One of my goals from the a-n bursary was to feel more professional as a practicing artist and to ensure my visibility reflected this. My mentoring session with Jennie Syson was incredibly useful in helping me achieve this, but it also gave me so much more. Jennie, who is an independent curator and writer, as well as the director of the Syson gallery in Nottingham, has a wealth of experience, and looked at my project (and my practice in general) from this perspective.
Our meeting firstly centred on my ‘tell me about your mother…’ project, and Jennie, who knew nothing about the work, asked me to tell her about it. This was an interesting exercise that might initially seem like an obvious and straightforward task, but was surprisingly testing – taking into account the visuals, the subject, the context and the purpose of the work.
Although I managed to convey the essence of the project without too much hesitation, it was certainly something I could improve upon. It has prompted me to consider more carefully how I describe and portray the project, and how this could differ depending on the audience. The use of my artistic language, and having a prepared ‘toolkit’ in order to overcome any apprehension when taking about my work, was also something that I had previously discussed with Liz Hawley during an earlier Re:View mentoring session. The exercise with Jennie highlighted again that this is an important area for improvement, and, since these conversations, I have been working on, and practicing, an effective introduction to my work.
Thinking about the discussions with both Jennie and Liz, and researching the subject more, I have applied particular approaches – for example, using everyday language rather than clichés or jargon, being confident in my delivery, and making my explanation interesting, so the listener wants to learn more.
In relation to this and my studio work, Jennie talked about giving viewers an “invitation to discover”, which corresponds to a previous conversation with Rebecca Lee about reducing the information I present to people. There is a sense that making things simpler, and allowing audiences to fill in the gaps for themselves, can often increase the impact.
With this in mind, Jennie and I discussed my installation and how I had specifically created it with the intention of encouraging people to interact and candidly ‘tell me about their mother(s)…’. Through our ensuing conversation, I was challenged to consider the individual parts and how they might be ‘read’ by a participant.
I have arranged my installation to resemble a pseudo-domestic setting with a cosy, sumptuous armchair (complete with an antimacassar) sitting on a thick-piled rug, accompanied by a standard lamp and small wooden coffee table, all complementing each other with their rich warm tones. We talked about the general feel of the work, and how it could be viewed as slightly old-fashioned, and of a ‘time gone by’, and, more importantly, could shape the way people respond to the work.
The installation has an element of familiarity and safety that may influence how people interact, encouraging only positive or pleasant memories and experiences. Jennie’s constructive feedback was refreshing and something I hadn’t considered. Since our meeting, I have continued to think about this aspect of the work, and wonder if it is something I want or need to change.
Thinking more about my installation and my process of constructing it, I’ve returned to my original source of inspiration, the Freud Museum, and have looked again at the arrangement and décor of Sigmund Freud’s study room. My conversations with Jennie have motivated me to consider again my work in relation to psychotherapy, and to spend time talking and building relationships with people from associated disciplines. I have also arranged to visit the museum again in the coming months in order to spend time in the house absorbing the atmosphere and re-discovering the surroundings. On a separate yet related note, I feel more secure with the knowledge that this may not be a direction I want to pursue, but nonetheless I want to follow that path and see where it leads.
During my session with Jennie, we also talked about the other side of the project, the “hidden” side that Nick Mobbs and I discussed in a previous meeting. That is, the comments, the stories and the experiences of people who have chosen to tell me about their mothers. We discussed ways of using and presenting these stories, which in turn led to broader questions: what was the work about, what did I want to communicate and much bigger questions for me, was the work about my mother or even about me as a mother?
There were several artists who Jennie thought might be of interest to me, including Jo Spence, Helen Chadwick, and Paula Rego. We discussed the relevance of Christine Hill’s project ‘Volksboutique’, which amasses collections of daily life phenomena and invents new forms of over the counter transactions for public inspection. I reflected on this and recent conversations when I was preparing to show my installation at the University of Nottingham’s graduate residency exhibition, which accompanied this year’s degree show. The exhibition gave me the opportunity to present the work differently, and in a more considered arrangement. Although the preparation was time-consuming, the resulting feedback was positive.
Finally, Jennie and I spent a lot of time talking about more administrative aspects of my practice including my website, promotion, time management and planning, as well as writing about my work and exhibiting. I was pleased that she found my website clear and interesting, while still providing me with suggestions for improvement. With her wealth of experience, it was invaluable to have her feedback, and I came away from our meetings feeling enthused and confident.
This conversation also encouraged me to think more thoroughly about what it is I actually do, and to be clear about why I’m doing it. More than anything, these sessions have highlighted the need to take the time to just be with the work and to think, to research and to talk through ideas with people (not just practicing artists). I am often distracted by the accompanying tasks of being an artist (exhibiting, promoting and administration) and prioritise these over more developmental and practical areas.
The a-n Re:View bursary and my subsequent mentoring sessions have enabled me to gain a huge amount of advice and guidance from experienced, knowledgeable mentors, and have equipped me with the tools to create a broad strategy for developing my future work. I have respected each of their unique styles, and acknowledge the relevance and importance of every approach. I feel my that overall experience has been far richer because of this. A common theme throughout has been the value of increasing your contextual knowledge through research and ongoing conversations. This can present a better (and different) understanding of your work and where it sits, and can often lead to new ideas and opportunities.
These mentoring sessions together with my recent Arts Council-funded project, Artist as Mother as Artist, have increased my personal, professional and artistic confidence, and I have felt more energised to develop my project in different ways, to be more rigorous with my research, and to seek opportunities where and when I feel ready.
One direct consequence has been my recent selection by East Midlands Contemporary Visual Arts Network (CVAN EM) to join five other artists to be part of DOCUMENT, a project that tracks and presents the experiences of artists in the East Midlands. The artists, who are all committed to their professional and creative development, “will champion visual arts activity within the region and be advocates for the project”.