with Jack Brown, Katy Beinart and Jo Thomas
Caravan, Gillingham harbour
Wendy: …At this time I’m twenty and my mother passed away and I then took a job with my boyfriend’s dad and I worked with him. It was in a much smaller environment but manufacturing. And what I discovered was that I liked learning things and sharing them with other people. So when we got a computer, I was one of the first ones who knew how to work it. Did I want to work in word processing, no I just wanted to share what I had learnt.
So I go to college, and then I come back here and I did some painting, and I say I am a sculptor. But mostly I seem to talk a lot and I don’t really make anything, that’s how it’s become.
So I started with Mark Barnes, he’s an illustrator, he has an exhibition just coming up and we painted together. At that point I definitely was a sculptor but I had convinced him that we should do some painting, and that we should paint things that we wanted to have on our walls. And I had had 3 months in Japan as part of Uni time and had taken all of these fabulous photos of sumo wrestlers and all the cool dudes in the parks and so we painted them as subject matter. And we were painting by numbers because that was the style we were after, cos mark painted ideas of how he interpreted it and we sort of crashed in the middle.
Jack: So did you paint together on the same canvas?
Wendy: Not always but yes, that was where we started from and we called ourselves paste cos I, this was mark’s statement- that he was an illustrator, he didn’t want to be a painter and you can’t blur these things. whereas I didn’t have these things in my head, I was still’ Yeah, let’s do everything I just want to put my name on whatever’ so it took a couple of years to understand why. But we sold the canvases, all 34, we sold the catalogue using his Photoshop skills, we did this catalogue of all these paintings that we’d “had” but we didn’t have. I would thrust them onto friends of family and they would then go to friends of friends but we would paint it and then they would have it. But it didn’t get us enough money to get a studio but it did prove to me that I could sell art. And then my course was 3d crafts, so designer/maker and I joined New designers and pulse shows and all of the trade designer shows and I was turning my artworks into products so my latex and forged steel sculptures, from that I used the technique of the mould making to make rubber handbags which I love mould making. And I was coming up with really cheap ways of doing things. And people who would like the bags were perhaps teenage goths, the people who could afford the bags were perhaps working 45 year olds. So I did it for a bit but I couldn’t carry on with it. But I get bored, I didn’t want to make things to sell. I didn’t know that then but now I do, I’m fed up with trying to flog things. Mark and I weren’t painting together anymore but we were then in a studio. And I had an installation piece called ‘the memory blanket’ and as a mature student doing the course in Brighton in the first year it was about skills, materials and knowledge, but it was ‘I want to know what you can do with a piece of solid plastic’ and then in year three it was about integrity and my response was well I’ve gotten rid of all that now, I just know about materials. So it was about trying to blend all of those things and people not being interested in my story. So all of the work from Japan I used the etching process. And if you photocopy onto acetate you get carbon and that is a really cheap way to do it. But I liked once I had ironed the acetate onto copper, I liked the acetate bit and I liked the shadow lines and from that I started experimenting with laser cutting and went through all of my family photographs. One photo in particular has got me and my mum and dad in, I mentioned my mum passed away so if you know the outline there is three of us but If you know the photograph there is four of us and the fourth person is my mum sitting between us and the only way to see her was to put the hair lines in so I could see her in shadow so it’s this big installation which came from that. In doing that then I graduated and do the shows and I couldn’t see who would want to spend thousands and thousands of pounds on installation but I just wanted to see work and show work and so I thought what course do I do now to fill my brain with? But I kept getting pushed down into making products, so I made some lighting and chandeliers, but then someone wanted them put into different colours from what it was so then that put me off as well. So this then comes back to that I liked working with people. And my dissertation was called ‘the value of touch and the museum approach to visually impaired visitors.’ I must say that sentence at least three times a week. When I came back to Medway I started volunteering for the association of the blind and I run an art group which we are still doing with elderly adults. My newest recruit is 96 and she is brilliant. And its everyone’s stories which is what I love and weaving them in.
