Visual artist Poppy Nash is known for working with textiles and personal testimony about health, wellbeing, and breaking barriers and taboos.
David Hevey: What do you do and why do you do it?
Poppy Nash: I work in textiles because I’m interested in radical costume and clothing. It also makes more sense to me to make art that is usable. And I make larger textile pieces like banners now, too. The other thing with textiles is that, historically, it’s seen as women’s work and valued less, whereas, by using slogans and text, I see it as a really radical art form. I’m also interested in memory and perception and the ways that experiences can be recalled or owned, or even who has ownership over those experiences.
How do you make the work radical?
You can be really fucking radical with textiles, particularly by working with text. Historically, for example, during wars women would make and wear protest slogans on dresses and create clothes adorned with propaganda. More recently, people like the American artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz have used textiles to draw attention to civil rights, gay identity and lived experience – Wojnarowicz with his incredible slogan ‘If I Die Of Aids – Forget Burial – Just Drop My Body On The Steps Of The FDA’ hand painted on the back of his jacket.
How is your work informed by your lived experience?
I have diabetes and I began exploring that chronic illness in terms of barriers. Through Shape Arts, I found that lots of people are making similar explorations of health and medical conditions and using that to generate activism about removing barriers. That got me into the disability arts family, which made me feel really good about what I was trying to achieve: to use my art to tell my own and other people’s stories of living with diabetes.
What are you working on at the moment?
The project I’m currently working on is The Art of Dying: Stories from my Covid Bed. For a lot of disabled people, dying comes up regularly, and non-disabled people regularly impart their death horrors on to us.
The ‘don’t worry, only the vulnerable die’ attitude that Covid brought out horrified me. I went into isolation on 12 March 2020, before the official lockdown. I was alone in my flat and I didn’t do anything. My previous feelings of being stuck in a bed had grown into being stuck in my flat. My whole life became my doorway and my phone screen.
The Art of Dying is about exploring the demons that exist around the contemporary death/sick bed. I’m making a fabric-based installation about my living in isolation during lockdown when, for days and weeks, my only communications were by mobile phone.
Unpicking and deconstructing the experience of the first lockdown, of being on my own in my flat, is exciting but doing the research for this has been harrowing. Looking back at all the photos on my phone and all of the texts – the evidence of my isolation – has had me crying a lot. Getting to make art and being cool with it is great though, and I have Arts Council England project grant funding. It goes live next year in Margate and will be on the Shape feeds, too.
Can you tell us more about your technique?
The process that is key to the current project is digital embroidery, which will overlay the print. This will reflect smaller, darker, more intimate emotions that I was storing.
What barriers do you face?
My big project now is about being vulnerable during the pandemic. It’s like one massive barrier! I spent so long trying to not have my chronic illness define me in the eyes of others, and yet, during the pandemic, I constantly had to say ‘I’m clinically vulnerable.’ It is good to be out but laying oneself open is difficult too. And I’m interested and passionate about political art and art generally, through which I’m working myself and my practice out; I can resolve a lot of these within the work.
Does fear ever enter into your work?
Yes, with this project, I’m exploring elements of my own life and headlines from the world – it’s pretty hardcore out there at the moment. I’m exploring headlines about death and death in my own life, and I worry about upsetting people who live in the same difficult world that I do. But I still push on into areas that feel real to me and that I care about – my next project is about radical love and platonic love, so watch this space!
Do you see yourself as a success?
My career so far has been short, about five years, and I have been lucky in the things I get to do like working with NDACA and with The Art of Dying project. I get to do so many things I love as my job, which is so cool. I don’t know about ‘success,’ but I do know that being an artist is what I love and what I want to do all my life.
Do you see yourself as a leader?
No, I hate that idea! I don’t think ‘leadership’ is a particularly healthy place to start creativity either. I do lead myself into my work though. I start with lots of colour and I tend to throw everything in. I really like texture and things you can touch and I fill up the work so that, when there’s too much, I add even more!
Shape CEO David Hevey in conversation with artist Poppy Nash is the second in a series of conversations with the Shape Arts’ Transforming Leadership Programme cohort of 2020-2022.
Shape Arts Transforming Leadership Programme 2020-2022 explores the ways in which radical creatives and organisations can survive, thrive and grow sustainable creative production models in difficult times. Delivered with support from a-n. www.shapearts.org.uk/
Top image: Poppy Nash, The Art of Death Bedspread, made as part of Wellcome Collection Research Residency. Documentation by Steven Pocock