“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”
McEwan’s description in Atonement forces us to see the physical substance and fragility of the flesh, as well as of our emotions: that we are ultimately delicate and immeasurably vulnerable, perhaps most obviously towards the end of our lives. As I paint with these new friends, I notice the worn, wrinkled hands, air pumped through a tube into her nose, words that stop on his lips catching briefly against his breath. And I am her eyes: eyes that once saw the sunrise and all that is beautiful and ugly in the world. As I describe the brightness of the orange and the warmth she is creating; the cancer which is diminishing her senses is made less powerful. In that moment the collaboration of my eyes and her hands pulls us together – a harmony of sorts – a moment captured – a small fabric plaster over the inevitability of her decreasing days. We paint as though we are embedded in and emerging renewed through the paint; it is oxygen, it is comfort and, as the paint dances, we are woven into this moment of being.
I left some clay rolled out in my class room yesterday whilst I went to a meeting. This was used clay which had been returned to a bag in balls. It had little bits in picked up from the tables. It had finger prints in it and will inevitably change during the firing process. It is likely to crack in unexpected places. There was a note attached welcoming anyone to get involved making impressions into it.
When I came back the piece was covered in anonymous impressions. I asked my next class to continue this so that the impressions were weaving across each other. I then folded the clay – which looked like fabric – into the shape of a baby (my baby!) and carried it around for a few minutes; connecting with it as my work again. The weight of the clay was causing it to tear in different places and when I gently rolled it out again it was broken into distinct sections. Damaged and worn in places, I then crafted a few vessels. Adding legs to the largest of the vessels seemed to make sense to me. I loved the bottom of the pot ‘still standing’ and of making the vessel anthropomorphic. I wanted the clay to represent something of getting older, of being fragile, of our human vulnerability.
Even the quirky cartoon-like legs seem to suit the vessel, although I was conflicted about whether to use my own lower leg and feet as a ceramic mould. This would require a larger base on the vessel but is certainly something to consider in the future. I might try this next week.
Is it relevant that I have had a throat infection for this last week and have had to soldier on regardless? That I, the artist, feel weary? Or more that I was thinking about places and where we’re born into; and our human identity being woven with our national identity and everything that encompasses. That we are marked constantly by things said and unsaid and by the values our democratically elected political system appears to support. That I am marked by all my encounters and that I am only notionally part of anything. And that displacement makes these marks less – and more – distinct. A lot is being talked about in the media in relation to the refugee crisis. Recently I was watching a film about the extent of the problem and thinking about how each individual must feel torn, lost, sculpted by an identity they then feel forced to superimpose another on top of. I like the wear and tear of the materials I am using. The vessel is also symbolic of the people I work with at the Hospice: still standing metaphorically. I’m also loving the anonymity of the marks made and wonder whether this is effective because I was not hovering over them, making suggestions, yet they effectively became an intrinsic part of the process; and symbolic in the same way that each encounter we have becomes part of our textured blanket of experience….
Bringing the gin and art together at this awesome party in Camden, this was a fortieth party with a difference. When you mix someone’s two loves, and persuade their closest friends to enjoy both with them, the result is something quite wonderful: if entirely abstract. With each participant working on their own canvas and then collaborating on a large canvas, we were all very much part of a ‘happening’. The gin was flowing, the music was blasting, the Charlie Chaplin movie was playing in the background and we were all thoroughly absorbed in being ARTISTS.
In a sea of plastic covering every surface in the venue, we all worked in a variety of different styles, every now and them realising that we were so absorbed the entire room was silent except for the music. This was something quite unexpected. I turned around and noticed that there was a row of people all fully immersed in their painting, all looking down, silent, concentrating. Three people told me that they had not painted since they left school and that they had enjoyed it so much because it had reminded them of the simple pleasures of making something. One told me that she was going to start taking painting classes.
I couldn’t help but think that the art was around us, amongst us and, noticeably ON us. The control freak in me was trying my hardest to live in the moment and not worry about the person who might walk oil paint over the uncovered parts of the floor. There was a slowing of breath, there was a silencing of chitter-chatter, there was a pleasure in the movement of paint against canvas, and of seeing an idea come to life.
Slides from my presentation.
During a fantastic lecture given by Harriet Loffler, (Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Norwich Castle and Art Gallery) we were asked to introduce ourselves briefly. I talked about my practice and my collaborations and my love of working in tandem and of making work others can take on a journey and of unfamiliar marks. But, more importantly, I DIDN’T MENTION THAT I AM AN ART TEACHER! I ALSO DIDN’T MENTION BEING A MOTHER. Not that these aren’t intrinsically part of who I am, and parts that I am extremely proud of. But in the context of who I am as an artist, these factors shape my ideas but not necessarily my identity. Whilst Harriet started her lecture I was smiling. This is REAL. You, Emma, don’t need the scaffolding of being an art teacher to describe your practice, in fact the two things are quite independent; though they may cross and overlap.
