In my last “feature find” I told you how I met Sarah Roach at various events here in Nottingham. She is a photographer and printmaker whose style is easily recognizable. I came across her work on various occasions in and around Nottingham. Most recently I saw her represented at the Derby Print Open at Banks Mill. Her minimalistic, often black and white prints combine crisp edges that stem from exaggerated contrast in photography with softening elements like blurring, layering or printing on a textured substrate.
Although I saw her and her work at various events, we didn’t come closer. After almost two years of first meeting her, I gathered up my daring and asked her whether she could invite me to her studio. To my delight she agreed. And so it came to pass that on a sunny day in April I climbed a few steps, pressed the bell button and then stood there, anxious to see whether she’d open the door. – Of course she did, and I was greeted first by her two friendly (but to me huge) greyhounds, and then by her.
From the door we climbed up two flights of stair until we reached the small space directly under the roof. Fabrics with screenprints hung like gauze curtains on one side, the staircase up to here showed as a slanted surface on which there were some of Sarah’s work, and on the other side books were piled to form a small wall.
Hilke: Hello Sarah, thanks for welcoming me here today! Let’s start with some basic questions first: How would you say you became an artist? Sarah: I don’t remember to ever consciously make a decision to be an artist. I always enjoyed art and the process of thinking about things, having ideas and creating but I was never your traditional artist. I was about 15 when I realised I wanted to study art. I started as a painter but it was never just straight painting with me, there was always another dimension to it. And even while I was painting I also made things.
You mean like taking photos? The photography came much later. After my fine art degree, around 1999, I was living in very small rented accommodation. I was working full time then, but to keep my creative side happy I did a photography course as I thought it was a way of being creative that didn’t take up much room.
Was that when you started your current practise? For a while I took photos but didn’t really do anything with them. It was my partner who made me realise I should do more with my photography and with my creative side. He told me it made me happy – it’s funny how sometimes you don’t realise that by not doing something you’re making yourself unhappy, until it’s pointed out to you. Quite a few years later I had the opportunity to study for my Masters while working part time. It was then that I started with printmaking, and developed my current style of work.
On your website you call yourself a “photographer and printmaker”, and you also bind some of your works into books. All three of them, photography, printmaking, and bookbinding have this craft-aspect to them and can be very technical. How do you see this navigation between art and craft? I don’t see a dividing line there. To me it’s all part of the same thing – a way to express ideas and be creative. It doesn’t necessarily need to be defined as anything other than art.
The dividing aspect that is important to me and my practise is how abstract a process is, how removed you are from your subject matter. I mentioned before that already when I was a painter there was always another aspect to my work. I like to do things with my hands and I like to make things. With photography (especially with digital photography) I often felt a bit removed from the subject and ideas, and once you had printed the photograph that was it. I always felt slightly dissatisfied with that.
That’s where it becomes important to me to develop my photos further, and add a more hands-on process to it. I work with photographic etching, and the making of the plates and the printing of the images is very close to working with analoge film, but you get the added loveliness of the textures, the ink, and the edges created by the plate. You get inky hands, the whole of you becomes part of the work.
The techniques I use in printmaking make me look at photography differently and it helps me experiment more – they feed into each other, which makes me think beyond the photographic image – the photograph almost becomes just a step in a journey.
The book making came about through my love for books and paper. Binding semi-transparent pages with my prints allows me to build up a work through means of layering. There are several aspects to this that I like: the building up of an image, but also the blurring and softening that comes from not looking at one print directly but through additional layers of paper. I screenprint on thin paper, too, and often I like the backside of my prints better than front. But mostly I like books, and I like for my work to have a tactility about it – and what’s more tactile than a book?
I guess that can be seen as related to craft – that you can touch someone’s work.
You wrote: “I am fascinated by silence and its relationship with sound and the world around us.” Could you please explain that in more detail? It sounds very poetic, but I don’t really understand it. How do you photograph silence? I’m naturally a very quiet person and I enjoy time away from a lot of noise. Walking and spending time outside in nature is often where I can experience feelings of calmness and stillness and I think that is what I was always striving for in my images.
So that’s why most of what you photograph is nature? Yes, I like nature and the landscape, especially grasses and stones, and I photograph what I like. I just love grass. There’s so much variety to it, and it can look like branches and even trees when blown up. I also like trees, but they are hard to photograph without background, and a discernable background is like adding noise to me. I sometimes photograph grass in situ. I then use overexposure and play tricks with light to isolate my motif from the background. I also have a collection of dry grass and stones at home that I simply place on a white surface to photograph.
I can perfectly see how a minimalistic image of a single blade of grass or a single pebble is “quiet”, and a bright, colourful painting might be loud. But the tangible connection you seem to feel is remarkable. Silence is important to me.
