Interview with Rebecca Halliwell Sutton. Questions by Juliet Fleming
Started in June 17' - Revisited in September 17'
Juliet: I just wanted to ease us into this by reading your artist statement to you, and then ask you to un-pick it and rephrase it back to me in a colloquial fashion.
“In my work sculptural forms, objects, artefacts and documents map the lived, nuanced and paradoxical experience of gendered beings across time. These formal qualities that reference the body also suggest a certain psychological state, as dichotomous elements exist in harmony and conflict. Attempting to invoke an embodied feeling as a form of empathy.”
Rebecca: mmm It’s quite wordy, I haven’t changed it since I wrote it at the end of art school coming up to a year ago so I think its due an update and simplification. I think I write in a sort of lyrical way and maybe its sometimes hard to understand, but it makes sense to me and writing it helps me understand my work, but maybe its not accessible to others, which is not what I’m about …I actually hate that, when texts take you a few times to read before you get it and a statement is to let others know what your work is about, so I think it should be straightforward.. so perhaps there is another space for my writing to exist.. I dunno really.
Right back to question, unpicking the statement… “formal qualities that reference the bodies” my columns and stuff are representations of bodies, in average heights. Some are my height and then I did a 6ft one which was kinda monolithic and lots of other aspects of my work have a bodily quality to them.
Juliet: I notice on your studio walls you have lots of photographs of intestines.
Rebecca: Yeah, I used to photograph my self quite a lot, for my work and…
Juliet: These aren’t your intestines?
Rebecca: No (chuckle), these aren’t mine, some of the images I use are of my body, but I was quite aware of a saturation of white female bodies in art etc and I ended up looking inside the body. The first piece I did which was inside the body, were images I’d stolen online, of people who had the same operation I had – a laparoscopy, where they look at your ovaries and womb for endometriosis, a chronic pain condition, and I really liked bringing together these images from people who had been through similar shit becoming this sort of anonymous collective, I collaged those images digitally and printed it on silk, its quite beautiful despite the gruesomeness of it.
Juliet: In your artist statement you mentioned 'paradoxical experience of gendered beings' - tell me more about that.
Rebecca: I guess I wanted to mention gender as I’ve been influenced by a lot of feminist texts and I’m very aware of how we’ve been socialised, moulded and pushed into these gender binaries and tropes/ways of thinking and how that can cause conflict. Gender is a spectrum of all kinds of multiplicities and I like how supposed ‘opposite’ elements of our selves exist in one being. I’m interested in the conflicts, things wrestling inside us like strength and vulnerability, they can be seen as conflicting but they also work really well together and are needed, and some of it comes from my specific experience, but I don’t see that experience limited to one kind of body.
Juliet: I wanted to ask you about The Woon Fellowship and your recent acceptance into The School of the Damned. You started The Woon at the end of September 2016. So 8 months. In the last few months you’ve been accepted into The School of the Damned, so its parallel working. If you could tell me about your experiences of the Fellowship and what you're expecting to gain from The School of the Damned?
Rebecca: Well I see SOTD as an amazing support network because when I moved to Newcastle I felt very isolated, because I didn’t know anyone and you’re just plonked into a studio, which is amazing. The whole situation is great, but when you have this big gift you feel so precious about it and I am quite an anxious person so I’ve found it quite overwhelming. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, and trying to build up a network within a new city, it does take a lot of time and for it to be genuine. So it was a really slow start and I did find it really hard but now I’ve met some lovely people and it’s getting easier. Then there’s the whole concept of being an artist full time, is mind blowing, as you don’t really think of that when your at Uni, and even at Uni you’ve got other stuff on, like different modules so I was never in the studio 24/7 either, so this is such an adjustment. SOTD is giving me some structure, a group of artists I can see regularly and feel supported by because here, obviously there is a great community, but on a day-to-day basis I am not around so many peers.
Juliet: It’s a big change from Uni seeing your tutor once every three weeks or so, sometimes more and your peer group all being around and in the studios there’s always some one about to bounce ideas off to, so when its just you, it’s a lot of pressure.
Rebecca: Yeah and I just need to remember to try and have fun too.
SOTD is great we have only had 3 sessions so far, our first one was kind of an introductory thing and then last weekend we had a trip to Glasgow at the weekend and that was really nice we all got to know each other properly. Everyone has so many ideas, and stuff to do, we have free reign to do anything really. It’s going to really help me with my transition after this, I’ll finish Woon at the end of this September 2017 and I will still have a few months of SOTD.
Juliet: Yeah it sounds like you're really enjoying it. Where is everyone scattered from SOTD?
Rebecca: So it is half ish in London and half everywhere else, all over the country. So we swap from London to elsewhere, so it’s not London based. One-month London, next month Newcastle say. It’s really wonderful to have a moving art school so you really find out about the art scene in each city from some one who lives there. A bit like school trips, get a group of people and just go to different cities.
Juliet: Yeah this is something that The NewBridge Project offers as part of its Practice Makes Practice programme and we go to different cities when the Biennale is on or whatever. I think the next is Manchester. So you’re the only SOTD based in Newcastle?
Rebecca: Yes, and others are based in Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and Southampton.
Juliet: Earlier this year you were part of ‘Slowing into form’ at Vane here in Newcastle. Why don’t you tell me a bit about your experience?
