It was Tues 26th April 2016 (previously I had mistakenly remembered it to be May) and I met up with the lovely Morag Ballantyne in my studio at NN Contemporary Art.
I have known Morag since 2009 (or was it 2008?), since we first met for a mentoring session through what was then known as Creative Northants. I had recently changed career plans and my arts practice was existing somewhere in no art land, completely lost, I was presiding in what I now call The Lost Years.
It turned out to be quite an emotional experience; of the sad, getting it off my chest, been through a lot, what do I do now kind. Morag allowed me to breathe – provided me with a calm, warm space where I could absolve, reflect and search for those remaining embers of artistic passion and drive for an otherness in my practice that had lain dormant for quite some time.
Over the next few years, she witnessed me: trying things out, stopping, changing tactic, trying again, stopping, changing tactic, navigating through decisions, drops in government funding (i.e. the ridiculous notion to stop the Creative Partnerships Programme), applications, getting jobs, not getting jobs, adapting to change in workspace/lack of workspace, meeting someone, getting married, adapting to married life and how that can change how and when you work, but then comes with benefits as he also works in the arts, working partnerships not working out, avoiding organisations because I wasn’t ready, redefine myself again, decide when to strike (two particular occasions which I remember very clearly), strike, it pays off and then a few years of building up a portfolio of practice that finally reflects the artist that I really am, research, research, research, new lasting partnerships, new dedicated studio space and now – here I am, inundated with dreams and visions, resolute in my convictions and itchy fingers to start on so many things………
But I still need mentoring. I still need Morag. Just because you find your path, it doesn’t mean that you stop needing guidance.
In my first proposal to Morag, in terms of the content for the mentoring session, here is what I requested:
Specific advice re my ‘Light Kills Darkness’ application to the Arts Council.
How am I perceived as an artist? Is that the perception I want? If not, how do I change that?
Do I communicate effectively my artistic and professional identity online, in print and in person and if not, what can I do to change that?
Challenges and exercises that can help me to increase my confidence when approaching collaborators, gallerists and curators. (i.e. I am a multi disciplinary artist rather than I want to be, I have done x y z rather than I want to….)
We decided that it was a lot to cram in to an hour’s session – so we would need to target. The email conversation itself kick-started the process of sorting through these particular queries that were rattling around in my head.
For the start of the session, we decided to quickly look at Light Kills Darkness, with my idea of turning it into a much larger project that would need substantial funds (in January I performed this piece as a pilot – but on reflection, the quality of the set, lighting and sound quality was really that of a live rehearsal, so needs more time get it to the pilot stage and a lot more time and funds to get it performance and touring ready) With two levels of funding on offer, I couldn’t make the project fit financially into the lower category and the higher would have meant a lot more work for the money – not that that is an issue, but I needed to be sure that I wanted to take on that level and amount of work as it would be all consuming. Morag made suggestions how I could potentially cut costs to fit the project into the lower category and we put it aside for me to ruminate on ( and six months later I am still ruminating, but more on that perhaps in another post)
Next came How am I perceived as an artist? Is that the perception I want? If not, how do I change that?
Morag asked why I wanted to ask How I am perceived as an artist? Why that question? At first followed a stuttering response, failing to articulate the why. Morag nudged further, gently poking me with her enquirers stick – mentally willing me to unlock my reasoning. And then it came – the torrent, just like 2008 (or was it 2009?) – but with a completely different demeanor, not a hunched shoulders anxious one, but a sit up straight, this is who I am one.
What follows is an edited transcript of that experience, deciphered from our notes.
Emma – What’s the purpose of my work? What is the impact I want to have?
Morag – Your website – what would you like people to find?
Emma – I would have an easy to locate About section, in which would be a statement, CV and Biography. How would I describe what it is I do? I am multi disciplinary. But many people are that, so what is really interesting about that?
Morag – Why should people be interested?
Emma – I do feel I have certain strengths. I am very imaginative, I am excited about life, I am able to work with different people and situations. In my Educator work I work on a personal level; I am caring and attentive – I am aware of people’s emotional states. I think about things from an alternative angle. In my life generally, I have a quest for knowledge and I love experience. It is important to take a moment and to see where you are in the world at that time – it’s life.
Morag – Who is Emma? What is Emma uniquely like?
Emma – There is the Fermynwoods Emma; in that context, I like to push the young people, not pressure them but to gently nudge them. They can do it, they are capable, but also still to be there for them. Knowing when to challenge, when to give space. My qualities there are that I am open and have an ability to get on with everyone.