It took me a while to realise this, but when I did, it opened up a whole new world to me. I began to read about silence (I know it sounds boring but you wouldn’t believe how fascinating it is) and what I did realise is that you can’t have silence without sound – how would you know what silence was without sound? Then the big thing – that silence doesn’t actually exist.
Sarah picked up a couple of books and told me about them. People who went to the desert in a quest for silence, and – I probably shouldn’t have been surprised – a range of books about music. In the books stuck hundreds of post-its, colour coded, marking passaged to be entered into a database on her computer, so she can quickly find quotes and ideas again that struck her as remarkable.
She told me how we can hear our body when other noises are drowned out, and as a human, apparently you can’t ever experience the total absence of any sound. We also talked about ambient sound, and how different rooms, landscapes all have their own sound. And how different vegetation generates different sound. Going to the desert to experience sound is not just to escape humans, or other animals, but also to escape the sounds of vegetation.
Did you ever go on such a trip, to the desert or elsewhere to find silence? No, I’ve never had the opportunity, but I’d like to. I think I would love it, but I have read that some people don’t, it’s too much, that much silence.
Coming back to your art. How does it relate to sound or silence? In my photographs I am trying to create a visual representation of the space that exists between sound and silence, the moment of stillness, of silence that occurs just before sound.
Do you have plans for future work? Do you have any work in progress you would like to talk about? I just started printing on a range of different fabrics, and I am playing with the idea of presenting them folded up: In that manner one can see part of it, in a layered block, but a part also remains secret. I find this idea very appealing. But my thought process is not finished yet. I also played with other thoughts of how to layer them. – This might end in a new body of work.s
I am looking forward to seeing what will come out of this. Sarah, thank you so much for having me today!
All images except the first are copyrighted by Sarah Roach and have been used with her kind permission.
You’ll find a lot of nature photography, and prints often minimalistic and abstract. The abstraction comes from blowing up images, focusing on small details like a single blade of grass, or a scratch on a stone. Also colours often are muted or absent, silhouettes of grass or trees against the sky or the shoreline rendered black between the white sand and blazing sky. Some are almost unbearably harsh in their contrast, others are smoothened out by bluriness or layering effects similar to multiple exposure photography.
I find it hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes me love these images. But many fill me with a certain longing, a feeling similar but not quite the same as nostalgia when I look at them.
I first met Sarah back in 2017 at a friendly crit group session organized by Tracey Kershaw at Backlit. She was one of three or four or five (depending on what you count) who brought books to the session, and thus I naturally felt drawn to her work. Her books were made from semi-opaque parchment paper, had black covers and were bound with a bright red thread. On the pages were prints of grass, layered by the binding, turned into a field of grass in a book.
On that evening we talked mostly about the binding technique, and thinking back, I must have come across as a know-it-all, I suppose. Well, we were talking about bookbinding, and when it comes to that, I find it hard to suppress the urge to impart my knowledge. – Even where maybe a little inappropriate (*blush*).
Since then we met a couple of times, both being connected with Tracey, and I found her more and more interesting, if not to say a little eningmatic. She never talked much, and when she did, she didn’t reveal much about herself. And so I am very glad that she agreed to meet me for an interview which I am going to present here next week. I hope you’ll come back for the interview. For now: do have a look at her photos, and enjoy!
It’s been a while since I have shared any making of here on this blog. But while I made this mini book the other day I remembered taking some photos:
Step 1: The individual steps are really like for any book. The first step for me is always the cutting and folding of signatures and then cutting board for the covers. In this case, the pages have a format of approximately 1.3cm x 2xm big.
Step 2: Step two is the covering of the covers. In a miniature book this small you don’t have to worry as much about warping as in a larger book. For the pages it is exra important to align all fibres because it moves with less ease anyway. But for the covers I am not that bothered about grain. I have not even checked how it all works out in this case. For the covers I used left-overs of a fun dotted fabric I still had lying around. Cutting the corners obviously works just the same as for a big book. I recently treated myself to some corner guides, and this was the first try using them.
I do find it harder to get neat corners at this format, especially with fabric, as the slight fraying looks gigantic.
Step 3: The pre-punching of holes works just the same as for big books. I cut a punching template exactly the same way. Jogging the signatures is tricky, though, as gravity just doesn’t assist as much as you might be used to from larger pages. Essentially I just push them with my fingers best I can.
For book of this format I like to use the linen buttonhole thread by Fil Au Chinois. It is a thin 3-ply thread and comes in a variety of colours. I went here for “tango”.
And because is nothing of we don’t challenge ourselves, I decided to go for a 2-needle Coptic binding. Two needle sounds deceptive. It is called thus, because you need 2 needles for each piece of thread, one on each end. For this binding I worked with four needles.
The sewing is exactly the same as for a big book.
