What is your earliest memory of an artwork and who was it by?
My grandfather, E.W. Aldworth, was a very talented amateur watercolourist, painting mainly horses and country scenes. He drew brilliantly. He got up every day at 5 and painted for 2 or 3 hours. I used to sit with him and watch him painting on his kitchen table.
Our family house was filled with his paintings, and being an artist was much revered. There was one painting of a street scene from a country village which hung in my bedroom. From a very young age, I would spend hours looking at it - imagining what all the people in the painting were doing. It was a portal into another world. When I was in my early teens, he showed me his sketchbooks from his time in a prisoner of war camp during the 1914-18 war. They were harrowing and extraordinary drawings – and started a life long interest in looking at artists’ sketchbooks. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an artist.
You studied Philosophy at Nottingham University before going on to study printmaking at Sir John Cass in London – How important was your study of philosophy in your decision to become an artist and printmaker and how does it inform and shape your work today?
I have always been curious about the world, and interested in ideas. As a child I drove my family mad asking questions like – What is the moon? I want it! In my teens I read Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and was intrigued by Existentialism. So, it was seemed natural to study philosophy at university – to have the chance to explore the history of ideas. I wanted to understand what it meant to be human.
But the pull towards art was always very strong. After university I worked as an art editor at Oxford University Press, and then as a magazine designer at the BBC commissioning artwork. Finally, I made the decision to go to art school, and to pursue a career as an artist. My work was always “ideas led.” I loved printmaking because it was unpredictable, often revealing unexpected marks through process. It seemed a perfect medium for me to use to explore my ideas and concepts.
An accident in 1999 led to me finding an even closer relationship between philosophy and my artwork. During a diagnostic brain scan, I found myself lying on a hospital bed watching the anatomical workings of my brain real time on a monitor. It was a seminal moment. I was watching myself think. What then is a brain? How can a piece of flesh summon up consciousness, imagination and a sense of self? Since then I have collaborated with doctors, neuroscientists, and philosophers in pursuit of an understanding of workings of the mind. I have developed radical print techniques, sometimes using brain scans alongside drawn and chemical marks, to visualise and find a voice for my thoughts about the fragile relationship between the brain and our sense of self. The fragility of being human.
Talk us through your creative process. Where do you begin?
My creative process usually starts with research and drawing. Working as an artist in residence in a clinical or scientific setting is central to my practice. My research starts in pursuit of an idea – for example, what is consciousness? How is it conjured up the human brain? What do neuroscientists know about it? What do philosophers have to say about it? Can I watch a mind at work? I went to draw people undergoing brain scans in the neurology unit at a busy London Hospital for a number of years to find out about the brain. I also took their testimonies as to what consciousness felt like to them.
Armed with this research, and all my location drawings, I disappear into the studio and start to experiment. For the consciousness project – which became the exhibitions Matter into Imagination and Scribing the Soul – I wanted to make work which was a visual equivalent of consciousness. I made a decision to work in etching, but wanted to work in white or negative lines rather than the usual black line of the medium. I found a way of drawing underneath an aquatint to give me the white lines I wanted, and started to throw chemicals at the surface of the plate to give me the chemistry of the brain. I wanted the etchings to look alive, as if they had caught a moment of thought. I managed to get all the marks I wanted in one three minute etch. These works were the suite of 29 Brainscape etchings.
I have used this methodology of working in other projects including one exploring the many narratives of living with epilepsy. The work I made from this research culminated in a series of two metre high portraits of 3 people with epilepsy. These works were shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 in the solo exhibition Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised.
What is your favourite time of day to be in your studio?
My studio is a private sanctuary where few people are allowed access. I love all my time there, but my favourite time is after a good day’s work when I have cleaned up the inks and rollers, settled the new prints under boards to flatten. I sit looking out of the window at sunset with a very singular feeling of satisfaction. My studio is on the fourth floor of an old factory overlooking the Olympic Site in East London. There are enormous skies with fast moving clouds, lots of weather, lots of birds playing on the wing.
What convinced you to join Bridgeman Studio for licensing and what would you most like to see your images licensed for?
