Category Archives: MA3 Final Major Project

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United Nations of the Art World

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It was nearly 20 years since I had felt the tingle of excitement at being graded. It was nearly a quarter of a century since I had last been ‘formally assessed’ (how dare they?) as an artist.

I was about to start a three-year academic commitment. In applying to be part of the Open College of the Arts 2014 cohort for Europe’s first distance part time Masters in Fine Art, I had signed up to deadlines and being a student again: a proper one (not the kind who says they are a ‘student of life’ and winks in an alarming way). I’d have an NUS card, discounts in Top Shop and more two-for-one pizzas than I could ever consume . What else would I learn? What had I to gain?

And then it began. My cohort came together like something out of The IT Crowd: bumbling and lumbering around our virtual Masters degree like Neanderthals who could not figure out how to turn the screen on, never mind access a ‘hangout’. And what the hell do they mean by ‘asynchronous seminar’?

“Can you hear me? I can see you but…hang on, type in the text box…you can’t see the text box…umm…the icons on the left, THE LEFT…*sigh* Just turn the computer off and start again!”

Those who were computer literate (the ‘hackers’ as we like to think of them) became the leaders of the pack – virtual royalty: they could initiate events, like shamans or magicians. They could mute the idiots who were broadcasting their tea slurping, toast munching, or shouting at their children. We quickly learned the benefit of deactivating the camera, not only to ensure that the bandwidth was working for everyone, but also so that we could wear a towel turban and pyjamas whilst at a lecture. These are the great benefits of virtual attendance at ‘school’. There were disadvantages too.

“Mwamba, are you still there…hello? Are you there Mwamba?…No, he’s gone.”

Realistically though, what had we to gain from the experience of being part of a multi-cultural, geographically diverse student collective? How would we grow by connecting weekly throughout life changing and world changing events? How would our practice change by being on show whilst learning about each other’s work, lives, and backgrounds? What riches would we gain from this unique and international dynamic?

That first tiptoe into describing our work to each other was replaced three years later by the group refusing to accept the artist’s version of events. Not in a creepy ‘I know you!’ way, but by feeling that we had all been on a road trip together – we understood each other. This road trip took us through Germany, America, Canada, Spain, Africa, Ireland and the United Kingdom. What sights we saw as we learnt about each others’ lives through the aperture of creative discussions and portfolios.

Relationships have started and ended, politicians have been voted (some controversially) in and out of power, wars have been a constant background noise. We have seen pictures. Pictures on screens, like a children’s book of art and life; a kaleidoscope of happenings and creativity. We have worked together and yet independently. A ‘making day’ required us to meet in our studios hundreds of miles apart, and to share our experiences, exchanging photos, discussing progress, exploring our own inadequacies as well as celebrating our successes. I have learnt about relationships I don’t understand, places I have never been to, journeys I will never go on and all from the relative comfort of my swivel chair. I have been exposed to creative takes on feminism, political angst, collective intelligence and polymaterialism without having to leave my computer. But it’s not about the exposure, it’s about the engagement: about being a cohort – learning about and supporting each other. Is that not symbolic of the importance of being human? Finding common ground and celebrating our differences. Learning by listening to each other.

“So sorry, I missed everything you just said. The babysitter’s here now and I’ve shut the dog away!”

Whilst the most important lesson is to mute the microphone before discussing a blocked toilet with someone who has just walked into the studio, the additional lessons have been endlessly insightful. We have had numerous outstanding lectures, and have been led by an award-winning team. Dr Angela Rogers and Caroline Wright know us and our quirks and our practice inside and out. They have been stalwart supporters; challenging us by asking those searching questions which made us address our insecurities and doubts, acknowledging these and moving on from them.

But we have never met. It is a fascinating by-product of this digital age that someone can know you so well and yet never have seen you in the flesh. It will not be until we gather in June in the Civic Centre, Barnsley for our exhibition hang that we will all come face to face. This feels like internet dating; will they look like they do in their profile photo? (It’s some semi-abstract insect painting: this should be fun!) Will they be shorter or taller than I imagine? (Everyone is roughly the same size on a computer screen.) Will I like their work when I see it in ‘the real world’? Will we hug? #awkward

In a world that occasionally forgets that the future is a place of diversity and that there is strength and dynamism in this, we could see this MA course as the United Nations of the Art world – reaching out across geographical borders to bring together ten people who would never have initiated this relationship independently. We are a collective and we are connected. This is, in fact, the title of our MA show.