Although the sewing procedure is exactly the same, it can be a little fiddly to get the knots to all sit in the right places. And you have to remember to not cut down on the extra thread you give yourself for knotting – although the book is smaller, your fingers are not. (A piece of advice I like to give, but often fail to follow.)
But if you just follow through with all the steps as usual eventually you get to attach the back cover, and you are finished. Here’s my finished mini book:
You are welcome to take a guess what this view is. – It’s looking outside at a surprisingly clear sky over Nottingham tonight from my new studio at Backlit.
Backlit is an artist-led gallery space and provides studios for rent. And since May 1st, I now have a studio here. Moving in took me longer than expected, nearly 2 weeks, but now I feel finally settled here.
I still have my studio in the washhouse in Wollaton, and next weekend I will be holding my open studio day there. – A situation that feels a bit unreal. But I nevertheless hope to see as many people as possible there of course!
With two studios I now have to make the decision where to work on a given day. – Not always easy. But I tried to split my practise a little. I can write here or there, but I brought my yudu machine and my paper mache to backlit – both messy processes. The rest for now stayed in Wollaton.
But apart from this difficult decision, it is great so far, and I am so happy about the decision to apply and being accepted in! I actually meet people which is great. I hope I am not expecting too much, but it would be great to just have the occasional unexpected exchange with another artist.
Surprisingly, this split of studios and work, generates an increased peace of mind for me. It comes especially surprising to me after I thought about stress and chronic lack of time so much lately. The fact that I have less things I can do after I made my choice for the time being brings a welcome feeling of rest. – Even thought I am probably much less efficient. Well, time will tell. For now the next task is to fill my shelf space. – And I need to make some prints to fill these white walls!
O.k., after talking about work, it’s time to start. – I want to get another head done, preferably before the open studio (not likely) and work on some miniatures (on it 🙂 ).
This is going to be a bit of a longish ramble. I find it hard to formulate my thoughts, but trying my best here helped me sort them thoroughly. I would love to take the discussion from out of my head into the comment section: a) Are you short of time, and has it become worse over the year? Why do you think this is? Where does the time go? b) What do you do/enjoy more: learning something new or getting better in a specific field? c) How do you know that what you are looking at is art or whether it is any good? d) What came first: you being and artist or you calling yourself an artist?
Life Changes and Use of Time
I always complain about a lack of time, constantly, I can hear me blabbing. I bore myself with saying it over and over again and yet I can’t stop it. And it is not just me, everyone around me seems to feel the same way. It wouldn’t matter if it was just a thing we when we say: “Well, the weather’s been particularly bad the last couple of days, hasn’t it?” But it’s not just something I say, we just say. I feel it – and I suppose other’s just the same. Where does our time go, and why do we never have enough of it? Is it just one of the side effects of getting older? That’s what is being said, right, that time moves faster the older you get.
Every year my days seem to shrink. They went from big, juicy grapes when I was teenager, sweet and plump and juicy, full of spare time to assign a library-like signatures to all my books and enter them in a searchable database, to a somewhat shrivelled fruit while I went through uni. They turned into raisins when I had kids, and since this Feburary they have all shrivelled down to hard currants.
Is that perception of an increasingly full and hectic life an illusion, or is this real?
I remember a conversation with a friend just after I started studying, telling her that I had never worked so hard before. – I went to a German school in the 80s, which meant I had all afternoon to myself – school normally ended at 1pm. At uni I had courses every afternoon, and when I got home I had to do exercises and homework after dinner. Frequently I worked after 12 pm, and sadly it took me a couple of years to understand that when you drink from 8pm-12am, you can’t make up the time by working from 12am-4am. But that’s another story.
I said the same thing (about working harder than ever) when I started as a teacher in training at a Gymnasium in Kassel. And again when I quit my job as a teacher and started my PhD in Leipzig.
While working on my PhD I did spent more time in my office, at work, than ever before or after. Especially in the first year when I was still used to getting up early from teaching, I usually went into my office at 7 am and didn’t go home before 8 pm., sometimes went back in after a joint dinner and only called it quits at 11 pm. But those working hours included several coffee breaks and joint meals with fellow graduates, chatting about the newest rumours about who’s doing what in the maths world; they included most of my reading time (web-comics and poetry at the time) and learning Polish (not much success at that; this is a damn difficult language to learn!).
Nowadays my days are shorter. I don’t eat out in company. Lunch is hastily ingested while typing something up, submitting this, or reading up on that. Working hours do encompass learning Japanese, but having kids I learned to be much more time efficient, and working generally means fitting as much as possible into the small time gaps of time. When before I might say: “Ah, it’s only 30 minutes until I have to go off to that appointment, so it’s not really worth starting anything, I can just as well just read a little.” Now I am rather thinking: “O.k., 15 minutes left before I have to leave to pick up the kids, what can I finish in that time?”
