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In the wilds of Suffolk, there is a beautiful unusual house. Contained within that house is a studio and a multi-functional table where ideas are explored and work is developed by artist Les Bicknell. In these spaces paper is cut and folded and production lines of the artistic variety are imagined, modified and executed to create artworks which beguile and challenge.

When we arrive a selection of tools have been laid out on the table in the main living space: these draw immediate interest. Tools have potential, they are inexorably linked to skill, practice and repetition and although some may be universal it is the way in which individuals will hold, use, and adapt these objects which contributes to our continual fascination. When we start to ask Les about the tasks and processes he employs it’s not long before a series of demonstrations are underway. The first of these is cutting paper using a scalpel on a cutting mat, a task which he has been repeating for over 30 years. The pressure exerted when cutting varies according to the material, but the repetitive action has resulted in his right finger taking on what he considers to be a misshapen appearance. Our bodies change over time regardless of the degree of care we take of them, and repetition of any kind when it extends over a significant time period is bound to have both aesthetic and physiological implications.

Cutting is followed by folding. For Les there is a “sort of meditation around paper folding, repetition is conceptually grounded in the politics of making more than one”. He has repeatedly returned to the same fold over a number of years and through this continues to make and explore new possibilities. The crease of the fold can be smoothed by the fingers or a bone tool which is used to when extra definition is required. This bone tool has been adapted, one edge has been sharpened so it can be used with a ruler to score a surface and to facilitate very precise folds. Whereas once he may have produced an edition of 100, this may now be less than 10. Even with this reduction in quantity repetition remains a key feature of his practice: the transformation of a pile of paper through cutting and folding to a pile of objects, artworks, still brings pleasure.

When talking about his work Les makes references to family work occupations and specifically his dad and uncle, both of whom worked in an engineering factory. “I would walk through the factory to my dad’s work bench, I watched my dad making stuff”. From school Les had the opportunity to take up a number of apprenticeship roles across a series of manufacturing facilities in Coventry, but wanted to get away from factory life so went to art college. He has noticed how in his art practice he is drawn back to the factory way of life: creating mini production lines, paying close attention to work organisation, making tools and temporary guides to aid batch production processes. As the making of an edition progresses the place in which tools and materials are laid out alters as Les works towards finding the most productive work fit. This ability and opportunity to adapt work flow, work organisation and order of tasks is a key benefit of being self employed. There is a physical benefit to this freedom, as work can be undertaken in a more comfortable manner, but in addition there is the psychological benefit of knowing there is control over work flow.

Les is aware that he likes to be in control of things, organising and being efficient. This extends across both practical work and the ways in which he runs his business. His control over deadlines is such that work is finished at least a week before it is needed; there is no writing artist talks on the way to a venue. There is clarity about what he can do and what services he pays for, which contributes to the efficiency in his working methods. When we first ask him about solitary working, he says how much he enjoys spending time working alone, but later it transpires he has other people around at the end of the day to discuss work with, and so he ponders on how much solitary work he actually undertakes. The impact of organising work in these ways and feeling happy with that organisation must surely result in a reduction or avoidance of stress that can be brought on by managing a wide variety of tasks and activities with varying deadlines.

Les categorises his postures into two main areas, standing and sitting. He has specific postures for the components of his practice: “I am standing when thinking and teaching and sitting when folding and cutting”. The postures associated with these distinct activities have developed over years of art practice. The development of the idea, working out the solution to a problem and demonstrating a process or technique to students is often carried out when standing, moving even. While cutting, folding and computer work accesses the relative stillness of sitting to be effective.

Les thinks he has been in pain for about 20 years due to repeated use of a heavy printing press he used almost daily early in his career. The use of a press requires the ability to twist whilst exerting pressure to drive the press forward through the rollers. There is a flow but the press comes to an abrupt stop which can jar the body. The press must then be reversed, causing the body to twist again. Multiply this action over the course of a long working day, on consecutive days, and the effects can cause irritation and discomfort. From the description Les offered, Val suggested the main muscle which has been effected might be the right Trapezius, one of the major muscles of the back, responsible for moving, rotating and stabilising the scapula (shoulder blade) and extending the head at the neck (1). What is interesting is that pain caused by the large physical movements needed to work a printing press (which Les no longer uses) now reappear when engaging in the light touch activity of using a computer. When the computer mouse is used too often or for too long he gets shooting pains into his neck. “If it’s a busy time I either work through it and be in pain, because that is the nature of the job, or I manage to do something else”. The duration of this pain varies, but usually dissipates by the next morning. Ignoring pain signals is something many people can relate to, and for the self employed, artist or otherwise, payment often only comes on completion of work.

Ceasing to carry out a task or process which causes pain and discomfort may in itself not be enough to remedy the issue.  Pain can manifest itself again when undertaking an entirely different task. For Les it was moving a wheelbarrow full of clay which triggered 20 years of aches and pains, which had in effect never gone away. Discomfort, pain or an injury that occurs in the early stages of our lives can have implications later on in life which may lead to all manner of work task, work set up or work place adaptions being required.

Les works from home: the large cold workshop in the garden is largely unused, his current practice doesn’t require that kind of space so it is his studio room and the multi-functional table in the main living space where work takes place. The chairs in both these spaces don’t give an enormous amount of back support, and he has an awareness of how “badly I am sitting”. He says he’s “not interested in anything else, not focusing on the body, but on the action of my mind”. This kind of absorption is something many people can relate to through activities in which we are engrossed, and subsequently remembering to change position is forgotten. When asked what is the best posture, many physiotherapists will reply the next posture. Being static is bad for our bodies, we weren’t designed to sit for hours or to repeat tasks; but that is in effect how the majority of work is now designed. As self employed artists we have an opportunity to design our own tasks, their order and their place within our working week. If we have the time and resources we can work towards mitigating the potential difficulties caused by static postures and repetitive actions, and thus preventing pain and discomfort from developing.

Our thanks to Les for hosting our visit please visit: please visit his blog to see current work related to his residency at Cambridge NanoTech DTC where he is collaborating with PhD students and academics