what we do when we we make things when we are making objects? But it’s because, I think this is what you were alluding to, because they they communicate, therefore, it’s in the communication with the artwork is, they’re still objects. And if noone sees them, if they’re locked away after an exhibition in storage, they’re objects,
Mark Valenzuela 46:46
yes they’re the objects,
Andrew Stock 46:47
but the art happens, as it were. And these objects are transformed in relationship with other than themselves. So the audience
Mark Valenzuela 46:58
yeah, and it gets animated. Yeah.
Andrew Stock 47:00
Yeah, it gets animated. Is that what you were kind of alluding to?
Mark Valenzuela 47:05
Well, whatever you do, I mean, everything is an object anyway. Yes. So the only thing is, you don’t want it to be just what I meant about becoming an object is tied to a single meaning. Yes. And I don’t mind that. But recently, my practice, I think, I mean, in reality as well, you know, things change, you know?
Andrew Stock 47:31
For me, it’s always been a classic case of the political meeting the metaphysical.
Mark Valenzuela 47:38
Andrew Stock 47:39
and creating objects that purvey the meaning, and the journeys of that process. Yeah. Which you arrive at through the very physical process of making an object, and those ideas then solidify the object, which is now an artifact, because it generates meaning.
Mark Valenzuela 47:59
Yeah. It’s that’s a very complex question there, Andrew.
Andrew Stock 48:09
Yeah, well, it’s to a complex guy.
Mark Valenzuela 48:12
Yeah. So yeah, so again, the is, again, the object becomes just an object with a single meaning. And, and, for me, that’s quite static for me right. And in my practice, is what I’ve been saying that I want my work to be more dynamic at the same time moving, moving, and, and it changes it morphs into something else, it morphs into, into another having a different meaning depends upon the space, because the idea is the space always change the, the inhabitants and vice versa.
Andrew Stock 48:49
So the context changes
Mark Valenzuela 48:50
The context, yeah, the context change. So in that way, in some way, want to retain the like, and if you just put one meaning to it, and that’s it, that’s, that’s That’s it, you know, put a line to it. That’s a box, you know. And, it becomes it becomes simplified, it becomes simplified. So I don’t want that. So I wanted this. That’s what I said, your question is complex, and the work the object, the object definition is very complex as well.
Audience Member 49:23
Do you think about how the audience will understand the work? I mean, every audience member will have a different view of what an object is, what a given object means. Do you do put together, do you assemble your exhibition on the basis of a vision you have? Or is it in response to what you think, viewers might understand it to me?
Mark Valenzuela 49:46
Yeah, that’s a very good question a bit of both for me, because there are times that I, of course, consider the audience as part of the space right, and the way they react and the way they perceive the object that I’m making or the space that I’m making is, is, you know, they become part of the I mean, the audience will be part of that as well. So the reaction is one thing. But also there is a thing sometimes that it’s just about me. You know? I mean, why not? Like, sometimes you need it, sometimes you need it, sometimes you can see the audience, sometimes not. Because in the end, you know, it’s about you something, probably most of the time. I hope I answered that question. Well, so that’s why it’s a bit of both, it’s a bit of both. And you can do play both as well, like you can consider the audience and at the same time, it’s about you. But that’s pretty stressful, at some point,
Audience Member 50:50
The art here is in a school. The art at the Art Gallery of South Australia is in a museum, yet, they have complementary functions. But you might not, well you might have, thought about what work you would put here, what work you would put there. Is the work that’s in the Art Gallery going to be changing, is that going to be evolving?
Mark Valenzuela 51:13
I added a few bits there. But that’s based, the exhibition that is based on the the collections that works that they acquired from me during the Biennial. And I get the point that this there are limits there as well. So but maybe,
Andrew Purvis 51:30
whereas here we have no limits.
Mark Valenzuela 51:33
I like that
Andrew Purvis 51:35
I might’ve put myself in for something there.
Mark Valenzuela 51:36
But I have a few options that I could interchange the duckies. But here, I love it. I love that. I love it. They’re different. And when I decide because when I when… if I’ve given the chance to occupy two spaces, I will make it as fluid as I can. It’s not like this object only belongs here and that object belongs there or that work belongs here, that work belongs there; I want them to be really related because it’s made by myself and it’s all about, again it goes back to me and I made those works. They’re all related, as they fall into one flow according to the way I live my life.
Andrew Purvis 51:39
I think that might be where we need to leave this conversation. Thank you all very much for joining us and can you please thank Mark Valenzuela.
Photographs from Still Tied to a Tree at Adelaide Central Gallery, 2022.
Episode 29 / Josh Juett
In this episode, Steph catches up with painter Josh Juett (and Winsor the lorikeet) at his homestudio ahead of his show LOST IN THOUGHT at Praxis Artspace. They chat about the early days of his practice (including his first sale, a seascape for $1 in primary school) and through various artistic and musical influences that Steph definitely had to google later. Tune in to hear about his new work that broaches new mediums and the rationale behind the exhibition.
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast. My name is Steph and today I’m catching up with Josh Juett. I’ll just note that we’re catching up in his studio, which is on a traditional lands of the Kaurna People of which sovereignty was never ceded, and these lands are of continuing importance and acknowledge the Elders past, present and emerging.
Now, Josh, it’s hard to look at you with a straight face because you’re sitting opposite me with a bird on your shoulder. Who is this?
This is Windsor.
Okay, cool. All right. Windsor, Josh, great to have you both on the podcast. All right, well, maybe we should go chronologically and go back to how you became an artist: whether you knew that you wanted to be an artist, or whether it’s something you found your way to. How did that go?
Ah, look, I don’t know. I think like most artists, you tend to just say that from when you were a kid, you were engaged with different creative pursuits, I suppose. Or you just had an affinity for different types of arts. But yeah, I don’t know. When I was younger, my mom used to always say that I was just like, the kid that would always want to take home, like a refrigerator box from kindy or something. You know what I mean? Like if they’re getting a new piece of appliance or something. So I was always bringing home like
…to draw on or just like to be in?
I don’t know – to make a cubby out of or something I suppose?
You could say that you could see the potential in materials from an early age
Haha yeah I suppose you’re right. I think, yeah, I don’t know, I was always obsessed -I suppose that’s why I included so much of my work now- but cartoons, especially. And I always wanted to draw like, I was always redrawing Pokemon characters and stuff like that
Oh you were one of those kids.
I was, I was. Um, but yeah, I don’t know. I think I didn’t really get into painting until I was a bit older. Because obviously, that’s a little bit more technical, I suppose. But yeah, I’ve always drawn. Yeah, I didn’t I didn’t really get into like painting painting until I was like late high school.
Okay, which is still early.
Yeah, I suppose I like I think, like I always drew and then when I was a teenager, and like, graffing was cool. That kind of like, pulled me back into art. And then like, I started seeing that there was a bunch of graffiti artists that would also do like kind of character-based work.
Haha you look so unsteady with that bird. No poop on you yet, but.. you know..
No, there is. There definitely is
Oh there is!
That’s totally fine.
Sorry, for everyone listening at home. *giggle*
Um, yeah, I don’t know. I think I’ve just always loved being creative. Yeah, I don’t know. And whatever I can’t really, like, before we started, I was telling you about, like, when I was in school, we’re doing like a drawing class. Actually, this is a different one. But like, we’re doing a drawing class. And the teacher asked us to draw, like a sea scene and the winner of that won a dollar. And I won, and I suppose that was,
was that the beginning of your art career?!
The beginning of my career: winning $1 in primary school. I think it probably would have only been like Year 1 or 2 or something.
Well, you know, that’s pretty good. And I heard you drew a really good bin once.
I did draw a very good bin once. Yeah, I think the bin was probably more of a big deal because I remember like… So as the sea scene was more of a situation where you made it, and then you just gave it and then like, I just got given a dollar. And then I was like, you won with no real elaboration on it. But the bin was like, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this bin is amazing’.
It’s interesting, isn’t it that you know, having an audience receiving the work versus it just being done? And there’s no real, like, fanfare or resolution? Yeah, yeah. Interesting.
Yeah. It’s funny, because I was thinking about it before, like the idea that the bin… drawing a bin; it kind of relates to the type of work that I’d still do now. it’s funny, because it’s like,
yeah I see that
I always paint kind of either dirty things like the kind of mundane but in a way that like, putting it in the context of an artwork makes it feel…
It’s a new light, literally, like…
It’s.. it’s you know how, like, you know, it’s the idea of like painting things that are beautiful. You know what I mean? Like, and taking something that everyone be like, Oh, you don’t do paintings of bins or drawings of bins because they’re gross. Like, we don’t want to think about bins and I’m like, no, no, let’s put it lit and in this scene with other things that we also shouldn’t talk about.
That is such an interesting tie back to school. Amazing Yeah. Well, maybe we will move on to what your works do tend to look like and tend to feature so there’s Yeah, often these mundane objects and like a light source. I don’t know if you’re staging these or just kind of like bringing it forth. What can you describe the sort of most common things that feature?
Yeah, for sure, for sure. I think for me personally, whenever I think about like making a piece I’m like, think about it in terms of, I suppose that’s why most of them are low light, like set it in dusk because there’s not like a harsh indirect light across the whole scene. I tend to like whenever I do a painting like that, I’ve got like a couple in this new show, but I always feel like they are a little bit less moody or they’re a little bit more boring in my mind, because like, all of it’s lit, and there’s no like drama.
So I think, for me personally, whenever I start about a piece of work, I tend to think of it as like a really dull, indirect light for the whole background. So obviously I said at dusk, like fits that bill but yeah, and then like a fairly harsh direct light coming from the front, which creates a lot of like, dramatic shadows and stuff like
and it’s like so much easier to a lot of my work is like imaginative I suppose, like, where I’m taking your reference, but I’m also not, I’m, what’s the word? I’m like, moving beyond it, in a lot of ways where I’m like to make everything come together. Like I often try to like ignore the reference and just take it my own way.
Take a few liberties?
Yeah, because also like, you know, I’ve never wanted my work to be like… *sigh* did she just shit on me.
That was on the couch that time. Maybe Windsor is has had… we should bring her up to the mic.
Say some parting words.
She’s not having it. Look, I knew you were going to be difficult.
We can take a break too and let Windsor go
It was nice while it lasted.
I’m gonna clean myself up now.
She gets nervous around new people
That’s great, though, even though we had to put her back that still so great.
Haha I don’t know
So we were at ignoring the reference like to bring it all together?
Yeah, cuz I feel as though like I want… like growing up was always far more interested in like, you know how like, nowadays, you’ll have like, a video game that’s like realistic lighting, but like non-realistic subject matter. Or like the rocks are kind of, like, cartoony, but they’re still realistic because they’re lit and I don’t know. I just like
Like that kind of bit of both?
Yeah. It’s like realistic, but it’s not
It’s a bit uncannny, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Okay, cool. I think you achieve that, actually. Yeah,
Maybe? I mean, look, yeah, I, yeah. I never wanted to be like, because I’ve done it before, where you just like copy a photo, and you just paint exactly the same. And, like, that’s fine. But it’s a little bit boring. And also, like, like I said, if you try to unite like a bunch of different references, like it’s always better to take liberties in being like, okay, it doesn’t have to be like, 100% realistic?
But anyway, yeah, like, I was saying it umm… I had a point, and then it immediately left my mind
um it was about the light?
Oh yeah so the lighting so so like, I like to think of it as like a there’s like an artificial source that’s on the character. So you know, if you can imagine someone’s like, gone into a forest or field at dusk, and they’ve just like, put a light on a toy and then they’ve photographed it.
Yeah, yeah yep, so there’s sort of nice, balanced light in the background, but the subject’s got that nice direction.
Direct light. Yeah. And I think as well, like, it kind of says something about the idea that this object is like, has importance because you know, if it was lit with everything else, it would kind of just feel like it drowns in with the background,
but if you the spotlight the bin
if you just spotlight the bin, then it’s like *chef kiss*. yeah.
Amazing. And do you like actually… I mean, I know you said you have references, but then sometimes you have to ignore them; do usually spotlight an object and do it that way? Or are you just pretty good at going ‘okay, if the perspective of the light was this way…’ and just kind of imagining?
bit of both
bit of both? ok cool.
Yeah, I think like nowadays, I’m spending a lot more time like taking my own reference photos, because I have like struggled in the past where you have to, like, adapt a reference that doesn’t quite fit. And it’s just like the worst it’s, and it’s so like, it just makes the process not fun when you have to, like sit down and imagine every piece of… or if it doesn’t quite fit or like you know, you have a reference that’s lit from the left and your painting has light from the right and you’re like ‘ah, I guess it would be like this’ and it just it just never looks as good. It’s always way more stressful. So I think like nowadays, I tend to spend a little bit more time getting good reference.
Yeah, yeah. And that pays off in the end it
Oh it makes it less stressful. Let’s put it that way.
Haha, I love it. Coming back to the objects and what their significance is. Like I know you mentioned, yeah, some sort of pop-culture, Simpsons references..
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Wh… yeah I don’t even know how to phrase the question. Wh- What? Why? Why. Just Why. Why *laughing*
Just Why. yeah, I don’t know. Look, it’s so funny. I’ve like… I was worried about this interview because I’ve been feeling a little bit negative about how many like pop culture references and I was like ‘oh don’t come across like you’re like super anti your art’. I think like, it’s super common for artists to be extremely critical of what they do. I think specifically, using like, heaps of pop culture references has been like a cause of concern. I think like I grew up on, and I was inspired by, in the early days, by an artist like Greg Simkins, and like Alex Pardee like Ron English, and they’re all like West Coast artists. And they’re like, suppose they’re mainly concerned with like, a movement called Pop surrealism. And that’s literally what they do. They include so many of their work is about pop culture, mostly. So I think like, I was always just, like, super keen to get into that style of thing where you’re, I don’t know, you’re, I suppose you just commenting on culture. Like, it’s so funny, because it’s like… I was saying to someone, the idea that you can’t not reference things in art, like you’re always like, inspired by something that came before you. Like, you can’t create anything in a vacuum. And I think for me, like cartoons and pop culture is like what I grew up on, like, so I can’t help but want to include it in my work. And I think, to feel like, I can’t do something makes me want to do it even more. But, you know, it’s so interesting. Like, I’m always like, concerned with coming across like a fan artist.
Haha Oh yeah yeah yeah.
Like, if you look at, okay, let’s look at like, like Warhol, for instance, like, what, is he a fan artist of Campbell’s Soup?
And so yeah, like, I don’t know. I like including it. Because it’s like, who I am like, Like, it’s like he wasn’t; he didn’t just paint soup because he loves soup? I don’t I don’t know why he did it, I don’t know heaps about Warhol. But like, he was making a comment on culture, I’m assuming.
And I think as well, I always draw things back to cartoons and pop culture, because I always attribute that to why I became an artist in the first place. And yeah.
and to not include, like you said, to not include that would be sort of disingenuous. And I think
And but it’s, and it’s more, I don’t know, if you speak much to like, because a lot of it’s like paper cutouts, and they’ve got these textures that are just, I’m just like, Wow, you really made a rod for your own back wanting to paint that crumpled piece of paper. Yeah. But maybe… is there an element of… where am I going with this? Oh, it’s gone.
It’s gone! Haha.
Haha, we’re one to one.
Okay. Yeah. Like -let me know, when it comes back and I’ll cut off what I’m saying.
It was something…
Yeah, something amazing, I’m sure. I tend to want to include things like paper and, and all of that. Like, at the moment, I’m doing a lot of stuff with like, stuff projected onto surfaces and stuff like that. Because like one: It’s kind of like a technical challenge. Like, you know, let’s see if I can paint this like, super complicated thing. Because I mean, and I suppose that’s like, related to, like Robin Eley‘s work.
. And I’m just like, Oh my God, how do you spend that much time on that? Like there is you’re just insane. Yeah. So like, I’m certainly I think the paper in the beginning was definitely inspired by Robin Eleys. ‘Cause I was just like ‘I want to paint something that’s just like…’, like one object that takes a lot of time to do I think like the paper…
It adds a depth and dimension as well.
The other reason I do it is because it’s like kind of bringing the 2d into the 3d. Like it’s a way of like translating like 2d animation into 3d space, which like, yeah, I feel like every series I start I’m like, ‘okay, how am I going to do 2d this time?’ Like, what what am I going to do this time round? Like so? Yeah, like paper, stickers, just painting the thing in 2d space on top like, or, like projected. It’s just Yeah, I don’t have like yeah, it also kind of makes it unintentionally surreal, I think as well like because you just wouldn’t see that like, if I’ve paint like a scene of an apple and a toy or whatever it’s like that could you could be walking through the woods and that could be there like by accident or whatever, but I don’t think you’re gonna see like a piece of paper or a projected thing or
meticulously cut-out and kind of dropped against something
Oh dear. *pause* I’m still finding that thought.
Yeah I can feel it
It was really good!
I mean, it relates to the show.
It’s somewhere in here.
Can you speak a bit more about the way that you title the work or like how you like… do your feelings about a word change, and then do you title it at the end? Or what’s that relationship like?
yeah, titling work is an interesting one. I think like, like, every work kind of begins at a different point. And then the different point, I think, sometimes I’ll like have a name a title that I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to make a painting about that’, because the title is so good. And other times, like, I won’t even be able to come up with the title like I’m titling some work at the moment. And I’m, like, I’ve no idea what to call this. And other work, I’m like, you know, I like to do like most of the stuff that I do like to do it instinctively. So I’ll kind of just like stare at the painting and be like, ‘What is this about?’ So there’s painting in my show… And this is, yeah, this is kind of I don’t want to come across as like the ‘pop culture guy’ or ‘the Simpsons guy’ especially
but some of the good ones are!
I just can’t help myself. I just cannot help myself.
He’s already dead!
Yeah, I’m doing a painting that’s like about work and the pressures of being an artist, I suppose. And it has the word ‘work’ in it, basically. And it’s about obviously work. And I was like, Okay, it’s called ‘All work and no play makes Homer something something’.
And the thing is, I’m like, that’s such a good name. I love that. But on the other hand, like, Oh, my God, everyone’s gonna be like, dude, just get off the Simpsons man. Like we get it, you like The Simpsons.
But isn’t it good because it is an inroad to like.. okay, my bent -You know, one of my ‘things’- is the Simpsons, but it’s an inroad to very valid subjects
until I get a cease and desist from Disney. And they’re just like, bro, you gotta relax.
I don’t think they listen to this podcast.
I think that’s a safe bet. Yeah. No, I think you’d be fine. But yeah, so basically, like, most the time, I’ll just stare at it. And I’ll be very conscious of what it’s about. Or maybe I won’t, and it will just be related to the subject matter, but and I’ll just kind of like just just just wing it, like, kind of it’ll just come to me. So sometimes, like, the title is really interesting, because the title kind of goes a long way to like, conceptualize the work, like someone will see it and they’ll be like ‘oh I don’t get it, it’s just a thing’. And then they read the thing: ‘Ah, I get it. Now it makes sense’. And I think the title like is important in that regard. Sometimes, like, I’m concerned with giving too much away. Like, I like the idea of it being ambiguous. But at the same time, if the title is too ambiguous, then and you don’t give people anything, then they’re like, ‘I don’t even know where to go with this’. Like, you need to have some entry point like, even if it is kind of… is ‘innocuous’ the right word? Ambiguous? Yeah.
I love it. Ah, okay, hang on. We did that. So we’ve already kind of answered influences, have we?
Kind of. I’ve got a lot more to say about influences. I honestly, like I take influences from everything. Like, like, all my work is mainly based on like, my personal experience. So, you know,
anything’s game This is the new way forward.
anything is game. I think when I was growing up, like, there’s certain things that, like, dramatically changed the way I was working or thinking about my work, like, like, Otto Marseus van Schrieck like, when I read a book about him. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m doing this’, like, it is not often situations like I don’t know, for me anyway, as an artist where like, you read something, or find someone that you’re just like, this is the new thing that I’m doing. I don’t see any other like, there’s no other path for me. Yeah, this is the new way forward. So I think when I saw his work, I was like, Yeah, I’m gonna work like this from now on. And that was a huge, like, path that I went on, but um, alternative to that, like, there’s a rapper that I really like, and like, his lyrics are like super allegorical or metaphorical. Like he he kind of like talks around everything, like he who never just say,
he’ll never come out and say it
like, just like, directly, and like, I just loved the fact that, you know, some of his metaphors might be generic, and everyone’s like, Oh, that’s, that’s this because everybody knows that that is this. But there’s a lot of them that is, it’s like, you’d have to ask him because he’s, it’s too obscure. And I’m like, I love the obscurity. I love the idea that, you know, he’s the gatekeeper of the the meaning of his work.
So like, I just love that I think as well like, you know, he, he paints a picture, you know, like he, he
can we ask who he is?
No it’s a secret Hahah no it’s not a secret. It’s Aesop Rock. And yeah, like he, he’s very good at like painting a picture with his words. And I love the idea that -I’m trying to think of a good one right now
well you won’t now, because you’re trying to think of one. Ok
Okay, no I named a painting after a lyric in one of his songs, which is such a soft boy thing to do. But um, it was like, the painting was about, like, people ignoring science, it’s about climate change, basically. So it was about people like ignoring science and all of that. And it was colonize earth. No, ‘Colonize Mars on Earth Day’. And I was like, Oh, my God, that’s such a good line. I think I made the painting based on that, like one line. Yeah. And like, he’s just I mean that, like, that’s a fairly easy one. But he’s like, he’s a genius. He’s an absolute genius. So I think like his ideology influenced the way that I think about my work now.
Yeah, I like that ‘talking around’ kind of thing as well.
Because like, that’s the interesting thing. Like, I feel as though I’ll do a painting and to me, it’ll mean something, but to someone else, they’ll be like, I’ve got no idea what that’s about. Yeah. Or like, it’s something completely different. I think, like, I do have a painting in the show that will the show that we’ll discuss later. But that’s like, ‘Every Car I’ve Ever Owned Has Been A Piece Of Shit’. And I think it’s like, it’s pretty obvious what that one’s about, right? Like, it’s kind of on the nose. But I think if it didn’t have that title, you would be a little bit more like, oh I don’t know. But even in that painting, for instance, like, you know, super obvious title. And I think, you know, people will would look at it and they’d be like, I get a general idea of what he’s talking about. But also like, you wouldn’t know exactly what I thought when I’m talking about that specific thing. Like there’s yeah, there’s, I mean, I can give away what’s in it. Right? I don’t think Patty would be angry. Like there’s, there’s a little…
your show will have been opened. Shall we just say what the show is? Let’s go into the show.
