Sim Smith Gallery Interview

Sim Smith interviews Lesley Halliwell for Sim Smith Gallery

The Sim Smith Gallery works closely with a select group of artists to exhibit at significant contemporary art fairs and off-site exhibitions and projects whilst promoting the work of its artists to collectors, curators and museums from around the world.

Sim Smith has specialised in representing emerging artists since 2007 and is a member of the Association of Woman Art Dealers. She studied Italian and History of Art at University College London with a specialism in Fine Art Practice at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. She also has a Masters in The History of Contemporary Art from Università degli Studi di Roma III, Italy. 

Your artistic practice started with painting, what led you to initially pick up the Spirograph?

I originally trained in Fine Art; I’d always been a painter, always wanted to be a painter, and I still think of myself as a painter actually despite the fact that I have been drawing for over ten years! My large Spirograph drawings are in fact very painterly and it is often hard to believe that the lush sticky ink and intense colour are the product of simple biro pens. I’d been painting up until the point that I started an MA at Manchester Metropolitan University, which was about 15 years ago. Previous work had been very much about pattern, materiality and nostalgia for the home. I remember having a tutorial with my lecturer and she encouraged me to interrogate the source of that obsession. I went away, found photographs of when I was younger, growing up in the 1970’s; there I was in a pink dress with floral background, patterned carpets and geometric wallpapers. There was one particular snap that reminded me of a Spirograph, which I remembered playing with as a child. I went out and bought one and the rest is history! I had no idea at the time that it would grip me like it has but, for me, there have always been new questions to ask and things to explore and as long as I feel that the work has a purpose, the Spirograpah drawings will continue.

Is there anything else that has made you stick with it?

Earlier on the process certainly fitted my lifestyle. It’s the sort of thing that you can do for a short space of time, you can work on a drawing for 10 minutes and then roll it up and put it away or you can work on it for a few hours. While I was doing my MA I had two very small children, so snatching time like this fitted in with my daily life. Sometimes I think we can forget about the practicalities of actually making work and how that fits into everyday life. Also, I suppose I must have a slightly obsessional nature. The works are really repetitive to make and there is something about that process that I find re-assuring. When I sit down to draw it is like coming home. It is a strange relationship though and there are other times when I hate it! My back and arm will ache or I can feel queasy and dizzy; it’s like a love-hate relationship but one that is very hard to let go of.

You use the same shape and the same motif, repeating it 60 times an hour on average, one shape every 60 seconds, there is almost always a long journey ahead when you start, there must be a big sense of anticipation there?

There certainly is and I’ve written quite a bit about the ‘journey’ I travel through when making a drawing. At the beginning there is a huge sense of excitement, rolling out the paper, planning and then drawing the basic design in pencil. This is especially important with the recent works, which have more complex kaleidoscopic structures and have to be drawn accurately. If this underlying structure is wrong then it’s just not going to work. So at the beginning there’s a sense of excitement - there’s the hope of what might happen and there’s a sense of the unknown and unexpected. Although I plan the drawings out I still never quite know what will happen along the way; how different colours may sit together or when the biro will run out of ink. Then I move through this period of “Oh my God, I’ve got so much to do” and because I know how long it takes for me to use each pen I know exactly how many hours of drawing lie ahead. So there’s a period that’s a bit overwhelming and I have to force myself to draw. In fact, I can find any number of excuses not to draw! And then towards the end of the drawing it gets exciting again. It’s a little bit like when you’re reading a really good book; you want to get to the end because you want to find out what happens but you also don’t want it to finish because you know it will all be over.

How do you choose your pen colour, do you plan what colours you will use?

In the early days of the Spirographs I only used standard biro colours; black, blue, green and red and I’d only use one colour in each drawing. It’s interesting though because even pens from the same pack can vary in colour and thickness of ink so even in the monotone drawings there are all sorts of variations of texture and colour. I think it was about five years after I’d been working with the standard coloured biros that I came across a packet of 24 multi-coloured pens from a well known high street stationers and I’ve been working with these ever since! The work is very much system led and I used the pens in the same order that they came in the pack. In fact, it’s always really annoyed me because there are three shades of purple pens in a row yet the middle one is actually blue so sometimes I cheat and I change that one (but don’t tell anyone!). In recent works I’ve been altering the order of the colours. I’m using my knowledge of the process and my understanding of the materials and their potential much more consciously nowadays. I think this is giving a whole new life to the drawings and I’m certainly excited about future drawings.

What made you name your works based on the time it takes to make them?

