with Katy Beinart, Jo Thomas, Frank Cartledge and Laura Krikke (and Kaspar)
Figure Ground Caravan, Brighton seafront
LK: What drives you?
SN: Well I guess I’ve always been busy with image making since I was a child. I just never stopped.
KB: So did you go to Art College?
KB: So could you describe a bit about your art practice now - what you are doing at the moment?
SN: Going back to the start as well. I grew up in quite a working class area and I didn’t know what an artist was. There was a crappy old film about Van Gogh on our black and white telly, and I thought that’s what I am, I am one of those.
FC: Is that the one with Burt Lancaster, no Kurt Douglas,
FC: I like that film.
SN: And I thought that’s what I do and I was probably 11 or 12.
KB: So I suppose the question, as you have obviously done loads in your life, is what of the recent work have you done that you have felt was public? How has that lead you to decide not to do it anymore?
SN: Right it’s a lot of work. In the 2000s I had 3 or 4 large scale commissions which was really good, through Axis. They just got in touch with me and asked would I possibly be interested. Actually the first one was just in a village just outside of Brighton and I had an open garden. We have this big Brighton Festival with open studios and all that. Some people from the village were looking round my work in my garden and approached me to do a piece which was Arts Council funded. And I did one for the millennium, the year 2000. That was great, that was really good doing that. It was four large-scale figures. They were from one whole oak tree that had been knocked in a hurricane and it had died but it had remained standing so there were no rotten bits to it. It was in the land of Tony Penrose whose father (Roland Penrose) had Picasso and people round there. So it was quite extraordinary going from my little life to doing that. I worked in a stable out in the village on these pieces. First of all I had to check out the tree. I thought that’ll do, god it’s enormous. I’ll cut it into sections. We got cut into sections and parked. And then I had to run workshops with the villagers where they came and talked about they wanted. And they put their ideas into it. So it’s called Spirit of the Village. I almost brought a photo album but I thought it would be more of a verbal dialogue so I didn’t. The four main pieces are connected with the seasons. There is Old Man Winter, Autumn Woman and then they get younger. So I’ve said it backwards. Then there is centre-piece which is like a font. There is piece of land they call the Millennium Garden, which is just off the church car park dedicated to them.
KB: Which village is it?
SN: Chiddingly, just beyond Ringmer. Yeah so it’s a funny little town. When I got there I carved the font which has got the five main shared buildings of the village: the school, the pub and the shop and so on. I did that in the studio just round from where I live.
And then I moved out to live in the village and carve in the stable opposite the pub. I was really excited about it but it was a bit like going back in time where the artist was an artisan where I was bit like a skilled worker in the village. I didn’t feel one bit included in village life. People would come and check out how I was doing. it was a bit of an eye opener into bourgeois life in Sussex villages. I was quite happy to get back to urban Brighton. It’s fantastic oak and it has really aged well. And then because I did that I got asked to submit for a piece out at Robertsbridge. And that was in 2003. There was a first winter of terrific flooding. Robertsbridge got really flooded and they got some funding to do a flood diversionary works and Southern Water paid me to do a relevant piece on a piece of reclaimed land so I thought I better do Noah then hadn’t I. So I did a big head of Noah although it was based his head on Fidel Castro. I normally fit something in, like Old Man Winter was based on Tolstoy. And Young Man Summer was based on the face of a striking miner from a newspaper cutting a few years before.
KB: It’s really interesting that you bring this political subversion.
SN: You’ve got to, there is so much going on in the world
KB: What you are producing is something that is quite safe as well?
SN: Exactly, that’s the cunning bit.
JT: Do you share that?
SN: Well again I didn’t really meet the people of Robertsbridge. They brought the wood over to Brighton and I carved it and it went off.
FC: I think she meant do you share the subversive element?
SN: No, only with people I know. I don’t think the people in these villages know.
KB: They don’t know they’ve got Fidel there.
SN: No they don’t know they’ve got Fidel there. And he got terribly thin. So he looks different now to how it looked. They’ll be on my website. And coming from that, someone approached me. I’d always worked part time, mostly in Adult Education and also in Moulsecoomb, which is quite a large estate, it suffers from emotional and financial deprivation there is nothing to do.
KB: Its at the edge of the city.
SN: That’s what they do with these social housing blocks. So I was working there and I have for years now taught a women’s art class. And one of the women who came to my art evening class said that in Moulsecoomb they are opening a family centre, and could I do a similar group there. And whilst I was carving Noah, a friend of mine who worked at the art college invited me to do a combined project with 2nd year degree students and Moulsecoomb parents. I was trying to find the book, I bought the book which had loads of analysis in which I am sure. So we did that 3 years running. That was one of the things I wanted to draw your attention to or via you to the Arts Council is the sort of funding you need to do public art with people like that. And what we did was time based art.