Nah that’s a secret.
So LOST IN THOUGHT,
Yeah. So it will be open by the time this episode comes out.
Yeah and the nightmare will be over.
Yeah. You’ll be much more chill haha. All right. Yeah. So the car the car one?
long story short, like, basically my point is, is that like, sometimes I’m really proud of the metaphors that I’ve come up with. And like, even though I want it to be ambiguous, I want to tell people, how good is this thing that I come up with?
That reminds me of that thing, where it’s like, ‘I really want to be mysterious, but I can’t shut up’.
Yeah. Yeah. Like, yeah, in this. Like, there’s a there’s a little car, because obviously, it’s about cars. And the car is a piggy bank. And I was like, oh my god, I love the idea that it’s a car that you just keep putting money into. I mean, you could take it out with the money bank, but like,
don’t really that far into it.
Yeah just ignore that bit. Just the fact that you just have to keep putting money into
And so yeah, the show will be at Praxis in Bowden. And do you have the… which room are you in in the gallery?
The main gallery
Yeah, love that. That’ll be cool. And wait, I think I read [that it’s] not just paintings?
It’s like a lot of things. I wanted to kind of go all out.
Have you done that before?
With stuff other than paintings?
Yeah like is it sculpture?
It’s like I mean, you can see them over there, the like, aluminium paper sculpture things, until it’s like large. That’s one aspect of it. So like there’s a there’s a diorama.
There’s a diorama. There’s like I taught myself how to do pottery, like, throwing on a wheel. So I’m gonna buy this, like, inherently they were supposed to be like props just because like basically the whole
it’s a big room.
It’s a big room. Yeah. And I was certainly conscious of that in the beginning. But um, I like had the idea that I wanted it to be like, aesthetically, feel a lot like a museum. And I went to the art gallery slash museum. And I noticed like the art gallery had like rooms, I love the rooms where it was basically like, a wall, and it had like paintings and pottery and a chair attached to the wall. And I kind of liked that aesthetic. So I was like, Okay, let’s make a bunch of pottery that will attach to the wall or put in display cases or whatever. So like, I was kind of trying to run with that very…
It’s sort of that institution?
Yeah, like I was just more eclectic like,
the chair on the wall
Yeah. I think like, the whole idea for the show, is that it -and forgive me if I don’t say this as fluently as I’d like- but the idea is supposed to be that basically, like you go about your life and you are surrounded by objects that hold like a certain significance to you as an individual, like, you know, you have a certain experience with this object. And that kind of influences how you see that object.
And, like, that narrative kind of like tells the story of who you are. Because you know, if you were when you’re a baby, you’ve got no reference to anything like you don’t know what anything is. So you’re just walking around touching things, feeling things. And that’s like, creating, like an identity for yourself where, you know, like, if you were… weird example -I don’t know why this popped into my head… it’s because there’s a cushion sitting next to me: If you’re a kid, and like you constantly got beaten up by your sibling with cushions, and like, all the time, just create a trauma, like you’re gonna be scared of cushions, like, Yeah, that’s distinctly different to someone that only used cushions for their intended purpose. Yeah, right, like, so. I think the whole idea and like, it’s mostly the objects that I speak of, in the show are mostly toys and, and some other things, but, or like narratives about my life. But I think the whole point is that, you know, the things that are in the show, are significant to like me in some way. And I think the whole idea is that someone could be like, what does this toy mean to you? And there’s something that relates to even if I don’t like, I’m drawn to it for a specific reason, because of the life that I’ve lived, you know, whether it’s like, you know, a toy that is from a show that I’ve never watched, I’m still like, that is from a toy from a show that I’ve never watched. You know what I mean? Like, yeah, so regardless of what it is, like I have got an experience with it – unless it’s something I’ve never seen before in my entire life, but even then, it’s like, ‘this is something I’ve never seen before’. Like, it reminds me of these things. Like I think, like you get to a certain age where you’ve like, had an experience with every kind of thing. And that experience is like who you are.
You’re gonna have a thing about cushions. Yeah.
So yeah, like so. So I suppose to tie back to the show, the show is a collection of those things and like in a personal Museum
a personal Museum! I like that. Yeah.
I think I was talking to Andrew Purvis about the idea that, I can’t remember what he called it.
It would have been something clever.
It was it was definitely clever. Like, argh I don’t even want to say it now because I’m gonna butcher it and then he’s going to be like I didn’t say that.
We could dub his voice in
Haha yeah please. The idea of like, collected I think he said, like Dutch collectors that would just have like, their own personal museums that were supposed to be like, indicative of who they were, if I basically exactly what I’m saying, but I suppose they they got to it before I did.
But yeah, you can basically walk into this space, and you can know the artist without knowing the artist. Like, I think you would walk into LOST IN THOUGHT and you could go like, okay, this person likes cartoons, I think that’s very clear.
And I think you can kind of like, I mean, you’re putting it through your own personal filter, but you can kind of interpret what that person might be like, or because I think like, a lot of my work is is drenched in pop culture, but also, like, kind of it feels um
it’s weird talking about your own work
yeah no I was gonna say like whimsical, but is that it’s kind of up myself, isn’t it? I tried to make it humorous. Like, it’s kind of on the nose. Like, it’s a bit silly.
Or it’s like, kind of gory or something like, but in a weird way
it’s not one pidgeonhole-able thing
And I wonder what it will be like, I mean, I’ll probably be able to answer this by the time this comes out. But whether you know, the amount of time that people spend in this space will like what that will be like, oh, yeah, there’ll be some immediate things like the Simpsons, or, you know, yeah, but yeah, those more nuanced things that when you spend time with a piece, or spend time with the room, you know, the difference between one work and the collective experience.
Will be very interesting. Not that you have to comment on that, but it’ll just; I’m looking forward to it
Nah look it is going to be very interesting because like for the show, specifically, I kind of wanted to go all out. So I’ve like I’ve like for the opening I’ve hired a musician to play like cello, because I thought that would be kind of like I wanted to have like control over the mood of it. And like, so we kind of like landed on something that was ‘moody and contemplative’ is the way that she phrased it and I was like, Yes, I love it. But also, like, I’m in discussion with like an actor friend who wants to do like, I want him to do like a guided tour, like an actual museum. So we’re going to like, kind of come up with that. And I also had the idea of doing like an audio tour. So you would go to the front and you would be given a cassette player and you can kind of go through and listen to
a legit cassette player?
Yeah, I couldn’t. I was like, I’ll buy an mp3 -it was so much cheaper to go like an mp3 player, but I was like, it has to be a cassette. I can’t not do -and corded headphones.
That nice satisfying *imitates sound of loading a cassette player*
Yeah. And I liked the idea of that tying into the theme of the show and all of that so like you know,
It’s that’s nice to have that big picture.
Yes I just wanted it to be more than just like ‘come and see these paintings’ because like you know, you can see the paintings online -Not that that’s the same as seeing them in person- but
we won’t enter into that
yeah, I really wanted to have an experience that goes along with the show itself. Yeah, so yeah, like I’ve framed everything; I’ve got the diorama; I’ve got a display cases and musicians and actors and
the kitchen sink
The kitchen sink! The kitchen sink. It has been very stressful. I’ll be perfectly honest.
Yeah, it always is! But it will be worth it. Absolutely. Well, I won’t tease out any more trauma from you. But um, where can people -apart from going to the show- where can people follow along with what you’re doing in your practice? Are you online? Are you on the ‘gram?
Yeah, I’m only on the ‘gram. I feel like I don’t have the stamina to take on any other social media pipes, but
One is enough.
What’s the handle?
And even even Instagram is there’s a lot. I think it’s, well I know that it’s, it’s Josh Juett, but it’s ‘Jvett’, J V E double T.
Yeah. It’s yeah, it’s annoying because everyone’s like it’s Josh Jvett but it’s Josh Juett but the V is supposed to be like the the Dutch ‘U’ I think back then they would do a V and it would be pronounced as a U. Which is cool, right?
I mean, I’m no authority.
All right. Wonderful. Thank you for your time today and we will all get along and see the shows. Sounds good. Thank you.
Episode 28 / Catherine Truman
Catherine Truman joins Andrew Purvis to discuss the dynamics of artist residencies, the importance of a self-imposed ‘pause’, the desire to artistically locate the person behind their research, and the beginnings of her work from her time in residency at Carrick Hill. This episode was recorded as part of the Adelaide Central School of Art’s ArtSpeak Program.
Episode 27 / Rosina Possingham
Andrew Purvis catches up with Rosina Possingham to chat about her intricate photographic processes (that dote on old and new technology), collaboration & experimentation, and her recent work on ‘the Patch’ in the Adelaide Park Lands. 🌳
Episode 26 / Tom Borgas
In this episode, Tom Borgas and Athanasios Lazarou make time to chat about Tom’s practice; from feedback loops, to making the unseen seen, and the weather conditions that constitute a ‘Tom day’.
This talk was hosted by the Adelaide Central School of Art as part of the ArtSpeak program.
Photo: Thomas McCammon
Episode 25 / Heidi Kenyon
In this episode, Andrew Purvis of Adelaide Central School of Art speaks with artist Heidi Kenyon as part of the school’s ArtSpeak program (recorded live). Heidi’s work ‘We shall by morning inherit the earth’ featured in the exhibition Neoteric at the Adelaide Railway Station in March-April 2022.
- Heidi Kenyon, We shall by morning inherit the earth, 2022, Pleurotus ostreatus and citrinopileatus, timber and mixed media, dimensions variable. Sound by Ben Davidson (Ben Sun) using electromagnetic sequences generated by the fungi.
- Neoteric Digital Catalogue (pdf)
- ‘It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, ‘live always at the ‘edge of mystery’—the boundary of the unknown.’ But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.’ A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit [goodreads]
photograph by Rosina Possingham
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast.
This episode is a live recording of ArtSpeak, which is a series of talks run by the Adelaide Central School of Art that have been recorded in collaboration with SALA Festival.
Sorry everyone, lost track of time there. Just getting my breath back from running up the stairs. Thank you very much for joining us. I’d like to acknowledge that the land we meet on today is the traditional lands of the Kaurna people. We pay our respects to Aboriginal elders; past, present and emerging. We’re very fortunate today to be joined by Heidi Kenyon for this in conversation session as part of the Adelaide Central School of Art’s ArtSpeak Program. Heidi is exhibiting currently at the Neoteric exhibition in the city, with her new work…
‘We shall, by morning, inherit the earth’
Thank you, I always get it in the wrong order.
Me too, actually.
So I won’t give too much of an expanded introduction, Heidi, because I’m really interested to hear you talk a little bit about your journey from art school, to being a professional practicing artist where you are now today.
Thanks, Andrew. Yeah, and with that in mind, with the slides, I’ve gone kind of right back to the beginning of my art career. So, with art school, I’ve realized in thinking about this question how much I’ve gone back and forth over the years. So I originally finished art school – so all my art school has been through UniSA – so I initially started at Underdale campus and finished in 2005. And then, when I left, I wouldn’t have really considered myself a professional artist at that stage, but with kind of dabbling in things and working in retail and then it was probably when I went back to do my honours degree, which is where this body of work came from, that my work as an artist really started to gain momentum. And also, I think, pushing more confidently into sculpture and installation. Because I started off in painting, and kind of dabbled in a bit of everything. So there’s a bit of glass and jewellery and metalwork and kind of tried as many things as I could. And then…
I think that’s really interesting, because you can see that material versatility come through your practice now.
But you don’t see a lot of painting.
Yes. No, not at all. And yeah, and you know, I wasn’t bad at painting. But I don’t think I was ever going to get anywhere with that or have… I guess, I realized how much materiality and …that sort of act of making and feeling and kind of unraveling or playing with was such an integral part of what I was interested in. And I was actually um – and as you know – and I can talk about this a bit later, but I started a PhD this year with Steven Carson, Uni of Tasmania, and he was back then Head of Sculpture [at UniSA] and was the person who said, “why are you doing painting? You should be doing sculpture”, like okay! So yeah, I think there’s those little turning points when you don’t necessarily know it at the time but looking back, you can kind of start to see how things evolved. And then out of honors, and so I finished in around 2008. And I was fortunate to be shortlisted for some art prizes and exhibit this work in Hatched at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, which I think was really pivotal in terms of growing my networks and meeting other artists and being able to contextualize what I was doing in a much broader perspective.
Hatched is a wonderful opportunity for something like that. So when you say this work, you’re talking specifically about the cut leaves? The shadows?
Yeah, yeah. So I sort of cradled them in a shoebox on the plane, so they didn’t break and was given a very hard time by Monte Masi, who was the artist that year in […]. It was a funny time.
He’s much more caring for graduate artists these days, now that he’s got his new position here at the school.
That’s great. I love it. But yes, it was, you know, those times I guess, that we’ll have when you’re immersed in things, and you’re trying new things and meeting new people. And that was quite a big turning point. And then I guess, on from that I focused a lot on applying for grants to produce new work and showing at spaces. You know, artists run initiatives in places like FELTspace and Project Space at CACSA, which for those of you don’t know, was the Contemporary Art Center of South Australia on Porter Street but then combined with the Experimental Art Foundation to become…I always get my acronyms mixed up. And what did I do from there? So then I got the Ruth Tuck scholarship, and I was able to do some travel. And I went to New York and the UK, and did a workshop with a bunch of other artists around the world kind of working collaboratively, which I can talk about a bit later, but just continue through. And then yeah, continued working in the arts, I guess, in terms of how have I sustained this as a career, I haven’t really ever made a lot of money for my practice, I’ve been able to, you know, sometimes break even or get grants to make work or occasionally make work that’s perhaps saleable, and not fragile installation, one off pieces, but I’ve focused on work in the arts more broadly. Outside of that I sort of worked or worked in retail, but I’ve worked at Hahndorf Academy for a while, and, you know, teaching workshops and those sorts of things, which I found has given me a bit more freedom to pursue my ideas without, you know, I mean, like, even if you were focused on trying to make money, who can do that? Not many people. And then –
– but most recently, you’ve been working with Guildhouse?
most recently working with Guildhouse. So then, yeah, so then I did a master’s degree as well. And then, after that, had been working as the Guildhouse Program Officer, and yeah, just continuing to … what was I going to say before that? I did some more travel, remember travel, when people did travel? That was great. So yeah, I got this Qantas Award, which gave me 10k, just to use in flights, which was amazing. So that really helps my professional practice and did a residency in Venice. And so that’s the images of stuff in Venice. And then working in Guildhouse, which has been great to, I guess connect, you know, Guildhouse has almost 1000 artists members, and so you are very kind of connected to the pulse of what’s happening, but being able to use the skills that I’ve gained over the years to help other people in their professional development.
I think it’s something that often is underestimated that value of an artistic community – of being connected to something, of seeing what other people are working on. And often, it’s what drives us knowing that there are other people out there making work.
Definitely. And it can be, you know, a lot of people do get that sense when they’re in art school, or they’re having critiques or regular forums and things. But once you’re outside of that environment, it can be isolated. Particularly if you’re not working in a shared studio space, or, you know, in recent years, with COVID, and restrictions that we’ve had less kind of in person, events and things.
Totally, and it’s interesting, the way you frame the discussion about your artistic career talking about these roles in the arts that have supported you and enabled you to make work. But I think that it is also something that, you know, informs work or, or can sort of drive work as well.
Absolutely. Definitely, I think that’s been a really critical part of what I’ve been doing. For sure.
Heidi, it’s a really beautiful image, when you talk about going over to the Hatched show cradling your little cut leaves in a shoebox on your lap. And it does make me think, it sort of almost neatly summarizes a couple of aspects of your practice, the idea of care, and also the working with natural materials. I think there’s probably a few people in this room that might not have had the chance yet to see “We shall by morning inherit the earth”. Is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about what that installation looks like? What the different elements of it are?
Yeah, absolutely. So the exhibition space is in the railway station. And it’s a quite grungy renewal SA site like beautiful, old building with lots of character. And so there’s a small kind of room tucked away, fortuitously, in part of that space, and when I was talking to Ray Harris at the beginning and was saying that I want, you know, that I might have to construct a space or I want to kind of create a darkened space. And he said that actually there is this little room, which is great because there is a beautiful dilapidated wall, and it’s just perfect. So I’ve created this immersive installation where the participant or the viewer is invited to enter this darkened space and come and sit at ground level inside a circle of growing mushrooms. And so there is a few sensory elements to it. So there’s quite an earthy smell of the mushrooms on the straw, which wasn’t something that I’ve given a lot of thought to really but it is something that people have commented on a lot, the smell. And what I’ve done is I’ve connected the mushrooms to some equipment that reads electromagnetic energy. And I sent this data to my brother, who’s a London based music producer, and has created a soundscape for this work. So you come into this darkened space and see the mushrooms and then you hear the sound was just kind of synthesizing various notes or chords that have been assigned to the varying energy levels. I did a period of recordings over probably a couple of hours and was sent snippets and then yeah, as those levels change, they’ve been assigned different sounds. So you’re invited to come in and sit with the work, and yeah, listen to it, and I guess, you know, witness the detail of it, and I wanted it to be something that was quite intimate and kind of maximum like one or maybe two people at a time.
It’s a very contemplative meditative space that you’ve created. And I think what you allude to that sort of like the depth of the sensory experience, because beyond the visual to the auditory and the and the olfactory as well, is a big part of creating that kind of nestled sense with that work
Definitely. And it took me quite a while to work out some of the detail of like, how I was going to light the work, or how I was going to place the mushrooms I was gonna make, you know, well initially, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of boxes, like I thought there might be some earth elements are on the ground, but kind of nutting out those details was a bit of a tricky one for this work. But what I always knew from the beginning was the type of experience that I wanted it to be. So that came first, I guess that sense of slowing down, being in the space, having those sensory elements having a darkened space coming down to ground level, you know, and even that kind of circle element, those are the things that I knew that I wanted, and then it was kind of working backwards, or testing things out to kind of pull it together.
This work isn’t the first time that you’ve worked with not just natural materials, but living organisms. I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of those works. But I’m also interested in how you would like audiences to read these works. Do they have an environmental context to the way you hope they’re understood?
Yeah, definitely. Definitely, there is an environmental context, but I guess, I’ve never made that really overt so I have kind of focused a bit more on the relationships and trying to convey a really clear environmental message. It’s more about how we are connected to other living things and what our relationships are, what our empathy might be, for those things or how there might be similarities. I mean, there’s lots of interesting stuff about mushrooms. You know, mushrooms are more related to humans than they are to plants, they take an oxygen and they release carbon dioxide. But yeah, it’s kind of about interconnectedness. And I guess, some of those themes of interconnectedness go back through my practice in general. So if it’s not natural materials, I’ve worked a lot with found objects, and have looked a lot at manifestations of memory or meaning and objects and rituals. But I guess, with this work, it comes from examining some ideas around sustainability more consciously, and how the context of empathy might prompt social change.
Previously, some of these works that have that have articulated sounds from natural organisms have worked with trees and pot plants. There is that sort of sense of that shift towards, as you say, trying to have a more empathic engagement with these things, thinking them less as decorative items and more as living organisms. What is the shift from the plant to the mushroom bring to the work?
Part of it part of the reasoning behind that was around sustainability and the idea of like growing my own materials. And, yeah, like you say it’s, you know, instead of kind of like some of them have used sapling trees, but you know, they’ve had to be in pots, or I’m taking them from a nursery context into a gallery context. And then I then kind of donated trees to different people and community groups and stuff. So they have a life beyond that exhibit. But again, I like this idea of seeing kind of a full cycle and being in that from the very beginning. So seeing these mushrooms come from, you know, and they grow very quickly, which has been the biggest challenge of this work, but they’ll go from, you know, smaller than your fingernail to as big as the palm of your hand, sometimes within a matter of days. So I have just worked out I’ve almost done 100 harvests for this exhibition. And I’ve had to be in about every 36 hours to change stuff over and clean them up and rebag them. I hadn’t anticipated the level of care and maintenance, that would be required to have constantly fruiting mushrooms over a period of six weeks.
That is fascinating, because it talks about the the, the variability of natural materials, and it also goes back to this idea of care which is abig part of your work,
I think, because there’s been such a time commitment that’s involved, like it feels like they have become children in a way and that you round the clockness of it, and misting them and checking on them and checking on the humidity. Like it feels like the time that’s spent breastfeeding a baby or like I have other times in my life where I’ve gone. Yes, that kind of sense of losing your sense of time and round the clock, and I’m dreaming about mushrooms every night. Every waking hour.
It’s very much an intimate relationship. I’m assuming you’re not eating them?
I am eating them as well, which is even weirder. And that came up in one of the artists talks we had the other day. And I’m like, ah, yeah, it feels feels a bit strange. But also gifting to many, many. Yeah, lots of gifting of mushrooms to to volunteers during the show, and friends and neighbors and anyone who will take them.
And I think you were telling me that one of the reasons why you need to get them out there is quite quite a unexpected one as well.
Yeah. So they say if you don’t harvest them once they get to a certain stage of growth, they’ll start releasing spores, which actually looks quite beautiful in the midst of stuff that happens, but not so great for public health. So some people do have allergies to mushroom spores. And I think even if you don’t if that keeps happening, and it builds up over a period of time it’s not so great. So yeah, it’s important to be really onto it and really on to the weather as well. So that last week, we had a period of quite high humidity, and everything just went nuts, you know, the ones growing at home and my bathroom, the ones in the show, and everything was just going crazy. So I had to be in everyday for a period of time. Um, but yeah, I think also working with that because I’m using straw as well. And I’ve developed a bit of asthma and have to make sure that I use a mask every time I do it now but that repetition of that constant exposure to it like I’m yeah have started getting bit chesty. I’m getting blisters from pushing this trolley of mushrooms. And I’m sure we’ve all had works where yeah, you that repeated act, you start to kind of take that on that it manifests in physical ways, which I think maybe next step is thinking about sustainability of practice, as well as sustainability and environmental theme.