Because everyone who saw a drawing asked me how long it took! I always make a note of what time I start drawing and when I stop, be it 3 minutes or 30 minutes, so it’s like clocking on and clocking off of manual labour. I suppose by putting the time in the title like this it gives value to the hand of the artist and the labour involved. In an era when technology is rife and images can be easily and quickly reproduced I think we have a growing respect again for things that are handmade.

You spoke briefly about the laborious nature of it and sometimes that it’s even painful, can you expand a bit on that?

The drawing process is very physical and draining on the whole body. Strangely enough it’s not the drawing hand that causes me a problem because that’s constantly moving, it’s the other hand that has to hold the Spirograph template down so that it doesn’t slip. From my hand to shoulder to back; they all ache after a days drawing. I now have to pace my drawing so that I don't do too much in one go. I know there will come a time when physically I just won't be able to draw like this anymore, but for now, as long as I pace myself and don’t overdo it too much I should okay for a little while longer.

When you start working on a piece, or mid way through a piece, do you find that you establish a rhythm, do you find that things get quicker or easier or more challenging?

There are moments within a drawing when it flows really easily and there are others when it is much more difficult. I tend to make more mistakes when I’ve been drawing for a long time, at the end of the day for example. But sometimes it’s because I’ve been distracted or not concentrating sufficiently. I used to be able to draw for long periods of time, 2 hours without stopping whereas now I can’t. I try and keep it to 30-minute sessions and then have a break. So Spirographing certainly doesn't get any easier, it’s a bit like playing a sport, if you over do it you’ll exhaust yourself or do yourself an injury.

Although you stick to quite a rigid set of rules, do the materials, their limitations and your physical limitations sometimes surprise you?

It’s odd because you would think that by working to a set of rules the work would become mundane and prescriptive but I actually find it the opposite. The nature of the materials, their limitations and my own physical limitations all breathe life and energy into the drawings and make each one different and special. I need those surprises during the making of a drawing to keep me hooked and motivated to finish. I recently finished a drawing called Beauty is the First Test, 3026 Minutes, which is made up of five linked circular shapes. I had an idea in my head of how this might look but it really didn’t come out like that, it was far more beautiful than I thought it was going to be. That’s one of the exciting things about working with the Spirograph process; you’re in control to a certain extent but the process is also in control of you.

There is a definite intersection between mathematics and making in your work, does the use of different materials like the envelopes push your understanding of pattern and the concept of the infinite that we see in your works?

For me pattern doesn't just sit on the surface, there’s an important structural element to it as well and I have recently been thinking about how I can develop the Spirograph drawings, and whether there are elements that can be explored through different materials? The envelope series, which is something that I will be doing more of over the next few years, is about investigating the structure of pattern. I am making hexagons and pentagons using a compass and a ruler, I’ve been looking at Islamic Art and patterns related to that and ideas associated with the infinite. My Spirograph drawings have always been confined within the edge of the paper, no matter how big the drawing is, whereas with repeated patterns there is a sense of the infinite that really appeals to me.

I think that when lots of people think about pattern they think about interior spaces, and decoration, but a lot of your work has been inspired by the space that the work is going to be exhibited in. Are you interested in architectural pattern and design?

I’m really drawn to architecture. Strangely enough one of my favourite architects is Adolph Loos, well known for his stripped back Modernist buildings, who argued that any form of decoration simply ‘gets in the way’. It’s ironic really that I like his work so much! Because my larger drawings are so imposing they cannot avoid working with the space they are hung. Often the paper fills an entire wall. I would like to find ways to work more directly with a space although I’m not convinced that Spirographing is the way forward for this. I recently made a string work, Spectrum, for an exhibition in a farm in Cheshire where I used coloured crochet thread wrapped around the bars of the goose pen. I liked the way a line drawing from my sketchbook became a 3-dimensional installation inspired and enhanced by its environment.

Do you try to elevate the use of pattern in art alongside the use of everyday objects such as the Spirograph, biro or envelope? Is it a way of imposing validity on the object, creating beauty out of the banal?

I think it is really yes, although it hasn't always been a conscious decision. I'm drawn to the idea of elevating a material and encouraging people to look at it in a new way, or even noticing it in the first place. The inside surface of envelopes are really fantastic. Have a look at them as they come through your door this week and you’ll be amazed in the variety and complexity of the patterns!

When we think of pattern, we think of skill and artistry, hours spent in the making. How long it takes for an artist to make their work is such a common question, in basing your titles on the exact time it takes to make the work it is clear that this question is important to you too?