There are two sides to me. I am the person that can be open and be with people, but the other side is that I need to shut it out and be a hermit. The hermit side of me, this is about mindfulness, looking after myself, otherwise I find that I am mindful of everyone of else all the time. In the studio, it’s about making, but also a mental and positive emotional space.
Morag – What is it? What is Emma?
Emma – I am experimentative, not in terms of the art world, but in terms of me. If James’ work (Steventon) is about endurance – I can relate to that. Putting in the hours to get the job done, whatever the job is, Fermynwoods work or a R+D commission. I have to treat every job like my last job. I am passionate, committed, I like a challenge and I am methodical. I will always ask ‘What is the Purpose of that, What is it For?‘. Everybody has to get something out of my art work – whether it be visual, intellectual or an emotional experience.
Morag/Emma – It is worth pursuing this thought process, what the audience/ viewer is getting from the experience – describe that.
Emma – What makes me, me. It is an emotional investment – it is much more than ‘just a job’. I want a job to advance my practice/ career, but also want to learn, so that there is an outcome – a commitment to it.
Morag – Why would/should people be interested in your work/ practice?
Emma – I am reaching out, like a hand coming out of the computer screen. Hopefully, they will take it. I want a lot of warmth to be coming out of the screen. It’s a comfortable space to explore something and I will keep you safe while you do that.
Morag – What is the space?
Emma – Honesty, Confessional. Honesty in my approach and what I’m telling people, but in a way that’s safe. I want to be an artistic Bear Grylls. My website, I want this to be prodding, poking, challenging, but not in your face. With my work I want people to have an element of choice. I want there to be a sense of personal connection.
Morag – The name Emma – is the safety. There are layers, people trust Emma and it helps them to see the work and it’s layers.
Emma – There are different entry points for different audiences at different stages. There is a physical process of art work that is about layers as is the way I describe my work. I want the website to be about layers, I want people to be able to look at it superficially but can also then be drawn in.
Emma – My studio practice is about thinking long term – a long term process. I am desperate to be the artist who I was at college – someone who was experimental, doing ‘mad stuff’ (which elicited this comment from a tutor ‘you’re very brave to do that’) – I want to be that brave person again in my practice. I want to challenge people’s thinking. In recent years, (when I was becoming embedded into the process of moving away from the Lost Years) and I didn’t have a studio space, it changed my practice – it changed the process of the process. I started to embrace Live Art. With Live Art, people see you doing it, experience the development of a work from start to finish, or witness an artist creating, rather than only viewing the results. It is exciting. When the documentation of the Live Art process and results are then put online, it then becomes an online art work, which then takes to another place, becomes another art work. Also during this time, I was combining a visual art way of thinking within the process of performance. The ideas for this to become part of my practice, were beginning to form at this point.
Exploring Live Art, Participatory Art, Making Art Without a Studio and pushing forward my role as an Educator. 2011 – 13.
I am now at a place when I can describe my work as either ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. The ‘Out There’ work relates to Live and Performance Art, where I am opening myself up to an audience within a live context and the ‘In Here’ work is work that I develop within the studio, where I am cocooned within myself. Collaborative work, or commission based work operates somewhere in between.
Morag – What is your relationship to the work?
Emma – I am not under any creative pressure any more (now that I have taken away the commercialisation from my work). I am creating work from a different angle, I am my own person, my own artist. (But there are constraints, as with all things) With my studio ‘In Here’ work, I have the space, but I am time dependent (I can only get in about once a week). My Light Kills Darkness project, this depends on funding to be able to continue and the Performance Art …. ( there are some aspects that I can do, but to get anything performance ready, will also require an injection of funds)
Morag – Where are you now?
Emma – I am on a cusp. When we first met, parts of my life (personal and professional) had come to an end – and it was at the start of becoming an artist again (I had been in Arts Administration, enabling other artists to show work, rather than my own) I started to create work for a year or two, but I realised that the work was not a true reflection of my creative spirit – I didn’t want my work to be comfortable and accessible – I wanted to challenge myself and others. It then took another four years to get to this point, where I feel that I can launch myself on the professional circuit.
I need to make myself immediately recognisable as an artist and to the right people. I need to look like I really know what I am doing. I am starting to hear people say ‘You are doing so well’ and I want to build on that.
‘Sky Spirit’ (Working Title), Action Research Performance, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, Wild Networking, 2015
The Studio at NN Contemporary Art, 2016