Yeah, well, it is very much like a little ecosystem that you create them and that the mushroom is not the only living organism in there thinking about the audiences and yourself about how these things interact, and the influence they have on each other, I think gets back to the core of the work
as well. Absolutely. So yeah, the core of it really is about that interconnectedness. And I think I mean, there’s a lot more research coming out about the role of mycelium networks and how baguettes nutrient extract exchange and how trees can kind of look after other family members or send nutrients and send warning signals and you know, it’s the oldest mushrooms the oldest living organisms on Earth, I think. But um, yeah, there’s, yeah, there’s the more that you delve into it, it goes so deep. It’s really interesting. And what was it gonna say about that collaboration and nutrients, that sort of relates to Part of the reason of connecting with my brother as well and having been separated from him from a period of time because of COVID. That the we can often be on the same wavelength. So we might not talk for months and months, and then we’ll both be, you know, bringing something up and really on the same page, or have these points of crossover that I don’t necessarily have in the same way with anyone else in my life. And I think it’s interesting, you know, we can be so far apart and kind of be circling back to the same thing. So there’s some kind of parallels.
Yeah, absolutely. And do you think that’s fungal spores that’s connecting? Definitely. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, that’s a really interesting thing. Because the music that your brother has created for this work, sound is has been a has been a repeated element in your work. And also, I think we have images in here of your quite spectacular piano shifting through the wall work as well. So the motif of sound, the idea of sound is something that ties into Yeah, absolutely. Do you want to talk a little bit about what sound and music means for you? And how do you see it operate in your practice?
Yeah, absolutely. So when I first did that piano work, it was in 2009. So not long after leaving Art School for the second after finishing honors. And there was a site specific work for FELTspace, because you can stand in the doorway, and see both halves of the piano. So it looks like it’s pushing through the wall. And there was a funny story that that time that building used to be shared with the housewives association of South Australia, which I didn’t know was still a thing. But it was a thing in 2009. I don’t know if it’s still a thing. But I used to have meetings there maybe once a week or once a fortnight, and one of the women was outraged that the landlord had, she thought that the landlord had let me cut a massive hole in the wall and push a piano through it. And sorry, I was thrilled with that feedback that I had carried off the illusion like I made it look so real, that it was believable that it had happened. I guess.
Similarly, as unbelievable what you actually did, which was to cut the piano is
a bit ridiculous. And mostly done by hand. Because, you know, I chose a really strange angle. And so lots of like tape and laser pointers and different measuring tools. But yeah, hacksaws and Japanese saws have developed kind of a very specific attachment to very particular types of sores from using that work, which I think some people I’ve become known for using, particularly these Japanese saws,
I know you can make great recommendations of like, ‘This sword is perfect for cutting a piano’.
exactly, this is good to know. So if anyone wants to know, you know, I’ve got the Intel. And so what was I gonna say? I guess I’m interested in in it might be found objects and things in general. And I talked a little bit back to kind of memory and traces, but I really like kind of analog technologies. And I guess, the art effects of music. And so I’ve done some work with records and always cassette tape and, and the regional showing of this piano work, there was no sound. And so I liked the idea that there was some kind of embodied sound or sound that was felt, and that pushing through the wall was a little bit about cheekiness, or maybe there was something slightly sinister, I’m not sure about this idea of a little bit of a kind of animism thing. But thinking about Yeah, if sound became movement, what would that look like? Or how can something kind of take on those memories of what it’s been used for, and then show those in some kind of playful way.
And to me, the works often speak quite a lot about translation, that idea of like, translating the biological processes of the plant into sound, and similarly translating that sort of idea, the white move, music might move through a space into a visual language with the piano.
Absolutely. And I’m glad that you brought that up because I didn’t bring it up as the first thing I wrote here, which I didn’t say was then I think it’s about communication. So making viewers or participants kind of aware of a presence or giving a voice to something as this gesture of connection or collaboration. So, I’m glad that you understand my work better than I do.
We’re just collaborating.
But yeah, definitely, it’s that gesture. And, you know, obviously, I guess it’s a bit like, you know, putting out messages for other planets. And then this idea that someone would find those things. And this is a load of rubbish. This has meaning less than the piano, or the mushrooms might think, What the hell are you doing, but it’s that, so it could be lost in translation, but it’s that idea of, yeah, gesture, or reaching out or looking for a point of connection with another thing. And, you know, with the plant stuff, and with the machine stuff, you know, awareness of our own conductivity. You know, we conduct electricity, too. So what what do we have in common? And I think the other thing about music is just being inspired by other creative media in general, which I think a lot of artists do. So whether that’s music or literature, or other things, that there are those, you know, when you’re making work, and you listen to something over and over, are those things that kind of plant in your subconscious? Yeah, absolutely.
I think that you, you raised something interesting there with, you mentioned, just as an aside that this idea of like sending messages out into the cosmos, and this idea of communicating with something that maybe can’t communicate back or, or something that might not even be there looking at a lot of your past works. Using the Camera Obscura or shadows, some of the sculptural interventions with a disembodied white hands and the piano, they feel something almost spectral occurring. They’re very beautiful, but it feels a little bit like they kind of hold the spaces that they’re in, is that a deliberate effect that you’re aiming for with your work?
I think so I think it’s, yeah, I’m very happy with that reading of it. And I guess, throughout my practice, what I’ve been really interested in doing is using very everyday very familiar objects and materials and natural materials, and perhaps shifting something called presenting something in a new way, so that there can be a little bit of a doubletake or a little bit of a slowing down, or layers that reward curiosity. So sometimes I’ve been so caught up in some particular detail, a piano is a good example, or even this mushroom, which some people have gotten into the space and missed entirely. But sometimes I’ve been so caught up in something. And I’m saying to my partner, I just want to do this to a level that like, I don’t want anyone to notice it at all. And it’s like, you don’t want anyone to notice the work. Yes, they get that sense of if someone does take the time that something may unfold, or become visible, or there might be Yeah, I guess, you know, there’s a touch on animism and some of it but also thinking about phenomenology and how we focus on sensors and experience and some ideas around reverie and memory and absence and presence. The Camera Obscura is quite an interesting one camera obscures you know, the history goes way, way back, that we used in the 1600s by people intentionally to kind of trick viewers or trick people that they were what they were reviewing were manifestations of the culture of magic or visions into the future. So it’s, you know, it’s for those of you that don’t know, it’s very simple thing, the camera obscura or the pinhole camera, you know, you’ve got a hole for light to pass through. And if you have a surface for that to focus on or a screen of some kind, what you get is an image of what’s outside, back to the front and upside down. And it’s just the way that, you know, lenses work that cameras work that our eyes work. It’s a natural thing that happens,
but it certainly makes it feel very uncanny. Sort of familiar but strange at the same time.
Yeah, but I love that idea that they were used to, you know, trick people. And so yeah, that definitely ties into it.
Well, with what you’re saying as well, your partner’s response to this idea of you working on something until your intervention becomes invisible. And it seems to me that what you’re striving for there is to create a sensation of magic in that encounter; that this is just something that has occurred.
Definitely. Yeah, and I think that yeah, I think one of mine now we have artist statements that we recycle and use over a number of years. And I think the word ‘magic’, was in it. I don’t know if it’s actually still in there, but was definitely in there for a long time. So yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
You touched on this before, but you also work collaboratively. ‘We shall, by morning’ features sound elements created by your brother. But you’ve also worked with other artists like Rosina Possingham, and Laura Wills and your nonhuman collaborators as well. What does this strategy bring to your work? Is it a matter of ceding control or something else?
I think that is an interesting aspect for sure. I think. Collaboration over the years has been has been something that I’ve pursued quite intentionally as a professional development exercise. So I’ve created the work one of the slides that you’ll see with this, I can’t remember what I called it. But this work that I created with Rosina Possingham and Laura Wills. So there was we did a workshop with the South African artists called Francois Knoetze. And his idea was The Art of Mongo, which was making things from rubbish or recycled materials or discarded materials. I’ve lost my train of thought. So I think that that one was a very collaborative finding that we all just kind of kept bringing bits to it and seeing how it unfolded. But outside of that, I’ve pursued collaboration of things that sits quite outside of my practice, I’ve volunteered as a performer in a few works by David Cross, who’s a Melbourne based artist, and he was previously based in New Zealand. He makes these kind of performance and installation, inflatable works that ask people to enter into or interact with in different ways and push boundaries around, you know, some of them have had things which are like a great height, and there’s kind of a fear of falling, or yeah, there’s some interesting things that happen that fit very much outside of my practice, but I’ve learned a lot from being involved in those kinds of works. And I’ve been involved in some performance with Henry Wolff, and yeah, and their practice in kind of moving image and photography and performance and ideas of care and vulnerability. And there are, I guess, similar themes in my practice as well. But their work is, you know, the end product is very different. And, yeah, I’ve learned so much from, you know, workshopping some of those ideas. And one that I want to go back to in one of my initial points of travel, I did this international artists workshop in the UK, where we were asked to work collaboratively with 17 other artists on a piece for a festival, which was kind of a music festival music arts festival, but it was, it was a big ask. And there was a period of I can’t quite remember, maybe a couple of weeks or something. And a lot of the artists there were sculptural installation artists. And I think the people involved thought that we were going to create something or fabricate some kind of thing. And we all just ended up doing these little performative interventions. But it also turned a little bit into Lord of the Flies like trying to work collaboratively with 17 other people from very diverse practices. I definitely had a few moments of like, hysterical crying and laughing at the same time and just like not knowing, you know?
Well, absolutely. It sounds like pushing the sort of limits of collaboration, a wonderful way to sort of start well, maybe a terrible way of starting a collaborative practice, but also really interesting to see the limits of it. Right from the get go.
Yeah, it could have been a great reality TV show that one, I think. But yeah, I can seem to keep out of control, I can be a bit of a control freak in my own practice, but then, you know, also set myself up for things like the mushrooms, which I can’t, you know, I can’t control the weather. There are so many things that I can’t control and so there’s that push and pull between, you know, having a vision or perhaps having some kind of obsessive perfectionistic tendencies, but then putting yourself on the line or pushing those limits to being open to what’s possible. Oh that’s what I wanted to say, actually, I have a little quote, sorry, I feel like I’m ranting. It’s a wuote from Rebecca Solnit in a book called A Field Guide to Getting Lost, that really resonates with me in terms of thinking about how you want unable to experience your work or maybe having, you know, having some ideas or things that inform it that like leaving that openness for things to unfold, and I guess ceding control in that way. So she talks about the idea or the form of the tale that’s not yet arrived or what must be found. It’s the job of artists to open doors. And inviting prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar. It’s where the work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making their own. And so she talks about scientists doing this too, but they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen, whereas artists get you out into that dark sea. And I love that idea in that image. And I guess, particularly in working with some technologies that, you know, there might be a biology aspect or physics aspect in the sense of the electromagnetic energy, or the sound or the kind of photographic stuff. But I like to just kind of mess with it in a way or push into what I don’t quite know and see what happens. And I think that’s one of the most interesting things, for me about making work making sure that you leave that space to see what can unfold, because, in a lot of ways, the end product for me, I guess, in my practice becomes a lot more interesting than if I had a very clear idea of exactly what I wanted for the begin from the beginning. And that not be open to some of those, you know, and sometimes it’s even things that go wrong, or things that don’t turn out, as you expect, but you discover some magic in that
absolutely sort of building in that element of chance or risk to open up the possibilities for discovery, even if it’s the discovery of dark water or the unknown. I think it’s a really fascinating way of being aware of how you work and being able to build that that search of the unknown into your own practice is marvelous.
Yeah, and risky and can be quite stressful. But I think it pays off.
I’d love to do a little bit of time for questions. But I did want to ask what you’ve got coming up next, because you did allude to a PhD project that you’re working on.
Yes, I’ve just started a PhD with the University of Tasmania, but working from here, but I’m hoping to do some field trips when it becomes easier to travel. And so the, the scholarship that I applied for, was centered around sustainability and using recycled materials, or reused materials and objects, which hadn’t ties into my practice really well. But I thought, it could be a really good chance to more deeply examine my practice with some of those lenses in mind. And the way that I’ve positioned my starting point is thinking about collaboration with nature with other living things kind of as a driver for social change. So that is, the sustainability aspect is one of sort of moral philosophy. And, yeah, I’m also really keen to investigate my local environment, more than I guess, now having a studio at home in in hills, and having moved from Boston and previous to that being in the city to a much greener space has been something that, I guess was became more important with the pandemic and having two young children in an apartment and you know, public spaces suddenly being closed down, but also the weapon that I showed earlier with the hands and the rocks was based on thinking about my daughter going out and collecting rocks and filling her pocket with rocks and always bringing these kinds of things home. And, you know, that ended up in the washing machine or in corners of the house and rocks and pebbles and bits of nature. And then I had that realization, I thought maybe she you know, it was annoying and frustrating, but maybe that actually is the most important thing. Like maybe that is she’s trying to fill a gap or there’s something that we’re missing that we need to prioritize. I think I’ve gone off on a big tangent.
Thank you. Maybe now we have any questions for Heidi
I’ve got a question for Heidi. It’s definitely seems like you have really wide-ranging research interests. And this latest work with the mushrooms it just seems like a huge field that you could just get lost in endlessly. You know the scientific aspects, the anthropomorphic aspects, everything. But I guess, how do you… what is your strategy for not getting lost in the endless curiosity of all these fields and materials and processes that you utilize… because your work is so tight. And so discrete, the outcomes. I guess, I’m amazed that you can find the pathway to a very particular experience and material outcome. Do you have a strategy for that?
That’s good to hear, actually, because I think sometimes I feel like my work is too meandering, or that it’s too… Yeah, it’s an interesting question. And I, I’m not sure what my so I feel like sometimes I do just get lost. That maybe there are things that I always come back to or circle round with. So there’s always some stuff about sensory experience, and there’s always some clear ideas about site-specificity, that put those boundaries on the work. So how I want people to enter into a space or what I want to be felt or perceived that kind of put some boundaries on it. I was thinking too -and I wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy- but I think one of the things that I do is maybe really go too far and push too hard, like this mushroom work that I’m spending, you know, 35 hours a week maintaining to the point where I’m like, ‘I can’t look at mushrooms anymore’. So I will just flood myself with things to a point of saturation, that I then need some space from it, which Yeah, I don’t think is an amazing strategy.
I’m sure that’s just the spores talking
Maybe they’re in my brain. But yeah, I think there are probably some clear ideas about experience that always come into the work or about aesthetic or about the idea of different levels, or layers or, you know, having things to unpack or discover, and there’s always some aspects around memory or traces of the past or coming back to materiality and the object itself and what I can learn from that, or how I can unpack that. I’m not sure how that answers your question. But yeah, I think it’s, you know, it’s going out by then coming back in and each time you gather new information, and you re-position Yeah, during that fieldwork and then circling back. And things like this are really good opportunity to, you know, you don’t necessarily you wouldn’t necessarily do this of your own accord, you know, sit down and go back through your practice and doing those things does help contextualize and position where you’re going in the same way that art school can do that or, you know, talking with peers or having critiques all those things kind of help, position or provide some framework.
Wonderful. I think we’re gonna have to leave it there. Heidi, can you please join me in thanking Heidi Kenyon.
Episode 24 / Jess Taylor
In this episode, Andrew Purvis of Adelaide Central School of Art speaks with artist Jess Taylor as part of the school’s ArtSpeak program (recorded live). Tune in to hear about Jess’ journey since art school, the ethics of creating artwork within the genre of horror, and what draws her to the mediums she uses.
- Primordial at Hugo Michell Gallery
- Primordial (JessTaylorArtist.com)
- View Master at FELTspace (2014)
- Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA)
- Floating Goose Gallery
- Deborah Prior
- ACE Open Studio Residency
- NAVA membership
- Lenticular prints
- What is 3D Rigging for Animation & Character Design? [article]
- Francisco Goya
- Chaïm Soutine
- Francis Bacon
- the Chapman Brothers
- Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son
- Scammells Major Grant
- Jess Taylor, When I die, I’ll die on time, 2022, 3D printed resin and paint, 35 x 21 x 13cm, ed. Of 3
- Cordyceps is a genus of ascomycete fungi
- Jess Taylor, Now I love You In The Dark, 2022, 3D printed resin and paint 37 x 62 x 18cm, ed of 3
- Agisoft Metashape (formerly Agisoft Photoscan)
- Midsommar (2019 film)
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast.
This episode is a live recording of ArtSpeak, which is a series of talks run by the Adelaide Central School of Art that have been recorded in collaboration with SALA Festival.
Is this my seat, Steph? Wow, this is all quite new to me so excuse me if I seem to be fumbling my way through things. I’d like to acknowledge that the land that we meet on today is the traditional lands of the Kaurna People, we pay our respects to Aboriginal Elders past, present and emerging. We’re very fortunate today to be joined by Jess Taylor. Jess has recently opened her exhibition ‘Primordial‘ at Hugo Michell Gallery last Thursday, and that show runs through till April 2. So if you haven’t been allowed to see it yet, stay for the talk, but once it’s over, seize the opportunity to get out and see that exhibition because it’s really wonderful. Jess is not just a graduate from the school, but she is also a lecturer here. She completed her honors in 2013. She has also completed a master’s at UniSA, and then enjoyed a residency at ACE Open Studios. But I won’t say too much about Jess’ bio because I do want to talk a little bit about her journey out of art school. So if you could just join me in welcoming Jess today.
I might have given you a little bit of a suggestion as to what the first question might be. But do you want to talk to us a little bit about what your your journey out of art school was like?
yeah, um, so I suppose, like Andrew said, I completed my honors here in 2013. And kind of, the career that I wanted and had envisioned for myself was one of a kind of practicing exhibiting artist. So that has been my career focus to date. That 2014, the year after I graduated, I had my first solo show at FELTspace. I also joined my first artist studios. So for at least the first few years out of art school, that was a really kind of important part of my practice. And part of me finding my feet as a practitioner was finding these spaces where I could work alongside other artists and kind of continue to get that feedback in that peer atmosphere that I’d had in art school. I also presented a kind of large installation work at CACSA in that year. I kind of one of my other life goals as well as to have children so at the end of 2014, I had my first child. 2015 was kind of me getting back on my feet a bit, I was in a few group shows, but kind of got back into things in 2016. So I had a solo exhibition at Floating Goose Gallery, and also started my Masters by Research at UniSA. I’d also always had this kind of idea that I’d really like to lecture one day, and having that postgraduate degree was a kind of prerequisite for that. So that was one reason I went into the master’s program. But also I really wanted to kind of extend this research I’ve done so far on this idea of the interplay between visual arts and horror; you know, horror being something we consider a very kind of filmic or literature-based genre. So that’s what my master’s was about, it was looking at how visual arts might perform the social function of horror. I did that through and graduated in 2018. But that whole kind of postgraduate degree was really great. It gave me the freedom to exhibit quite widely so I had shows in Adelaide, ACT, Tasmania, Melbourne. I collaborated with another artist in 2018, as well that I really respect called Deborah Prior. And we had this kind of collaborative exhibition that we held in Melbourne, and in FELTspace in late 2018. I also gave birth to my second child at the end of that year, so very busy for me. And 2019 was the year that I was awarded the ACE Open studio residency. So that ran for a year, I got a supported studio space above ACE Open, which was amazing. And yeah, that was another kind of opportunity to have that peer support of a kind of new group of artists. A lot of professional development opportunities offered by the staff at ACE to meet other artists and curators and so on. I produced some more 3d printed work, which was shown in Melbourne, and also started working on more virtual reality work which was shown at MOD in 2019. 2020 was kind of a few group shows, you know, with COVID it was kind of a disaster year. But in 2021 things kicked off again. I had a show at JamFactory, which was quite a new kind of audience and context for my work, I suppose. And that was the show that kind of led to Hugo Michell approaching me to have the exhibition which I’m holding now in 2022.
It’s pretty stunning CV for less than 10 years out of art school,
almost 10 years!
almost but not yet 10 years at art school. And I assumed that like a lot of those opportunities, some of those were offered to you. But it sounds to me like you pursued a lot of those, and were very sort of dedicated and did a lot of kind of entrepreneurial work and getting your practice off the ground and exhibiting widely.
Yeah, I think it certainly from my perspective, that kind of initiative, particularly in the beginning, was really important. You know, I feel like I’m kind of just at the point in my career where that momentum has paid off, and, you know, now people might approach me to do things where, you know, in the early days, it was things like, getting a NAVA membership so I could check the opportunities obsessively, and apply for things and you know, throwing many stones at one target and hoping one would hit and that kind of thing. And, of course, in between that, like learning how to go about approaching funding opportunities, so that I could do all of these things. So yeah, early days was a lot of, kind of, I guess, it being driven by myself, but also a lot of kind of luck and opportunities that I’ve been given as well.
But I think I can also detect that looking at your practice, this sense of… there’s no resting on your laurels there. And it’s really interesting to look at the mediums that you use because a lot of people will be familiar with your 3d-printed work. But to go back to some of your even during your graduate work, there was quite a lot of sculptural work, but there was quite a lot of interest in materials like lenticular prints. And even now you’re working with virtual reality. Do you want to talk about your approach to materials and processes?
Yeah, I suppose, you know, the, the kind of uniting feature of the materials, I’m drawn to other materials that I use, I kind of group them as all being these representational digital technologies. So yeah the lenticular prints, which for those who aren’t familiar, it’s kind of those really dodgy holographic… you’d see them and bookmarks on placemats and stuff. And I am a huge fan of gimmicks, so I love all that stuff. But then also, like, I’ve explored a lot of kind of glitch techniques with the video, art and photography, a lot of 3d scanning, which is the basis for my virtual reality works. I suppose I’m just I’m really interested in technology that tries to capture something about the real world. And I’m interested in the ways that it really falls short at the moment. We’re not quite at that technological point where these things produce convincing replicas of the real world, and so I’m more interested in technology that tries and fails, than technology that succeeds at its aims, I suppose.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s something that I feel that I observe about your work is the sense that the, you know, the lenticular print is an interesting thing but it talks about visuality, that sort of ability, as the body moves through space, to get a different perspective on something, to move around a sculpture or to move through a virtual reality environment as the same. But as you say, interested in this kind of glitch quality of technology failing, it feels that you’re also interested in that materiality of the technology. And I think that comes through the 3d prints.