Historically there is a correlation between labor and value and to a certain extent that probably still applies today. There’s also an interesting connection with ‘women’s work’ and mundane labour; there are many things that take a long time but aren't necessarily valued. By titling my works in such a way I’m drawing the viewers attention to the actual making of the work. These drawings aren't clean, shiny products; they are handmade and raw with evidence of the artist’s hand every step of the way. Pattern has a long and troubled history within Fine Art, at times it has been allowed to flourish and at others it has been suppressed. I’ve recently received AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funding for a practice-led PhD where I plan to explore many of these issues further.

When do you know the piece is finished?

When I reach the edge of the paper! Sometimes, usually with commissions, people will ask for a drawing of a certain size so I’ll cut the paper and look at it and think, “I want to go bigger!” The drawings just grow, they’re so organic, and it’s a shame that they have to be contained by the paper.

I enjoyed reading your ‘Reflections on a Repetitive Process’ looking at the parallels between walking and your practice. The idea of success and failure plays an important role here, the long distance walk as a personal, physical and psychological challenge and your interest in the famous long distance walker Ffyona Campbell from the 90’s. Could you tell us why her story interests you?

I was fascinated by Ffyona Campbell as a strong and independent woman. She gained some notoriety in the 1990’s for her walk around the world, crossing four continents and eventually gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Many people saw her walk as a failure because she admitted to cheating some time after she’d supposedly finished the walk and went back to do those parts again. There was something about the humanity of her walk that I liked, because it’s not perfect and I think that’s what I associated with. My own drawings aren't perfect either and mistakes are what make us human after all. In her book she talks about how she promised herself treats at certain points on the walk, so after 2 hours of walking she could have a can of Coke, really tiny things that would motivate her and I related to that especially. I do that in the studio and promise myself a cup of tea when I finish the next pen! They are little techniques to keep me going. In the early days I didn’t anticipate mistakes to be such a fundamental part of my work, I wanted the drawings to be beautiful and that is what I strived for, and still strive for, but that aim is jarred by human error. Even with the small envelope drawings I set out to make these perfect little drawings but maybe there are some smudges here or there or the envelope itself disrupts the image. Similarly, the Spirograph drawings are handmade, not computer generated and it’s that human presence in the work that draws the viewer in.

In your essay you reference another long distance walker Robyn Davidson for a different reason, looking at the act of repetition creating space to reflect on the past in immense detail but with emotional detachment. Does working in this way allow your mind to wander?

I think sometimes people think I go off in to some sort of Zen like space when I draw, which unfortunately I don’t. The whole process is a little too demanding for that but I do find a rhythm to work to which can be relaxing. I listen to the radio when I work and quite often I put programmes on to the iPad or listen to interviews with artists, there are a whole range of things, or sometimes just music, or sometimes just in silence. There is an element where I do just ponder on things and often once I’m working I’ll get ideas for other works or get excited about what else I could be making and the idea of the next piece often comes whilst I‘m working on the current one. My process, as it is for many artists, is very insular until the work is put out there in a gallery for people to see, but while it’s being made it’s just between the paper and me.

The action of the repeated motif, of the pen running dry, of faded marks has been said to elude to working over the same material psychologically, unconsciously, a cathartic going over, possibly memories from childhood and the past. Would you say that you agree?

Repetition is a huge part of my practice and something that I have thought long and hard about. Some see repetition as simply the act of repeating, doing the same thing over and over again yet each time we are re-working the past, trying to recreate it and do it exactly the same. But each of my Spirograph motifs are different, no two can ever be exactly the same and as I’ve said before in earlier writing, it is the change that runs through a repeated series that interests me so much. My early drawings were much more connected to ideas about nostalgia and re-working the past and by exploring childhood games such as Colouring-In books, Etch-a-Sketch and Spirographs there was certainly a desire to revisit the things I enjoyed but do think my focus has altered over the years. I suppose there are several different themes going on in the work now, all at the same time.

The experience of making the work has obviously changed; do you feel the outcome has changed too?

Yes, I see more complex things happening in the work. In the earlier drawings the fact that I was using a Spirograph motif was very important as it stood for a time and a place. But now I don’t think what it is is as important; it’s a mark-making tool and it offers me a regularity and a rhythm that I’ve not found in anything else.

If practicality and costs were completely removed, are there any projects that you would like to be able to realise?

That’s a really interesting question to be asked because it is one I very often ask my own students! Scale, in relation to repetition, is something that continues to intrigue me. I’ve just finished a drawing called Fanatic II, which is a huge multi- coloured semi-circle on a very large piece of paper. The image itself measures 500 by 240 cm and is the matching half to Fanatic I, 4500 Minutes so when the two are hung together they will make a stunning 500 cm diameter circle. I just need a fantastic space to hang it in now! 

Sim Smith (2014)