There really is a life before and after becoming a parent. It shifts the whole outlook on what is free time and how to use time. Before, there are two sorts of time: worktime and free time. Now there are three distinct modes: worktime, time with the kids, and free time. Having kids (or any form of similar restricted responsibility) forces you to become time effective. Time with them is not idle time; there are these blocks of duty that’s you can’t shift. You can’t decide that “today is such a busy day, I’ll leave them at school an hour longer, and pick them up earlier to make up for it tomorrow”. On the other hand, playing with legos for an afternoon holds its own bliss. Nevertheless, if you also want to fit in some time to yourself, between family and work, you have to be inventive.
Therefore, although I do it in my head frequently because I stubbornly still think of myself as the same person before having them, isn’t really fair to compare my life now with what I had when I was in uni; especially when it comes to my approach to how I spent my time.
How I spent my time since I had the twins
In the first year after I had the twins, this severely restricted my worktime, obviously. I limited myself to “only” selling thread, which was difficult enough to fit in during that time and felt like a big achievement. Things constantly got better, and I gained more and more time to allocate as I saw fit as they grew older. In their second year, book art was back in my life, and as they grew I went on to invite into my life printmaking, writing, paper mache, more and more teaching…
But somehow life didn’t get more relaxed. If anything, I feel more stressed out and on a schedule as ever. There are these small shfits: they started to go to nursery, at first three mornings a week. Then every workday in the morning. Then school started and they were out of the house even more every day. (Something I both like and dislike. It’s funny really, how I am relieved when I close the door on them in the morning, and look forward to seeing them again in the afternoon. – And after just 2h I am glad when M. takes over. But that’s a different story.) All this time I kind of waited to experience once again this feeling of possibility I felt on the last day of school before the summer holidays: six incredible weeks ahead of me (three months even after the first year of uni, the unknown time span between handing in my thesis and a possible employment), of which I didn’t know how to fill them yet. All duties off the table. – Oh the things you can do, the places you can go!
I have not felt like this in a long, long time. A part of it may be that with kids around, duties never stop. Even when you go on vacation, you always take your daily duties with you. Maybe this feeling will come back when the kids leave the house to go off on a life of their own. I heard a radio feature last autumn, about this weird empty feeling parents experience even if (maybe especially if) they were looking forward to a life with less caring and responsibilities.
Although I didn’t have this large chunk of time to fill, my growing children give me more and more opportunities to re-arrange my time. Last year I took up learning Japanese, and I am still on it. So apparently I have more time to spare than I usually realise and admit to myself. The moment my schedule relaxes, I fill it. And I suppose that’s what we all do. At least all we who complain about too few time in general.
But there is something else at work for me here, and I am not sure it’s a good thing: I have been complaining about not having enough time for printmaking for a long time. Why on earth did I pick up Japanese? Why didn’t I fill my time with more printmaking instead of learning a difficult language without a sliver of a chance to ever going to where it is spoken? I can’t really say, and I often doubt myself. Am I self sabotaging my success? Am I a workaholic who can’t bear a moment’s rest (I have been accused of this)? Because the crux is: once I picked up another thing, there’s another thing to stress about. Two years ago, when I finally had my 20 minutes of time with Matthias before going to bed, I would stress about not having made my books, not having made a book, not having drawn enough, not having written enough, and that next lesson that still needs to be prepared. Now I can add not having gone through my vocabularly-learning to that list.
I admit it here and now: Despite all the doubts it is frequently causing me, much of the time I am proud of doing many things, following more than one path. And sometimes it does give me a sense of achievement. But in equal measure I feel like I am failing in all these pursuits. I frequently feel that I have to apologize, defend myself, for not concentrating and then excelling in that one thing that is – I don’t know – my true calling, maybe.
When talking to teachers and other parents at school, I stress that I am working full time – hoping that it counts as an apology for not volunteering to help raise funds, or helping at school outings and cake sales.
When talking to printmakers, I feel the sting of not having touched ink in months. “It’s not a lack of ideas, or actually lack of will or joy in the process,” I would try to explain, “I really wasn’t able to find the time.” “Yeah, we know”, they’d answer, “it’s like that for all of us. “But I am also a writer, book artist, teacher, and sole trader,” I’d say apologetically, and probably sound like a pretentious asshole.
When talking to writers, I tend to add that in my “day job” I am a self-exploiting entrepreneur, thinking to myself that if I could keep up a practise of daily writing up, my writing would sound more refined already.
While entering vocabulary to the app on my phone a voice tells me that if only I could keep a daily sketching practise, then I would be a better artist.
If I had stuck with my daily yoga, I’d be healthier. And if I managed to actually attend all my martial arts classes, and practise at home at least every other day, then I had already reached blue and white belt like the guys I started with. Not to speak of my gym membership that I – quite the stereotype – don’t make proper use of.