Yeah, I think certainly, I think, you know, it’s something that I’m always kind of trying to describe, that perhaps is difficult for people to get a handle on. But even the way that I kind of design my 3d printed words, like the models that are used to create those works, and stuff there is this kind of digital tactility -for want of a better word- there’s a way that you, you know, manipulate these 3d objects in this 3d space that is kind of bodily, but kind of not. It’s this weird kind of interplay between us and these technological interfaces. But yeah, and certainly that kind of… the way that we interact with technology, I think is so important, you know, all the technologies that exist are kind of a reflection on us and what we want. And so even when they don’t go quite right, there’s something I find really kind of endearing and engaging. In that we tried to get this thing to do something for us. We tried to realize a part of ourselves or our hopes in this technology, and even if it kind of fell over, I don’t know, I find that a very human thing.
Absolutely. I think that seeing it as an object helps people sort of translate and understand the digital in some ways, it’s gonna tell us a little bit about the actual sort of mechanics of how one goes about creating a sculpture like that, because it’s very different from a lot of the processes that students are likely to encounter at art school.
Yeah. So I suppose that’s the thing. I kind of got into 3d modeling and 3d printing in my honors year. At the time, I was looking at the kind of failures and slippage is that occur when we try and capture something real with technology. So I was taking these not-very-good blurry photographs and stuff like that. But then once I kind of came across 3d printing, I was like, oh, there must be a way to to make real stuff into 3d models, like, how do I kind of go about that. So I tested a lot of different ways of doing that. One of the primary, I suppose, ways I do that in my practice is a process called photogrammetry, which is, you take a whole bunch of photos of something, feed it into a 3d program, and that program tries to figure out what it’s looking at and give you a model. A lot of the models that you see, you know, my 3d printed works, they were made from a much higher grade 3d scan of myself, I was actually scanned when I was pregnant with my first child. So you can see in some of them, I’ve got kind of a belly going on, which is a nice kind of moment in time in my work. But I had this really good 3d scan done. And I had that model rigged up, which is basically a posable skeleton gets attached to it in 3d programming, it’s the same thing that happens like video characters, that allows them to walk and move and so on. So I use that kind of base model to pose it, save it and kind of print it, duplicate it. Another thing that has been a reason why 3d modeling and 3d printing has been such a mainstay in my practice, is, there’s so much ability to kind of interfere with that form in these programs. So you know, I can cut it in half, I can hollow it out, I can turn it inside out, I can attach objects to them or take them away, there’s just kind of limitless opportunities to do things to my body that the real world doesn’t quite allow me to do.
Thankfully. And it’s really interesting, looking back to some of your earliest experiments with that medium, how sophisticated the latest works look, by comparison. Is that something you’ve experienced the technological advances in that medium? It’s quite dissimilar from oil painting, for instance, that your medium that you work in is changing continuously while you’re working in it.
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s, there’s two things that have kind of happened. One is that is this… not so much increase in technological sophistication, more so like that sophistication becomes accessible to your average person, because you know, I don’t have a multi-million dollar budget behind me or anything. Certainly a lot of I get my work printed overseas, a lot of those printers are still just phenomenally outside of my price range. But nonetheless, over the years, it’s become more accessible when I’ve been able to experiment with materials and scale and so on. I think the big part of it is, you know, I haven’t received any formal training in this in this kind of material. It’s all been kind of self directed, bothering people that know way more than me and being like, how do I do this? Lots of YouTube tutorials. So also, I’m always in each exhibition, obviously, there’s kind of a conceptual premise. But usually, I’m also trying to think of some new aspect of modeling that I can kind of master and begin to play with. It’s just an incredibly broad, medium, like there’s so much you can do. I feel like maybe I’m, I’m exploring, like 15% of it. And there’s always more things that I want to get a handle on.
Andrew Purvis 13:31
Wonderful. Jess you mentioned before, your master’s research, and I think that that’s something that I really connect with, in your work, the horror, and particularly body horror, as I read it, in the work plays a large part of your visual imagination. What draws you back to that as a source of inspiration?
Yeah. I think like, you know, there’s the kind of psychological reason of it being this very large, looming interest that I’ve had since, you know, early childhood, which it definitely shouldn’t have been, but it was, so here I am. You know, it’s always been something that I’ve really enjoyed and found fascinating, and I’ve always been really kind of confused as to why horror is a thing that exists. I suppose. It’s always been a fascinating question for me, you know, this stuff isn’t necessarily pleasant to watch, you know, I don’t even enjoy it all the time. But it obviously does something for me. So a lot of my research was trying to unpick, why does it exist? Why are we drawn to it? Why do we keep making it? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me on the surface. I think, you know, I’m very interested in again, that kind of idea of horror performing a social function. So I think what horror does is it reveals a lot of social anxieties or social fears, it kind of gives form to them, symbolic form, but a form that we can start to kind of interpret and pull apart to kind of understand what’s going on, in a social context a bit better. The other thing that I think it does really well as this genre that kind of sits on the outside of acceptability, is it allows us to kind of question and challenge a lot of those, you know, dominant social ideas that we have, you know, a lot of monster stories are kind of about challenging the status quo and taking down power structures and all that kind of stuff. So I suppose politically, I’m very drawn to that aspect of it. The kind of body horror aspects because so much of my work, yeah, cutting myself in half or, or something like that. You know, I think I’ve become really attracted to this kind of symbolic narrative, that symbolic language that permeates a lot of horror, you know, we have ideas. If we see someone turn into a vampire, we kind of know what that’s about. We know what socially that’s indicating to us. If we see someone become disfigured, we’ve got ideas about what that’s telling us. And so a lot of my work, I’m using this language to talk about, I suppose my own experiences, or my own thoughts and feelings about myself in this language that hopefully people can start to decode, because it relies so much on existing cultural things out there.
I think it’s a really interesting thing to translate horror which we normally encounter in popular culture and sort of time-based media. And the things that an object does in relation to horror, the opportunity to shock or startle kind of evaporates, but maybe you gain something in that ability to contemplate, as you say, its representation as a symbol, you can linger with it a little bit longer. Sorry, did you? That’s just me talking, that wasn’t a question.
Jess Taylor 16:51
That was just me digesting it.
But looking at your works, I suppose that the tableaus are often recognizably troubling. The body is often heavily distorted. But sometimes I feel like the references that are being made are less to say horror cinema, and maybe a tradition of ways of painting and depicting the body that hones in on the visceral or the disturbed, thinking about artists like Goya or Soutine, or Francis Bacon, even the Chapman brothers. Is that a lineage of art practice that you see yourself operating within?
Yeah, definitely. It was kind of a first hurdle, I suppose, in my research that I kind of established like, I kind of felt quite at home with the idea that horror has always lived in the arts, you know, it didn’t just appear as soon as we invented the camera. But that’s not necessarily where everyone else is at in terms of their their ideas of Visual Arts and horror. So I kind of had to go through this process of establishing this long-held relationship between the two. And so I think in the early days, I was doing a lot of work that referred explicitly to older artworks like Goya, who I love and I’m obsessed with. You know, the Chapman brothers are like my heroes, I just, I really like them. But I think the Chapman brothers in particular, why I kind of isolate them as my artistic heroes is, there’s something really in the sensibility of horror that they kind of get, this excessiveness. It’s very self indulgent, in your face, kind of, you know, seems a bit petulant, often in their work, and I say that very lovingly. You know, but also this kind of absurdity and fun and, you know, provocation to engagement, which is so important and something -in a very different way- that I try and do in my work as well. Because, you know, horror is based on this physical, visceral reaction we have. It can’t really exist if it doesn’t grab people to engage with it. So yeah, definitely artists, like the chairman brothers as well, a lot of their work is kind of impossible to ignore, and very obvious in the way that it’s trying to goad you into engaging with it. And so, that cold kind of sensibility, I see is a very horror sensibility. And you know, one that I do try and in a different way, incorporate in my works I suppose.
Yeah, and there are some explicit acknowledgement of sort of like Goya’s Saturn eating his children or the horrors of war painters, which the Chapman brothers have also engaged with it. I think that’s a really nice aspect of your practice this kind of recontextualizing of sometimes familiar imagery that we see from horror, but it takes on a very different reading when it’s your body.
Yeah, and I think that that was the core thing; I did this series of appropriations of famous artworks with this kind of horror tilt to them, I suppose. Horror has always been a very self-referential genre, you know, like, ‘oh, you can’t understand this film unless you’ve like, watched all these other films’. And, you know, there’s all the lore and all that kind of stuff. But I think, in looking at that kind of self-referential thing, which is also such a big thing in the visual arts, like there’s so much you can’t really comprehend unless you have this background knowledge. Because my works exclusively use my own body I started to look at as well how does the context or meaning shift. So I did recreate a version of Saturn devouring his son, a 3d print with myself, and at the time, you know, I was having all these feelings about, you know, maternal burdens, and, and what it is to kind of bring up a child and do all this with a baby and all that kind of stuff. But I think it’s such a different reaction to that work when it’s a woman doing that than a man
They both horrible, but one is horrible in a way that is more socially digestible perhaps.
And the fact that the scan, as you say, was taken when you were pregnant, it is often a reading of that body, of your body, in those arrangements of being maternal.
Yeah, definitely. But yeah, at the time, I was like, Oh, what a happy coincidence. But as I’ve kind of explored these things more, you know, it’s such a big part of my experience, that it’s become such an integral part of the kind of emotional states the work draws on as well. So it’s why I’ve been kind of loath to get a replacement scan made, because, you know, I feel like it’s so important, but I’ll get there one day, I’m sure.
Well, I think that’s a really other another interesting thing is that you work on… am I right in thinking you work exclusively with your own image?
So in all these arrangements, you are both the perpetrator and the victim of the violence that is being committed?
Where does that idea stem from or fit with your work?
Yeah, so I think, at first, you know, like you said, there’s there’s aggressors, there’s victims in my work; I had a great deal of discomfort around putting other people in those roles. Like it didn’t, it wasn’t something that I suppose I was kind of ethically comfortable with, you know, someone comes into my studio and sees a picture of them getting bludgeoned to death, that’s probably like, pretty confronting. Likewise, if I’m like, ‘here’s my painting of you as a murderer’, like it wasn’t really something that I wanted to do. So I made that decision pretty early on, in my studies, that it would be me and me alone. And that kind of gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted, you know, I could kind of call the shots and define the boundaries and what I’m comfortable with, in terms of how my body is represented in these things. And as my work has developed, this, focus on my own experiences, my own thoughts, or kind of internal states has kind of become a main facet of the work. And so, you know, to me, it just makes a degree of sense that it’s, it’s all images of me, because it’s all about me, as egotistic as that sounds.
No, but I think you raise a really good point that there is an ethical dimension to your practice, particularly when you’re dealing with violence and horror, and things that you do need to negotiate and work out. And I think that’s a very sensible strategy of dealing with those issues as well. I really want to ask about the ‘Primordial’ show. And we’ve got a lot of slides showing of some images from that show. Do you want to tell us where the the ideas that underpin that exhibition came from?
Yeah. So I suppose it’s probably around 2018, that I was kind of transitioning to this practice that was becoming much more explicitly about experiences and moments in time and kind of emotional states that I would experience. And this body of work came about, kind of reflecting on a lot of these experiences and reflecting it kind of, I suppose, where I was at this current phase of my life. And I was looking at these two kind of dual ways of considering that like one that, you know, when we’re born, we’re kind of blank slates, stuff happens to us, that turns us into the person that we are when we’re adults. But then also this other idea that perhaps there are these facets that are just waiting to kind of be revealed by life as you go through; that perhaps there are certain parts of my personality that have always been kind of buried there. And certainly a lot of the works as well, they look at that through a kind of familial lens like looking at how much of myself I can trace back through my father or my mother and things like that. So the title ‘Primordial’ was this kind of idea that I could represent facets of myself that had been there since baby Jess came into the world perhaps, since I was an existence in the world. And I feel like initially, I started to try and branch out a little bit beyond, I suppose the more traditional horror symbolism that I bought in. But also to look at things, like I was looking at a lot of creepy animals and fossils, and just a lot of these ancient dreadful real life things that were kind of playing on my mind a lot. I don’t know, maybe it was just ‘iso’, going slightly mad or something. But yeah, the whole show was basically going through and picking out these kind of pivotal moments where I’m like, ‘oh, that’s when that part of me was crystallized’. You know, or ‘that’s where that came from’, and trying to kind of map out an explanation. As absurd as that is, an explanation for the Jess you see before you today.
That’s really interesting, because I mean, my encounter that show is that I was blown away by the sort of level of visual invention in there. And I think some of what you’re saying about widening your scope of reference to think about biology and fossils, and so forth, the sort of the tooth holes and things like, like emerged from those works are really stunning. I think they’re really fascinating. It’s really interesting to hear about that kind of thought process that underpins that. Was there any shift in your practice in shifting into this sort of more commercially geared realm? Or what has that process been like of having your first solo commercial show?
I look, it was one of those… like I’m a big 10-year-plan artists. So it’s one of those things that I was always like, oh, one day I’ll get a show at Hugo Michell. I kind of always, you know, hoped that would happen at some point in my career, I didn’t necessarily expect it when it happened. I think the first thing like when I kind of got offered the opportunity, I was like, Oh, my God, I need to level-up like so badly. Like, I gotta raise the stakes here or something. But, you know, I was very fortunate in that I got the Scammells grant. So that did allow me to, to level up in these ways, I’ve been playing with increasing and scale and complexity, and just time and installation requirements and things like that. In terms of the kind of, like, professional aspect, I suppose, like, it actually made it kind of really easy in a lot of ways, you know, they’ve been very well organized. I’m also very organized in my shows, you know, if you’ve had so many that you’re responsible for the photography, and the installation, and this and that, like, you kind of develop a level of organization. So that side wasn’t necessarily something I was unfamiliar with. If anything, I was kind of unfamiliar with, like, ‘Oh, you’re handling that for me, that’s fantastic’. I don’t have to worry about that. And that did free me up to really right until the end, kind of consider the installation and, and how I was gonna make these works kind of sing in that that little back space and things like that. So yeah.
Absolutely. Maybe this is a good opportunity to open the floor up to any questions from our audience. And if you do have any questions, please speak up. Your voice will be picked up by this microphone, but you will remain anonymous. Can we even do that sort of like voice disguising, if possible if anyone feels self conscious, but please…
Audience Member 1
Not exactly a question – oh I suppose it is. So I’m noticing that one of the slides that’s been cycling through here was a face with these mushrooms coming out, and my immediate thought was ‘oh cordyceps‘… and is that where that came from?
That’s a really funny one because everyone’s like, ‘Oh, the mushrooms’. What it actually is, is I started to play with like, smoke simulation in 3d programs. So like, I rigged this little model up to have like, little smoke explosions coming out of it. I was thinking a lot about like, hydrothermal vents and the origin of life and like all that kind of stuff way beyond me. So I think that that’s the kind of themes I was working through with that. And I was like, I really need to just start figuring out how to simulate stuff instead of trying to model it from scratch. To spend way longer getting the computer to do it for me, then if I just tried to model it myself, but you know, I learned a new skill so it’s sort of worth it. But I’m totally happy with the other interpretations people have of that work, I think it still kind of fits in with the general theme of the show and the work so.
Audience Member 1
So that leads to a follow up question then: another one of your pieces, it appears that two faces are reaching towards each other with tentacles. Other those actually tentacles then?
Audience Member 1
So yeah, I spend a lot of time rigging up tentacles. I’ve done this for a few works, like I did make an octopus lady at one point in 2019, which was great. These are kind of just bare minimalist tentacles I suppose but yeah, in the same way that the model of me is rigged and posable, the tentacles as well as these posable entities that I can recycle in other works. So, yeah.
Audience Member 2
[faintly] What 3d program do you use?
Maybe I’ll just repeat that question it was being asked about what 3d program you use.
Cool so I use a few. And I am morally opposed to paying for software. So I do not do that ever and I won’t recommend anyone do that. So for like the posing of my model and a lot of the simulations and renders and stuff like that, I use a program called blender. Which just vastest capabilities of anything on the planet, it’s amazing but an extremely steep learning curve that took me a while to, to kind of master that. I also use a program called Meshmixer, which is really cool, because it’s kind of aimed for more high school kids, but a lot of the basic functionalities it gives you – so you can combine models, cut them in half, mirror them, hollow them, and all those kinds of things in that program. And then very rarely, I’ll step outside of that. So I use a program called Photoscan for all my photogrammetry stuff. It’s technically not free, but you can get an education license. And then I use, yeah, like just a bunch of other little programs. If I need something really specific, I’ll just kind of scour the internet until I find something that’ll do what I want it to do.
Audience Member 3
How do you do with drafts of your 3d work? Do you print them yourself at home? Before you send the work to China? Or
Off it goes, and what I get I get. No I think like, so. People often ask me, Do you have a 3d printer? And I’m like, unfortunately not. Because the printers that can print in the materials I do -so I primarily print in resin or nylon. And printers that print at the scale that I do will set you back like 100k. And that’s probably US. So no, I don’t have a 3d printer. For me, I have never really loved the aesthetic of the kind of desktop printers that’s all like red plastic, and you can kind of see the striations and I just I don’t really love that aesthetic. So I don’t kind of do that. And the printing processes are so different that even if you printed a prototype with one of those, what you’re going to get from another printer is going to be so different. It’s not really a worthwhile exercise. I think it’s just like I’ve made a lot of 3d printed work over my career and I’ve kind of got a pretty good handle. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve received something that I wasn’t expecting. So I’m pretty good at knowing the model I get I know what it’s gonna look like when it comes to me. So again, no prototypes, straight to real thing.
Audience Member 3
off it goes!
Audience Member 3
How have you found the sourcing to be from China, has there been an issue around COVID or?
No, like they’re pretty amazing with getting stuff to you. So yeah, for a bit of context, I used to print through an American company. And then I found this company in China, which is super cheap. So allows me to scale up because otherwise like, you know, one of the works in primordial would have cost like $1,800 US which is not quite in my budget. But no, I haven’t so far experienced any delays in getting things although I am mildly nervous with world events, but you know, cross that bridge when we come to it.
Jess I’ve got a question that I’m really interested in what I see is a bit of a shift in your aesthetic towards the gold and the white, which to me evokes a sense of kind of religious iconography or even altarpieces. It’s a shift away from the sort of glossy red that you’ve been using in recent years for some works. What motivated that change?
Hmm So I think like the first thing is I’m very bad at colour I feel. Like I started art school, I wanted to be a painter but it turns out I don’t know what colours are and it just wasn’t where I was gonna go. Often I kind of pick colors for very symbolic reasons. So yeah, I did a whole series called Love Works that were the red glossy ones and that yeah, I feel like doesn’t bear going on about but um, the white and the gold kind of came into play I got invited to do this show or be in this group short jam factory and it was about people who use technology to achieve a kind of craft aesthetic in a way. A lot of people are quite surprised that my works are 3d printed, you know, I get ‘oh are they porcelain or this’ and I’m like ‘it’s plastic’. And so, you know, that kind of prompt, as kind of vague as it is, got me to kind of think about the kind of visual objects that I was referring to, because I always have had this kind of love of ornamentation and old statues and stuff like that, but I kind of stopped and I was like, oh, but you know what? What materials? What aesthetics? Like, what are you trying to get at? So those were the first words I made with this white gold thing. And I was thinking of, yeah, these kind of precious religious social artifacts and things, the kind of objects that would, I don’t know, translate these kinds of imagined social narratives and things in that body of work for that exhibition. And yeah, I think I, I wanted to kind of push that almost altar-like thing in the show at Hugo’s. So I made these kinds of shelves to specific measurements for each of the works. And the ones that sit on shelves, at least to kind of haloed by these gold chains, with little gold teeth hanging off them and I kind of Yeah, I was thinking a lot about altarpieces and offerings and elevating these objects to be these kind of beloved social, semi-pseudo-spiritual things that people could encounter.
Do we have any other questions for Jess?
Audience Member 4
I just wanted to ask is when you get your models from China is there much finishing you have to do?
Audience Member 4
but you apply the gold?
Yeah. So when when you said ‘finishing’ I suppose I interpreted that, for some models and materials you print in there’ll be support structures that you need to cut off and sandblast or whatever. The processes that I use, I don’t have to mess around with that. I do usually paint them all the base colour. The recent works which have been in resin you can get like little color differences in the resin, which is really interesting from something that we think is just going to give you the same thing over and over. There is this kind of individuality to every print. So usually I you know just coat them in white or something to get rid of that. And then yeah, the gold or you know in some of the works you’ll see behind the chain and stuff is all additions I do by hand.
Just as a last question, just from one sort of horror fan to another: Do you have any recent horror recommendations or something that’s floated your horror boat?
Not like incredibly-
So to speak. Sorry I don’t know where that came from.
Not any hugely recent ones. I think the last thing that I actually had the time to watch… because this is the thing: when my children were babies, it was fantastic. Because I’m like ‘they’re not gonna have memories, I can just put what I want on TV’, like, do they even have the eyesight to see what’s going on? Who knows? And so was very comfortable doing that. Now, unfortunately, my son is seven and so like, not ideal. So, admittedly, I don’t get to watch as much as I do. I went through definite like Midsommar obsession because I just thought that was just the most amazing thing. And then got very upset when I read, you know, kind of breakdowns on it on the internet that were all like, ‘no, like, you know, it’s actually a really bad ending because she’s getting fooled into being in a cult’ and I was like, ‘I thought it was romantic, be quiet; that was a happy story for me and now it’s ruined.’
Well I think we can see from your works that are about Romance that your ideas of romance train to a certain direction.
A lot of films I shouldn’t have watched as young as I did. Anyway, yeah, that’s fine. That’s my last favourite that’s churning away.
Midsommar, okay, great recommendation. Thank you very much. Jess. Can we please all thank Jess for her time here.
Episode 23 / Sam Gold
In this episode, Katya caught up with South Australian ceramic artist Sam Gold at their JamFactory studio.