The first one was out at Newtimber which is a bit of down land, just off the Pikeham turning, just off the A23, there is not much of it left now because that was in about 2003 /4. So we had about 10 of each group and we paired them up and we did lots of workouts together, had a ranger as well, and we sent them off into the woods to collect.
Working with people like that you need to provide a creche that’s the major expense. You need to provide food because if they have got 6 or 8 kids because they won't have had time to get themselves a packed lunch to work in the woods all day. The students, you’d expect the students to get a packed lunch but because you are providing it for the women we provided it for the students as well. And transport for the women even though some of the women have cars, some of them don’t, the women with cars wouldn’t share them with the ones that don’t.
It all very... the site can’t be that far from the car park because there is quite a lot of obesity and asthma and heavy smoking going on. And people aren’t used to walking in the countryside.
It’s not a new poverty but it is a new version of poverty.
SN: And you have to be aware of all that and you have to be very tactful about it. I sometimes see some of them if I’m out and about in town. They go, do you remember that time we did so and so and I think it must stand out as a completely unique experience in their lives. The ones that were involved in the first project the Newtimber one, loved it to pieces and wanted to do it the next year. There are pictures of these too on my website. We went out to Saddlescombe, the ranger kept on offering us wonderful sites.
KB: What was the problem, was it money?
SN: Yes, eventually it was, after three years the university stopped funding it. At Saddlescombe we did a massive chalk circle like a Celtic size. We did a lot of work looking at Celtic art with both groups. Cows appeared over the horizon during the middle of one of the days and all my parents legged it and some of the students. But terrific relationships are formed. That’s a fantastic thing
I almost phoned to say there is not much point in me coming because I don’t really do this now but then I wanted to say my piece about what it is like working with deprived groups. The government is so full of Eton boys. And so much of public art is geared towards people who are pretty privileged really or they are the ones that will read the email and will bother to go in their people carrier and check it out. It’s different really.
FC: Do I gage, ummm, is there a chip?
SN: Oh I don’t know, I’m poking it down!
KB: He’s got a chip!
FC: I’m from Sheffield and my background was quite working class but you know.
SN: Because art is so wonderful then I would really would like everyone to have it. And I think the people who have a lot could probably manage with out more than...
KB: So what do you think about of Art Everywhere where they sponsor having artwork on bus stops and billboards?
SN: I haven’t even heard of it.
KB: There is one on the bus stop on Lewes Road. They are pieces by famous artists.
SN: Oh good, oh how wonderful. I’d be right behind that.
KB: But how do you think then it could reach more different sorts of people..?
SN: Well that’s good. Well sooner or later I’ll be at a bus stop. I mean which bus stops are they putting it near? The bus stop that goes up to Moulsecoomb? But I think even that’s a crucial question. I remember working in a particular area. And they don’t necessarily get the bus into town. It’s a big thing to (do).
SN: At the family centre we had a Going out Group. Which to do with accompanying people into town. There are whole areas of Brighton that they wouldn’t go to which is like the North Laines, St James Street. They think of themselves as Scoombers. I say 'they' as it’s the only way to have the conversation. A lot of people out there would label themselves as Scoombers. And they say people will look at you and expect you to nick their stuff.
FC: They call themselves Scoombers, what does that mean?
SN: It means they come from Moulsecoomb, it’s quite ghettoised, as is Whitehawk. So getting them out and mixing with the second year art students was really good for them on these projects.
I got some funding from Sussex University. We did Doris the Dragonfly, who is fairly awful actually and seems to have survived better than any of my other outdoor projects. That’s the way of things -if I take the dog for a walk I think I bet Doris is still there and I contemplate taking out a small saw.
JT: Yes, It’s awful when you make a piece of art and it is still there to haunt you.
SN: It wasn’t meant to be; it was meant to blow away the first winter,
KB: Is that part of the reason you stopped doing it?
SN: No no no… I’ve carried on doing the women art course. In the summer terms we go out. We often come to the beach and do things. Like we were looking at Gauguin’s picture - who are we where do we come from that one...
FC: Is that the one with the nuns?
SN: no unless they are undressed!
FC: oh yes, it’s the one in Tahiti
SN: So we were thinking about that...and we went to the beach at Ovingdean, I do that in the evenings, and we made a big chalk question mark about 15ft, massive. Some of them collected white chalk and some of them collected seaweed. So it’s this big outlined question mark. And that felt really good. We did it above the tideline as far as we could see.