Did I just go off course?
Katy: No because I asked you about your process over the last ten years so I guess that’s what you just gave me. So you started off working with products and then it shifted to being more about talking to people, and people’s stories and engaging more with the public dialogue?
Wendy: Yes, and I had a solo show in 2008 with that big memory blanket and it was different colours and they meant different things and you would stand in these shadows and from that I had a very small statement because I didn’t want to put the stories up, what they were about, so I spent loads of time with the work and people were there and then I would talk to them. So basically if people asked about things I would tell them the story behind it. And then they would tell me stuff, all these things, WOW. So then it’s very much about people.
Katy: So just in terms of what you have done more recently, how does that dialogue present itself, or is there an outcome? Or is there not really an outcome anymore? Does there need to be an outcome like that, or is it more about the conversation?
Wendy: I just went to Sweden, and that was a bit of a surprise to be invited to go there.
Jack: Who invited you to Sweden?
Wendy: It was freaky, flukey and lucky. A friend of mine, Sara Norling is a photographer and she came to the UK 10 years ago to do photography at UCA and she has been in Medway for ten years and then she has gone back to Sweden and she was working for Kunst lab for young people and she was doing maternity cover. And everything she has learnt here she is applying there and one of her roles working for the artlab is to book visiting artists to work with their young people and I was her first booking.
I was a bit of an experiment for her and they’ve had other people and her boss said the problem they have found having visiting artists is that the artists are great at their art but they are not very good with the people. And Sara had said’ well I hope Wendy would change your mind with this one’. And there were 120 students during the week and they all had to apply, and then they selected 4 of them, and I had done a project last year called Edna with Lucy Mapleton and Rebecca Ashton and that was working with older people. And it was about Rebecca, she’s a dancer and practices and how they meet and we could transfer that to others. But Lucy Mapleton, the project manager who got the funding for her research project working for people having the onset of dementia, so that was who it was targeted it. It ended up being some older people and carers for dementia sufferers. I’ve just had a meeting with Lucy because we are trying to do more Edna’s and what Lucy had done, this is just taken forever for Lucy to sort out. We worked with, or she worked with Trinity Labaan and the Sydney Dehaan institute and this is the result. So this is the first big project that I’ve done and its been completely taken seriously and its going to public health and everywhere and it’s all about wellbeing and how we can perhaps make a difference which then mirrors where I’m an artist and work with adults with learning difficulties and visually impaired, this area, what’s my role, why? Why am I doing this? I have no qualifications in health even as a volunteer for the Kent association for the blind. We, I say we because I can’t say I, we did a coconut shy at sunpeer house and I asked people to wear sim specs to simulate eye conditions to give you right sided stroke, macular degeneration and you then had to wear the glasses, get a coconut off and, I’ve just lost my thread.. Why did I say that?
Jack: You were sort of saying why as an artist am I working in this field?
Wendy: Oh yes, so I’m being asked about eye conditions by complete strangers and people are asking me ‘well my grandma’s got this or so and so has got that’ and ‘ I can tell you what I know, and of course look into it, it’s got all to do with my dissertation.’ The dissertation started on a ‘ If I can’t see it when I’m older what is there for me to experience, wherever we are, all of us.’ Yeah I’m not qualified in diabetes and what you should be eating, to keep referring people back to the Kent association with the blind, but there is a continuing role for us and it’s only developing further and further.
Katy: it’s just beginning to develop?
Wendy: Yes! So the going to Sweden, so the work I did for the Edna project with Rebecca last year, Rebecca taught us all to breathe, so when we were doing the project, we all do it, Rebecca would join in on my part, so Rebecca would start the session teaching everyone to breathe and I got very excited by the fact that everyone had to lift our arms up, open up our chests, fill our lungs and one of the ladies suffers from asthma. And over the three months her asthma has improved because of this.
Jack: Because of the exercise?