It is irrelevant that Mathew lives in Nova Scotia and that his Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau (liberal leader supreme), that Tanya lives in New York and is having to put up with Trump, and that I’m surrounded by conversations about breaking up the EU….we have all ultimately been brought together under one ‘virtual’ roof and we have explored questions about our practice together. We have collaborated in a shared online exhibition: another bite of the virtual cookie.

So, back to my original question: what have we gained from our decision to embark on the OCA Masters? Everything. This is not just about letters after our names, or about making a move into new galleries or being picked up by a particular curator. It is about exploring in great depth the thing which drives us all – the motivation to make. I watch people who are great at hairdressing, flower arranging, sketching, science, construction, equations, parenting…we are all driven by a desire to make something different, unique, better…lovely. To explore that within a diverse community is richly rewarding. It is confirmation that we are all part of the same fabric of existence – the comfort blanket of creativity that wraps around the world. If only we could grip a bit tighter, hold on to our global brothers and sisters and reject all sounds of isolationism or jingoism.

We will be filling a gallery full of ideas, concepts and creations and they are part of all of us, part of being alive. They are for the consumption of all: those who can attend the exhibition 15-24th June in the Civic Centre, Barnsley and those who can view our work online. We welcome you all. We embrace you in. Stay a while.

 

 

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Imperfectionism

I feel like starting a movement. Something to do with the joys of imperfection. After all, the works I am currently producing rely on this. They could not be a conversation if they also needed to be ‘perfect’. In an interview Gormley stated:

There was a time just after I moved into the new studio when it was just full of clay and i was trying to find a way of making that wasn’t imposing an image on the material but allowing a one-to-one relationship between my body and the body of the clay. The forms arose naturally from the space between my hands; clay was another way of dealing with the flesh.

Biggs, McGonagle and Bann. Antony Gormley. London. Tate Publishing 1993

This ‘space’ is what interests me the most. The space where the work emerges. 

I have been making a lot of work over the last two weeks. It has been an exciting time that I will need to finish fairly soon so that the work has some breathing space before I select the pieces I will be exhibiting in Sheffield.

My new website should go live this week and is something I am extremely proud of. It is sleek and simple with professionally shot photographs of my current work. It is my shop front, not my storage container! Here is a little peek:

Life story.

When I was 15 my then Art teacher said to me: “Emma, you never know when to stop! You overwork everything!”. At 18, as a new student of Art I was told by a lecturer “if you want to make it in the Art world, you have to find the hole in the market and fill it!”. A little part of me died. At 19 a college professor pulled me into his office and, in his too-tight trousers, swore that he would find out where I was plaigarising from. Nearly everyone left his office in tears. At 21 I was training to be an art teacher in East London and a colleague of mine was being threatened by a parent. His crime was to have joked that the Bengali girls should do all the cleaning up. He wanted to get them to refuse – to reject stereotypes and to insist the boys helped. Instead, a family assumed that he was abusing his position of authority and we were told to leave the site safely. The school had police escorts ensuring that the students left the site without gang fighting with a nearby school.

And then there was the incident of the man who had my heart, being killed. We were no longer together though. As if that makes it alright?

Then what? What do I do but fall back on sentimentality, lucky charms, books and greetings cards and the smell of sweet peas and tea. I roll the pages of my sketch books through my hands. These vast collections of scribbled thoughts, desperate longing, and sadnesses that I feel guilty for owning. Because I have this beautiful family, these incredible friends, this amazing child and a job I adore. I didn’t deserve to feel bad about stuff. I hadn’t earned the right. Suffered enough.

Colour is my therapy, my muse. I squeeze it from the tube; great glistening fruits of yellow and pink. Cherries and sunsets, fireworks and celebrations. If I swamp myself in enough colour I am happy. If I surround myself with seductive nudity, I own it. It is part of me.