Sam speaks candidly about their journey from art school to the present, including the mentorships and opportunities that informed their exciting trajectory towards interstate exhibitions like Primavera 2021 and securing gallery representation with Hugo Michell Gallery. Tune in to hear about the way that Sam’s training as an Art Therapist informs their reverence for clay as a material, its capacity to echo emotional states, and ceramics as a lesson in resilience and letting go.
- Sammgold.com / @s.amgol.d
- JamFactory / Associate Program
- Primavera 2021 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
- SALA Feature Artist archive
- Samstag Museum
- Helpmann Academy
- Mark Valenzuela
- Australia Council for the Arts / ‘AusCo’
- Duncan Young / @DuncanYoungDesign
- Ivana Taylor / @IvanaTaylorDesign
- Francesca Sykes / @FrancescaSykes_Studio
- Celadon glaze, Chün glaze
- Catapult Mentorship Program / Guildhouse
- Sam’s mentorship with David Pedler & Jane Robertson
- Sam Gold joins Hugo Michell Gallery stable [ArtCollector article]
- Hugo Michell Gallery (SA) / @HugoMichellGallery
- Wet from a moonlight swim, Sam Gold exhibition at Hugo Michell Gallery, 3 Feb – 5 March 2022.
- Bedroom, Kate Power
- Kate Bohunnis / @Kate_Bohunnis
- George Street Studios
- Lou Cresp
- Carclew / Pom Pom program
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast. My name is Katya and today I’m catching up with South Australian ceramicist Sam Gold. We’re upstairs in Sam’s studio at the JamFactory, and I’d like to acknowledge the Kaurna People as the traditional owners of the land that we made upon today, and pay respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.
Hi, Sam, thanks so much for meeting with me today. We’re here in your studio, as we’ve just said. It’s nice and cool in here; I can see you’ve got some beautiful works delicately displayed out of our way just in case we knock anything over. How long have you been here at the Jam for?
I’ve been here for two years. I put the air conditioning on just for you. It’s never usually on for me. So yeah, I’ve been here for two years. The Associate Program started in 2020. And then it was cut, and then restarted in 2021. And recently, we have found out that we are continuing associates for a second year now.
That’s so good. Nice. Now, we met at uni a few years ago now. Yes. So can we talk about your journey from uni?
UniSA which is next door to us, a stone’s throw away
A stone’s throw!
to how you are today -or where you are today, sorry- because you have had so many doors open up for you. So many opportunities. Like it’s as if every couple months ‘Sam Gold’s doing this; Sam Gold’s here; Sam Gold’s now the MCA for Primavera 2021, like you’re just, you’re everywhere.
No it’s so good. Because it’s so nice to see someone still in their formative years as an artist doing so well.
Yeah. Well, I guess, when I first started a contemporary art degree, we were told that every female wouldn’t make it.
I remember that. I remember exactly that tute.
Yeah. Like, the lecturer was just like, you’re not going to make it; the statistic shows if you’re not a male, you’re not going to make it. So I think there’s like this determination. You know, to make it, and I think, you know, I hold down two other jobs just to do this full time. And, you know, there’s echoes in my relationship of just acknowledging how hard you have to hustle constantly to sustain this. It’s a lot of pressure. – but joyful.
Yeah, and that’s what you love and you’re so good at as well. Like, it’s not just for the sake of doing it. So you get such enjoyment out of it. And you can see that in what you do and where you’ve gone with it. And obviously, other people are receptive to that. So you’re doing something that is speaking volumes, and is interesting. And so yeah, from uni to where you are now, out of the plethora of things that you’ve done, what do you think has been a standout? Like a ‘pinch yourself’ moment where you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m here’.
Yeah, well, definitely being in a national show. But prior to that, and in lead to that -and I think what helped me achieve that- was a mentorship with Kirsten Coelho. Kirsten is, like, you know, a ‘pinch myself’ moment, I cannot believe someone who is so wonderful is in my life and not just as mentor now, but as a dear friend. And yeah, I think, for me that’s something that… a relationship that I feel is going to be sustained for the rest of my life and career and Kirsten’s life.
And Kirsten was also the 2020 SALA Feature Artist
Oh cool! Yes, yes, no, of course -that was that Samstag. So, also being at Samstag was really great, because I got the graduate position after we graduated. And I really appreciate that environment that I’m in there, because the team: Gill Brown, Erica Green, all of them, have been really gracious towards me with their time, like looking at applications, giving advice, you know, always being a sounding board. They come and do studio visits. They’re invested in me, and that feels really nice.
Such good support as well.
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And I feel like what we were speaking about before with working really hard. I mean, I was doing like 14 to 16 hour days. And I started that last November.
So you’re on a year doing that.
A year of doing that, yes, 16 hour days, but I was doing it seven days a week for a period of time.
And working two jobs as well.
Yeah, that’s, that’s like, if I did, including in that 16 hours if I did a shift at Samstag on the weekend then I’d come here straightaway, wouldn’t leave until it was done. And when I was gas firing, you’ve got to be here from like 7am until like 1am/2am, and then come back and be here and like watch the kiln constantly.
But that you know, all rich things. And I think I’m in a position where I can do that. So I’m doing it, I might not have that. And you know, I want to have a family. So I don’t feel like that’s, you know, I cannot have that kind of a routine. And my partner is also a sole trader and ‘gets it’. So there’s that kind of support, instead of somebody who’s like “be home all the time”. Yes, so thank you Lou.
Your work is really physical, so having to be in the studio or nearby for that many hours: how do you preserve yourself? What do you do like because your work is, you’re using your hands and your shoulders, your arms, it’s all upper body, but as well, it’s actually the rest of your body because you’re always standing up. How do you maintain that physicality?
Well, if I have a rest period, so before November, I wasn’t making as much and I was in more local commercial shows. And if I had like a couple of weeks off of making and would return to making, my wrist that RSI kind of thing. So there’s so much physio that I actually participate in. And have tools at home like a rolling ball and one of those pool noodles.
Which has been really helpful. But I think the one thing I forget to do is make myself food.
Oh I do that. I get that.
Constantly I’m just like oh shoot, got to wait for like dinner?
You need an assistant.
Yeah, I did have friends volunteer and help me with time we did trade where I then taught them something in return. So there was no exchange of finances, but there was exchange of value and time
Yeah, yeah, totally. But yeah, the rest of it is I live really close to the city, and I ride a lot. And there are moments where I think my social life has just not become a predominant, but I think COVID has really supported people not having too much of a wild or big social life. I mean, I’m not a… I’m very much an introvert. It’s really hard for me to be comfortable in big groups of people. So, yeah.
COVID suits you nicely. I think a lot of artists in the last almost two years now have benefited from working on their craft, and just like -for lack of a better word- ‘locking down’ and just focusing.
And with this lockdown, have you found anything new? Or do you think you’ve developed further or learned more, enhanced your skills? Your work is beautiful. And yeah, it’d be great to know if there’s anything that sort of sticks out -have you been able to research something that you’ve really wanted to that you’ve found the time for?
I just keep nodding at you
Yeah I was going to say your head’s going to fall off because you keep nodding so much!
Yeah, no, all of the above. The last two years working on the show for Primavera, it was meant to be in 2020 and then postponed, and I was able to get two massive grants, one from Helpmann. I was kind of given the heads up that I wasn’t allowed to, without supervision, use the big gas kiln here. So I’ve shifted from electric firing to gas firing, which is a very… it’s like driving a manual car in firing terms. So I needed to have kind of like an Occ. Health & Safety mentor. So Mark Valenzuela was the only person who had been recently using the kiln and had really perfected the ramping. So when I say ramping, it’s like the the way that you build up. So you know, when you’re on a hill in a manual car, and you’re holding it? That’s kind of like ramping.
Like a hill-start sort of.
Yes, the hill-start. So he’s really great. And pretty much just did a few with me and -well, he did all of the sessions with me because he was there. But you know, after a few, I really got the hang of it. Each kiln is very different. So I think just having, you know, kind of like a little instructor for a few of them was really great. Mark is a person who’s full of incredible skills. I mean, I’ve picked up using ash glazes because of Mark; conversations, you know, even considerations towards you know, working in studios together outside of Jam when our opportunities aren’t here anymore. So yeah, there’s lots of relationships that have very much developed from that. So I’m very grateful for Helpmann and Jam for doing that. And then I got a Australia Council grant. And that was pretty much the bulk of the money that made the show. So thank you AusCo.
How many pieces do you have there?
10 pieces presented but three of them are in individual parts. So there’s two large-scale kind of ones that are 1.2m in length. And that’s a two part piece. And then there’s a wall piece that’s made out of porcelain in three parts because of kiln firing. So I had to work with these tables here. So these tables I had custom made so that they’re the same height as the kiln so that it didn’t break my back putting them on and off. So I’m not bending all the way down to the floor, up to where I needed to load into the kiln. It’s just more of an easier transition. And then these shelves are 610x610mm. So that was the kind of capacity that I had to make parts in. Yeah, so I would make several of them. And I had a really great team here from the furniture department. Duncan Young, Ivana, and Fran, they were all really helpful and just volunteered their time to help assist me with loading things, shifting, crating and freighting around, so there was like, yeah, beautiful community here. The scale of the work meant that I had to figure things out. So things I learned a lot like gas firing’s completely and utterly different in atmosphere. So all different results. This piece behind you is a cobalt piece, it was one of my test pieces. That was like a metre and 30 centimetres, and it shrunk that much prior to so shrink rates in ceramics are usually around 15-14% for utility ware. But for large sculpture, we’re looking at 30-35%
Wow that’s quite considerable.
Yeah. So you know, counting for those losses; learning how to make things in compartments and segments to make larger holes. Working with porcelain and much finer porcelains. So I am now working with Audrey Blackman. But it took me after I made all the work from Primavera and testing different porcelains to find that porcelain through conversations and Kirsten as well. That, you know, Porcelain is like working with butter. So to build what I make, with butter, is very difficult.
So I work with like, you know, really grogged clay, where I can build incredibly fast, you know, make a piece in a day, which, you know, you don’t want to push things you need things to set and solidify, because movement in water, make clay very malleable. So you want drying times like 15-20 minute like rest periods. So yeah, lots of those kinds of things like managing the whole thing. I’m incredibly organized in terms of this production of things I had like, like beyond checklists of checklists, like daily like ticking off ‘to-do’s. And yeah, it was pretty full on. But this blue is an oxide so I don’t love exhibition work that’s glazes because of risks of fusing things to shelves and the scale of things and… but I am exploring a small gas range of celadon glazes and Chün glazes for smaller pieces. So ones that are between 15-30cm heights. Just for something else, like you know, to keep that kind of continued learning. I do really love glazing and I fell in love with using local materials from the Catapult mentorship. So whilst we’re in lockdown, I just kept busy. So I got a catapult mentorship, thank you guild house, and worked with David Pedler and Jane Robertson. And, yeah, so I do want to make a bit of a considerable shift in my practice from commercial things, because I think it’s taking too much of our world, like digging too many holes into our planet, and start shifting towards more local materials, but doing that in the most respectful way to Traditional Owners. So I’ve been developing relationships since that mentorship with a few local Elders and leaders. So hopefully in the next couple of years, I can shift to more of a predominately local clay material.
That’s wonderful. It’s nice to hear that as well, because so much of your work is reminiscent of the landscape.
Yeah, yes. And I think there’s a beautiful tie to that. Something I think I tried to subtly make a hint at: the idea of our body and our environments, writing our bodies and the memories of our bodies. And that, you know, there is an intrinsic connection.
There’s such delicacy in your work. I remember seeing it.. oh I can’t remember where I saw it now, I think it was in an office space somewhere, and I saw a work of yours. It was ginormous. It was so big. And the person who owned it had said ‘oh it’s actually like quite light and fragile’ and it’s like glass: it’s fragile, but she’s really strong at the same time. Spoiler alert: we lifted it up.
Because I was like ‘I want to know how heavy this thing is’. And he was just like, oh it’s actually really light’. I was just like, wow, for the scale of what this is. It’s so beautiful to see. And actually, you appreciate it more, because what you just said, it ties into that whole… that whole metaphysical … what am I trying to say?
I do that on purpose by the way.
Do you? that’s so sneaky of you
Yeah. I do that on purpose because of weight-bearing things. So if I’m freighting large things, I don’t put bottoms in them because of the added unnecessary weight, and because I can make things from a thick coil. But like, some people expect that ceramics will have a base on it, and need that. So I really want that to be an option. And I really want, you know, my work to be commercially viable as well.
Yeah. Just looking around your studio now. It’s so nice to see vessels that are functional and aren’t.
Yes, yes, definitely. Yeah, there’s a whole range.
A whole range. And, again, just such varying sizes, like those teeny tiny little pots there next to that shell.
Oh, yeah, that’s my local clay outcomes.
See, that’s how small and how troubling using local clays are. There’s no real guarantees.
Yeah. Right. You just get what you’re given.
Yeah, yeah. And they do different things and testing different atmospheres.
That’s great. That’s how you develop and find new things and build from there.
Definitely. Yeah, and I think building from site-specific, with very intentional connections to that landscape is something that I’m interested in. Yeah.
Yeah. They’re really nice. I really, really dig them. With your coil work, for people who haven’t seen or experienced your vessels before… are you calling them ‘vessels’? or ‘sculptures’? or both.
Yeah, definitely, I am absolutely comfortable with them being called both.
They have such… they hold their own sort of story. And looking at them like this one, in particular, look at that big one up there
The black and white one?
The black and white one. I just know, if I, if we turn that around, and I stand on the other side, it’s going to look completely different with the light.
So how you imprint when you coil, it has its own language and no two thumbprints are the same. Which is really nice, because it ties that back into the individual; that no two individuals are the same; no two lives are the same; no two, you know, vistas and landscapes are the same. It’s forever changing. It’s like that old thing we learned at uni I think in photography, that’s like, you know, ‘if you want to take a photo in the sunset, it’s never going to be the same photograph twice’. So you’ve got that split second to get you know, one and you’ll never be able to recapture it again. I find that with your work, that’s really nice to see, because you’ve sort of stopped that moment in time, and it lends itself for you, for the viewer to pause and reflect. Which is really lovely.
Yeah, definitely. I like hearing that!
Do you think… is there anything that you… because your works are so laborious: what do you think about when make them? Are you listening to podcasts, music, are you just thinking?
Definitely. I think I, I guess the reason why I want to make is I think it’s not just about objects and putting material into the world, it’s things that have meaning embedded into them. And I like the idea of what you just said, in terms of the story, everything there is a connection to something like the body, the landscape, and asking questions. If they’re reflective, or make people pause or consider things, or even if someone’s like, ‘yeah, all I see is coral’ like, yeah, then does it make you think about coral then, does it make you think about what’s happening right now.
It’s still a reaction to it yeah.
Yeah. And I guess from my training as an art therapist, and when I worked at the primary school,
I was going to ask, yep.
Yeah. So it’s just this idea of using material as another conversation of processing experiences, all types of experiences, positive negative. I had someone that we went to uni with once be like, ‘well, why, you know, if you’re unlayering all your experiences, aren’t you just putting bad juju out there?’ And I was like, ‘no, no, that’s not the point.’ Like it’s about using the act of making to move through things and work through things and it doesn’t have to be adverse experiences. I feel like moments of pausing and I think moments of stillness or mindfulness is really, really great. And I don’t particularly just make work that’s about being mindful. I think it’s about being in conversation with something that’s tactile and tactile storytelling. Yeah. As opposed to just verbal communication, like if you see a therapist or a friend and you just talk at something. From my training, it’s like you stay in a cycle of that story and you don’t break it; you don’t get hindsight. Whereas you start to see and shift and make an intended meaning into something, you start seeing things in different ways. And different possibilities, maybe problem solving. Maybe celebrating.
Yeah, it’s definitely a sensory experience that you have, most definitely.
How much -just looking back at this cobalt one- you’re saying works lose between… what was it?
30-35. That’s percentage, but it could be like 30 centimetres.
Yeah. Are you devastated when you pull something out of the kiln, and it’s much smaller before you put it in as like, do you take before and after photos
like this is what I hope it stays as, and this is what it’s turned out to be.
Um, I definitely think that in all my years of ceramics, you cannot count on anything to be guaranteed. And I think that’s a really interesting life lesson, you know, relationships that we, you know, are hopeful for, or jobs that we feel will be in forever, or, these kinds of things that we decide to be set on. I think ceramics is this other way of practicing things not going to plan.
This is good practice for real life almost; you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s, as soon as I open up Big Bernard -is it?
Big Bernard, yep
Yep, it’s gonna be something completely different, we’re just gonna go with it, accept it and move on.
Yep. And each kiln will do something different. And like the top of kiln might be different to the bottom of the kiln. It’s I think the variables of being flexible and resilient is huge. And being able to go, ‘I need a plan so that I finish everything two months ahead of time, so that I have enough time to keep making if I need to’. So like, all these other strategies come in place. And I think there’s something really interesting about like, emotional resilience within that. And sometimes like, say, if my partner, and I just like having a moment and we’re just like having a disagreement about something, I’ll just be like ‘just let it go, really is it that important?’ Like no, I’m just gonna let this go.
That’s so nice. I think we could all learn from that. It’s nice to just release, just let things be.
Yeah, well have everyone enroll in a ceramic course.
You’ll learn! The sun will still come up tomorrow, it’s all good. Oh how funny. And you’ve got a few classes coming up that I’m excited for, they’ll be great I’m really looking forward to doing one of them it’s going to be really really fun.
Yes, I’m very excited.
I’d love to go back to how we were just talking how I was saying, you know, you’ve had all these doors open up since we’ve left uni what 4, 5 years ago now? No, I can’t count.
Is that three years ago? Yeah. In three years, you’ve accomplished like a heck of a lot. You’ve gotten so many grants, awards, you’ve been part of so many group shows. You’ve had your own solo shows, you’ve got things coming up, you’re bubbling away, doing things as we can see in the studio now. But one of the big things was you are now represented.
Please tell us more. How did that come to be? Where are you?
I don’t know how it came to be, but I know that I met Hugo at a Helpmann, at the Helpmann-selected grad show. And I nervously made one business card and gave it to Hugo, just for Hugo.
Just one. It’s like the Willy Wonka golden ticket!
Yeah, basically, and Hugo is probably one of the kindest people ever. And I remember looking at Hugo being like everyone just wants to talk to you probably, like, you’ve never really met me, but I just want to be that awkward person that says, ‘Oh, hi. I’m an artist here at this show, just here’s my card if you ever, ever want to call.’
I’m an introvert so please just be nice to me.
Totally. I mean, I mustered up so much strength and was so well received by Hugo. Hugo’s always, since then for the years until, I was represented in like July and had always been sweet and kind at events, said hello and just definitely made me feel like I was acknowledged as a human that, you know, I wasn’t a forgotten face. I definitely didn’t think I was on anyone’s radar. But then before Primavera was announced, Hugo invited me to do a solo. And I did a few like, visits over there to the gallery and it was really, really lovely. They’ve got a great team over there, Ceridwen, Gabby, and Jenna are just like lovely and Hugo sings their praises. And I think that if you ever want to be represented by anyone, it’s someone that’s very intentionally a good person, and Hugo really is.
Yeah. It sounds like they’re an extension of family almost
just loving, supportive, caring, and dedicated to you just want the absolute best.
and incredibly professional, like mixed in with all of that. And it was just such an honor the day that Hugo asked to represent me and I did this really weird thing where we were sitting at his desk and I was so excited that I just like slammed my hands both down on the table and was just like ‘yes!’.
This is happening
And I think I went home and cried.
Such elation as well. That’s great. That’s yeah… you can’t not!
You can’t not. Yes. And yeah, so it was just really nice. And then I think that night, we went and saw Kate Power’s performance for the show ‘Bedroom‘. And we just celebrated by watching Kate. So it was just really, you know, humble and lovely. And since then, just every conversation is always really great.
You’re definitely on people’s radars.
Yeah, you don’t think that though! But like, I think because I’m always just in here making I almost feel like no one even knows your face, or it’s more the work, or anything like that. You almost feel removed from the things. Yeah, so definitely thank you Hugo!
Make one business card and give it to someone you really, really want to represent you. That’s great, what a confidence boost.
Yeah. And I feel like maybe it is the grant or just the track record, or just keeping momentum and moving. I was recently asked by another local artist ‘how did you get that?’ And I was like, I really honestly can’t exactly say that because that’s not for me to say like, I didn’t represent me. But I know that someone believed in me, and that felt really nice.
And do you think like, I was gonna ask a similar question: being so fresh out of uni, it’s a big jump to start a professional career. And I guess for the people out there who are starting, who aren’t sure how to apply for grants, talk to the right people, sort of put themselves out there – because it can be a really scary thing.
Yes. Still is.
Yeah, it totally still is frightening, I can imagine. But is there something that you could… like a word of advice? Or would you say, like just talk to people as nerve wracking as it is, talk to people just yeah, if you believe in yourself that much other people, you know, feed off of it.
Definitely, and also know that you’re not alone. There’s like, we are a small and beautiful community here in Adelaide, but there are lots of us that are emerging and all doing the same thing. You know, I’m inspired by my peers, like Kate Bohunnis also, like, incredibly motivated,
who you worked with at George Street.
Yeah, and we’ve known each other like, you know, 10, almost 10 or 12 years prior to that, traveled to India together. And it’s just like, I have, I think, you know, a lot of people that practice that are constantly doing the same thing. But for people who are leaving maybe uni, I could talk to just you know, really saddle into Helpmann and make yourself known there. That’s a really gentle way of understanding grant writing, applications, communication, networking, and speaking to people
Use your uni tutorers, as well, and lecturers; all of them artists.
Yeah definitely. Exactly. And I think there’s a lot of nice people out there, but what I would recommend, something that does happen to me a lot, is that if you are new and budding, and you do want to bail someone up, maybe take them out for coffee, or offer them something for their time. Because I think no matter who it is, or where you are in your career, always asking someone to value their time, and if it’s not just a financial thing, but really with a ‘please and thankyou’. And that goes a long long way. I think those kinds of things in this industry is really important. You know, every time that Gill or Erica or anybody else or gave me a moment of their time I would be so sincerely grateful and offer them something back. Not as in like my work, but just helpful in another way. Yeah, I think that’s just really important.
Yep. That’s good. build that community up, keep it strong. Don’t be super greedy or anything.
