I first met Jenny at the Sheffield Artist Book Fair last autumn and was immediately smitten by her and her books. Despite their diverse subjects, they share a common aesthetic: many have a concertina as the basic element, lending flexibility and movement to the structure, with abstract collages in a calm colour palette and no text on the pages.
I was very happy to be invited into her home for this interview.
Hilke: (looking around in the room) I am always interested in biographies, how the places we find ourselves in, literally as well as figuratively, shape what we make. And how sometimes just everything seems to slot into place.
Jenny: Yeah, definitely. I sometimes wish I had my own studio somewhere. But working in the house currently works best with the family situation I find myself in. My children are 3 and 7 years old, and mostly I work while they are away in school or preschool and while they are asleep.
Surprisingly, however, I found that working like this, I get more work done than ever before.
Hilke: That’s amazing! Most parents seem to complain about the lack of creative time. Why do you think it’s different for you?
Jenny: Before the kids, I worked as an art technician at a secondary school. My work gave me a sense of achievement and it satisfied my need to be creative. I still made my own work, but very slowly – there was always time to finish tomorrow.
After I had the kids, I gave up the job as a technician, and it became so much more important to do something for myself.
It is in the small time slots when I am alone or they are asleep that I get my table and bench out, unpack my materials, and become very focussed on what I want to achieve.
Hilke: I see. How would you describe your books and how you work?
Jenny: I love to work with different layers, textures and combine them all. In my collages I bring together my own material from sketchbooks, mixed media layers and mark-making experiments, and I combine those with carefully selected elements from magazines to form an organic whole.
Hilke: What is it about the book format that appeals to you? Why not make stand-alone collages?
Jenny: Books appeal to me as fairly small and handheld artwork. They are intimate and playful. The viewer holds it in their hands, and is able to experience it at their own pace. And I like how in a book the elements move, bringing the different collages into relation to each other.
Hilke: How do you approach a new work?
Jenny: I use mind-mapping to choose my theme and then gather research: other artists who worked with similar elements, drawings of the subject matter, markmaking in response to the theme and I make notes all the way through.
I also glue in paper samples, a trial collage at a later stage, maybe. – I always think through the concept of a piece. Recording my thoughts and research helps me to think and later to talk about my art. And by the time I start with the first collages, I have a clear idea of what book structure I am going to use, and what kind of feeling I want to portray. I create more collages than I need for a project so I can choose which will work best in the book and which relate well to each other.
Hilke: Moving from one collage to the other, what drives you on? Are you dissatisfied with the collage you just made, and try to make it better?
Jenny: Making collages with found paper has an exciting element for me. I’m thinking for example: How can I turn that image of a lampshade into a reflective part in a window? or: How can I cut out this bowl of soup, change the context and change how the viewer sees it.
Rather than being dissatisfied with what I already have, I’m still curious to see whether I can catch the same emotional content, picture the same atmosphere, once again now that the snippets I used in the last collage aren’t available anymore. – Once I’ve used a piece, it’s gone, and I can’t use it again.
Hilke: So scarcity of material is important for you work?
Jenny: In a way, yes. But I do use photocopiers in all stages of my work. I might photocopy a drawing, sometimes onto acetate and then cut from there. I also might photocopy a finished collage and then keep working with it.
Hilke: Do you have an overarching topic in your work?
Jenny: I like to discover the story in a place, maybe its history, the feeling of visiting it or how people live. Windows are a recurring theme – they offer a glimpse into someone else’s world. I’m also inspired by all the texture, detail and angular lines in buildings. I find that the imagery I work to, and the way I interpret a topic has a clear personal style and I often use the same materials and colour theme in my work.
Hilke: Mhm, yes, I can see how many of your books have a strong architectural element to it. Some remind me of technical drawings. Architecture often is bold and big. – What is the biggest book you made?
Jenny: I’ve always loved working small – I must take after my Dad, he’s a modelmaker. I experimented with larger work at Uni but I always bounced right back to something handheld.
Hilke: Where would an interested reader be able to see your work?
Jenny: I’m going to be at the Turn The Page book arts fair in Norwich in May 2020, and my book ‘Cut Across’ will be included in the exhibition 2020 Vision: Magellans Voyage in Liverpool Central Library.
Hilke: Thank you for taking the time to work on this interview with me!
All images in this article are used with kind permission of Jenny Stevenson.
I don’t keep a sketchbook[…], all is experimentation.Hilke: You said you kept on working through cancer treatment. – You really must love your work. But I am curious how you do it! From talking to others I know I am not alone in feeling that planning lessons is consuming all my creative energy. And then there’s the marking and all the many small things a teacher does for their pupils… How do you cope and keep on working on your own projects? Clare: I made the decision to work part time on my return and to reduce responsibilities in school in order to find better balance and nurture my reignited passion for creating. Being a teacher can easily be all consuming. When I am in school, I give my pupils 100% of me, and I love it. But when I am out of school, there is this switch in my head – and I am off work and can work on my art. Hilke: Do you feel your pupils and the work in school give you something that then manifests itself in your prints? Clare: No, not really. I think it is rather the other way around: Because I am active as an artist, I have a better feeling and understanding for what I ask of my students. They profit from my practise that way in the end. You know, it’s a bit funny but, although I require that from my students, I don’t keep a sketchbook or something similar. I turn my sketches right into screens, use ink to paint directly and intuitively onto acetate. There’s no in between stage, all is experimentation. So although my students have to do that to document their progress, my work gives me that understanding that free practise and experimentation is something that has to have its place, too.
We can be broken, taken apart, and then reassembled. And […] there is beauty in that.Hilke: Let’s talk a little more about your art work again. You said your practise changed from before the diagnosis. Do you see development in your prints since? Clare: Yes, definitely. I can see three connected series of prints. In the beginning when I picked up my work, all my figures were falling to illustrate the lack of control and uncertainty. They explode with colour as I see opportunity for growth in embracing change. Their bodies are not whole: in motion they leave fragments behind. They show how we can be broken, taken apart, and then reassembled. And that there is beauty in that. The bright colours are integral to that concept and this is where the circles started to appear. As time went on, as I got to a better place myself and grew stronger, my figures take more active roles: they jump and leap, taking control and radiating energy. elements café and Artcore. I will also be doing a number of open studios and art trails over the autumn, and last Friday the “Loovre” opened with my work at Surface Gallery. To keep up to date please go to my website www.curisousinkyme.com. Hilke: Thank you so much for your time today. And good luck with your upcoming exhibition! Clare: Thank you! A final tip from me, the author: If you are curious about her artwork do go and have a look at her instagram feed. There she shares work in progress, quick sketches, and newly finished prints. All images in this post have been provided by and are used with kind permission of Clare Morgan.
How could one translate silence into imagery? We all might have an initial idea of what a “loud” image is: something with exaggerated bright colours maybe, “screaming” at the viewer. But what is it that makes a picture silent? And how do you depict silence?
Sarah Roach is a photographer and printmaker from Nottingham exploring silence in her work. 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. Her topics come from details found in nature: 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.
To me they not only speak of silence, but also of loneliness, of longing for the long summers spent lying in the grass as a kid, of a longing for simplicity and calmess.
Hilke: Hello Sarah, thanks for welcoming me in your studio 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 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 analogue 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 really 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 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.
In your statement you write: “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 discernible 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.
I am looking forward to seeing what will come out of this!
Sarah, thank you so much for having me here today, and for this conversation!
All images of her work are copyrighted by Sarah Roach and were used with her kind permission.