Realising you over-share and doing it anyway, walking as an art form, facing the expectations of your past self – Trevor H. Smith uses his self-initiated Unsolicited Artist in Residence to reflect on personal history, delve into light boxes of text, and fess up to who he really is.
Recent work has seen the Bath-based artist develop audio recordings of conversations with fellow walkers, and explore ventures into writing poetry.
With his ongoing project Walks With Other Artists – which he is configuring during part-time MA studies at the University of the West of England and writing about on a-n Blogs – Smith is turning his walks into an art event with an audience of one.
The project follows on from completing the 268 miles of the Pennine Way last year; a period of research during which he established ways to experiment with walking as an art form.
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What inspired you to tackle the Pennine Way?
I may never have set foot on the heather had my granddad not expressed his desire to do the same, many years before I was born. When it opened in 1965 he was in his 50s. He was fascinated by it but never even saw the trail. It was through my dad I learnt of my grandad’s unfulfilled desire to get out of the urban sprawl and up onto this mystical, new footpath running up the backbone of his country. This alone was the reason my dad dragged me along the final 60 miles of the route in 1990 when I was 13-years-old, crying about the pain in my legs.
You talk of how the experience allowed your mental wellbeing to go ‘through the roof’…
Since completing the walk in August 2018 I have taken to a weekly walk. I use this time to process whatever is on my mind, thinking aloud through Instagram Stories under the hashtag #mindfulmonday. I haven’t made this aspect of the project public, but above all others it is what makes this particular walking project relevant now. I expect it to come up more in conversations with fellow walkers.
Is Walks With Other Artists just as much about people as it is about the landscapes you tread over?
Yes, if not more. I have wanted to bring walking into my work for some time, but I just couldn’t make it fit – I have a well-established habit of talking myself out of making work, so for a long time the idea of walking sat in an empty file on my computer, named ‘Walking Art’.
I set out on the Pennine Way as a self-proclaimed Unsolicited Artist in Residence without any idea of what kind of work the residency would lead to. After gathering and reflecting on my source material – audio recordings, photography, extensive notes written on my phone – I realised the aspect of the trip that had affected me most had been spending 17 days almost exclusively in the company of just one other person, my oldest and least unbearable friend, Derek.
The purpose of engaging directly with an audience, even if that’s an audience of one, is the overriding motivation behind this project. My desire to be heard and understood means most of my life’s relationships have flourished in one-on-one situations. As an inveterate oversharer, I am even learning from my day job in a village deli that people reflect back what you give them. This is especially true in prolonged periods of one-on-one contact.
How do you approach self-identity as source material?
I continue to investigate doubts that rose up in my early teens to the point of heavily analysing my life to date; aspects of my identity handed to me by my parents, peers, and the environment I grew up in. I’m now bringing it into the public realm via audio work, which is deeply personal. But there are elements of my experience that must resonate with swathes of the population too.
I hope when people listen to me talking for a minute and a half, they aren’t hearing a bitter Geordie resenting his heritage. Instead, I see my work as a series of affirmations, putting on record the effort involved just to get to the position of openly talking about my feelings.
What is it you fear when it comes to making or showing objects related to your research?
You’re talking specifically about my map paintings, which I recently spoke about on my blog. For years I painted black and white versions of Ordnance Survey maps. I started about 10 years before my degree, and have continued into my MA, but never before had I revealed them to the world.
When someone asks me about the map on my living room wall I tell them about the location it covers, what the terrain is like, and what that road is called, because I can’t talk about them as artworks in the same way that I can about, say, the time I took 24 stones from the beach at Lulworth Cove in Dorset, then made an artwork of my returning them five years later out of guilt at having taken them in the first place.
I take great pride in a film I made in which all I do is walk into the shot, shout ‘Hello France’, then leave 14 minutes later. But I struggle to describe my paintings as anything other than an object that looks like a map. There is some irony in the fact that by situating text at the core of my practice, I painted myself into a corner.
You use your practice as a way to connect language and location. In what ways does this happen?
Although language travels, it is inextricably linked to location. We are obsessed with the origin of things, perhaps because origins aid understanding which extends to etymology. From south to north, through the 268 miles of the Pennine Way, a narrow stream running off the edge of upland is referred to as a brook, clough, drain, grain, gutter, dike, sike, beck, gill, hush, burn, well, dean, and hope. This is a very simple example but it speaks volumes. Where I grew up the word was ‘burn’.
As I say in the poem Language, ‘We used words that weren’t words anywhere else but here, and we never exaggerated our accents, there’s two syllables in beer’. The use of language within a unique or exclusive dialect related to where you grow up, even the way words are pronounced, all inform and reinforce a person’s world view.
Touching on your current MA studies, how do you address limitations with time and other commitments to give your practice the time it needs?
Without the option to study for my MA part-time I simply would not be able to do it. I am a parent to two children, aged four and six, and I do the majority of school runs. I am a part-time freelance writer and I work two days a week in a deli. I just have to manage my time very carefully. The MA is also a crucial stage in my career development, which I hope will see me teaching in the near future. Time spent with tutors is time spent observing their methods.
Being an artist has taken me on a journey from using established conceptual methods to look at and present the world around me, to using plain and simple language to make relatable work that engages the viewer, one step at a time.
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1. Trevor H. Smith, day 11 of the Pennine Way out of Dufton, 2018, digital photograph
2. Trevor H. Smith, Walking With Other Artists, 2019
3. Trevor H. Smith, All years are formative, 2018, text
4. Trevor H. Smith, documentation of painted maps
5. Trevor H. Smith, 2019, digital photograph of Uffington White Horse
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