Wendy: Yes, through really gentle stuff. So I one week got everyone to mark their breath using pens and paper, and then you drew your breath. So then that went into all these other ways of using pens, people and bodies. So that is what it went into, I called it Chinese Whisper drawing and that came about because a lady on the Graves End part of this project. She got tired holding the paper, we were circular drawing so all the ladies were holding the paper and we were whispering to them, the person in the middle and they would draw with big charcoal or pastels and May became tired, she said she was going to sit it out. I can’t have you not put your mark on this paper cause we have all the others collected so I taped it to the wall and said ‘ Just go with me.’ We all held hands and asked May if she would just use her right hand and so we just had to mirror the feeling of her arm as it got to you. And then the person on the end was the pencil. And then from that they did it in pairs, and one of the pieces was so amazing, the colours that they used and prompted by another participant about what would you do with this next Wendy? But for me I want to take it away and cut all the holes out. Which is what I did. So the photo you have over there of those statues, that’s then going to Sweden. So we made seven of those pieces for the Edna project but going to Sweden, I asked the students, they, so it led into slightly differently, so I wore my headphones, so they followed my movements and then they would work in their groups and they would take turns. And no one could hear the music this person was listening to, and they really had to, she shouldn’t start wriggling before she was moving. They had to, and that’s the discipline of it. And I have footage and film stuff to put together because it was so mind-blowing for me. It just went off in, (sigh)
Katy: I love that, and that just happened by chance almost, that whole evolution?
Jack: Its nice, a thing like that works very well anyway but then when you hear the backstory to it it’s a really long winded, a really interesting sort of path but then it looks like something that is just a quick idea and is really usable. I probably will steal that idea by the way.
Wendy: Yeah, absolutely
Katy: But what I find interesting is that there is still a sculptural form at the end of that as well. And that’s interesting that because its one of the things I have come across with this sort of dialogue work, working with people is ‘Does there need to be an outcome like that?’ Cause I think in a kind of way that there does, that’s what makes it an artwork but of course it can just exist as a conversation that exists that gets documented but that’s it. I don’t know, what do you think?
Jack: I think outcomes end up more to do with questions of quality as well. Or what the power or people see what the quality outcome of a project whereas times where it doesn’t have an outcome it’s a lot easier for things to go off into a…. You don’t have to, if an outcome or there becomes an outcome, I think those drawings just happened through process really.
Wendy: yes it was
Jack: So it wasn’t like you were thinking by the end of this I need to have some drawings that are on some perspex tubes that are going to go to.
Wendy: yep, not at all, the whole thing developed and we have just had a meeting for another Edna project and there’s a new member to the team and she works for the Medway older people’s forum so not on our arts background but she’s coming in to help the funding and she said ‘ What will you do on the next Edna? Will you do the same thing? and I said ‘ No, we won’t do the same thing because it’s about meeting the participants and finding out what they are interested in and its participant led, so we gather, we share and we bounce and that’s the only way that we can, certainly how I can work. I find it quite tricky when its, and even having meetings. ‘What will the art look like?’ So I end up giving examples of what has happened before.
Katy: Ok, so in terms of how you work, would you say you prefer to evolve something with a group or with an organisation?
Katy: Do you ever go for commissions, or do you find that quite difficult?
Wendy: I have tried to go for commissions, and then this route has taken hold.
Jack: When you say commissions, did you mean like a permanent piece of public art?
Wendy: yeah, like an open call.
Jack: like a town centre type sculpture type thing?
Wendy: yes, I did that a few years ago, a few of them and the actual process of it I quite enjoyed. I didn’t like the interview side of things, people staring at you but the ideas generation, I like being prodded and poked like that.
