The following interview was conducted with Lucy James in November 2011 for a website I had setup called Golden ArtNet. The website was dedicated to “Exploring the creative energies of the western central highlands, from Ballarat to Bendigo … and everywhere in between. Seeking out the best contemporary art from the region and delving a little deeper into its development, its production, and the people who create and present it.”
There’s no shortage of artistically minded people in this region. An almost unnatural abundance, proportionally speaking. Since working as a curator in recent months and launching Golden ArtNet just over a month ago I’ve been privileged to meet many and find out about many more. While this has all been going on, driving around to shows and engaging people in conversations, it became blindingly obvious I was missing a perfect opportunity to interview a great artist right under my nose – pretty much literally under it.
Living with an artist is an unusual thing. They work odd hours, they’re compelled to the point of obsession and they have a unique way of finding angles of investigative curiosity into the heart of matters. Interviewing someone you know intimately is surely an odd thing, but just as odd would be not interviewing such an obvious candidate for a website devoted to contemporary art just because of that. Hopefully, we can get some insights into the mind of an artist through the unparalleled access of their spouse.
KENT: So, Lucy, you make a lot of work with hybrids, with animals who seem to have super powers and with accumulations of very neatly cut-out bits of old books and magazines. You started out studying glass making at university, your drawing was notably high quality stuff, and you were in the painting studio for most of art school and into your Honours year. How did you end up with a scalpel for a best mate and 612 old op-shop books piled next to your desk as your companions?
LUCY: Hello Kent! How funny is this? So yes, I started my undergrad in fine arts glass-blowing, which was very cool to learn how to do, but then I quickly realised how much it was all about … well, glass. To be fair, I was fresh out of high-school, and like most 18-yr olds, I had no clue what I wanted to do (still don’t). So from there I landed in painting, where I was given the opportunity to make whatever I wanted out of whatever I wanted. I think drawing always came naturally, and it was and still is a mode of exercise for me, but I tend to use it more for literal representations (like, oh wow, a tree!), rather than the fantastical stuff I make from collage.
I honestly have been asking myself that same question lately – I really can’t remember how I ended up ordering scalpel blades in bulk and becoming obsessed with paper and print surfaces. Between undergrad and honours I went to fashion school and studied textile design, where I met the number 11 scalpel, and discovered the joy of a really good cut (ew that sounds a bit creepy), which I think just carried through in my honours year. I’ve always collected and worked with old books, drawing in them, altering them and using them for journals – I think it was a case of salvaging all this amazing imagery that I felt would be lost otherwise, and actually making something out of it.
There’s so many people that come through art school and end up on different paths from where they started. I think that’s a good thing for the most part, as hopefully its a reflection of the fact they’ve tried some things out and have gotten on to something that works best for them.
Now that you’ve come through that academic system and taken your art into the world how have you found that transition? I’m always intrigued by that process because the art schools churn out 100s, if not 1000s of ‘qualified’ artists in Australia every year but there’s really only a very very few who are able to become fully fledged artists. There’s got to be a variety of factors for that, and obviously each person is going to be different in their own context. Maybe with the end-of-year grad shows coming up this whole curiosity is fresh on my mind again. So, did you find it easy to keep making art? Was moving from a class of peers to your own isolated practice exciting or scary?
Yes. Well. Honestly, I think you get through art school and realise that you don’t magically get to be an artist at the end of it. I still think that the academic system works to a certain extent, because you are in that hub and you have the opportunity to push boundaries and ideas with peer support and criticism. I suppose it may seem an indulgent way to learn about your own practice, but ultimately it gives you a thicker skin – there’s no criticism left unvoiced, so it does make it much easier to take it in the real world.
I think in terms of ‘only a few’ making it, it is all relative. I don’t think a lot of students ever intend to practice art full time, a lot give it up as a career option very early, probably because that’s what’s drilled into you – I’ve had countless lecturers tell me “ugh. being an Artist. Wouldn’t reccommend it.” What’s become clear is that all the people I know who are still making and exhibiting beyond art school are doing it all the time. I think it’s about being content with having to do shitty jobs three days a week and possibly eating a lot of baked beans, and working at it really really hard.
The year after art school I worked full time as a clothing store manager, and while I didn’t hate it, I didn’t have any time or energy to make any work. Now that I’ve moved to the country I find it much easier to focus on my work because I have more time and space. I do find it difficult now working alone (something I’m reconsidering) but also find that isolation very valuable too. I’m not missing certain-artists-who-will-remain-nameless-you-know-who-you-are leaving oil paint all over my CD player, but I do miss sharing ideas in the studio with them! I have to be much more self-critical now, because there is no-one else to tell me what’s working and what’s not.
Well something must be working ok because you’ve been showing your work a fair bit lately, in Sydney and Melbourne. Recently you had a couple of shows in the city that were called ‘Sudden Flushes of Unconscious Material’, one at Platform and the other at c3. They both were collage driven but each a little bit different, in that Platform was a bit more installation based and c3 was a bit more refined and polished. Can you talk us through your idea behind running the show across different venues, and the reason for the differences in presentation?
Well I had already proposed the show for both venues, despite the different scale of the spaces (Platform was a single vitrine, while c3 was a small room about 3 x 4 metres) and somehow got them both. Platform ended up being about 6 months earlier than I had planned, and I only had about 2-3 weeks to get my shit together! I decided to use it as a experimental/practice run for c3. I had initially wanted the c3 show be a larger version of what I showed at Platform (lots of of papers strewn about, lots of half-finished works etc), but once I got into the space at c3, I was totally seduced by the white walls and shiny-ness, so I ended up parring it back, having some works framed and putting some large scale pieces in, making it all a bit slick.