If only I read more, I’d be a better writer.
If I changed my product images more often and adjusted tags more frequently (or at all), then I’d be a more successful seller.
If I want to be a book artist, I need to make a proper book again.
If I want to make more income as a teacher on skillshare, I should post a new class every month.
If only I decided and concentrated on thing alone, then I would be a more successful, more useful, and generally better person.
And yet, beside all the self-beating, the moment the next new thing comes up, I feel unable to avoid it. It starts by just having a look. Then ordering a book, and more often than not, I find myself learning a whole new area/thing.
When I start something, I am learning quickly and rapidly, and in my enthusiasm I have disappointed more than one teacher who thought that I was very talented and I’d take up their subject for good. – But then the next good thing came along. For example my instrument teacher, who gifted me instruments and a fair share of his time. – He such an amazing teacher.
I went in to the office of the “Musikschule Telgte” on day. It must have been 1992 or thereabouts. – In Germany pretty much every town has a “Musikschule” where, for relatively little money as it is subsidized by the communities, children can learn to play various instruments. You buy memberships like in sports clubs. So I went into the office and explained: “I would like to learn the play the Guitar. But is there a way that I could buy single lessons rather than pay for a full membership?”
The head teacher was surprise. “Why?” he asked.
I went on to explain, that I had taught myself to play the Guitar from a book, and I was stuck and really only needed a little help to get going again. After picking up the flute, piano, clarinette one after the other and then dropping it again after a while, my parents had decided not to pay for membership for me anymore. So if I wanted any lessons, I’d have to pay for them myself. And really, I only needed a few lessons…
And then he decided he’d teach me himself. Now, he was a fully educated musician. Private lessons would normally have been expensive. I didn’t understand at that time how much of a discount he was giving me. I think, he carefully judged how much to charge so that I felt like I paid for my education. I don’t remember how much I paid. I think something like 15 DM which is like nothing.
He provided so much support and time, taught me a lot, not just about the guitar, and encouraged my musical exploration in any way. He had been so sure that I’d apply for admittance at a conservatoire that he never asked. When I mentioned in passing that I had enlisted for physics, and wouldn’t see him again because I’d move to Göttingen in the summer, he seemed hurt. I do have a somewhat bad conscience when I think back.
One of my maths teachers organized me a master’s position without asking me, sure that that was what I wanted – only to learn that I had organized one myself – in a different mathematical area with another professor. Probably I disappointed my parents, by not excelling at that one thing. I definitely disappointed my grandparents for not becoming a vicar…
Now, it’s not like I give things up easily. I like to stick with things, see them through. But I tend to pick up more and more things. And at some point it happens that I just can’t fit more into my life. There are things that I almost deliberately gave up or forgot to pursue further, like making chocolates (I got really good at it to the point where I briefly thought of turning that into a business). There are other things, like playing instruments, that I miss. And yet other things, like making blank books, that make me feel chased because I have trouble fitting them in.
What I am trying to say, I guess is: I am constantly starting new things, doing a lot simultaneously, and maybe over all that finish too little. Maybe that is part of my feeling of lack of time?
Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery
And now for something completely different. I promise it will make sense later that I fit this in here.
I just finished reading Grayson Perry’s “Playing to the Gallery”. And I love that book. At every other sentence, at least in the first chapters, I want to say “yes!”, “exactly!”, or “I wish I had had this thought!”
So, when I indicated that this is a review, then I was lying, because mostly what I will be doing is extracting some quotes from it.
What I like about the book is that it focuses on thinking, an active process, rather than its results. And thus it encourages the reader to find their own position rather than assuming Perry’s. He does explain his opinion in all of this, but the book is pickled in pondering, wondering, questioning. He is keener to explain the thoughts that went through his head before assuming one position than defending it.
The first quote is from the introduction:
“The art world needs people to asking it questions, and thinking about those questions helps the enjoyment and understanding of art.”
Grayson Perry, Playing to the Galler
His style of writing is entertaining, surprisingly and pleasantly easy, intelligent, and generally just a joy to read. And what also counts as a plus: it is short. Its 120 pages can easily be read in one day if you’ve got the time, or over the course of two weeks if you are short on time like me.
Each chapter comes not only with a title but also with a short summary. This is for chapter one:
What is quality, how might we judge it, whose opinion counts, and does it even matter any more?
The chapter is called “democracy has bad taste”, and he starts off with explaining why and how democracy has bad taste. Or at least why it is unfair, elitist, and racist to make the (aesthetic) appeal of art our (only) measure of whether it is good: In short because humans have a tendency to like what they know. And we know the work of Western white males.
He goes on to suggest several other ways to judge, and also describes how he believes a consensus on what is good can be found. All very interesting.