Katy: yes that’s true
Wendy: but this other stuff has taken hold and the work I do with the Kent association with the blind, as I am a volunteer, I’m incredibly passionate about it and I would like to get funding, it’s a permanent conversation I’ve been having about how I can develop that but I can’t let the lack of funding stop me doing that. Because then that feeds everything else. And working with the KAB, well the people I work with, that opened my eyes up to ‘ well if I go blind later, well there might be some touchy feely stuff for me, and what about a whole load of other people, like my dad who is scared of artists, my family, my cousins and stuff who maybe won’t go to the cathedral because they are going to have to pray, but it’s not it’s just a beautiful brilliant building so it’s all this opening up and accessibility to what’s stopping people and sometimes it’s just ‘ are they friendly?’ ‘Will they bite me?’ no they won’t. So there is a bit of a joining up thing going on with different groups I am working with.
I did have a commission from the cathedral, we, in 2009 the cathedral asked the KAB and me to display work and that was a challenge to myself because I was bored of my own voice, I keep talking and making artwork happen for other people and I hadn’t made anything for a couple of years. So could I do the talking and make and the answer was yes. So I did, I made some work and the cathedral could see from doing the, they asked from doing the research if I could make a tactile version of the fresco. And the fresco is about 35m by 20m, its vast. It doesn’t matter how large it is if you can’t see very well, it doesn’t matter. you still can’t touch it even if you got up close you would just have a big fuzz in front of you. So they had money from their HLF left over, so me and the group met up, so it was the end of their pot of whatever that was, and I worked with the KAB and we came up with what we should or shouldn’t include within this tactile piece and how should the tactile piece look? And I imagined breaking the story down into perhaps 12 tiles so you would follow the story, that was my thinking, this is what it will look like and it became apparent that to break a confusing piece of artwork down into 12 puzzle pieces, if you can’t see and you’ve got the hand of god at the top and you’ve got the people of Medway down here, and I’ve put them in a line, it just doesn’t represent what is going on in front of you. So I had had this idea that of course it’s understandable but of course it’s not if you don’t have any vision. So it is a solid story and the whole piece is together and it’s in bronze and I worked on my own doing the carving into clay and the story is more or less, I’ve copied what is there.
Jack: So it’s what it was, a relief?
Wendy: Yeah, and I loved it. And that was the first time I had worked on my own for a very long time and I did all the carving at home in our basement and…
Jack: Well I bet that took a very long time.
Wendy: It did, we put a thousand hours because it just sounded sexy but it was more like 1827 and 17 minutes but it was bonkers. I loved it. Really, really, so the final piece to go with that is a braille book and a clear print but that funding has to come from elsewhere.
For me answering a dissertation question and that’s come from volunteering and now if I’m, or if a family member asks what do you do? I can’t say I’ve got a piece of bronze art in the cathedral. They understand.
Jack: Well that makes sense to them.
Wendy: Talking to people, and making plans and working plans out, it doesn’t make sense to them, but that does.
Katy: Where do you see this going? Would you rather go that route? And what do you think in the current climate with funding and opportunities, where do you see it?
Wendy: I am, I think people will get tired of listening to my voice and then I also don’t have time to replenish and re-nourish. I found Sweden hard work yet really nourishing and I’ve come back, take all the images, do all the film and since then I’ve worked on lots of other projects. Some were there and things popped up. I keep thinking I need to study, to give myself a step back, to force myself, win the lottery. But then still, what’s the role of me? Why am I being asked to, why do I even put myself out there to be in projects like health and wellbeing? I love it, I want to, so there is a role for us to explore that further without just doing it. Sometimes you’re just doing it and doing it and there’s …
Jack: Sometimes just how you operate as a person not just as an artist as well. And some people will operate don’t feel that is an important route in their lives. You might just happen to make art while you are on a journey, and other artists who make similar work might be more interested in a kind of more academic study in a more detached, British library researching something with white gloves on type of engagement.
Wendy: I think I have enjoyed the Edna one because of the academic input that has come from it. People then, they’ve just been asking me for my opinions and it’s great to see that it does have an impact that has a value. And I’m certainly not a researcher or an academic.