So even though the two shows were based on (and I think reflected) the same concept, the difference in them was really a result of the type of space they were in. Platform is a great place to be experimental, giving artists the opportunity to create something more transient in a very public space (the bowels of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne). You can do this at c3 too, though it is set up more commercially – and I really wanted to sell some work! THERE. I said it. You’re all thinking it! No, really it was an opportunity to refine the Platform show, and expand on that concept … nah fuck it. I just wanted the cash.
I wanted to ask you about something that comes up in your work a bit. Like, the other night, when I had those 2 dreams about decapitated cats and one of our friends was all like, “well, of course you’d dream about that, look at Lucy’s art everywhere!” I’ve never really considered your collages of spliced animal bits and mutant creatures as being gruesome but there is definitely an aspect of that that is being read into your work by others. I’ve always thought of your work more like combinations of images of animals, rather than any reflection of combinations of actual animals. What’s your take on that?
I’m sorry! I really am subconsciously traumatising my nearest and dearest. This is quite a contentious issue – I never go into the studio thinking ‘today I’m going to chop some heads off – hooray!’ When I am making an image, or cutting source material, I tend to forget the subject matter and focus solely on the ‘seams’ of the image. So I think that’s where things like cutting necklines tend to pop up. It is about bringing elements of various images together to construct a new image, in my case, some maaagical animal/creature thing, rather than deconstructing heads and bodies and so on. I do understand where it gets uncomfortable for people, and often I am a bit disturbed with some of the stuff I come up with. It just goes back to sudden flushes of unconscious material – I often finish a piece and think ‘where the hell did that come from? What is wrong with me?!’ It used to worry me quite a bit, but now I just go with it. I mean, these creatures are only made of paper you know. They can’t actually feel it.
So true. I still find it funny when someone looks at some of your animals and seems to imagine a gruesome frankenstein mutant. Or your little bunnies with swords and sees homicidal monsters. Maybe that says more about the viewer’s state of mind than the artists! And probably just goes to reinforce the idea that no matter what intent the artist pours into the meaning of a work, ultimately the viewer will construct their own interpretation through a mixture of the artist’s hints and their own personal histories.
I wanted to touch on something about your recent studio experiments that I think is quite interesting, in terms of insight into artistic choices. You’ve occasionally made some paintings, that are all fractured and multi-cellular colour abstractions. And they get a really good response from those of us lucky to sneak a peak at them on your desk. But you’ve said they don’t quite feel right. How do you go about selecting a particular vein of work to follow? What’s the editing process from studio experiment to actual production for public exposure?
Yes well, you can lead a horse to water! It’s ok. I am always open and interested in other interpretations.
In regards to artistic choices, I really don’t know. Can you make up something clever for me? Aaah. In terms of the more abstract pieces you’re referring to, like you said, they’ve never quite felt right, and I’m not sure why. I mean, they’re nice and all … I remember someone saying that they liked them, but they didn’t really ‘have that lucy-stamp on them’ – so perhaps it’s just me being an egomaniac! I struggle to get my drawing and collage working side by side – they are very different styles. I’m working on it. At the moment drawing is a more commercial venture, so seems to be reserved for illustration/commission work, and the collage is … more … exhibit-y. Oh gross.
Ha! Sometimes the hard questions are the best for getting into the nooks and crannies. So, you brought up your commercial work, which is a new thing for you. Is that a tricky balance to have to make between art and design? Or have you got a way of keeping them separate? Or do you not care if they blur?
No, it’s actually quite easy keeping them separate – like I said, the styles are so different. What I am trying to work on now is bringing them a bit closer together, because I think a bit of cross-pollination can be good.
That sounds intriguing. So what else have you got coming up in the pipeline?
Haha – by intriguing do you mean ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ – that was a bit elusive, sorry! I’ve got two solo shows (alarmingly close together) early next year which I am currently preparing for, one in Melbourne and one in Kyneton, which is very exciting. And nerve racking. Mostly exciting though. I think. And I’m in vague negotiations at the moment with a local cafe about doing some wall art for them – which is also exciting and nerve racking! Argh! Apart from that, just keeping my head down and trying to be productive! But not too far down. That causes much neck pain.
Sounds busy! Ok, the last thing I wanted to ask you about was your website. You’ve kept a blog going with regular updates and I know it’s been getting regular visits for quite some time. I think this is a key area for artists to maintain a profile and present a professional image of their production, and it’s very rarely utilised well. What’s your take on the whole blog thing, internet profile idea?
Yes, yes yes. I started the blog after I left art school, and was amazed at how quickly it helped in boosting my work ethic. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I wanted to exhibit, so I focused on getting new work up on the blog as regularly as I could and left it to generate its own energy. It’s led to meeting many other artists I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, international sales, invitations to exhibit as well as making it easy for galleries to find and assess my work. The shows I have booked for next year started from the directors of each gallery seeing the blog. So really, it’s been quite a useful venture!
However, now that I’m exhibiting more and having to plan for bigger shows, the time has come for the blog to step up into a professional website – now that it’s been going for a couple of years, there is a massive accumulation of work, so it is very difficult for viewers to sift through it all. I’ll always have the blog for updates and works in progress, but I think a professional website is integral too. (I also just hate the word blog. Seriously, it’s awful.) It’s so easy to google anything and anyone now, so what presence you have on the internet says a lot about you, and in this case, your career … having said that, if you google lucy james (oh as if you all haven’t googled yourself!) a porn star from the UK comes up, so maybe I’ll eat my words.
Oh well, porn stars fade awfully quick, hopefully your star will just keep rising! Thanks so much for chatting to me about your art.
For you Kent dear, anything. x
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Check out Lucy’s work on her website here.