The second chapter talks about:
What counts as art? Although we live in an era when anything can be art, not everything qualifies.
This is a question I have thought about myself long and hard. And unsurprisingly I find this chapter the most interesting.
In Germany there is a strict legal dividing line between craft and art. So maybe it reflects my being German that, although I enjoy and appreciate the seemingly unquestioning inclusiveness that I encountered in British and American culture of letting all artisans call themselves artists, it does not reflect my inner belief. And while I think I am an artist, I do not think that all I make, not all my bookbinding is art.
In chapter two I found a couple of quotes that hit me right in the heart, some because I agreed with them, some because I feel challenged by them. I’ll just list them for your pleasure and entertainment without further comments. But I’d be happy to discuss any of them in the comments!:
“art has become […] permeable, translucent, fuzzy… A good example of this fuzziness for me was when Loyalist terrorist Michael Stone charged into the Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont carrying a viable explosive device. […] In court he downplayed his actions by saying […]it was all a piece of performance art. I think it shows that art has become so associated with shock rather than beauty that it seemed a plausible defence for an act of terror.”
This is a relatively common tactic in recent years, where someone declares whatever they fancied doing anyway as art to somehow lend it kudos.
Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery
When some people embark on doing something that they fail massively at they call it an ‘art project’. […] You know that often someone who’s not very good at making television programmes becomes a video artist, and someone who’s not particularly good at writing hit songs becomes an art band.
I’m coming to realize that in many ways I am a conceptual artist masquerading as a craftman: I employ traditional media like pottery and tapestry and etching in a teasing, reactionary way. But I enjoy correcting people when they suggest my dressing up in women’s clothes is part of my art. Recently a video artist suggested that a series I had done for TV was art. I replied, ‘No, it’s telly, I made it with telly values in mind.’
The forth chapter has the subtitle: “Is art still capable of shocking us or have we seen it all before?” My favourite passage is this:
[…] the arguments that you hear now in bars between artists, they’re not going to be about abstract expression versus surrealists, they’re not going to be about video installationists versus giant photo peddlers. No, no, no. They’re going to be between worthy activists and ironic market sell-outs.
And I am currently on the last pages of the last chapter: “How do I become a contemporary artist?” He tries a first answer right in the first paragraph:
I could say: ‘Well, you just say you are one and start doing something,’ but I think it is more complex than that.
As you might know, this is pretty much what I did in my own biography: first deciding “I am now a working artist”, and then starting to think about what that means. Therefore it is not difficult to guess that this chapter is hardest to read and swallow for me. Despite this, I do tend to agree with many ideas presented here. Mainly he is talking about how self-doubt and self-positioning within the art world is an important part of being an artist. He does mention outside art, but doesn’t leave a doubt that although the work produced by outsider artists might be very moving and beautiful, they are not part of what he perceives as “the art world”. And to be fair, he ruled out these criteria for (good) art in the first chapters.
To problematic part of this chapter is, I think, and in a way that makes it a problem of this whole book and the ideas presented therein: He says, a few exceptions granted, artists have to have gone through art school, have to have felt the companionship at art school. Then they might gain acknowledgement from their peers, then from critics, then maybe from the wider art market, and that then makes their work good art.
But that means, that in the end, art is made by this elitist club and pretty much self-propels itself. And while this might be an acurate description of what IS happening, it is not what I hope for and consider the right was of looking at it.
Anyway, what’s my opinion against his. The passage that hit me hardest can be found half way through the chapter. He quotes John constable as saying: “These self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person.”
Let me give you a few more quotes from this chapter:
The essential thing one learns at art college is difficult to condense. I think the most important thing is being exposed to a certain sensibility, of what it’s like to be an artist. You’re a trainee bohemian and you’re there with fellow travellers on this journey, with facilities and tutuors on hand. This feeling of being among kindred spirits is vitally important and one I find very moving. In this book I’ve mocked the pomposities and joked about the contradictions of the art world, but it’s been like teasing a dear friend because in reality, when I joined the art world, it felt more like arriving in Kansas than in Oz.
Skills are really important to learn; the better you get at a skill, the more you have confidence and fluency. I like the idea of “relaxed fluency” when you get into the zone and you’ve done your 10.000 hours and you’ve become really skillful.
I think one of the best descriptions of that process comes from Arno Mikkinen, a Finnish photographer. He came up with the Helsinki Bus Station Theory in 2004. He said that when you are leaving art college and you choose your style and what path in the art world you’re going to take, it’s like going to Helsinki bus station. There are about twenty bus platforms and maybe ten buses leave from each platform, and you choose your bus and you get on the bus. And each stop is a year in your career. And after about three stops you get off and you walk into a gallery and you show them your work and the people look at it and they go, ‘Oh, very nice, very nice. Reminds me a bit of Martin Parr though.’ And you go’Uurrrrgh!! I’m not original, I’m not unique,’ and you get really cross. So you get a taxi back to the bus station and you get on a different bus. And of course what happens is the same thing. What you need to do, says Arno Mikkinen, is stay on the fucking bus!