One of them said a couple of weeks later they had been on a rock-pooling event with their kids and some people. They sat and had their picnic next to this question mark nobody said what is that question mark doing. But I think that’s just Brighton.
KB: People are used to a lot of crazy stuff?
SN: Mad things just happen. We have done Andy Goldsworthy type things in the woods and chalk drawings on the pavement. So I continue doing it in a small scale way.
And I did a really big commission in Guildford, which is 5 12ft high figures, which is still there, and I am really excited by it on the odd times I’ve been there.
There were these kids who were trailing us around on the second day because the pieces were finished in sequence. It was a percent for art project, it was a really expensive up market estate. Lovely people, I'm certain, living there which is where the sculptures were. And a social housing estate there. And one of the pieces was meant to be on the edge. The architect had him facing in to the estate that had paid for it. I said no because he will just get wrecked. Have him turned sideways. There were paths and everything linking the estates, there were no walls or anything. So they did have it part facing the social housing estate. It was in a school holiday, and all these kids on their bikes and skateboards were following all the big machinery around, going cool did you do that. And I said to them ‘Tell your big brothers they are for you these sculptures and you’ve got to look out for them. Anyway that was in 2004 and one of my women and art students was going on a training day years later and wanted to visit them on her lunch break... and she got off the bus with this little map. And this lad who is now quite a lot older came over and said are you looking for something. It was Kevin. It was one of the boys that had followed me on the siting day.
And he said we’ve been looking after them, are you a friend of Sues?
KB: That is really sweet.
JT: The scale of the impact.
SN: It was so fantastic they remembered them.
SN: It was really lovely, it was such a nice day; seeing them coming round the corner these enormous pieces.
KB: That is going to stick in the mind for the rest of their lives probably.
SN: I told them my website and apparently in the school they did some work on looking at art.
So I think ... I have just ... got a bit used up, and the family centre where I ran all the fantastic art stuff was closed down, and we were redeployed and I found myself on a child protection team and that really wasn’t what I had ever signed up for but I only had 3 years to work ... because I was born in the last year a woman could retire at 60 which was really good, so I did.
So I just now want to get on with my work as an artist. I always had to do part-time because of bringing up my kids. It’s has always been sidelined and it’s always been there but it’s all of me. I just never had weekends because I would be working 3 days here then 4 days in the studio and always full on. Well I still do pretty much.
KB: So do you have the support of a partner then?
SN: I should have married someone with an income. He rocked off years ago when they were little. So it’s quite hard really but there was never a question about not doing it. It just meant we never had much money. I seem to be selling quite well now and I get private commissions, I am still wood carving. I was a sculptor but I started wood carving when the hurricane happened in 1987. I was a single parent and I was always drowning in skips dragging out materials I could use for sculptures and then after the hurricane happened I thought well there is loads of wood everywhere. I’ll use that and dragged a lot of wood back and started carving and just loved it as a medium.
So a big thing I’ve been doing in my own work recently is I had quite a big sculpture exhibition in Brick Lane. I seem to have lost 10 years, since the year 2000. Probably in some amount of time ago I did this whole bunch of work I suppose it was linked with my time in Moulsecoomb. I’ve just sold the last two. 2008 I carved them. They would be like a hoody standing with his hands in his pocket, the main one does have a beautiful face and people still love cards of him and stuff, with angels wings and he’s just stood there with this slightly melancholic look. So a lot of pieces like that
and there’s a piece that has just gone out to an exhibition this weekend to replace the ones I sold last week, because they let them take them which they should haven’t done. It’s called ‘Just off shopping dear’ and it’s quite a biggish woman with her shopping bags with a grumpy eagle’s head which is sort of about my Moulsecoomb women.
JT: So that’s still coming through?
SN: It’s still happening. I am working on a series at the moment which I am going to call Contemporary Icons or City Life that’s going to be in the Jubilee Library in the Foyer (Nov/Dec) and they are quite small slices of oak so they can be hung. There’s a skateboarding angel and a guy looking transported with a really meditative look on with his earphones he is listening to his music. I don't know quite how I am going to make it look like an iPad but I went to Greece earlier in the year and I want to do some really traditional poses, icon figures but with their hair all gelled out sideways like the kids have and doing this thing, I don’t know what it means but holding a iPad instead.
LK: A mudra?
SN: They are in Buddhism, So what’s that one with the 3rd finger, Christ seems to do that a lot.
