‘I am drawn to cigarette cards, clock workings, small parts of things, screws, stamps, and so on, and I like to have a lot of them’.
Lesley Hilling is an English self taught artist working solely with recycled materials. Here she is interviewed by French academic Valérie Morisson.
When did you start collecting objects? Do you remember when you were first attracted by old objects? Was it related to a place that was familiar to you or to a person?
I was attracted to old objects from a very early age. I can remember being very young and mum bringing home small items from my grans house, rings, cigarette cards, little boxes – and they became my toys. My grandad – who I never knew – collected everything from coins to stamps, old newspapers, medals …. I was encouraged to collect stamps and I loved the aged quality of the old stamps of my grandads. I can remember afternoons, as a very young child sorting through my grandad’s cigarette cards and stamps with my mum, trying to catalogue them in our amateurish way. Mum would say ‘these will be worth something when you’re my age’ – they weren’t !! But a wealth of material for art making. It feels like I’ve always collected and sought after objects that for some reason, probably embedded in my childhood, strike a chord with me. I still enjoy rifling through second hand shops and car boot fairs although I’m trying to cut back on the amount of stuff I actually buy these days.
If I am not mistaken your assemblages mix objects that belonged to your family and objects bought on car-boot fairs. I am interested in this blend of the intimate and the other and I like to view your works as materialisation of a deep connection between people, of an archetypal material imaginary which was sketched by Gaston Bachelard. When you buy objects at fairs do you associate them with specific people or stories?
Yes I do, very much. For example the photographs I am attracted to will be of working class families similar to mine, from my childhood or from my parents time. Once I bought a bunch of primary school photos of large groups of kids taken in the sixties. I showed one of them to each of my friends and asked them to pick me out. They all picked this one girl out and insisted it was me – even my dad thought it was me. So there is a kind of generic look to our past – a collective history and that’s what I’m interested in and some how want to preserve. The objects I use in the work come from a similar place, the old mincer that our mums would use, various ornaments that were on everybody’s side boards. And this cuts across cultural borders – many of my friends whose parents came over from the West Indies or Indian sub continent share the same memories of similar items. So the objects are related to us by being from a working class background.
Many artists who recycle objects or materials collect, store and treasure them for a long time before using them. Is it the case for you? What happens during this long time when objects are dormant presences in the studio?
They incubate! I have a room that is full of stuff for my work. Even if I didn’t use the objects for art I would still store all these things because I feel very tender about them. Periodically I go through it all rearranging and being inspired by it. I’m 62 now and my memory isn’t so good – I can never find that thing that I want so sorting through everything is something I do a lot – and often never find what I’m looking for, but something that does the job better!
When seeing images of your home and studio I cannot help thinking of fairy tales or fictions in which a door or a cupboard offers a passage into another reality, an escape into a world where mystery and exploration allow for heightened perceptions. How does it feel to live among these objects?
There is a real feeling of cosiness and safety – of being surrounded by my memories and my family. This also goes back to my childhood. Two of my favourite books were Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking glass. I know I’ve sub consciously made my environment to reflect those books that gave me so much solace when I was a child. A lot of the things in the house – like the doors – I have become accustomed to. People come round and are amazed, but we are so used to them we don’t notice with that sense of wonder. Things become familiar.
One of your works, On Longing, bears the same title as Susan Stewart’s book in which she explores narratives of the miniature and collections. Her ideas are obviously relevant to your work. She relates the miniature to the intimate. What kind of intimate memories or feeling would you relate to the miniature?
Definitely loss and a longing for the past. I am drawn to cigarette cards, clock workings, small parts of things, screws, stamps, and so on, and I like to have a lot of them. Holding something small and old in the palm of my hand reminds me of my childhood and there is something comforting about that. On Longing was actually named after Susan Stewart’s book as it struck such a chord with me.
The combination of very small elements and large structures in your assemblages offers the viewers a possibility of travelling into a maze of images and memories. It evokes XVIIth century cabinets of curiosity which became fashionable when people started collecting natural objects to celebrate the diversity of the world. It also reminds me of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. What have been your sources of inspiration?
Both the cabinet of curiosity and Joseph Cornell have been a huge inspiration for me. I came to fine art quite late in life – I was a graphic designer for many years – I began by making collages and small boxes. A neighbour introduced me to the work of Cornell, it was like having a door open on a brand new world. Learning about his life was important too, his strangeness made my strangeness acceptable somehow. Another huge influence has been the work of Louise Nevelson and the contemporary artist Leonardo Drew. Music is a big inspiration, especially jazz. Its the polyphony and the structure and the layering that really feeds into the work.
I have heard you mention nostalgia. Nostalgia is often defined as a yearning for an ideal home that never existed, a desire for homeliness than cannot be fulfilled. Could you tell me more about your idea of nostalgia?
For me its a longing for a past that never was and also a past that I never knew. You could say that Cornells work is nostalgic for places he never travelled to, his fascination with France is a romantic one of his imagination. Ours wasn’t a happy family and my mum would look back on her childhood and especially the war years when she was really happy and share her experiences. We watched a lot of old films from that time too and I fell in love with the style and glamour portrayed. Mum looked back on the war years nostalgically, because she was happy in the forces and had better times than working in a factory. She seemed to forget the terrible stuff that happened – I think thats what nostalgia does – you see the past with rose coloured glasses.
Living in a digital age and one that often overlooks materials and matter, I am fascinated by works like yours or Phillida Barlow’s that enhance the materiality of objects, the textures, colours of each component. Sculpture has long put materials to the service of idea(l)s. Is your technique a means of resisting the move towards dematerialisation?
Yes. It isn’t a conscious thing but I think I am resisting not only dematerialisation but the encroachment of the modern world. Because of the digital, people can overlook the skills and materials used in even the simplest job. When graphic design migrated to the computer screen, the skills we had previously used -at drawing boards, laying out type and images, cutting, resizing etc were not needed any more. Theres something so human about touch – how someone shapes materials, cuts wood, throws a pot, holds a brush, and so on. To lose touch with this is to lose touch with our history and our humanity.
Wood is central to your work. It requires specific techniques of joinery which have persisted throughout the centuries and entail a very physical contact with the wood. Have you always been attracted by wood and the traditional know-how joinery necessitates?
Yes I have. My dad did a lot of wood work and as a child I would watch him, intrigued by the tools. He’d give me small pieces to play with, snippets of ply and chunks of teak. It was very natural to me to move from paper collage to wooden structures. I went on an adult education class for many years where we learnt all the joints and put them to good use making cabinets and other furniture.
For more information on Lesley, go to her website: www.lesleyhilling.co.uk
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