But it isn’t. It wasn’t. It was a charade. The colours drown out an emptiness and the flamboyant​ figures a masquerade. And I’m there teaching other people techniques and trying to fill a world with images that are empty of ‘me’ – because they are not allowed to exist fully, or to feel genuine. They can be aesthetically pleasing and have their own sadness or raunch. As long as it is not mine.

And I’m reminded of all of these artistic encounters. Of people who said things and made me feel. Of artists who move me and of why I do what I do. And I do love what I do. And I’m no longer this caged bird who hides from judgement and pretends my work is pretty and acceptable and polite. I’m free from the perception that the world needs me to be something; colourful and prolific and joyful. Because that is not real. Instead, as I reinvent my website and my portfolio, I want to acknowledge the growth this MA journey has allowed me. I am open to my own pain. I acknowledge my sadnesses and my joys. I feel the cool air making my eyes water and I let the tears roll; as comfortably as letting the laughter hurt my cheeks. My conversation is with materials – it is process led, real discovery; authenticity. It is my exploration (supported by a fairly sizeable amount of academic rigour, and experimentation). These conversations with the work are the air in my lungs. There is no right or wrong. Only the process. Only the engagement. And when it rears its ugly, unconventional, bruised head, I pull it to me, recognising a friend.

My journey

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In 2015 I created a Masters blog entitled ‘Art in a Birdcage’ referencing a sense of being overly conscious of how I work and what I do; how it may be perceived, perhaps judged. I started painting faces and thinking about masks and of using flesh as canvas. I wanted to hide what existed, to use paint to reveal and conceal. I wanted to make an impression and to explore the territory of moving into my model’s personal space; and in doing so, my own. In 2016 I moved on to working with collaborations and having ‘visual conversations’ with others. Finding their unexpected and foreign marks in my work and learning to explore my own contribution to the works as they evolved was fascinating for me. These drawings and paintings allowed me to free myself from many previous held perceptions of judgement; because they were an involvement, a happening, an event. The collaboration was again about the space between myself and the participant; how we engaged, whether there was dialogue, how often we rotated the work, finding meaning, pattern and abstraction in the result. The more the work had ‘flow’ and a sense of oneness I would question whether this was intuitive or contrived.

In this, the final year I am the collaborator and the work is the artist, or the other way around. Either way we are building each other. My practice is grounded in the knowledge that I can let go, I can free myself from perception of judgement and engage with the very important business of focusing only on my relationship with the work. Is it what I want it to be, is it what it wants to be, against my will. At what stage do I refuse to let this happen and for what reason? The experimentation with materials means that I cannot be absolutely in control of the outcome; allowing me to be adventurous and to work on the edges of what I know. By combining styles and breaking rules I am in constant conversation with the work and it is becoming something I respond to (and with) intuitively each time we ‘meet’. It is not planned, for how can a conversation be planned; this is not a script? As I open the kiln door this piece with which I was in love, is now a hateful colour, dusted with the rubble of a work that exploded alongside it: and in that glorious ugliness I am torn; those sickly greens remind me of death and I want to hold the work to my chest, protect it. Perhaps I must reassess my feelings. This relationship is the fuel for my current work.  It is as honest and as spontaneous as I can be.

The works are mine. And I am theirs. Whatever anyone else thinks, is their own business.

Our Dreams….

Today I was looking at a few of the remains from my collaborative project ‘Our Dreams Are Not So Different’. I am still receiving photographs from participants in this unit and plan to spend some of the summer mapping the location of all works. These fragments (below) have slept on my desk throughout the last few months and I wanted to make some work which is connected to my current theme but also nodding to the collaboration.

I decided to make stacks out of old work and fragments of current work. I put a box of pieces out on the table and had the most enjoyable time finding, re-glazing and stacking these together. They are hopelessly unstable but the glaze should secure them together during the firing process. I feel they are logical – almost a Princess and the Pea reference with these little sleeping faces balanced precariously at the top of a formidable stack of oddly arranged ‘blankets’. Or the broken remnants of buildings?

I will be offering these as unique works to be auctioned for charity to provide funds to charities supporting the homeless. I recognise that these works resonate fairly clearly with this. I thought about whether they should have titles but decided simply on ‘Bed’. Each will look completely different after the firing process, as ever and they will then become part of this current body of work. I am a huge fan of the stacks, irrespective of whether they have faces at the top or not: they are extremely aesthetically pleasing, given that I know my colour combinations and yet cannot predict what the ranges of different clay and blends of glaze will become at 1200 degrees. Elements of a Made in China bowl set have been installed within the work and I have no idea whether this will survive. If one part fails, the whole tower tumbles. Exciting stuff.

