Interview for the Fword (long version)

You produce a very interesting and diverse range of works – how would you describe your art?

It’s a difficult question for me to answer, as I just follow my imagination, but I’ll do my best. The art that I have mostly been making for the last few years is called “assemblage”, the genre to which “What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing” belongs. I used to paint and draw, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next as I have arthritic hands and cataracts, and assemblage is getting harder for me to do without help. I had some help with the fiddly bits of the ironing board. My art comes from ideas, though I wouldn’t call it conceptual art, which is not interested in aesthetics or craft. In assemblage, diverse found objects, skills and techniques are used in combination to create a whole. I collect things from markets, boot fairs, charity shops, cast-offs; I also use images from the Internet, fabrics, text, different crafts. And all of my artwork is in miniature. I consider myself to be an outsider artist, not in absolute terms but in the sense that I wish to remain outside the mainstream ‘art world’. I also write poetry and have been experimenting with different ways of displaying poems in a gallery setting.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating your art work?

The process is complicated, and different for each piece. I collect things. I have ideas. I try to put the two together. Sometimes the idea comes first and I look for something to represent it, and sometimes I see something which inspires the artwork. There are usually hundreds of steps and hundreds of decisions in the process. Once I have got the main structure, I prepare it and paint it, repair it if necessary. Then I decorate it in a way which fits with the idea, so this could be with shells, beads, painting, fabric, feathers, other found objects, turning it from an old dirty piece of (usually) wood into a brightly coloured, highly decorative surface. I make sure at this point there are holes punched in at appropriate points from which I hang “danglers”, more found objects or miniatures that I make to represent various aspects of the idea. Or these pieces might be glued onto a surface. For the ironing board, I made a small book of illustrations of the other pieces on the ironing board; took a doll’s house ironing board and transformed that into an approximation of the large ironing board (I wanted to represent the repetitive and reductive aspects of ironing); I made a chaise longue and a miniature rag rug, and collected all sorts of other things to put on the ironing shelf. I also bought a wooden child-size iron in Hobbycraft and decorated that, in a way that makes it an impossible iron. As this piece is partly about women’s crafts, I decorated the ironing board with shells and glass beads, and with lace bobbins which I painted and wound round with embroidery threads.

What sort of themes do you like to explore in your art?

Another difficult question, as I don’t approach making art in this way. I don’t think about themes at all. I respond to something I’ve seen or heard, or remembered, and something starts to take shape in my mind. I have ideas all the time. I’d have to live another three lives at least  to be able to make all the things I imagine. An on-looker might perceive themes, but they are just reflections of my inner world and who I am, really. You might say that I don’t make art about war, for instance, but if something caught my fancy one day about war, I might very well make something (angry and pacifist) about it. Or sport – which normally interests me not at all, but in fact I made a piece this year called “Jam Rag Boogie” which was inspired by the woman running the London Marathon while menstruating, and allowing the blood to run free. I think beauty and aesthetic balance are very important, and wit and humour, so I try to make things which are fun to look at. I think this is a “theme”, as is proportion. I like to play about with relative sizes of things.

How do you feel your personal experience influences the type of artwork you like to create?

 My personal experience is what I make art about. I believe absolutely that ‘the personal is political’ and also that the more personal and truthful you are, the more you express the universal human condition and experience.

Particular aspects of my personal experience have a huge influence on the type of artwork I make. The first and probably most important is lack of money. If I had more money I would employ a fleet of assistants, make much bigger things, or many more things. I would get people to make things for me to incorporate into my work. I would employ a publicist and a manager. The second most important influence is what happened to me in childhood, which prevents me (still) from self-publicity, networking, doing all the things necessary to get my work out in the world. I work very slowly now due to ill health and depression and therefore I can’t do big pictures or make large works of any kind. I identify strongly with Jane Austen’s remark about her “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”. I try to make a virtue out of this now by deliberately making miniatures to reflect the way in which women’s art was perceived for so many centuries. My childhood and upbringing have had a major impact in a more positive way on the type of artwork I make. I come from a very cultured, creative, left-wing family, surrounded by books and music. I used to look at art books in my father’s study before I could read, I heard (and knew of) Bartok when I was three, my oldest brother made puppets, hand-made books, and played music all when I was a small child. So I have a passionate love of European culture of all kinds, which is reflected in my market ‘finds’.

What does feminism mean to you?  

It’s a way of life, a religion, bedrock.

When my mother was expecting her fifth child, when I was four, she and my father used to joke at mealtimes about finding a name for it. The joke was always on female names, such as Ermyntrude, Brunnhilde, Gertrude. One day I’d had enough, and shouted at them: “You’re only making jokes because you think it will be a girl”. From then until the birth, the baby was referred to as “Humph”, short for Humphrey. They thought my rage was funny, but I didn’t, and still don’t.

How do your feminist ideas come out?   

I was a card-carrying feminist in the late 60s and 70s. I hated the era I was growing up in, the 40s and 50s, because of the attitudes to women and the way they were treated. Reading “The Female Eunuch” was a turning point for me, the first time I had EVER read or heard anyone, male or female, who shared my opinions on the subject. And then, like so many things that gave us such hope at that time, something happened to feminism and somehow it lost its way and I despaired of it. I have lived it all my life, but I didn’t want to make feminist art. I am not a proselytiser. My life experiences have been hard and painful and I wanted to make art which celebrated beauty and joy as a counterbalance. It is recently, through meeting various young women, that I have been excited by the new wave of feminism and also discovered how far, in spite of impressive achievements, the world still has to travel. I thought younger people would not listen to my feminist ideals/ideas so I shut up about them. So now I am putting more about it into my art work. My next exhibition is going to be called “Broken Homes” and will have several feminist pieces in it. I made the ironing board, and a tribute to Judy Chicago called “Rosie’s Tea Party”, which has places set for many women who have inspired me, and a Fairy Castle which has three floors, the gods on the top, the aristocratic family in the middle, the lowest floor being a basement in which girls are kept chained to beds. However, I was surprised to discover when “Jam Rag Boogie” was exhibited about the time of the debate on luxury tax on tampax, how much impact it had, but at the same time how people didn’t recognise why I based the poem on Winston Churchill’s most famous speech – they didn’t even know this speech. So I don’t know how out of date I am. My feminism has come out more in my poems up to now.

Who are you inspired by?

 I was lastingly inspired by Judy Chicago. When a friend of mine saw pictures of my works on people who had influenced me, she asked why there were few women. So I made “Rosie’s Tea Party” which includes 14 women who have influenced me. Tilly Olsen’s “Silences” was the inspiration for the ironing board. Folk art and outsider art are very important inspirations. Judith McNichol, who started Artesian Trust in Edinburgh (now disbanded) is a continuing influence, a wonderful woman, a brilliant artist, a dear friend. She and Artesian changed me from being a painter and reluctant non-achiever in the art world into an artist following my true path. Schubert is an enormous influence on my practice, endlessly inspiring form, playfulness, structure and beauty. Matisse was my first artistic love (right back to those art books in my father’s study) and for years I followed his path of art as a relaxation and joy, a comfortable armchair at the end of a busy day. Whatever I go on to make, I will try and make it beautiful and joyous because of Matisse.