Harriet’s lecture was extremely insightful. Her experience of working with a range of artists and of curating numerous exhibitions gave us insight into the experience of creating such diverse exhibitions; including the work of Hubert Duprat, 400 years of British Art as a co-collections exhibition, and the British Art Show 8. The word choreography stands out in my notes, and the idea of ‘knowledge production’, marrying the needs of the artist and the institution; such as how people move around the space and engage with works. Harriet answered all of our questions about interaction with curators and getting work shown. She has given me plenty of food for thought.
Perhaps it is the recent political climate: Brexit, Trump and a sense that people want something ‘other than’ which leaves me questioning my own motives for working on collaborations. In the process of deconstructing my thoughts and ruminating on whether I am, in fact taking advantage of the groups I work with in order to have multiple hands in my work. I am momentarily caught up in feeling that rather than bringing the world in, I am in fact USING every single one of them to make something which I can claim to have masterminded, calculated and conducted. It is MINE whilst it is being worked on by other hands. It is MINE when I decide to obliterate the marks I don’t like, or rearrange the style of it, from the decision of rotation through to how it is shared with the world. When I call it a collaboration, am I just emphasising some abstract quality in the work: that it has come together through the positivity of a large crowd of willing participants? Am I giving it more fundamental worth through this shared experience. Am I not just coordinating random responses, compiling them in a visual format and then refining it with my own vision of balance and composition? Am I essentially using friends, strangers, students, patients and children for my own personal and artistic benefit? It now worries me that I wrote a piece about the beauty of collaboration and of finding these unfamiliar marks in my work; of me searching for the next encounter, addicted to the state of raw unfamiliarity in the art: one night stands rather than rich relationships.
And then I think about their involvement. You are invited in. You have a choice. You know that this work is shared; that your marks might become buried beneath those of ten other people; you have no invested interest in your marks remaining constant or untouched. So, the collaborative element is the PROCESS. It is about being part of something: like singing in a choir, or playing in a team sport. It is shared experience and coming together: of being involved in something which asks only that you are an active participant. When I think about drawing with my one year old niece, the pleasure for her was all in the physical mark-making: in that moment of shared free-drawing, and of the playfulness of my crayon chasing hers around the page. That was what we shared. The drawing outcome was a consequential by-product. And it is the same with others. It was that moment of being together, in silence or in animated laughter and conversation. It was about being involved in mark-making whilst comforted by the motions of creativity. It is a state of bliss: of pleasure. There is agency between artists and a fortuity of the mark and where it takes you; building on, mobilizing the marks, always moving, always developing.
So, if I am using participants, I believe that they benefit from the experience. I don’t need to worry that I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or that I am wielding power and deviously taking advantage of my collaborators. The confirmation from so many that we “MUST do this again!” tells me what I need to know. The world is not a bad place. I have much to explore in these encounters and need to stop self-consciously psychoanalysing it.
Having thoroughly enjoyed walking around the RAs exhibition on Abstract Expressionism, I was struck by this quote:
‘The act – painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence’ – critic Harold Rosenberg, 1952.
This was entirely true of the paintings I created last year – moreso of some than others. I wanted to FEEL the emotions and use instinct to move my hand. I wanted to be less conscious of the elements which I know I can confuse with reflecting ‘quality’ in order to develop work which felt more authentic: more an experience of working through than an experience of looking to validate with notions of recognition.
And I was fuelled with inspiration walking around this great collection of works, to take further steps down this road: to approach working on different materials, on different scale, with different size brushes (huge as well as tiny), to be constantly challenging myself to feel authentic and not to find a new and comfortable groove, a pattern of remaking which repeats and repeats with little distortion. I want to feel the paint as it moves from palette to canvas. I want to splash myself with it as it moves ever so slightly out of my control, on the edges of my deliberate-awareness, somewhere between conscious and sub conscious. Though I do not want to approach the experience in the same way as Pollock or Rothko I do like the sentiment of David Anfam, co-curator of the RA’s Abstract Expressionism show:
‘…we will be drawn to such emotions as long as we remain recognisably human’ and ‘the dehumanisation that attends aspects of contemporary life such as high technology and cyberspace… may make this art the more attractive to our assailed, ergo jaded, sensibilities’