Jack: But the language of that, or even just the visual language of that pamphlet and the fact that it’s got some tables in it, you flick through it and just that looks valuable. Its more valuable maybe to other people who aren’t used to a contemporary art practice and wouldn’t really get the value of a… If that was presented as an exhibition with just the drawings for example, that pamphlet, the way people read that changes dramatically and that looks like a piece of valuable research.
Wendy: Absolutely, well we, when it came to Lucy, the project manager working with researchers and institutes, she, the images came from, I asked will there be images in there? Will there be visuals? And thinking then that there wouldn’t be, it would be text, an academic piece of writing. And I argued that then if I give that to people that I’m working with there has to be a meeting in the middle. She said then that it has to be taken seriously by the academics and public health. So for me it was an opportunity to blend the two because you can’t keep separating them. The art was massively important, it’s just as important. So they’ve blended it, so they’ve worked with Gary Weston, who does similar work and who could understand all that.
Katy: I think what you say about being able to reflect upon your role as well, and having that time and that space to just be able to…
Jack: It’s what I always think I should budget at the end of a project as well, just one week paid as I am going to have a week at the end of every projection.
Katy: Like evaluation time?
Jack: Not even that, after evaluation time, you so often end up working for a week.
Katy: That’s what I mean, evaluation time is often something you end up having to produce something for your funders or organisers, but then it’s a different thing to have artist time to reflect and think of the longer view as well.
Jack: This is what the caravan should be for, just give it to artists as an in between project space. To come and sit for a few days and read a book and not think. You often think your best thoughts about a project a year after it, not when you are writing your evaluation. Or you realise what is important a long time afterwards.
Wendy: Absolutely, the Edna Project I was asked; Lucy was put in touch with me, because I was just finishing a project called the art of movement by Michelle Chorley and Peter Cook; that was with a residential home in Gravesend with a special needs school in Ifield. And that came about from a one off going into Ifield’s school I was asked by a teacher to do some handcasting during their communication week with all the students to make signs. That didn’t quite work, but what I was fascinated by was the movement, if I could find some funding could I come back into school?’ Because I do get roped into to doing free work, so now that’s just for the KAB. So Lindsey Thompson, the arts manager at Gravesend, we keep talking about projects. She always takes time to talk about how we might get a project going. And we were talking underneath my wire lady in my studio that I had done which brought it back to the movement with the dancer and that’s how the art of movement was born.
So in the residential home, it was too much for one lady to hold a pencil so I took some sand in on a tray and she drew in the sand. So that then led into the students at the school dancing in 60L of sand, and all of their movements are then cast in plaster, and then we make the moulds and then silicon and clear resin ones and then ice ones as well for the finished work. Which is what got into the Edna project, based on the art of movement.
Katy: It all seems to be about the senses, and how you make visible senses that are no longer there, almost as if you translate them.
Wendy: Yes, how to make a breath stand out, how to mark a movement without just freezing it or filming it; trying to use skills I already have. And when I haven’t got skills I try and work with someone else. That’s why I love the working with other people, working with a dancer is very different from working with an illustrator.
Katy: It’s interesting though you said that in the beginning you started out making products, and now it’s definitely less entrepreneurial. But do you make a living from your practice?
Wendy: I just had a conversation with Helen from Sunpeer house who works very hard as well about this. It doesn’t equal what we do but I don’t want to do anything else. So I keep my head above water. I went to a networking event a couple of years ago and I had to write a letter to yourself and receive them six months later and I had written by the time I’m forty I want to be in a house with a mortgage. I’m a couple of years over that, we’ve been in the house 3 years now, and I’ve had all of that before when I was a secretary but I’ve left all that. And my father is like ‘ Why did you leave all that behind? Nice house, nice car- I know but if you want to kill people it’s a… So now it’s about making wise choices in the projects I get, and I think I am very lucky. You have to keep your ear to the ground and pursue what you want. I’m mentoring someone but actually it’s about having a chat. But I need to do my own mentoring.