I’m going to go backwards because I just want to know this, If there’s an answer to this, for my own just personal knowledge. Your forms, as I said, have like a life of their own and no two works at the same, no two imprints are the same. How do you – because you work with coils and you build them up and up and up and up in various layers- do you let your works talk to you? Or do you have a vision in mind of what you want the end product to be before he put it in the kiln and it turns into something else? How do you let it be as organic as your works are?
I never draw them. I never have a plan prior to; I will do observational drawings later after firing. Because I think if I set a shape and a form, I am setting myself up for failure. I just know that I need to stick to some ceramic principles of not creating thick walls and thin like these works over here where I’ve gone vertical plane instead of horizontal plane. They’re made on bases. So coiled, smoothed out bases that are either wheel-thrown or hand-built. And then I build and flare out, so I pinch out, as opposed to the coiled wrapping around movement one. Yeah. So those ones, these horizontal ones are technically a lot more thinner and faster to build. These ones I’m making a base and then building out from them. And then wheel throwing then building onto those wheel-thrown forms, I think it’s knowing when to stop so that they don’t bow out and collapse. And not getting too hungry to finish something. So just calling it as soon as the material starts being like, ‘stop’, stop.
‘Stop pinching me’.
Yeah, ’cause I think it’s, yeah, what I said like movement and water; it’s just going to make it like jelly. So the more you do it, and the more you press something, just because you want to finish it. It’s not going to end in a good time.
Yeah. Let it be.
It’s such a nice space in here. I’m so relaxed in here.
Oh, great. I’m glad!
It’s really really nice in here. Just feels like I could do a lot of work in here, just like knuckle down and do everything I need to.
Have you gone over to Sydney to see the work?
February and I’m so excited. So everything was a bit delayed because all the other artists had a few other shows going on. And another artist was giving birth and I think there was just a lot of hoops to jump when the borders were closed for me to get over particularly for work stuff, and they decided to just not put that pressure on everyone and to celebrate in February. So it was really great. Thank you MCA but it’s gonna be really great. And I’m so excited and I’ve had some friends who are over there in Sydney see the show. And I’m just like yeah great! I also think that I’ve got a lot of people to think like photographers and a lot of people who helped because there’s many hands, many hands in this project. So my Instagram is all about gratitude for the next year.
Yeah I’ve gone through your Insta a few times and seen a lot of people tagged in there so yeah, there were many moving parts and cogs that help this machine get to where it is.
definitely and I think the most powerful one is my partner. So thank you Lou
Good resilience Lou, thanks, Lou. And good photography as well my goodness!
I know! If you need someone hit Lou up! Please put that in there.
Is there anything you want to say about your work?
It’s hard sometimes because I think I think there’s like evolving ideas, but underpinning it is yourself as a mirror. Using clay as just a material that holds you. And I don’t want that to sound wanky or anything, because some people can kind of joke about those things. But I, when I teach wheel throwing, or when I’ve helped kids that are facing intense trauma using clay as a material, where you get to witness like, the pressure of like, you know, if there’s something holding in your body, you’ll see that, it’ll show up, and it’s non-judgmental. And it’s a safe place where I think there’s this nice thing about materials as a therapy. And you don’t have to see it as that, like, this kind of idea or things that like I kind of lament on, you don’t have to it could just be like, I just love that blob, or I love this. But I like making with the idea of it, creating opportunities and conversations and maybe creating more connection to yourself and the world. But yeah, I think there’s the when you’re in uni, you learn that… why am I making this? Why does it matter? And how is it important to the world?
And I think I always come back to that like, for me to be a utilitarian kind of ceramicist, to make things for restaurant ware, wasn’t exciting. But, even though I get excited by other people who do make like that and have deep appreciation for it. I am more excited by ceramic as like an installation or a sculpture or an immersive interactive thing. Because it’s an interactive material.
There’s a lot of thought that goes into your work. It’s not just visually beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Like, as I said, it makes you stop and appreciate it. And you can think while looking at a piece.
Yes. I had a really hard time leaving my role at the primary school. I was there for two years. And I think what I needed to do, needed to be more impactful than that, but still speak to why I cared or why I studied art therapy in the first place or why, you know, places like Carclew that are offering Pom Pom and you know, other workshops that they do like their holiday workshops and things like I just I really believe in that. And I think that this practice and material and creativity and making is a part of everyone’s life in every aspect and everyone needs access to it.
Most definitely, and I think the beauty with your work as well was that there might be a lot of adults who aren’t able to communicate what they’re feeling; what they’ve experienced, whether they haven’t been given the tools or they don’t feel safe, or it’s just not the right time for them to accept whatever they’ve gone through. You provide that.
I’d like to think I do. Thank you.
It’s really nice
Yeah, no, I hope that like people can look at the concepts behind things will be like, ‘what, what’s is that? is it stalactite? Like why?’ And I think there’s that connection back to environments; environments that build up over time, or like termite mounds and how they’re like little things that stack on top of themselves and build up to something bigger. I think there’s these really beautiful metaphors that you can draw out into a lot of things.
I’d love to write an essay,
oh my god, please do
It’s you know that foundation. And you build up and up and up. And it’s just life; you know, you start at age 0 and you build and you learn and you pull and you push and you do this and that and it’s just this ever-evolving thing. And yeah, if you can keep growing and growing and growing, and then if you go too tall, like one of your works might just collapse all of a sudden, or not end up where they should be like all over the floor.
Totally. And seeing the material have like stress fractures. So I think the reason why in grad school when we started putting together like the grad show, and you know, finishing Studio B, I mean, Studio A going into Studio B, I was looking at how I just earth, how earth and cliffs and all these types of formations of earth have stress cracks, and why they have stress cracks and what they’re conducive to. So, you know, being walked on all over the time or like, on a cliff face that’s about to fall off because of atmospheric pressures and all these other types of things. And I was just like, well, there’s so many parallels to our environments and ourselves and think we can take some hints and cues of how to help ourselves better,
Most definitely. Be kinder to ourselves and the planet that we live on.
Yes, yes, definitely. Yeah.
I think that’s all the time we have today. Thank you so much for joining me.
Oh it’s been an absolute pleasure.
It’s been so nice
I’m so stoked that you got to interview me.
Me too – I’m so glad we found some time in your insanely busy schedule.
Well thank you for holding, you know in there. Holding in there? holding on?
We got there we got there. We’re so excited to see where you go next what you’ve got planned for next year. Watch this space. We love our South Australian artist Sam Gold. Thank you.
Episode 22 / Tony Kearney
In this episode, Steph caught up with photographic artist Tony Kearney at his home in Port Adelaide. Tune in to hear about his journey to photography, his highly-acclaimed portrait work, competing with pigeons for exhibition space in Hart’s Mill, and that time he took 180 rolls of film to Syria.
- Kodak Instamatic
- Reticulation, Bas relief
- Mug Shots
- Fixer, developer, stop bath – photographic chemicals
- Atkins Lab
- Marden Senior College
- Tarnanthi Festival
- National Railway Museum
- Olive Cotton Award / 2021 Exhibition Catalogue
- Bowness Prize / finalist images 2021
- Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize
- National Portrait Gallery London
- David Prichard’s portraits of Australian First Nations stock women win the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 [article]
- Tony Kearney, Jacob, 2020, (Jacob Junior Nayinggul)
- ‘Dignified, strong, beautiful’: the year’s best portrait photography – in pictures (The Guardian) [article]
- High Ground (2020) imdb
- The 2021 Bowness photography prize selected finalists – in pictures (The Guardian) [article]
- 3 of Tony’s portraits in NPG collection
- Laneway Festival
- Tony’s photograph of Billie Eilish (@BillieEilish)
- Tony’s photograph of Aurora (@AuroraMusic)
- Tony Kearney, Linda Syddick Tjunggkiya Napaltjarri, 2017, inkjet print on paper (sheet: 82.6 cm x 82.3cm) purchased by NPG (Australia) in 2017
Tony Kearney, Wentja Morgan Napaltjarri, 2017, inkjet print on paper (sheet: 82.5cm x 82.5cm) purchased by NPG (Australia) in 2017
- Tangentyere Art Centre
- Rust ‘The corrosion of culture and the culture of corrosion’
- ‘Shandy’ by Deb Jones & Christine Cholewa
- Syria Lost
- Hart’s Mill
Hello, and welcome to the SALA podcast. My name is Steph and I’m catching up with photographer extraordinaire and visual artist, Tony Kearney in his apartment in Port Adelaide, which is full of fantastic objects and things to see. Before we get started, I do just want to acknowledge the Kaurna People as the traditional custodians of the land and water that we are on and looking out upon from this fantastic vantage point, and acknowledge the Elders past, present, and emerging.
All right, Tony, thank you so much for making time to catch up and chat about things that make you tick. I guess we’ll start with the core stuff, photography. I know it’s a big passion of yours. How did you actually find your way to the medium?
When I was very young, I can’t remember exactly how old, my parents bought me a Kodak Instamatic. And we’d go on holiday, and I’d take the camera with me and I’d take photographs of things. And the film used to come in a little cloth bag with a tie on it and a tag. And so the tag was the address back to Kodak somewhere. And two weeks later, you got your prints, and the prints were square, and they were beautiful, and I’ve always loved square prints, so I keep on going with it. And then after that, I went to Wellington Polytech to study industrial design, and that was a 36 hour week. And four of those were in a photo lab. So I managed to learn all sorts of things about large format cameras and developing slide film, where halfway through the process, you had to take it out and flash it in the light and then put it back on the spool and keep going. So all sorts of strange, wonderful things, reticulation, bas relief, all those sort of things.
Those words are even at the edge of my understanding. Amazing. And to get even a bit deeper, straight off the bat, what is it about film and analog processes that has maintained and held your interest in such an enduring way?
Well, digital, I’ve sort of got for both, I use analog and digital cameras. The digital I use mainly for when I get invited to photograph festivals or concerts or whatever. And I use that mainly sort of in the evening in low light and so forth. The film, I just love the serendipity of what you get; the potentially the weird results, which turn out to be fabulous. Because sometimes I just enjoy using old and expired film too. So and then that sort of adds another level of ambiguity to what you’re looking at, that you can’t see through the lens.
And you have quite a collection of quite old antiquated lenses, don’t you?
Yeah I’ve got a collection of cameras and lenses which I use. They’re not there for collecting, they’re there to be used. Anything from half frame, which is basically half the size of 35mm image up to I think about 12×16 inch. Yeah. Some big old cameras, my oldest lenses are from the 1860s.
Wow, still getting used!
Yep still getting used! I still crack ’em out to do portrait work. Because they’ve got really beautiful softness about them, and at the same time, sharpness in the focal plane, but softness everywhere else.
Yeah, that’s perfect for portraits, isn’t it? Yeah. Amazing. Well, there’s a deep reverence for objects across the board and, and their functionality, which I guess, stepping back from, you know, your interest in photography. You do love stuff don’t you?
Well I’m an industrial designer by profession – was. And part of that was understanding how things worked, and also respecting some of the things that had been designed in the past by people who are backroom designers whose name never appeared anywhere near the product. So the sort of anonymous products,
Right, so not the kudos in a way.
Yeah, so a bit of a machine-age archaeologist is what I see myself as. I find things that aren’t perfect. So if I’ve got toys, they’re not the ones that sort of are in their cardboard box and perfectly kept from the day they were bought. I prefer to see toys that granddad made for their kids and, and in the back shed and cast them maybe or built them out of wood. So those are the sorts of… that’s where I sit. And I just love the sort of the aesthetic of age texture and in all the fabric of how things were made and where things were made, and so forth. And my one of my passions is, well, one of my businesses, was designing plastic products many years. So I’ve got one of the largest Bakelite collections that anyone has in Australia, in boxes.
Wow yeah – no small feat!
I’ve got a few bits out, but not much.
Amazing. And is it true that you -coming back to your processes- is it true that you developed photographs in coffee?
Pray tell, what was that about?
So we had a – it may have been SALA, I’m not sure- it was a festival. Where Danni, a friend of mine, and myself decided that we’d go to a cafe on a Saturday morning, take photographs of the patrons with a medium format camera. Then develop those negatives in coffee, and then print them in coffee.
And print them in coffee as well!?
And then put them back up on the wall the following week for people to come and see
of the cafe? Amazing.
So there was about 30-odd pairs of portraits and they were called ‘Mug Shots’ because we had them holding the mug looking straight at you and then sideways. So we had the two shots and printed one negative there and one beside it. And it was good, some good fun, and contemplating doing it again sometime somewhere.
Yeah well you” have to let us know to look out for that one.
It worked beautifully. There’s no problems except for think fixer. You can have alternatives to developer and you can have alternatives to stop bath, but fixer is one of the harder ones to find able to find an alternative too. But it was coffee and it had citric acid, borax, I can’t remember – it had a number of different things. But that that’s also how I, I quite enjoy playing. I was recently asked, where I work as a casual looking after the film labs at Atkins. I was recently asked by one of their clients who’d found a roll of Kodachrome, which hasn’t been developed since 10-15-20 years maybe?
Yep. So developed as black and white. So that used all sorts of homegrown chemicals. Home-available chemicals should I say, like borax and all sorts of other things. And we just got we got black and white negatives from Kodachrome.
And so – sorry black and white positives from Kodachrome. So they had their images and they could see them and see what the granddad had photographed.
Oh, wow. So it was from in the family, amazing. So you get to play mad scientist sometimes too.
That’s the enjoyable bit.
Yeah. Oh, that’s fantastic.
– Musical interlude –
And now talking about objects, I don’t want that to sound like the focus of your work because you do have distinct threads in your photographic practice. I think my introduction to your work was this beautiful shallow depth of field, close up macro works of these objects and things that we’ve been talking about. But you’ve also got a very curious eye for scenery and, you know, new visions of the port and a photojournalistic sort of style that you these really beautiful images of Syria, and also a very established portrait practice. Is there a common thread between these approaches? Or does each way of shooting have its own individual appeal or drive that draws you to it?
If there is a common thread, it’s not something I’d consciously do. Let’s go back to where my photography was: so I finished studying and then basically, from then on ’til about 10 years ago, I just used the camera for whatever else does, for parties, for travel – I don’t didn’t use to photograph food, but just film photography of all sorts of things. And then when we moved to the Port, about six or eight years after we moved to the Port, the government said they were going to tear down a lot of the fabric of the Port and replace it with new housing. And so I thought it was about time I showed people what was out there and what was going to be lost. And it turned out that’s when I started to pick up my film cameras again, and so I’d photograph the boat yards before they were demolished, and all the sort of cultural heritage that is involved in that. And the people who were five generations of the businesses were sort of established in the 1860s. And they were getting moved on or kicked out and the buildings demolished. And I thought that was criminal. And I basically wanted to tell as many people as possible about it. So that’s what I was doing. That’s got me back into photography. And then, and then I wanted to use a darkroom. So in about 2010, I went into year 11 photography at Marden Senior College.
I imagine you might have been the oldest one there?
No I wasn’t, but there were also 12 students from other schools who had come to study photography, and wet photography,
So a bit of a melting pot of interested parties.
Yep. So the first year, all I did was just use the facilities to trial alternative processes, and do photography and print all sorts of things. And naturally, at the end of the year, I got my mark and I’d failed because I didn’t do any of the coursework. So the second the second year, which was year 12. And that will cost about $300 a year, by the way, for four hours access once a week. I decided to do the coursework and do my fun stuff, as well.
Oh, that’s good of you.
So I did the course work, handed it all in, then got my mark, and then had a ring, a fellow student who was a year 12 student who, we used to do photographic projects and collaborate on things. And she said ‘shut up’ and hang up on me, because I just got, I think was A plus, with merit, and turned out as the highest mark in the country for creative arts.
There you go -just as well, you applied yourself then!
And I got the invite to go to the Governor with all the other year 12 students who got sort of high marks, and I decided not to. Didn’t really feel like being looked at and pointed out for being sort of a mature age student who’d gone through, but I only did the one subject. It’s not like, you know, they were doing 4 others. I was working at the time, and I was working fulltime at the time.
Yeah, a juggling act.
So I was pretty pleased. So that was because I just played with all sorts of things I made cameras, I made scanning cameras out of scanners, I made all sorts of things. I just played.
Right, getting an image one way or another.
It’s about putting an image on using glass or something to distort or give you a… will give you a perfect image, one on one or the other. And a medium, which is in a lightproof box, which can accept it.
So anything’s a camera.
Yeh well that’s one of the projects I did since then, so I was commissioned by Tarnanthi Festival, an Indigenous contemporary art festival, to go up to Alice and work with one of the art centers on photography without cameras (real cameras). Yeah. So basically going out onto the country and doing things like lumen prints or like going down to the tip shop and buying litter boxes and first aid kits and cocktail shakers, and cake tins,
and putting a tiny hole in them?
putting a tiny hole in them and making pinhole cameras. And because I knew the focal length, and I knew the size of the hole and everything else, I could give them the exact amount of seconds they can open up for whether it’s cloudy or sunny or whatever day. And they’d open them up for three minutes and then put a bit of tape over them and bring them back and I’d unload them and then they’d go out again, and do another one. So, just that was fun.
Yeah, I bet.
So it’s just playing playing with alternative processes. But I also like to be refined in my processes. So when it’s, you know, when it’s film, like large format film, you can’t really waste too much, so try and get as as clean an image as possible and then work with that clean image to make as clean a print possible.
Yeah. And I think oftentimes we don’t think about the weighting of you know, taking the photograph and then the development as still being part of that process and you know, still having control over outcomes in that process.
And it’s not… the obvious difference between digital and film photography is it’s not take the photograph, look at the screen, delete it; it’s take the photograph, wait two weeks ’til you get a chance to develop it. Develop it, it’s still a negative. Scan it, rework it, as in change the tonality, or change the contrast or whatever, and get rid of all the dust because you can have a lot of dust. And then because you’ve scanned it, you can have a two gigabyte scan if you want. And it’s not going to lose anything, it’s just going to be bigger grain on the image. Whereas in digital, if you took a 60 megabyte file from a camera, you’ve got a lot of farting about trying to confuse the, the digital data to make it something that’s two meter square. Which, you know, I’ll print that easily with a negative.
So there’s that difference. Obviously, if you want to spend a lot of money, you can do exactly the same thing in digital, because you can get very big files. But right now you can walk down to the nearest secondhand camera shop and buy an old film camera and you can do the same thing with a scanner. So.
Interesting isn’t it. We’ve sort of forgotten that in a way, the merit of the film camera. And yeah, interesting to know that… is that a train?
That’s a train, the National Railway Museum is across the road.
I can see it. Oh, yes, there it goes. So apologies for any interruptions in the background.
I didn’t even notice it because I’ve been here so long I just tune it out.
There are worse noises. But yeah, interesting that the you know, happenings in the port gave you that very clear impetus to and have something to capture because it could disappear.
Yeah. I mean, some of the first photographs I took I used the first time I was in an exhibition. And so that was my first exhibition where images from the Port.
Right, yeah, well there you go. It’s funny to think about your first exhibition because I know you exhibit so prolifically. And actually that does bring us to some exhibitions slash significant prizes that your work is in at the moment at time of recording. Do you want to tell us about some of your big wins from this year?
Well, they’re not wins as such. They’re the finalists. Yeah,
Yeah yeah. So I use the term in a career way.
Would have been nice if they were wins. So the Olive Cotton Prize for photographic portraiture is a $20,000 Prize, and that’s run by Tweed Regional Gallery, and it’s fairly prestigious as far as getting work into and I hadn’t been, I hadn’t really applied myself to put work into awards for the last three or four years through the personal circumstances. So I decided this year to
-throw your hat in the ring?-
apply for 4 prizes, so put work in to be selected. So I managed to become a finalist in the Olive Cotton Prize, which was fantastic. And that’s been and gone and I wasn’t a winner, but my work was hanging on the walls and wonderful, well known and distinguished portrait photographers who do it as a profession for a living, and that’s their art form
yeah so you were in good company.
Yep. So that was one of the four. And then I got news that I was a finalist in the Bowness Prize, which is a prize for photography total. And that meant that I had to sort of print a 1.5mx1m portrait and frame it and get it across to Melbourne. And that’s on its way back from Melbourne tomorrow. So that’s been and gone, and, again, I was in the company of many renowned and wonderful photographers, whose work I very, very much admire. And then the third one, which really stumped me was the Taylor Wessing Prize, which is a $27,000 prize from the National Portrait Gallery, London, and I got two portraits into that.
It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Well, that’s from 5,400 entries from around the world. They chose the work of 25 photographers. And I had two of them in there, two of the portraits in there.
So they’re hanging at the moment
until early January -I couldn’t get there, would have been lovely. And someone who I’d admired their work for a long time, an Australian photographer, actually won the prize.
So in the end between he and myself, we had 10% of the photography on the walls of that exhibition.
Amazing. Well, well done. That’s a great comeback from not entering for a few years.
And the Guardian UK wrote a review and chose a portrait I did of Jacob Junior Nayinggul, who is an Indigenous ranger in the Northern Territory by day and became an actor for the first time -and a lead actor- in the movie High Ground, and I caught up with him at the Adelaide Film Festival for the gala launch of that movie. That portrait was described as one of the top 10 portraits of the year by the Guardian UK.
That’s a big compliment.
And the Guardian Australia, in the Bowness Prize I was a top 10 Photographer of the Year from the Bowness as far as their collection.
Oh wow, take in in your stride!
Now I’ve got to lose my amateur status, which I’ve been sort of holding on to for so long, I had a card printed when I went to Syria, which said ‘amateur photographer’ on it, and that hung around for a while.
you might have to part with that word
So I’m just starting to get myself a website. I work four days a week at Atkins, so three days a week now will be devoted to portraiture.
Yeah. So it’s a great transition period.
Yeah, it is a transition period. It’s obviously, until I start getting work, and it’s an expensive transition period.
You know, getting getting all the works off to different parts of the world, the prints.
Yeah, there’s a lot of logistics there isn’t there.
And just printing and framing, and shipping, and shipping back if it doesn’t go anywhere. All costs money.
Although I like that you, to get the prints to London, just before [you] told me that you, you know, instead of compromising on size, because I know that you do great big, very commanding portraits -they’re great when they’re at large scale- that you printed them and sent them unframed so that they could then be framed on the other side. Did that work out okay?