Losing a be
Now after this interlude, I am back to talking about myself and my biography. Reading the book by Perry, and his thoughts about art being what artists do, artists being, who make art, and thus you can just declare your works as art and yourself as being an artist, but that’s not really working, you have to go through art school kind of thing. Then the “just call it art if it is not proper craft” kind of thoughts, I couldn’t stop thinking about my own becoming of an artist.
Finishing my Phd, I was in a bad place mentally. Luckily we were living in Berlin where odd behaviour might almost have been seen as normal. Even Matthias thought I was crazy, I think. I’ll be eternally amazed and grateful for him not walking away then. Well, it might be true that I had a few crazy moments. One of my problems was that I didn’t know what to do with myself and my life. I had embarked already on several paths to a career and failed to have one so far, and the pressure to finally find out what I was going to be now that I was grown up was getting imbearbly high.
With my PhD I had taken a gamble, and it was becoming more and more clear that I was losing my bet:
Normally when people in Germany started a PhD at that time (things have changed a little since then), they had a Diploma and to get that, among other things, you had to write a thesis, and most people went on to do a PhD and then have a career in the subject they worked in for their diploma.
I didn’t have a Diploma. I had studied to become a teacher, and in doing that I had only done half as many hours and courses in maths as a diploma student (the other half was spent on half as many hours in Theology compared to those who want to become a vicar). The thesis I wrote for my teacher’s degree didn’t include original research. You could get a Diploma without doing original research but to study for a PhD yours better should have had some.
Now you’d think that at least I would continue to work in the field I had written my thesis in. But while writing my thesis (in algebraic geometry), I stumbled across another field (symplectic geometry) which sounded so very interesting. And so I applied for a PhD in the field of symplectic geometry. It just so happened, that the graduate school where I was offered the scholarship had both a professor for algebraic geometry and one for symplectic geometry who’d both wanted to work together in the groundbreaking, en vogue field of mirror symmetry which uses both areas of research but no-one really knew how anything works yet. And they decided to jointly offer me a position in that area.
If you don’t know much about mathematics, it probably sounds like algebraic and symplectic geometry are similar fields. After all, they are both called “geometry”. But they are not. Not at all. They employ structurally very different methods.
A very fitting comparrison would be that it is like studying Arabic and English – at least they are both languages. And working in Mirror Symmetry would be exactly like writing an Arabic-English/English-Arabic dictionary.
And now comes the really bad thing: I didn’t really know any modern algebraic geometry either. What I had been looking at for my thesis was already decades old stuff, and since then important new methods were used. I found them difficult and boring, and one of the reason I had wanted to change subject was to avoid having to learn all this. Aehem.
I knew all that before I started. I was drawn in to trying this topic by the very fact that it would be extremely difficult. I had two PhD advisors who both only knew half of the game, neither of them were really at home in what I was trying to do. I had to learn pretty much two areas of mathematics from scratch. It was a gamble: If I’d be able to proof something interesting, anything, really, then that would pretty much guarantee a career in academia. If I didn’t, well, it might well be I’d fail completely.
The other thing that drew me in was that it was new to me. I was eager to learn, all of it after having worked only for others in my time as a school teacher, and the first year was really great. Then it began to dawn on me that I might have taken on a task that was too much for me. For the first time I hit a road block where I felt that I really wasn’t smart enough. Before then, I had always thought that if I just put enough time and energy into it, I can do anything. That had been my experience. It had been true, whether it’d be learning a language or horse riding, or to play the piano. But now I experienced my intellectual limits. An experience that I am very thankful for in retrospect, it changed me profoundly, and my attitude toward learning and toward other people.
But at the time it was soul crushing.
I somehow finished my thesis of which I wasn’t very proud. It fell short of what I set out to do, and I wasn’t sure of myself anymore. The hardest part for me was that it was so hard to make people understand what was going on; I hardly understood it myself. I tried to talk about it with a councillor. He told me: But you are much smarter than the average population. You have a PhD in maths, what else do you want?! – And apparently he thought that was all there was to say about it. He wanted to talk more about my childhood, and I crashed out of therapy. Instead I went on to be a tiny bit crazy for a while.
I started thinking about jobs with a clammy feeling of having to step into some sort of life trap. I applied for jobs and went to the job interviews.
I applied for jobs in school book publishing houses. With much wringing of hands and much doubt about whether I was doing the right thing, I rejected a job offer.
I applied for jobs in libraries. – I didn’t get an offer.