LK: They’ve all got different meanings. That one is about compassion
SN: It would be nice he did that. I thought it was exclusively Buddhist
LK: there is the Hindu
SN: Oh thanks for that. I’ll have to look them up. So they’ve all got a circle of different sizes
Oh and there is a girl in a hijab embracing a western looking boy? But they are all lit up by this golden glow.
But I just got some bird cages in a junk shop I am quite wanting to spray them gold but I don’t know what will carve to go in them yet. It’s fantastic, it’s so wonderful just be able to do my work. It’s not that I stopped doing public art because I no longer believe it or it was a struggle. It just that I thought.
KB: No, you just don’t have to.
SN: I don’t know how long I will be able to wood carve I am 64 and I am okay. But who can tell.
JT: Is the making more important than the interactions? But it also sounds as if it wouldn’t be possible without the interaction or knowing people
SN: I don’t know, I like spending a lot of time on my own but then I would go crazy without the city around me; good friends you know, but they are not particularly in the art world. I sort of work in quite an isolated way. I have had a studio space in a studio group a couple of times but it just hasn’t worked out. I'd just rather be at home. I can’t bear someone else having the radio on a channel I don’t want to listen to or something like that.
KB: I do think that is a difficult thing about public art. As an artist I quite like being on my own.
SN: Do you.
KB: And sometimes it is overwhelming talking to people a lot. Having said that I’m doing this.
I’m feeling quite overwhelmed!
SN: But you're young you can be overwhelmed for a few years. It does put you on the spot a bit.
JT: It is overwhelming.
KB: I think there is something about the energy it takes to talk and to listen and the energy it takes to make work. If you do a lot of talking and listening that displaces you from what you actually...that kind natural flow of just making work. I wonder if I have the choice, you know completely. It is a question.
SN: Yes. Well it is something I can do because I only have myself to keep and the dog because my sons have gone now.
JT: Do you ever get contacted about commissions in the public realm?
SN: Yes I do and I’ve stopped following them up. I also think if it was me, for me to do publicly sited piece wood is not a good idea. Well I was shortlisted for two or three during the last years I was chasing them up. And being shortlisted as you probably all know is a heck of a lot of work because then you have to come up with the proposal, the bloody costing that takes for ever and even if you get paid a few hundred it doesn’t recompense for the fact that you bought into this thing. And then it’s not going to happen or sometimes you don’t hear and then ‘oh we really couldn't decide between you and someone else.’ And I think well you clearly did and don’t waste my time anymore. There is some lovely public art around Brighton but it’s a big city. It’s got to be pretty robust I think and I’m so in love with working with wood with carving wood that I’m not going to change that. So I just need to press on with it.
JT: That sounds really lovely.
KB: Good for you.
SN: Thank you. I mean I have been broke all year and I was a bit on a thread up to 2 weeks ago and I was so relieved that my pension had gone in and I thought I’m down to this and then I sold hundreds last weekend and I made nearly £2000 in an exhibition I’m in... So phew.
And I’m waiting on hearing about a commission for a guy’s private garden and he pays well. So that will probably ...but I can only take that risk now because I am only supporting the dog. Me and the dog. So that’s good. And I’m really happy with that situation.
KB: Does anyone else want to ask anything.
LK: I think we’ve covered everything
SN: Was that alright?
LK: I think it was nice you actually looked at Public Art as a way of making money. You know it is quite the opposite of what a lot of artists have said.
SN: It’s just being quite pragmatic, I don’t know what the world thinks artist live on… Clearly not much.
KB: Air mainly.
SN: Air and the aesthetic tendency. When the family centre was at its ...before it was closed it was my ideal job really because it was a permanent part time contract (which is what most artists would like) and I was doing art with traumatised kids, art with the mums and art here there and everywhere and I was getting paid for it. But then it just got closed.
FC: They have closed the whole centre? The signs are still up.
SN: It still say Hillsview but it’s a contact centre. When they started the Sure Start Centres that was when they closed the family resource centre down because they thought they were doubling provision. Although I did get a small commission to carve these big rabbits that are outside the SureStart centre so some good came out of it. They are still there because they are dug in.
Most of my sculptures don’t go away because they are firmly concreted into planet earth
I would have liked to maybe have done more. Because I am working smaller now you can get through more. It takes a long time to carve a tree. It really really does.
KB: How long does it take? Like one of those 5 you did in Guildford?
SN: I took unpaid leave to do them because I couldn’t stand after a while the chop and change of being here and being there. Of being a social worker, quasi social worker because I am an art teacher really. And then going back to the garage. I rented a garage down the road for them.
I would probably take 6 weeks to two months but that is just going at it the whole time. And I was so tired.
KB: That’s the other thing it’s physically really hard work.