But this isn’t sustainable at the moment, I’m spread so thin, I’m almost starting to lose the plot. (Laughs)
I’d like to show work that I have done that isn’t to do with the participants. It takes a lot of energy making other people’s work and not interfering. Just sharing what I know.
Jack: I think I can share a bit better in a non-physical way, internetty kind of way. There are some artists that I really like that do it really well where you get snippets of their practice, a short video here and a quote there and those little pieces are really beautiful actually. They haven’t got to the stage of a big show and they work in a really participatory way but they still manage to capture bits that are there and it’s definitely theirs and it’s different from their practice.
Wendy: It’s the capturing that I find so exciting to see. That’s what I had in mind about making a film about the Swedish experience, I just have to get something down and put it out there.
Jack: That something for you.
Wendy: yes, just for me. For the cathedral project I wanted to get a book, just get something done by blurb with some text. I haven’t done it.
Katy: I think you have hit on something that is really important, which is so often with public art, or socio participatory art, the outcome gets a bit lost, and then in the long term they just get a bit buried. How do you take seriously the long term impact of what you are doing, and how you produce that and share that so that it’s valued equally to a gallery catalogue? And almost having a post project event or screening or a book launch that happens almost a year later that continues to allow the project to be shared. I suppose the same thing happens with exhibitions but exhibitions live on through the work being sold or being shown in other places, they have that flexibility of the travelling of the work. Once you have done that project in Sweden how does it go beyond the site that its in, and how does it travel to other people and other places?
Wendy: I came back and decided I wanted to do this project about ‘walks of life’. Go to a priory and work with monks, anyone, sections of society. The kids here, you didn’t hear their music, I then asked them to write the tune down- so some of them were death thrash metal, others were all sorts. But the marks they made were very different and I would love to have brought everything back with me, and some of them I didn’t want to cut them up, they were just so beautiful and really gentle. Once they got into it and relaxed it was their approach that makes me bubble.
Katy: And I suppose you are working close to home? Is that important to you? To be based close by?
Wendy: I think it’s just happened that way. The KAB is Kent so that is why that’s happening here.
Jack: There seems to be quite a good pocket of funding here, like quite a rich place to work from.
Wendy: I haven’t applied for anything, it got a bit confusing for me, I was going to apply for creative people and places but I talk myself in and up for stuff and out of it as well. I would like to go further afield.
Jack: I think finding time for a proper two week thing is important but how do you find the time. With our kind of work the nature of it is hard to see the thread to it all.
Katy: but when you do look back it becomes clear.
Katy: About the audience
in your work, where the people who are the participants are also the audience, or is there a greater audience outside that that you feel like you want to reach? Or is that not really important?
Wendy: As it happens, seems to be the exciting part for everybody. When you have the celebration event at the end, that’s what the participants want. But getting to the celebration is not as exciting as what we have just done. We had 2 celebrations, one in Rainham and one in Gravesend, the one in Rainham we had enough space for everybody to be doing activities. So we got everybody doing activities in public for other people to watch. I’d like to do this, and then have an audience watch, more of what’s been going on, and then that would develop, perhaps you could get the audience to join in and then their movements would become included behind this shadow screen as well and they would be incorporated into this breathing, Chinese whispering, shadowing and projection.
Jack: The thing with that particular project is for a second audience to watch it means that they might do it themselves and copy it and that is really useful. Whereas an audience with a set of sculptures there would be nothing to copy, but with that its important for there to be a secondary audience in a way. Because it spreads the good practice that you have created.
I was in a school recently, a teacher was chatting to me, and I was distracted by what was on the wall, small person height all these really rough scribble marks on sheets on paper. So tell me all about that.
It’s a program that is taught in nursery in reception and it’s about strengthening the muscles in the hand for writing, and they do it through what we have just done with Edna. It took me until I was 46 to learn that. But they are doing it. It’s the gross motor skills that you need and then you get the fine motor skills later on.
Wendy: I need to share that with the group.