I have recently discovered the artist Bouke de Vries:

Bouke de Vries is a Dutch-born ceramic artist currently living and working in London. He has lived a life that is much like his artwork — a mash-up of old world skills that he uses to remix, reorder, and deliver overt contemporary satire and social commentary. The  reverse of Ai Weiwei, who dramatically dropped the Han dynasty urn to make a point about the loss of history, de Vries puts the broken back together to re-contextualize the past.

http://ferrincontemporary.com/portfolio-items/bouke-de-vries/

 

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Bouke de Vries. Goddess of the Fragments 2. 2015

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Bouke de Vries. Fragmented Vase 1. 2015

I had already used some pieces from a set I had bought in a charity shop with Chinese pattern work on the surface – some of those pieces can just about be found amidst the fragments of my own broken ceramics. My work is neither trying to achieve anything similar to Ai Wei Wei or de Vries, however the powerful nature of something either being destroyed or being regenerated is transfixing. It reminds us of our attachment to objects and the strength of emotion we can feel when we see a pattern familiar to us (perhaps even from childhood). The damage can feel actually visceral to some. I have seen people react similarly to a book being doodled onto, or a CD not being returned to a case. Damage is something which makes some feel deeply concerned and uncomfortable – that this is downfall, crisis, out of control. And, moreover, that items that exist should be in some way cherished and revered. The worth of any item remains a negotiation between historical and cultural market monetary value and that of the sentiment: that raw, gut twisting sense of broken promise, broken dreams, the fragility and temporality of existence itself.

I already have plans for some ambitious works which will happen as and when I get studio time and space. I also have boxes of broken and fragmented pieces from old works as well as some that I continue to demolish and return to the box for reincarnation.

 

 

Who says?

New shores are drawing me towards them! I have become fascinated in the unexpected; of working on the edge of knowledge. I’m breaking the rules. WHO’S RULES EVEN ARE THEY?! Self imposed. What kind of crazy is that? I have been imposing rules on myself for the whole of my life. The last two years have forced me to meet this reality face to face and to challenge it. Today I was painting onto ceramics. I did this in Year 1 but because I wanted the ceramics to look more like flesh. I was going for expressive realism. Now I’m going for authentic impulse. Mindful work. There is such an enormous difference. 

STOP PLANNING, GET MAKING! 

The making is in every sense awesome. It is instinctive, playful, destructive and intentionally seeking the unknown. I best describe the work as having a personality: it fights with me, explodes, breaks, comes out of the kiln a colour I do not recognise. I am the maker but my product is a constant surprise: I don’t even know what direction my hand is going to go in as I add paint or glaze to the work. There is no planning stage. I am learning not to overthink it. The work is the experience and the outcome. I am recording both. Looking at other artists who work on the edge, with processes they cannot be fully in control of. 

This is the freedom and fun that was needed. This is deeply pleasing and so much more accurately a self-portrait than anything recognisably ‘me’. Simultaneously the works are totally disconnected from me. They survive and tell their own narrative. I’m completely in a love-hate relationship with them. It is war: finding reincarnation possible via the destruction of work. New ideas flow as I meet the shattered remains of something that once existed. And then my eyes turn to the work with love in them: it is my baby, my song. “Is it possible to be ‘lovingly violent’?” I was recently asked. The answer is……

Beach combing and stone stacks….

Norfolk beaches are stunning. They have my heart. But, if I’m honest, they are pretty brutal in this weather!

So we walked to find stones and various pieces that had washed up on the beach which included fishing wire and seaweed. I also stopped to stack some stones. I think this is surely a ritual for every child on the beach? However stacking stones reminds me so much of Goldsworthy’s work. Even when I am only managing five stones.

I have a bag of stones to experiment with indoors, and some willing volunteers to collaborate with. 

Blog Pt 2 to follow…..

Funny how different people react to stones; what their instinct tells them to do, what motivates them to reorder, to reclassify or change a collection.