What drives your passion — when did you know that art is what you wanted to do?
It’s always been there in some form, a kind of undertow to my life even when it was not the most prominent element, but I can’t pinpoint one particular moment where it became clear. I began having music lessons aged 6, and during adolescence I remember sometimes feeling intensely that I must do something with this, make it a focus, or else life would be wasted in some sense. But the degree to which I felt that has ebbed and flowed. I pursued music in various ways, and still do, however, I didn’t apprehend visual art until I was 18. That was a huge turning point and led me to the thread which I follow now, a simultaneous turning inward, and meeting the world.
How did you get where you are now in your career?
I was very fortunate in my arts education, because after what proved to be a disheartening experience of studying humanities at A level, I happened upon an arts diploma which provided exposure to all kinds of work, allowed me space to cultivate my own interests, and with tutors who were rigorous and really immersed in their own practice. Not having had any connection to visual art this came as something of a surprise to my careers advisor, and to myself.
I soon realised that making art could approach the psychological, philosophical, and political in a far more potent manner than the diluted textbook equivalents because there is the vital element of a personal experience at the centre. I made sure to select a degree course (University of South Wales) which would allow me similar freedom to work across different mediums. My work at this time included video/performance pieces, and the landscape drawing practice emerged from this.
Upon graduating I felt I needed to explore other areas, and after a year or so I began the MA in Art Psychotherapy at Goldsmiths. With hindsight it seems to me that in some ways this promoted something of a schism between art and therapy, rather than a truly enriching merging of disciplines, but it functioned for me on many levels, and some of my core interests were the identity of the therapist as an artist, and what happens when the therapist also uses the materials in the clinical work with the client.
I then worked for a time (where I lived in the south of England) as an art therapist in the NHS, before deciding that a complete re-visioning was necessary. My own art had taken a back seat all this time, only making work every now and again, yet there was always a strong pull towards it.
I moved to Edinburgh, devoted myself to a studio practice, cultivating links, reckoning with all the difficult stuff involved in pushing on when relatively isolated, and 18 months later I feel I’ve done what was required in that period — exhibiting, selling, and publication has all featured.
Now there is a certain synthesis of art/landscape/healing, which is at the core of all my work.
What do you make and what are the ideas behind what you make?
I make mixed media landscape drawings, using ink, pastel, acrylic, and graphite on paper. The nature of these materials means that I can embody different aspects of my intention for the work through the physical act of making. For example, I crumble the pastel and apply it using my fingers. This can be quite vigorous, gestural, and the experience is usually one of connecting to the body as being from the Earth, made of its substance, and making the application of the material as tactile as possible. The ink areas can involve lengthy periods of stasis, as a mountain, and in the case of the continuous line work there is a repetitive flow. These contrasts suggest something of the ways in which landscape can be experienced both as an invigorating vastness, and a detailed, delicate, intricacy.
What inspires you?
I was led to making art by a strong sense of how the Earth displays both beauty, and woundedness, tending towards a propensity for healing. I first because aware of this when I studied in Wales, observing the spoil heaps from coal mining. I was struck by a sense that the visual appearance of a landscape could be a reflection, a manifestation of something. Initially, I found this most pronounced in mountains, as they are forms that remind us of our capacity for awe, existing between the finite and the eternal, and this has become something of a language for me now.
Art making intensifies psychic life, and in this respect, I use it to deepen awareness of my own relationship to the Earth, to landscape, and what it reveals. This would be one of the reasons that I don’t make depictions of how a particular place appears visually. I am concerned with engaging on an imaginative level, paying attention to feelings and images that are roused by a place, and acknowledging those as communications from the landscape, eschewing the tendency to write everything off as only ‘my projections’.
Restoring the place of the imaginal in working with landscape in any way, whether it be art, conservation, literature, therapy, academia, science, is very important culturally at this time. There is rightly an increase in work across disciplines that approaches landscape and the wider web of life in various ways.
There is rightly an increase in work across disciplines that approaches landscape and the wider web of life in various ways. However, it seems that much of it is akin to looking at ‘nature’ through a window, rather than stepping out of the door, and maintains a perceived divide between humanity and the rest of life – in the attempt to study it, or do something about it.
Amongst others, someone who is providing me with much inspiration at the moment is Martin Shaw, a writer, mythologist, storyteller, someone who cultivates listening to the land. He suggests that what is needed now is to be in the presence of stories where the Earth speaks through them, and I would say that is true for images as well.
Where do you work? What is your average working day?
I like to begin early, before dawn (when feasible), and this usually involves getting out to somewhere with a view over the city, or a place where water, plants, tree’s and other beings thrive. Breakfast for the Soul. Although Edinburgh is fairly spacious as cities go, it can feel grey, looming, and a little stuffy at times, and so this is like coming up for air.
A regular view to the North is important to me as well. That done it’s to the studio, strong black coffee (which you won’t find on Instagram), some music, and then I’m focused on the work. Usually, it isn’t long before something encroaches, various admin, framing, printing, etc.
Once I’m at the studio I stay all day where possible. There is a mixture of people using the various spaces, a wood workshop next door, French polishing, someone fixing up all manner of things, as well as other artists, and I find it is good to be in proximity to this variety of activity.
What are you working on now?
Final preparations for an exhibition at Whitespace with Rowan Paton, which I’m looking forward to very much.
My work is developing in two distinct styles at the moment in terms of monochromes, and densely coloured acrylic pieces. I am also beginning the largest scale work I’ve ever made.
I’ve not made much music over the past couple of years, however, I’m putting together material for a new album, which will be much more closely linked in with the themes of my visual work than previous efforts.
Outside of the studio, I facilitate a form of group work which I call Creen Craft, which is about bearing witness to Soul through art and landscape. This is in my capacity as therapist — artist and emphasises participants engaging with the imaginal, connecting to what is represented and held by landscape, which we consider on both personal and collective levels.
I’ll be taking part in Expressing the Earth, a conference organised by the Scotish Centre for Geopoetics, on Seil island in June, where I will be presenting a form of this work.
In what way does being Scottish/being in Scotland influence your work?
I moved to Edinburgh from the South coast of England around a year and a half ago, acting upon a call to the North that I have felt for many years. It seemed important to be closer to mountainous regions, and able to access them.
Although I live in the city there is something in my work about the importance of longing, which I would not be able to explore in the same way if I lived in close proximity to the kind of remote regions I like to visit.
Moving here has also made me more acutely aware of my attachment to the land that I know, how I am made of it, the difference between the gentle rolling downland and rugged peaks. It is a kind of tension, important in my work at this time.
Before We Were Even Dreamed, an exhibition by Rowan Paton and Andrew Phillips open 27 May – 1 June 2017 at Whitespace, Edinburgh.
Feature image: Andrew Phillips, A Blue Fire