SN: The first one I got some bits taken off with a petrol driven chainsaw, there was no electricity in the garage but he went a bit deep in a couple of places and I thought I can’t risk that so I just did it all by hand.
It hardens up. If you carve into oak and then leave it it hardens up and then it’s even harder than it was to start of with.
FC: You said you went to art college Which one did you go to?
SN: I think its called Gloucester school of Art and Technology. It was based in Cheltenham and it was Cheltenham Art College when I went there. I did fine art / sculpture.
FC: And do you think that... It seems that it’s very traditional in a way what you do?
SN: Yes, no it wasn’t at all traditional when I was (there). I think they would have liked it to have been. If the tutors are alive they would be rejoicing, doing some proper art. I went in 1968.
SN: So my main achievement was getting a lorry load of earth delivered to my studio and I made a pond in there. People were working with UV light and multiple casts, vinerol casts of bits of people that were sticking out of the earth. We were completely insane. It was then, it was 1968. What were you supposed to do it then unless you had blinkers on.
FC: Why do you think your practice shifted back to a sort of... because it is... sculpting in wood really is what it is.
SN: It is really traditional. My work is very figurative. I don’t know. You hear Tracey Emin saying she is getting back to life drawing. Maybe we start off loving drawing and looking at the world as it is. There is so much pressure in art colleges and I saw it with the 2nd year sculpture students that I worked with, to be original; well that’s not going to happen because everything has been done is some form. I think people chase their tails trying for this originally thing. I’m a little bit bored of the whole sort of Brit Art, I mean it’s the art that Saatchi fostered, I mean he liked, they are doing the Venice Biennale and things but I mean we were doing that sort of thing. In 1968 we had kind of grown out of it.
It seems to me a bit weird it had become the thing. I don't know, when I left art college I travelled quite a bit and couldn’t settle. It was quite hard to settle after leaving Art College and I didn’t know quite what to do.
KB: Where were you from originally?
SN: Kent, I went to Folkestone Art College for my foundation which was a good college. And then my parents died which was unexpected so I had a house so I was able to go back to do my work and I couldn’t see how I could go back to having a lorry load of earth delivered in my art.
It didn’t seem appropriate to do the sort of things we were doing at Art College in a little terraced house. So I decided I thought I would paint and I started painting. So I made some enormous canvases and got painting. And then what had happened was at some point is that I had had a year out and done the PGCE in Brighton and trained to be an art teacher, secondary and adult trained. And I got a job at Summerhill School, you know A S Niell, Summerhill. I was the art teacher up there in the mid to late 70s.
FC: Is Summerhill the one with no timetable?
SN: Yes no timetable. Oh what a lovely life.
FC: No nothing? You could just turn up if you wanted to. It must be amazing.
SN: Well it was being the art teacher. Kids would just turn up going… Apart from one kid who kept just wanted to make the Towering Inferno which was a film at the time. He'd say 'I want to make the towering inferno Sue' and I’d say 'what again? Haven’t we made it enough?' And I want to paint it today. No, you would just enable them. You were an enabler, it was fantastic. I think the whole ethos of Summerhill School kind of worked on me because kids were coming in knowing what they wanted to do and doing it. And because they were so busy I was doing quite a bit of my own work over to one the side. I lived in a caravan on site. I still had a house in Gosport which kind of linked me to Gosport, I had been a teacher at the comprehensive school there when all the money came through that’s why I bought a house there. So I kept going back for holidays.
Summerhill School is near Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. It’s got a marvellous bit when there is a spit of land between the sea and the river and I went there when I had been teaching nearly two years at Summerhill. Because I had to decide whether to give my notice in or not. Well, either I sell
the house and buy somewhere near Summerhill School and that will probably be my life although it will be very nice DO I do that, Or do I go back and carry on with these very big figurative paintings I’d started. And I sat looking at the river and the sea…and when she was showing me the photos of Aldeburgh I said that's where I decided to get on with my own work again.
I don’t know whether you’ve had that where it is a series of decisions and then you get taken from it (unless you’re quite luckily well off), by the need to make some money. And that keeps happening.
And to be able to say I am artist I don’t think I was able to say I was an artist until I was probably 40. So I decided to go back to the house in Gosport and I got some adult ed. classes and I became like those kids at Summerhill and I woke up in the morning and thought what shall I do today.
KB It enabled you to enable you?
SN: to enable me. It sort of reminded me. And then I had these ... these people (looking at baby Kaspar) changed things. I managed to keep working but by a thread. Hey Kaspar is that something you are supposed to eat... Anyway … are you sleeping here or do you drag it off somewhere else….?