I was approached by Bridgeman after they saw my work in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2015. In the past, I had often been approached by publishers or individuals for permission to use my artwork on book covers, and I thought it would be sensible to have someone else handling that side of my work for me. I was unsure, but after meeting Charlotte and talking through how my work could be used, I decided to join Bridgeman Studio. Charlotte was interested in my work, understood it, and she was also sensitive to the fact that there were certain areas I didn't want my work to be licensed in. I was aware of the Bridgeman Library's excellent history in handling the licensing of the work many great artists, so I was confident that they had the expertise to market my work in a way that I would be happy with.
It seems to me my work has application for editorial and book covers. But I am also open to unexpected ideas or new commissions.
Your work is currently on show in Realisation at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Tell us a bit more about the premise of the exhibition - It sounds fascinating!
Realisation is an intelligently curated exhibition of work from two British artists which challenges our assumptions of reality. My intangible prints, 'Transience' and 'Passing Thoughts' resist identification, yet they actually derive from the physical touch of human brain issue and portray real people. In contrast, Jane Dixon's photograms, 'Evidence of Doubt' appear to be photographic records of real organic forms but are in fact imaginary and drawn by the artist.
In my twenty-two works in the exhibition Realisation, I explore the brain as matter. I made a suite of prints – a historical first - etching directly from human brain tissue. In partnership with the Parkinson’s Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital, and working with master printer Nigel Oxley we developed a technique whereby we could capture the authentic marks of the brain on an etching plate. Working with a human brain was a transformative and emotional experience; the images revealed themselves gradually through this very ancient process and the prints, although taken from a cross-section, unexpectedly seemed to expose a consciousness at work. Passing Thoughts, the digital prints of the brain which are also included in this show, were serendipitous - they captured a transient image which existed momentarily and then disappeared like a thought.
You have recently been working on a beautiful series of new work under the title Sleep – Could you tell us a bit more about what inspired the series and talk us through some of the more ‘unusual’ materials you used as part of the print-making process?
As part of my investigations into the working of the human mind, I have recently become very interested in sleep. I am artist in residence at both York University working with scientists, and concurrently at the Sleep Disorders Centre at Guys Hospital in London working with clinicians and patients. I am trying to build up a picture of sleep from many different perspectives. We spend a third of our lives asleep and during that time - with the exception of transient periods of wakefulness and recalled dreaming - we are completely unaware of ourselves and our surroundings: perhaps this is why there is little written by philosophers about sleep, rather treating it is as a death-like negative experience. What is this transition from consciousness to unconsciousness? What can we know about it? What happens to the ‘self’ in this dark time of sleep.
As sleep is an invisible state, a sort of nothingness, it has presented me with a number of challenges. I focus my work around pillowcases as they are a symbol of sleep, and printing from feathers and human hair as these are some of the imagery associated with pillow and this sleep. I have continued my ‘voice’ of working in negative of white line, by printing in silver on black etching paper. These works have come out of a lot of experimentation in the studio with different ideas, materials and processes. They have taken me 2 years to complete as I always fight to get a good marriage between form and content.
How would you sum up your practice in 5 words?
Experimental, curious, challenging, technical, interdisciplinary.
What artwork or project are you most proud of and why?
The Transience etchings which I made from direct contact with human brain tissue are a historical first.
What three things would you take if you were cast away on a desert island?
The smell of my children when they were babies, my etching press and a life time supply of Velim Arches 300 gram paper. I could make inks and everything else from the plants I found there.
If you could pick 5 artists, dead or alive, to have dinner with who would they be and why?
Goya – because he is a genius, and the most humane of artists.
Picasso because his drawing and printmaking is breathtaking. And he would have been such good company and a great flirt.
Louise Bourgeois because in her 90 years she was central to giving women artists a strong and significant voice within the history of art. She would have a great deal to say.
Helen Chadwick because she was a genius who sadly died too young. What work would she have gone on to make?
William Kentridge because his work is rich, witty, political and simply inspirational.
Find out More
Realisation: Recent works by Susan Aldworth and Jane Dixon will be exhibiting at the Fitzwilliam Museum from 13 Sep - 5 Feb 2017.
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