Rebecca: That was the first show I did during the fellowship, I had be just playing around with and materials that I had just accumulated, not specifically for anything. I was playing around in my studio with them, making these collages and thinking about associations between these real and fake things. I had some bathroom tiles that look like marble, and some pebbles and some silk. The Vane show was quite good to take some of those elements out of my studio and put them in a group space where they commanded a bit more attention. I found them really interesting because it was nothing like the work I had done in my degree show or anything, they were so much more fragile. It was really nice to put them in a space with the MFA Northumbria folks.
Everyone was midway through their MFA year, and at the time I wasn’t sure what I had made was work, but now looking back on it I know it was, I was a bit tentative about things. There were loads of personal layers.
Juliet: Tell me about those personal layers?
Rebecca: Obviously all art there is a personal connection, and you don’t always choose to share it, because people are so snobby when it has a personal connection. But my degree show stuff all stemmed from my mums student sketchbooks, she was a single mum, I was little while she was doing a photography degree, and I chatted to her about her life back then and found out at times she wouldn’t really eat much so that she could feed me instead. I had no idea, I was overwhelmed with that level of dedication to me.
Its along story but basically, I got accidentally pregnant during the last year of Uni, and it was so weird cos I was looking at my mums experience, and it was like a weird mirroring. I was 25 at the time, and she was 25 when she had me, whilst also doing a creative degree and I was in my last term of Art School. So I was just like what the fuck? So I had this massive, questioning of my entire life, cos you can either see one path or the other and you can picture it all, and it was so overwhelming.
So lots of these precarious little works I made, were linked to these potential lives you could or could not have. One of the pieces was the word ‘mother’ etched into marble, I was thinking a lot about my mum and what she went through. I went around a lot of graveyards, there is a really big cemetery near my old house in Manchester and I loved the marble and the gold writing, and all this memorial stuff. I was really interested in how the legacy that is left behind isn’t you, its your relationship to somebody else, that you are just a mother or brother, friend or something, I found that kind of polarising, it's great and also not great. There was something about that relationship of time and history and that comes back round to that intergenerational theory which I’m interested in from the philosopher Kristeva who writes that generations of women are not running in succession but interwoven. That’s something I’ve been trying to understand, and work out how to use that idea.
The title of the piece in Vane was “Tentative Explorations into Past and Future Selves” looking at those precarious vulnerable states, and with the real and the faux materials, I loved that relationship between the marble being hundreds of years old and the other elements being quickly reproduced. I see that as the push and pull of past generations and future generations of these material collaged things and I know maybe nobody else would read that from it but that’s just how my thought process let to those things.
Juliet: That explains the work from your point of view very well I think, I now do see it in a completely different light. You had Cut Cloth group show, when we went on our road trip to Manchester, it was great I had an absolute blast. Can you tell me about the piece you showed?
Rebecca: Ah yeah we had such a good time! The work was a giant bean bag that looks like a sandbag with a digital print of blob-like rocks and marble over it, I had it in the Set the Controls, Leeds solo show, and Sarah Joy Ford saw the work at STC and asked if I wanted to show that piece in Cut Cloth, an exhibition about Feminist Textiles. I think it fitted in really well with the exhibition as it’s in a library. The whole idea of this work was that you would sit in the work become part of it and maybe reflect, read, like a relaxing space, I made a zine too that related to the work, ideas around visual associations between land and body, so you can sit ‘n’ snuggle and enjoy the exhibition.
Juliet: How was the solo show at Set The Controls?
Rebecca: Having it a few months after the Castlefield Group show ‘In Dark Times’ was nice as that work looked quite polished, which wasn’t not on purpose but I was a bit looser in Leeds, I was developing some of the thoughts I’d had when making the piece for Castlefield, and tried some new things out like using the photograph in its own right rather than using it on fabric. Taking photographs is usually what I start with when working on new ideas or work so it was really nice to have confidence in just ‘the image’.
Juliet: So what do you have coming up next, what thoughts do you have for new work?
Rebecca: I want to continue exploring these associations between land and body. I have a solo show coming up at Slugtown, Newcastle in July I really like the idea of that gallery space being in a home, which for me directly references ownership and how land and body have become contained and regulated by boundaries… people saying this is mine. Which sort of paved the way for marriage and who owns what and traditionally women became men’s property. I started to explore or act out these thoughts with the work I made for the Castlefield group show ‘In Dark Times’, the tradition of marriage was so patriarchal but then there’s this sort of poetic or emotive ‘we had and we held’ title taken and altered from marriage vows and the work is resting in this bodily silk sling holding this cumbersome but quite beautiful fake marble pillar.
Juliet: I take from it the heavy pillar being held up by the strength of the silk, quite old values are represented in the pillar and a more new fluidity is holding onto that in a way that we don’t necessarily need to any more. A lot of us see our selves as being quite forward thinking about equality and all that but maybe many of us would be quite happy to get married, do we value that because there is this value of generations previous or is it our own?
Rebecca: I think that’s a really nice interpretation of the work, its definitely about this internal struggle, these weighty things being supported and tension, balance.
Juliet: Post Woon plans?
Rebecca: SOTD continues for a little while after the fellowship ends which is great as I want to put more energy into that and I’m going to Manchester to work on a project with Caustic Coastal curating some shows. But before I start that I’m going to go on Holiday!