I applied for jobs at insurance companies. I got one offer to attend an assessment centre and rejected with doubts about whether I was self-harming myself. – But pretty sure I wasn’t up for working in an environment like that.
And while doing all this, life went on: I married, I started making books. When Matthias suggested, I might do that as a career it seemed like an outrageous idea, too good to be true.
I started to investigate that possibility and, well, we all know where that lead me. But something else happened along the way. It wasn’t just that I was making things with my hands now. Or that I had found my true self in what I was doing. Although I thought it was that at the time.
At some point I simply decided: I am an artist. It felt and still feels pretentious to say it and at the same time it is absolutely liberating: Because artists, — well, let me put it like this: If a mathematician calculating risks for an insurance company feels like she has to sit in a dark room for hours, shutting out the world’s noise, then that’s crazy. When an artist does that, well, it might be performance art, or just what he/she needs to do to get inspired. Artists can do a lot of things and get away with it. While others doing the same thing would be called a nutjob.
And so I went from being a little crazy and feeling absolutely shit about it, to being a little quirky and being fine with that. And it just so happened that the bad-crazy moments get fewer and fewer and I believe by now they have stopped. But others have to be the judge of that.
The connection to the quotes above should become clearer by now. The doubt of whether what I am doing here is a form of “Etikettenschwindel”, a case of false labelling, has never gone away. The nagging thought of whether I needed more or another education isn’t going away. And reading Perry’s thoughts on art education just stirred up these old questions.
In the begining I seriously pondered a bookbinder craft education. I also thought about going back to university to study art. Nowadays I often wonder whether I should go to uni to study creative writing or printmaking, or maybe fine art after all?
But my best education and the best progress in any field I have had when following my own schedules, rather than going through set course-work. Certainly with self-organized help here and there. Asking people questions is an important part of self-education, it is not like you don’t have any teachers just because you are self-educated. Despite the quote that Grayson Perry cited, I do believe you can teach yourself successfully. But it might work better for some than for others.
Grayson Perry critically remarks: Anything can be art. For me that meant: As an artist, I can do anything. I can learn anything, do anything, and it can be part of my work as an artist. I don’t have to pidgeon hole myself any further than that. And in calling myself an artist, I don’t have to restrict myself in any way.
But am I a real artist? Or am I an outside artist, who doesn’t really belong? Or am I maybe no artist at all except in my own imagination? This doubt always remains.
I came acrosss the buzzword multipotentialite recently. I should say I came across it again. When I first heard about it, I was just like: yadi-yadi-ya, aren’t we all like that?
I have this instant gut-reaction to a description of how a certain group of people are: memes about intoverts are doing the rounds, and how they see the world like that, or should be treated like this. Sometimes its women against men, sometimes it is right hemisphere against left hemisphere, and so on. I don’t really believe in such categorizations. And when I first saw a TED talk given by Emilie Wapnick, it seemed like just another of those stupid categorizations, in this case multipotentialites versus specialists. And like with all those other categorizations, it seemed like just an opportunity to give yourself a label that made you look like a somewhat better human. Like when people yapp about left handed people being more creative or whatnot. Bullsh…
I came across it again very recently, and I still have this instinctal reaction to it, this slight gagging reaction. Mostly I just hate, to put any sticker on myself. But… the problems and issues described by people who self-identify as multipotentialites were too similar to my own doubts and problems to completely ignore this. Actually, especially when I read not about how wonderful this is, but about which life-long problems people who self-identify as multipententialites had, I could identify with a lot of what was being said.
I am not saying I am a multipotentialite because a) all humans have multiple potentials; it is one of the human traits that we can learn all kinds of things throughout our lives. And if everyone is a multipotentialite, then this it doesn’t make sense as a defining thing, b) I think it sounds pretentious, and c) I don’t want to freedom taken away from me of not being it, d) it sounds like a condition that needs curing.
Looking it up on Wikipedia, the list of risks includes: Burnout. Ouch.
Coming full circle
And that made me think of my time issues again. This chased feeling I can’t shake off even for short periods of time. My feeling of failing in everything that I am trying to do and be,…
I thought of my difficulties with talking about my job. When people ask me what I do, I usually answer: “Too much, I generally do too much.”
But maybe the solution to all this is different and much easier than thinking about multipots, and what art means, and how we find validation. In Michael Ende’s book “Momo” (aka “time thieves”) people tried to save time and be time efficient, but the more successful there were at that, the less time they had. I think there’s a deeper thruth to that. Just the other day, while I was walking briskly through the city to go to the bus station, starting to get out of breath, I deliberately slowed my pace. The buses are running every 10 mintutes. If I didn’t make this one and had to take the next, I’d lose 10 minutes. – I even caught it in the end, didn’t lose any time, but felt much more relaxed when I got home.
Maybe I equate success too much with productivity. I don’t know.