Yeah it did. The National Portrait Gallery framed them. So they that was their contribution, they paid for it.
Well do you have any tips for anyone that, perhaps might be working with photography, and that kind of thing? I’m assuming ‘develop a website’ is probably a good one.
But there’s a portfolio in a sense. Yeah,
but I just don’t have an e-commerce website, which is what I’m in the process of doing.
Gotcha. Gotcha, Oh, good. So we have got somewhere we can-
I’m not totally a troglodyte.
My apologies! But in terms of, you know, just throwing your hat in the ring and entering prizes, do you have any wisdoms around that? Or is it just a matter of you’ve just got to try it out?
Oh, try it. With a lot of the major photography prizes. They have people who have taken photographs on their iPhone; they’ve got people who have never used film who have a disposable camera they’ve bought and taken some photographs, and they’ve turned out pretty good and they’ve put them in with a great explanation of what the work is and they’ve become finalists. So it’s not… and you know, the Bowness Prize is $30,000 I think, I think the Moran prize might be $50,000
in prize money? yeah so that should be impetus enough.
And it might cost you $30 to enter. It’s like a big lottery though. Because it’s really up to it depends on who the judges are. And it’s very subjective.
Great to know that there is that diversity of work that you can get in.
Oh you get work from people who have already won major prizes all over the place. Yeah. And they get people whose work has never been seen before.
Yeah, might not even call themselves an artist. Amazing. That’s very reassuring – it can be done.
I’m sure you don’t think twice about this because you’ve photographed a lot of people. And I don’t know how you ask people because you’ve photographed -off the top of my head- Billie Eilish and these people that come over for festivals, these fantastic artists and people that, I don’t know, I would just stumble on my words. How do you not only approach people to sit for portraits, but make it comfortable and get those -because you can tell by the way that people are in front of your lens that they’re comfortable and that’s how you get those beautiful photographs. What’s the secret?
I don’t know.
Just your knack?
I was always shy about portraits. I never took portraits at all. And then I was kind of forced to when I did the course, at Marden Senior College, because there was a portrait component. And that included, doing all sorts of lighting and doing all sorts of things to make the person look beautiful. So what I did is I sort of went through the boxes of rubbish I’ve got around the house here, and sort of established a box of things that could be held or offered. And so I decided to do a series of work, which was called ‘offerings’. And it involved someone holding a piece out to the camera, and then being out of focus in the background, and slightly looking away or doing something that they weren’t necessarily looking at the camera. So that started me taking photographs of people and getting confidence to take some photographs of people. And then from there, I started asking people, if they would like to collaborate with me on photoshoots, where basically the subject and myself co-owned the final results, and they could use them for whatever they want and I could use them for whatever I want.
It’s a nice way of reframing the act of having your photograph taken is that it’s actually collaborative.
Yeah, and I had to ask the subject, if I could use them. They didn’t have to ask me, because I’d already given them that as a gift, or as part of the process. Because the person that you’re taking the photograph of, if they’re not there in front of you, then you don’t get a photograph. So why not share it? Because especially I find that, I’ve actually formalized that quite, with the Indigenous artists that I’ve photographed over the years have basically said that, after costs, we share whatever profits come from it. So if there’s a print sells, or if it’s an award or whatever, they get half.
That’s a really lovely way to break that down.
And it’s not… I don’t get people rucking for it, it’s just something I discuss with them after I get them in front of the camera. They don’t even know that beforehand. But I suppose it’s the collaborations that I did for four or five years after the Marden course, which got me to a style. And from that I got three portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. And I sort of have the confidence to walk up to someone and ask if they’re interested in having a portrait taken. I might show them some of the portraits I’ve taken in the past. And then I generally don’t waste their time, because they’re people who are busy, and I might only take three portraits total. And that’s it, and then go on to the next person. Half an hour later.
nerve racking in a way.
Well, if I fail in my portrait-taking they just never get seen – just like any other photographer. But yeah, with Billie Eilish, I was standing sidestage taking digital images of her at Laneway Port Adelaide. I was commissioned by Vitalstatistix and Laneway they got the images. And they gave me a pass that let me go backstage and take photographs and Billie’s mum was there. And Billy being only 16 or 17 at the time. I just asked her mum if it was okay, if I could take some portraits of Billie and she liked what she saw, and she said ‘sure’. So we chatted for a while with Billie and Billie pinched mums earrings.
and popped them on?
Yeah. And Billie was all chirpy and smiley and everything else on stage and when talking to me and then backstage we used the backdrop as the photographic backdrop. So it was a dark backdrop to the stage. And natural light. And I took four photographs of Billie and that was it.
And that was it. Yeah. So I guess you’ve got that sort of system figured out and
and sometimes I actually give the camera to the person so they can look through and look at me and see what sort of
get a sense
get a sense of what it’s going to be like. And so and they just hand it back. In fact, when I handed it to Tash Sultana she took photograph me before I knew it. So I’ve got to a process now where if I’m taking photographs of someone sort of well known and didn’t want to waste their time, and it’s not something they’ve come to me for. Literally, it’s I divide my 12 shot film into 4. Yeah, and it’s four people get collected on one piece of celluloid, which is 12 shots long.
So just ask very politely and quite happy for them to say no. And most of the time, I think I’ve only been refused once.
And now that we’re talking about it, you know, it sounds like it’s a very mobile practice in that, you know, you just identify a backdrop or have a backdrop and
mostly identify, yeah, and the camera’s handheld and I hand-hold it down to 30th successfully, 15th sometimes works, but 30th of a second, and take photographs in that light. And that’s just a 1960s medium format camera. And that’s it.
And you’re sort of reading the direction of the natural ambient light.
Well, I just, I actually have a little bit of a cruise around to see where the light’s best or more even, and can work and not getting in the way of people changing sets or changing backdrops or whatever.
There’s a lot of moving parts at a festival.
So I don’t have a tripod, don’t have lights, don’t have reflectors. Just use the light as it comes.
And do you have -it’s horrible to ask you to play favorites, but- is there a standout experience of photographing someone who’s sat for you?
There’s a Norwegian musician I photographed called Aurora. She was just bubbles, she was going all over the place. Had to slowly quiet her down to take the photograph, otherwise, at a 30th of a second it would have just been a blur. But she was lovely. She looked in the camera and she said, ‘Oh, it’s gonna have all that dust on it’. Um, nope. No my cameras, when they’re sitting in the bottom of a bag, they do accumulate a bit of dust as you’re working around. And then another time, I was photographing two women, two sisters. In fact two of the portraits that ended up in the National Portrait Gallery. So Linda Syddick Napaltjarri and Wentja Morgan Napaltjarri from the Gibson desert and they spoke Pintupi as a language. And where they were in Alice Springs, very few people could understand them. And so they chatted amongst themselves and chewed the bush tobacco and said there painting and asking for cups of tea and do some beautiful work – their work’s in most of the major state galleries and the National Gallery. But they’d never been photographed together before. And one of them is I think 74-81 years old, and the other one had a bigger span and she was something like 84-92 years old or something. And they never been photographed together. And so I got them into the gallery space at the Tangentyere Art Centre in Alice Springs. And asked if I could get a painting as a backdrop. And I asked if there was any pre-prepared black backdrops. And there was, so we hung that. And so I took their individual portraits and then I decided to take the pair of them together. And they kept on giggling and laughing and pointing around the room and laughing and giggling and they knew bugger-all English. But they must’ve asked one of the people who work in art centre who I was, and so they’re looking around and I was going ‘come on girls, stop it’. And they were looking through my camera.
‘Cause you look down?
I look down into the camera. And then they both turned to the camera and they started chanting “Tony, Tony, Tony!”. And I thought (jovially) ‘bugger off’. And I did take some photographs after that. And they started singing to me after that. So that was pretty special. So there was singing there. And it was just lovely. With these women who had come in from, met their first white people when they were in their teens and early 20s; never met or never seen anything from a white community before. In fact, one of them got so freaked out [that] her major motif for a lot of her paintings is the scary windmill. And so she would sort of have these scary monsters under the scary windmill because that was first thing she saw.
And I think she went to Hast’s Bluff mission and then sort of moved around on the western side of Northern Territory for a while and then sort of ended up in Alice Springs.
So taking these portraits actually is a little window into meeting such a diversity of people?
Oh it’s fantastic.
Now I think I got to know you just after one of the Syria exhibitions, can you -but that seemed to be like a really significant project- can you detail what that project or series was and was about?
I’d got Brian Dawe to open one of my exhibitions here in Adelaide, maybe 2009, called ‘Rust’, and it wasn’t going to be a series it was just rust, and it was embedded in a Port festival and
a solo exhibition or?
No, I decided to do a contemporary art exhibition where I curate -when I say curate, I’d just ring friends. And it had byline of ‘the corrosion of culture and the culture of corrosion’. And it was about the developers at the time taking away anything that wasn’t heritage listed, and the only things that were heritage listed were stone and brick,
yeah so it’s quite biting conceptually,
And so all the corrugated iron boatyards that have been there for up to five generations they were being threatened with being knocked down. And so I got people to respond to that. And it started out with about 17 artists.
Was it all mediums or photography?
Yeah. So there was a little bit of photography. There was glass artists who made that piece for the exhibition
is that glass?
It’s glass, it’s called ‘Shandy‘.
Oh, yeah. That makes sense.
by Deb Jones and Christine Cholewa. So we had all these works. And Brian Dawe stood up the front and told government, who were in the audience because Brian Dawe was up the front, that the government had sold the community down the river, and many other, more biting,
choice words about how that’s -because he’s born just across the road from here. And so we got to know each other, and then, about five months later, Brian rang me and said, ‘Look, I’m thinking about going back to Syria for a trip, would you be interested in coming?’ And I said, ‘when is it?’ and he said, ‘oh, we’re thinking about maybe six or eight months?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’d be able to sort of handle getting some money together in that stage and potentially going’. So two months later, he rang me back and said, ‘we’ll been leaving in a month. Would you still be interested?’ and so I sold a few things, and Sandra and I both sold things, and got the money together. And we headed it off to Syria with a small group, ten of us. And I took, I contacted Kodak, and asked if I could buy bulk film from them at a discount.
And I didn’t hear back and then I didn’t hear back. And it was just after Christmas we were leaving. So I rang just before Christmas and said, ‘Look, I really need to know if I can buy film’. I’d already accumulated quite a bit of film in the meantime. And they said, ‘Yeah, I’ll tell you what, we’ll send it off tomorrow’. And so I got 80 rolls of film from them.
And it was for free. They basically gave me 80 rolls of film to take to Syria.
Got written a note about what I was doing. And so with my 100, I took 180 rolls of film to Syria.
Oh my gosh.
I gave about 30 or 40 of them away to photographers in Syria, because they were finding it hard to get.
Wow, I don’t even want to think about taking that film through the airport.
Well we went through, there were 22 opportunities for it to be searched, as in go through the X-ray.
Oh my gosh.
And in the end, it went through three, because I managed to convince everyone that you don’t put the stuff through.
Yeah. And that can be a hard sell.
Yeah, well it’s not that one dose of radiation cooks the film, it’s just like
it’s the buildup. So each time it’s basically… you know, if it was 100 ISO film, by the end of the day, if it’s been through 6 x-rays, it’s acting like 3200 ISO film going through an x ray. It’s just getting more sensitive and absorbing more things. So you get colourshift and all sorts of things that go on. Some people say it’s not a problem if it’s in your hand luggage – well it was in my hand luggage. And when you go to Syria and it’s in your hand luggage, your hand luggage gets taken off and put through an ex-Aeroflot industrial X-ray machine,
which is bigger than Ben Hur. It’s like a washing machine or bigger. And it cooks it. So I arrived in Syria. And the first thing I did after my film, having gone through this massive half-room of an x-ray machine, is I contacted a friend who was a photographer in Syria, he worked for the Washington Post and The Guardian, and all sorts of other major newspapers. And so I got up at six in the morning, walk around Damascus. And took three films, quickly, met him at 10 o’clock in the market and we walked for an hour to the place where they develop film, and we dropped the film off. Went and had a few too many beers together, because we’d caught up and then got back and they’d developed them and printed them, and colour ones had a bit of a colour change
a bit of shift?
but the black and whites were fine,
And I had lots of both, so I just kept on taking film photography. I thought one month in Syria with no film would have been a bit of a disaster, but it was there and I was enjoying it. So I did for myself. And so came back and we had an exhibition called ‘Syria Lost’
that’s the one
where we had with Brian, myself, and Sandra‘s photography, and each printed about a meter square and they were pretty amazing images considering three weeks after we pass through Daraa, which is in the south of Syria into Jordan, the first shots of the civil war in Syria were fired in the streets of Daraa. So up until then, you know, things were going off in Tunisia or down south, and other areas that hadn’t got to Syria yet. And then when Syria decided to do it, the government decided to crack down and took on its civilians. And then after that, and other sort of people in infiltrated the cause of the civilians and turned it into a civil war but with different ideologies involved. So it turned into something more vicious
pretty tight timing.
Yes. It could have been worse six weeks later
and I’m still on the one metre prints – because those ones I think I’ve only seen online so Yeah, amazing. And they are very It does feel like you’re there walking through markets and
I took I took a 1954 Hasselblad with me, which was a supreme wide angle camera and just walked everywhere with that, just taking photographs of people and landscape and and just everything that was in front of me. Because you know, Damascus and Aleppo, cities that have had continuous occupation for 7000 years. So you go into any of those and there’s this fabric from all sorts of different eras in there. We stayed with some Bedouins on the Euphrates River opposite Mesopotamia and an archeological dig, and went out and did some sort of fossicking and plain roaming and archeological digs, we did some wonderful things all through, and had the odd encounter with a with someone with a submachine gun at five in the morning when I was taking photographs, because I’ve managed to be taken photographs in the wrong direction towards military camps
So they were tapping me on the shoulder with a machine gun and saying, oh, you can’t do that.
And I bet you stopped
Yes I did, I turned around to take photographs in the other direction.
What a what a chronology of events. Um, but moving back to the ‘Rust’ exhibition that sounds very similar to another couple of exhibitions that had a sort of single-word premise
So it’s a few exhibitions we’ve had been contemporary art exhibitions. So it started with ‘Rust‘.
Yeah, so that was the beginning, gotcha.
Then it was salt, tar, smoke, knot, grit, grain, bridge, vessel.
That’s quite a few!
So that’s nine. And the next one’s booked for the same space in Hart’s Mill for February.
I won’t push embargoed details then.
That’s if COVID permits.
Yeah, yeah, but a very established sort of model now then.
Well yeah there’s 40 or 50 of us now.
Yeah that’s a sizeable fleet!
Yeah. People who have shown that the Louvre or the V&A or internationally all over all sorts of contemporary art spaces to others who have shown at the local or have not shown at all before. So it’s a big range, there’s only a couple of rules. One is that all the artists have to bring a plate to the opening. The other is that they all have to ‘sit’ the gallery. And likely you could be sitting, you could be a third year student from AC Arts and be sitting beside your art hero. And, and having a great conversation for four hours while neglecting the people in the gallery
And everyone has to clean up the space because it’s a it’s a pop-up space which we established about six years ago, that we moved into after, after having an established gallery for four years, we managed to convince the government that they could let us use Hart’s Mill as a venue. And so we the first time we did it took us two weeks to scrub and clean 100mm of bird shit and dust and crap off the floor and away and then repaint some walls that were tagged
in in the same original dirty browny-gray color that was on the wall there. So we didn’t we didn’t restore, we we just slightly renovated. It wasn’t pristine. In fact, we’ve got walls in there, which are beautiful peeling paint, and no one’s allowed to touch them as far as we’re concerned. Paint’s been sitting there for five years now, so it’s crusty, it’s falling off the walls, it’s beautiful. So that’s all part of the texture of the space
and the character. It’s a great thing that’s been established. And yeah, to have such a mix of people of different levels, being involved, and you know, everyone respecting the code, because that’s how you sustain something like that.
And it’s great. And a lot of the artists who would normally have their work either picked up or dropped off at galleries, and then at the end of the exhibition work picked up and dropped off, and very little to do with the exhibition itself, have got a big connection with the exhibition and have got the opportunity to hang out with other artists of different levels. And it’s fantastic. So lovely people, lovely friendships, long friendships now. I got another waiting list of about 40 or 50 people who want to get into it.
If you build it, they will come!
But generally if you if you’ve been in it, you get invited again. Yeah.
Oh, well done. And yeah, thank you for pushing these very community-involved events; the care for the Port is palpable and tangible. Yeah, I look forward to seeing the shows when they come about.
Yep they’re good and we enjoy them. And we obviously do SALA exhibitions each year with photography, which got I forgot to mention, that’s analog photography. So that happens in August, when you can have a real exhibition. I think we’ve missed out on one or two during COVID. But they’ve been fun, and big prints some of them up to three meters wide
I do love a big print.
It’s good, good fun. Yeah. And some of those, we get done by Atkins, the smaller ones. And the bigger ones, we’ve sourced a signage printer who makes very good durable vinyl prints.
They’re obviously not as perfect as ‘fine art’ as something that would be on photo rag [paper] with archival links. But that’s for an exhibition where, when we first started exhibiting in the space, pigeons lived in it.
So you don’t really want to put archival, top quality
you don’t really want to. So when Trent Parke and Narelle Autio put their work up, they put them behind glass. But for those of us who sort of haven’t got big frames, or we just sort of pin them up. And so I’ve been sort of stuff you can wipe down with a wet cloth before each day -or maybe during the day.
Ugh, I don’t want to think about it! Brilliant, well we will be keeping an eye out for all these projects. And yes, hopefully.
So I will give you the name of the next one:
Yeah, good. Yeah,
It’s called hold
hold! That’s nice
As in the hold of a ship or the embrace
different ways you can read that.
Well the words we’ve used…
they’ve all got double meanings
more than double. So that allows people allows people to play. But it’s a fantastic space. And I’m lucky enough to once a year or twice a year, give permission to use it
Well, may it continue.
Episode 21 / Jasmine Crisp
In this episode, Steph catches up with Jasmine Crisp at her home studio in the Adelaide Hills. Jasmine paints across small and large scale, with her narrative paintings discoverable in both gallery spaces and on buildings around Adelaide and beyond. We talk about what drives her work, the ups and downs of working in public space, her time in residency in Iceland, and her painting that won the inaugural Centre for Create Health Art Prize.
- Jasmine Crisp (Instagram) (website)
- Adelaide Central School of Art
- SALA Festival Slide Night 2021
- What is an artist residency?
- SíM Artist Residency – Seljavegur, Reykjavík, Iceland.
- NES Artist Residency – Skagaströnd, Iceland.
- Kolin Ryyanänen Artist Residency – Koli, Finland
- Centre for Creative Health Art Prize
- Jasmine Crisp, ‘They had to share (a portrait of Ruby)’, 2020, oil on linen, 91x152cm
- Ruby Allegra (Instagram)
- Portrait of Ruby wins new health-focused art prize (InDaily article)
- Religious Icon paintings
- Brisbane Street Art Festival
- Andrew Salgado (Instagram) (website)
- Beers London (website) (Salgado bio)
Music: Sky 5: The Rise, The Walk, The Hope – Monplaisir
Hello and welcome to the SALA Podcast. My name is Steph and today I’m catching up with Jasmine Crisp, who is a South Australian painter, muralist, and apprentice tattoo artist. Now, we are very lucky to be catching up at Jasmine’s home studio, in the foothills in the Adelaide Hills. There’s a lovely amount of rain for spring day. It’s a little bit atypical, but it’s all lovely and misty up here. And I want to acknowledge the Kaurna People and the Peramangk People as the Traditional Owners of this land that we’re meeting upon. In particular, because, you know, we’re going to be talking about Jasmine’s practice, and how she sort of portrays her subject’s connection to their surroundings through art. So I think it’s important to recognize the long standing and continuing connection that the traditional owners have to this land.
Alright, Jaz, thanks for having time to catch up with us. Maybe we can start at the beginning, that probably makes the most sense. Can you tell us how you found your way to this career path?
Jasmine Crisp 01:29
Yeah, um, it felt like a path I always wanted to do. But as commonly in our environment, people perceive a career in the arts to be a unicorn or somewhat impossible for anyone to achieve. So I really wanted to pursue art always, but wasn’t really sure that it could be an actual job or career until I studied at Adelaide Central School of Art, because I knew I had an interest in art. But it was there that I was surrounded by a lot of serious students and practicing artists in the field that motivated me to take on as a realistic goal.
Yeah. And that exposure to all those people that were doing it,
Jasmine Crisp 02:19
yeah, yeah. Because all of the teachers there are actually, at least in some point in their life, been full-time practicing on us here in Adelaide, and you build a network of people that live and breathe every day, so becomes a reality.
Yeah – much more realistic. Yeah. And how would you describe your practice now, and, I guess what -big question- what is it that you try to explore in your work?
Jasmine Crisp 02:47
Yeah, um, I guess it’s always developing as art practices do. But a primary element of my practice that still holds and maintains is an interest in the human condition, and the human experience of environments and space and objects. So not just portraits of people, but people’s environments, and their belongings and their surroundings and how that impacts their character, or connection to space. Yeah, and sometimes that will be stories directly from my own life; sometimes it’s stories from other people’s lives that I know. It’s always people that I’ve had a personal connection with, and sometimes that also involves telling stories of objects that are, beyond my own understanding, but then become part of a larger narrative, through someone else’s tale or connections of tales as multiple people with the same feeling towards an object. So yeah.
I’m sure there’s a very fancy word for that, that sort of object based-
Jasmine Crisp 04:05
Yeah, it’s not necessarily about the political environment, or the person’s more official or business-oriented status as just a very feeling-oriented direction between people in their space. Yep.
And now that you’re some years out of art school – because when did you graduate?
Jasmine Crisp 04:28
ah 2017 with honors
Yep, cool, which seems like yesterday but it’s actually not
Jasmine Crisp 04:34
it has actually I realized it’s been a little while.
Have you -so you’ve had, you know, quite a few years of practicing quite intensely- have you got a bit more of an understanding now about why you are interested in drawn to depicting people that you’ve encountered and, you know, bringing in the sort of symbols of their personhood… Have you got words for that? Or are you still figuring out why you’re pulled towards that?
Jasmine Crisp 05:06
Yeah, um, I feel like that’s probably the most obvious element to me in the sense that it feels completely authentic. Like, it’s the knowledge that I do actually have from my living experience that I can share and contribute. So I’m not necessarily researching for answers, and I’m not trying to provide a solution; or I’m not trying to, I guess create a specific statement so much as just describe what’s happening and how I’m feeling and how others are feeling and what’s happened to them. And maybe, yeah, not providing any kind of resolution, but presenting that as I perceive it to feel or be.
Yeah. So it’s not it’s not instructive, it’s not preachy, it’s just responding to very real things and – well not ‘just’, it is responding to those things.
Jasmine Crisp 06:05
Yeah, it is, it’s like sounds simple. And I guess it is, in a sense that this is the material in my environment, that is my raw ingredients. And I’m cooking them into something that I feel is only derived from those ingredients. But they’ve been crafted to usually still have a message.
Jasmine Crisp 06:28
Yeah. Or a tale?
Yeah. There’s still plenty to be drawn out of them, I guess.
Jasmine Crisp 06:36
Lovely. And you work across quite varied scale from, you know, I’m looking at works that are sort of quite easily carried by one person; works that might be carried by two people, all the way up to you know, these murals on silos and multi storey walls. Do you think that… does your practice sort of change depending on what scale it’s going to be? Or do you think that it’s just the practicalities of how much paint that you’ll need that sort of come into play there?
Jasmine Crisp 07:12
Yeah, yeah, definitely practicalities is a large element. Because there’s a very different installation process, with a public artwork compared to something made in the studio. But I always like to, I guess I try not to do any kind of project that I don’t actually believe in, and therefore end up making work that is directive of my interests. So like the same passion of wanting to tell stories and include real people that I know in real environments that I’ve seen and captured is really important to me. So original stories and imagery to work from, and stories that I want to share about that imagery in the work that feels closely connected to me, it’s special. But um, I guess the largest difference, particularly with public artworks, is the influence of a client or a commissioner. Because that often dictates a lot of material that I can or cannot include, or perhaps even just starts off with a theme that I may not have, you know, conjured in my own self, but there’s always a way that I can make that mine and make it beautiful, and also make it theirs at the same time -I hope!
Yeah, is that quite a fun process, that having to stew on how to align, you know, the client’s values and yours and find that middle ground or?
Jasmine Crisp 08:44
It depends. Like everything, I guess, sometimes you have really beautiful people that understand and support and the feedback is actually just so constructive to making a design that’s better than what I could have, because their eyeballs are noticing something that my eyeballs have become blind to. But other times it can become, yeah, really frustrating and constricting. Because I want to do something maybe a little bit more honest or a little bit more brave than what I’ll be allowed to do.
Yeah, I can see that.
On the subject of, you know, doing your mural work and that side of your practice: I think anyone who follows you on Instagram gets major envy because you’re just bloody cool as hell out there and your little pink overalls, very much living a dream. But you did the Slide Night as part of the SALA Festival in 2021 and I loved that you really subverted convention in that, you know it’s a slide presentation and there wasn’t a single image of an artwork, and I was like, ‘Ah, you got me!’ like, it was very clever. But you know, to take a slightly more somber tone, it was quotes of things that had been said to you when you’re doing your mural work. And some of them were kind of cute and fun, but some of them were a bit -I can’t think of a different way to put it- but a bit sexist. And yeah, it got me rightfully thinking about… because you don’t really see that and, you know, not that you would try and capture that when documenting that process. But it’s something that maybe doesn’t get spoken about very much.
Jasmine Crisp 10:42
It doesn’t at all, and that’s why I really wanted to talk about it for the Slide Night, because I knew that the audience would be artists as well. And we know a lot about being artists, you know, ups and downs that that comes with. But the public art realm comes with a new set of, yeah, ups and downs that are somewhat unspoken. And it’s become somewhat of an all-consuming lifestyle for me for the past year and a half anyway, so I thought I’d share some tales from those experiences, yeah.
And some of them were sort of ones that you get, you know, it might be slightly different wordings, but you get quite a lot. And I’m sure some that were a bit more niche. But
Jasmine Crisp 11:29
Yeah, well, you’re in the public realm. So you get a great diversity of people I’ll be in, sometimes it’ll be disadvantaged areas where you’re bringing colour to the environment. So you get a mixed response to being present in those areas, a lot of the time on construction sites, where it’s really high stress, and you’re surrounded by a lot of workers. So you don’t have privacy to paint and be, you know, a sombre artist in the studio, you have to really just get it done. And you have deadlines and people pushing you to complete it. Or then other times, yeah, you might be in just the street where, at any given time there’s 150 people around. And yeah, you can’t even look at your phone or scratch your ass really, without knowing that someone’s probably watching you. So there’s a different mental space, physical space, process-based urgency in all of that environment. And people feel very welcome to talk to you and comment on the work, which is actually yeah, really interesting to get that from people that are not artists, and would not walk into a gallery. And yeah, most of the time, it’s really, really rewarding, and people are just beautifully thankful and complimentary, and just glad to see activity in their environment. And especially I notice a lot of people in suburban areas feel like quite claiming of their space in their hood, if you will. So they’ll really be grateful that someone’s putting energy into what they think is something that they own. Yeah. But yeah, there’s other times where, unfortunately, developments have not been made enough to see women on scissor lifts. Or to see women in high-vis, or to see women on construction sites
Jasmine Crisp 12:03
or running a project. Yeah
Jasmine Crisp 13:33
Yeah, yep. I got a lot of people asking how old I am, which is, I think, quite strange. I’ve asked a lot of male street artists and muralists, who’ve never been asked that question. So there’ll be questions that I’ll get based on my appearance, or people asking me if I can do those things by myself in quite condescending manner.
It’s quite patronising
Jasmine Crisp 13:55
Yeah, yeah. But I guess people are still learning. And still haven’t seen that in their environment before. So it’s good to, instead of retaliate or get downhearted, it’s sort of best to, I suppose, try and educate and support people in learning that, like, Yes, I can use scissor lifts and I have female reproductive organs.
They’re not mutually exclusive.
Jasmine Crisp 14:22
Well, it sounds like you’ve found a way to sort of hold space for yourself to not get too affected by those things then?
Jasmine Crisp 14:32
Sometimes. Other times I feel braver than other times. Yeah, yeah. headphones have been great.
Oh that’s a good tip.
Jasmine Crisp 14:40
But you don’t want to miss out on those beautiful moments too. Yeah.
What a roller coaster.
Jasmine Crisp 14:46
I know. You get some really special people. Yeah. Oh, good.
Have you got a favorite little mural moment from when you have been working?
Jasmine Crisp 14:56
There are actually so many. There was A woman once that, yeah, came up to me in the street and tapped me on the back. And I was a bit like, I had my headphones on and she terrified me, ready to sort of ‘karate’, but um, she gave me a box of roses (the chocolates) yeah. And I was like, Oh, well, what are you doing? Like what are these for?’ and she said that her grandma lived around the corner. And that she was very elderly and less able to move and walk and that she had a short route in the neighborhood where she would walk and that she’d now changed her route to come and walk past my mural and watch it as it was being painted because involved some of her favorite native birds in it. And that she hadn’t seen her grandma that energized and happy and moving in a really long time, because, yeah, she was just so excited about seeing that happen close to her, because she wasn’t often able to go much distance with her health. So that was just so rewarding and beautiful that yeah, not only that, that happened and that someone was given energy from something that I’ve made, but also the really giving nature of the granddaughter to tell me and to
Jasmine Crisp 16:20
Yeah, yeah. Just to see impact happening tangibly and instantly.
Yeah, tangibly is the right word isn’t it.
Jasmine Crisp 16:30
Mm, so someone you never knew that you would reach. Yeah.
Yeah. And it kind of puts a face to the people that are appreciating that work as well.
Jasmine Crisp 16:38
Yeah. ‘Cause there might be a lot of people silently that like, enjoy something that you will never know that they enjoyed it.
A lot of quiet folk.
Jasmine Crisp 16:47
Yeah, for sure.
Oh that’s really lovely. Can you for a moment indulge maybe just me, but maybe more people that are listening, in a bit of vicarious travel and talk a bit about your residencies that you’ve done overseas? I think they were quite fond times for you, judging by your happy captions.
Jasmine Crisp 17:08
For sure. That was a really just a huge, significant goal that I never thought I would achieve so soon, basically. Even during my time at Adelaide Central School, I was really aiming to finish strong so that I could, in the future, apply for residencies and get experience so that I could return to Iceland, which inspired a lot of the first paintings I’d made during my study and the direction of my research. And yeah, it was 2019, so only two years after graduating, that I got in to the dream residency I really wanted to do in SíM residency in Reykjavik, as well as NES residency and Skagaströnd in North Iceland, and Kolin Ryyanänen in northeast Finland, that I didn’t know I… Basically, I applied for all of these things that I wanted not thinking I’d get a response and got so much love back that. Yeah, so I ended up spending four and a half months away for that year, predominantly in Iceland and Finland, researching areas that were heavily affected by a significantly changing environment. So I was a guest investigating that human experience of your home changing. And how do you change with it? Or do you change? Do you hate the change? But these sorts of environments. So in Iceland, the first time I went in 2015, they started to have a surge in tourism, and the locals were a bit mixed-feelings about what that would mean. And then visiting in 2019. I already saw the impacted that had occurred. So friends that lived in the CBD had to live far away, the businesses they worked at had all been shut down to accommodate for tourism, because they had a population of 350,000 in their country, and 2 million tourists a year.
Jasmine Crisp 19:13
So suddenly, what was their home wasn’t really theirs anymore,
or unrecognizable as what it was.
Jasmine Crisp 19:23
Yeah. And like their root and culture, all of their spots that were so close to them had been removed to accommodate for visitation. And there are beautiful and important things to that as well; they relied on it for their economy because they don’t have many other resources to share. And then they’ve created a new kind of solidarity with the local people connecting through their language that they’ve maintained, even though it’s such a non-used language in any other country. They keep it so strong so that they have their bond together. And yeah, it inspired a lot more work about just trying to form your own version of home in somewhere that maybe doesn’t always reflect what you knew it to be. Yeah, it’s sort of, I guess, a higher concentration example, or result of a bit of a fear that I have about my world changing or like growing up as a white colonial [descendant] in Adelaide, where I know my body is not designed for this environment, and the environments also becoming harsher. And
there’s a lot of layers to that
Jasmine Crisp 20:42
Yeah, and youth generations having a gap in incomes and just that unsureness about the future where I don’t necessarily want to make specific political statements or cultural statements in my work. I’d much rather I guess, focus on making artworks that say how it feels to be in that situation. Yeah. Not answering again, any of those problems, but just sort of saying, like, we’re feeling them, and this is happening, and this is how some of us are dealing with that. So it was a really interesting and challenging place because I love it so, so dearly. But I’m watching,
watching it change.
Jasmine Crisp 21:25
Yeah. And the locals have generations of attachment to that environment, which is very quickly degrading, because of tourism -which I contributed to by going there.
It’s so nuanced isn’t it.
Jasmine Crisp 21:37
Yeah. And I want to go back. So yeah, it’s really strange.
It’s really strange. Yeah. But I guess that’s, that’s it, you don’t have to come up with a solution to be able to make really valid, you know, -I can’t think of a better word for than ‘documenting’- Yes, the feeling and the layers of that.
Jasmine Crisp 21:56
Yeah. Which is similar… like we’re we’re really experiencing that now in a different way, where our home has changed dramatically, just due to legislation like rules and public health. And that becomes a strange thing of reassessing our own environments and our connection to space.
God, there’s a lot in that.
Jasmine Crisp 22:24
There is enough for a lifetime of work, I think.
Well that’s good.
And now jumping back to the present day: you were just announced as the winner of the inaugural Center for Creative Health Art Prize for your painting ‘They had to share (a portrait of Ruby)‘, which is incredibly exciting!
Jasmine Crisp 22:56
Yeah. I still actually don’t even know how really to respond to that. It’s such a huge, yeah, just crazy thing. I don’t know. It’s someone else’s life. It’s not mine sort-of-feeling.
Like as in Ruby’s like, is that what you mean?
Jasmine Crisp 23:11
Oh, even just like the fact that this has happened is just; I guess it’s one of those things where you think ‘oh I’m never gonna be in a car crash or an accident’
Oh, in that sense.
Jasmine Crisp 23:19
Yeah like ‘I’m never gonna win this major prize’
Haha, so you’re still processing?
Jasmine Crisp 23:24
Yeah, yeah I am. I don’t know… yeah, quite how to…
Yeah, what do you do with that? Maybe put it in a box and you can figure it out how you feel about it later.
Jasmine Crisp 23:32
Yeah. Yeah I think I’m doing that a little bit
Oh, wow. That’s, that’s interesting to hear that actually, that it’s, you know, even as something that’s quite good, you can still be like ‘oh I didn’t see that for me’.
Jasmine Crisp 23:43
Yeah. No, it’s like this big responsibility as well of just like, this needs to be the best thing it can be.
Yeah. Yeah. And that visibility around that as well. I hadn’t clocked that!
Jasmine Crisp 23:57
Yeah. That impact’s ongoing, as well. Yeah, like it will be a forever thing. But I don’t know yet because I haven’t done forever yet.
That’s it. Well, I might quickly do a bit of an audio description of the work for anyone who hasn’t seen it, if that’s cool?
Jasmine Crisp 24:18
Cool, I’ll do a bit of.. I’ll give it my best shot. So the work is called ‘They had to share (A portrait of Ruby)’ and it’s an oil painting on linen. It stands 152cm tall, and 91cm wide and was created in 2020. And the work depicts South Australian artist Ruby Allegra seated on a wheelchair under the running water of a shower. They are in a bathroom with musky pink wall tiles and cream-coloured floor tiles and they are using a gray footstool. The scene is framed by a thin sort of lime-green coloured line which sort of reaches up and forms a round arch, with a blue sky and white clouds in the gap between the arch and the top of the canvas. The scene is framed further by indoor plants, and in the foreground lies an assortment of products that look a lot like they’re from the company Lush; the kind that smell really good. The figure is covered in soap suds with one hand supporting the other arm at the elbow to hold a pink loofa or cloth up towards their neck. Tattoos peek out from behind the soap bubbles on Ruby’s arms, and Ruby is depicted staring right at the viewer. Their mouth is closed and they are not smiling. Their mousy-blond hair is short, and sort of tousled. Their eyes are brown, and they have a silver septum nose ring. And their skin is depicted in sort of warm honey-tones. The piece is full of little details; from water sort of dripping slowly, from Ruby’s chin and from the chair. But also water that’s bouncing really rapidly off the body. There’s this glisten on the wheels, like wet wheels; freckles, and even -which I loved- in the background, the semi-transparency of like a nearly-empty shampoo bottle or something in the background, which I loved. How can you tell us about this work? And actually how, do you know how long it took to make the work?
Jasmine Crisp 26:28
Yeah, firstly, thanks. That’s such a beautiful description. That work took quite a long time to fully manifest. Ruby actually offered themselves to me as a model.
Jasmine Crisp 26:46
Which we deliberated on what story to tell, because I was doing a series of works about taking pride in vulnerable activities at home. So things at home that we do that give us a sense of strength, just even through a mundane task. And Ruby had a really interesting experience with showering and with bathing, because they required assistance to shower and bathe for most of their upbringing in childhood. So they never had a shower alone. And they didn’t really enjoy having a shower like most other people do, because it wasn’t a moment of like warmth and reflection and privacy for them. But yeah, they live in a share house now and they have a shower chair and they have the equipment to be able to shower on their own. And I thought that was a really beautiful example of claiming something that most people will take advantage of to be able to do and to make it like a really big achievement and a statement and to portray their disability with the color and character that Ruby has, which is really positive and really courageous as well, because they’re very vocal about those vulnerable states that they do experience. And publicizing nudity in a usually private space and doing that through art. I really wanted to capture the positivity in the clouds was sort of like a, ulterior dimension where you’re imagining the beauty of the environment that you’re in and sort of that classical dreamscape. Whimsical, positive future energy that a happy sunny sky provides. Yeah, I really wanted to put in Yeah, bright colors that describe Ruby. All the Lush products were part of the household. So it was a sharehouse. And you know you’re in a share house when there’s like seven bottles of shampoo in the shower. And I really wanted to also demonstrate like Ruby as a young person and lives with people that work at Lush, which has its own understood, like quite a worldwide stigma of like, yeah, young, progressive people with coloured hair. And that was all I think, important in portraying their character and their lifestyle and this current moment in time. Yeah.
Oh well congratulations again.
Jasmine Crisp 29:37
One thing I did want to pick up a little bit is to just understand a bit more is the line, like the little arch line that cuts through, does that have a greater significance in your practice?
Jasmine Crisp 29:53
Yeah, I’ve used arches a lot. Um, it does reference to, so like a Christian icon paintings, so the icon paintings depicted relevant characters from religious tales about their significance so that the general public at that time who couldn’t often read or write, could perceive who these people were. And in order to portray that person’s role
and their importance?
Jasmine Crisp 30:27
Yeah, they would use like, really strong symbolism. So really flattened image; direct, quite didactic imagery. So like a flat face, an object that they’re holding, maybe they’re holding the Bible, or they’re holding Jesus because it’s Mary; holding
like a scepre or something?
Jasmine Crisp 30:48
Yeah. Or they have a sheep next to them in the background. That tells you directly who this character is and what they’re doing. And I guess, in order to tell stories in a similar manner, but in a contemporary sense, I’m pretty much doing the same thing. In a lack in a different intention, but to tell this person’s story and their character, I’m very much just selecting objects from their environment that have an understood contemporary, iconic symbolism of sorts. Like, we know what Lush products mean.
Yeah and entail
Jasmine Crisp 31:16
And even though that’s not an official icon, or symbol used in preRaphaelit times, it’s something that I can use. And I like to play a lot with that in a semi-humorous manner, where I’m, yeah, subverting the religious aspect of that and more introducing it as a
it’s a tool isn’t it
Jasmine Crisp 31:47
A tool yeah. It’s a tool, but I’m aware of how it’s been used and therefore I’m trying to use it, in a… it’s self aware. Yeah. But, um, has its own character. I like to think.
That’s so interesting. And so like the positions and poses that your subjects are often in, there’s, yeah, a lot of thought that’s gone into how that will portray them.
Jasmine Crisp 32:11
Yeah, for sure. I’ve, in the past directly referenced specific paintings from history as well, and the poses from those paintings, such as like Waterhouse, or Botticelli to use figures that reference that idea of Venus, or that idea of a muse, or the idea of a Greek mythical woman who may have been mysterious or evil or jealous. And they are sometimes subtle, sometimes not. But it’s something that I really like to play with as a tool for communicating.
Yeah. And as a viewer, once you’ve clocked that you can see it across the practice. So that’s great.
Now looking forwards, what are your next sort of goals for your practice?
Jasmine Crisp 33:20
Yeah, there’s a few, I guess. Because there’s a few [disciplines] now having like muralism, and this year practice, in conjunction with starting tattooing as a new passion and a new medium as well, which I’m just loving so much as a practice. But I really would like to maintain great balance between the studio and mural world because last year was all-mural-consuming. Okay. Which was a great time. But I’m aiming to have a series of new works for a new solo show next year, which is exciting.
Ooh, when, what month?
Jasmine Crisp 34:06
Are we allowed to know where or is that secret still? We can keep it secret.
Jasmine Crisp 34:12
Yeah, stay tuned.
Cool. Oh, that’s so exciting. So you’ll be busily preparing work for that.
Jasmine Crisp 34:21
Yeah. Yeah. And it’s been really special to be, after being in the public realm, to return to the studio and make work where I have free reign, to be as rude and naked as I wish to be.
That’s real power that is.
Jasmine Crisp 34:36
I think it’s gonna be a little bit more honest than it has been in the past because it’s becoming somewhat of like a therapeutic channel to release things that I’m not always allowed to say.
That’s exciting! Colour me intrigued
Jasmine Crisp 34:53
But hopefully still doing some mural projects. I’d really like to do one or two more interstate walls, yeah, after I had a really amazing experience this year at Brisbane Street Art Festival, where I just got to meet the best of the best. And being around those people is so invigorating and just so motivating. They’re just the best people in the world, and it’s those livelihoods and those lifestyles that are just so, yeah, enriching to be around. So i’ll absolutely be still aiming for those projects and for walls that are going to be the most rewarding.
That sounds like a good goal. Yeah. We have been talking for quite some time. So maybe we’ll regretfully wrap up. But I reckon, or maybe we can close with: Have you got a favorite -I know this is a similar question to before, but- do you have a favorite response that someone has had to your work?
Jasmine Crisp 35:57
I have actually a really special one. So one of the biggest artists I’ve always looked up to since I was a little teenager, Andrew Salgado, is a British painter, a figurative painter. Really makes a lot of work about being a homosexual male, and they’re very vibrant and colorful and brave. I submitted my work to Beers Contemporary which is a gallery in London that represents him, and he gave public feedback to my work online. He chose ten artists out of many thousands that applied and publicized it online with written statement of feedback talking about how currently, in the painting world, maximalism (which is essentially how my practice is and looks) is quite unfavoured, and figurative painting in conjunction with maximalism is quite unfavoured as well and out of style at the moment, blah, blah, blah. But talking about the beauty that can still exist in that, and the bravery of doing something that is unfavoured, and the authenticity of the messages that come from making work that maybe isn’t gallery-preferred. And that gave me so much strength. I was actually in lockdown in 2020 when I received that on my Instagrams and I was in bed eating chocolate when I saw his amazing comment on my work that he’d selected, and ended up going for the biggest run because I just couldn’t contain energy, just had to expel it somehow. So that was just a really special moment that an artist that I’d really lived up to had given me their kudos. Yeah, that’s really special.
Well, that’s a lovely note. Well, I think we’ll wrap it up there. Maybe we’ll go and enjoy this rain that’s been sort of threatening in the background.
Jasmine Crisp 38:05
Thank you so much for having me, Steph.
Thank you. And yes, we’ll be watching on keenly what you do next and figuring out where that show is gonna be.