Mary Knight is co-curating and exhibiting in ‘On the Brink’ a sculpture exhibition in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House that is open both weekends of the Trail.
We asked Mary some questions about her art practice and ideas.
Julie: Please tell us about the work you will be showing in the Leytonstone Arts Trail in 2016.
Mary Knight: I will be showing a range of 3D pieces from the ‘Borders of Illusion’ series, about the plight of refugees and all global travellers. These are installations with steel and other metal structures which also use polypropylene sacking and beach rubbish. I am thinking about a Teresa May washing line but that would need another beach trip and I might not have time! Finding the right rubbish for the occasion cannot always be done to order. You go out for orange plastic but can only find black pieces of a car, say.
This is a hanging piece of sculpture made from beach rubbish (mainly bottle tops but some netting), plastic vegetable sacking and found metal. The ‘language’ of much of my art is sort of ‘gung ho’. I don’t make many attempts to hide the seams and fixings. You can see how it’s done, with glue gun, metal wires and for expediency at times, velcro. I also use a heat gun to solder like to like plastic together. Plastic is very scientific and different types behave in different ways, annoyingly!
Julie: This is the 9th LAT. Have you taken part in the Trail before and what did you do?
Mary Knight: Last year I showed my ‘Welcome’ rug in the Red Lion pub. This was one of the first pieces I made in the ‘Borders of Illusion’ group and it needed a big wall. In 2014 I showed in the local Creative Bloc group show, Set in Stone, at the Fill the Gap Gallery next to Leytonstone Station. My exhibit was a photograph of pebbles on the shores of the River Thames right outside the Tate Modern. By chance, one of the pebbles had managed to encompass a larger-than-the hole sized day-glo plastic ball.You had to wonder how it got there. (You see these everywhere, I don’t know why. Every day there will be a smallish day-glo plastic ball in your path. Start looking!). It was really set in stone, but ‘…was it art?’ as I heard a visitor say.
Julie: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Mary Knight: My artistic background is a bit choppy. I did a pre-diploma course (now called foundation) at what was then called Wimbledon School of Art. I then got waylaid by other matters and apart from elaborate doodling, did very little in the way of visual creativity. Academically, I turned to Cultural Studies as a first degree which has informed my subsequent art practice in many ways as I pondered the history and development of socialist aesthetics and politics. It wasn’t until 2005 that I started to wonder if it was possible to pick up from where I left off some 40 years earlier. I bought a little oil paint set. It took another 5 years to pick up a paintbrush – on a weekend away I bought a used kit from a charity shop in Bexhill-on-Sea and sat outside the De La Warr gallery, painting the sea. (I still have the new set, unopened). After some adult esd classes in life painting and drawing and watercolour painting, I did a year’s Advanced Practice class at the Mary Ward Centre which replicated an (unaccredited) firs year of a degree. Here, I moved into 3D work for the first time since the 1960s when I remember struggling with chicken wire, bits of wood and plaster, feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing at Wimbledon. Since then I have taken part in ad hoc classes such as welding, mould making and printmaking, to broaden my capabilities.
This is the oil sketch I first painted with the used oil paints, brush and board bought from a local charity shop. The one that broke the 40 or so year ‘silence’ on painting in around 2010. A passer-by stopped and was rather kind about it, which was heartening.
Julie: What kind of things inspire you to create art?
Mary Knight: What inspires me? I like to look for a purpose with my 3D work so it’s not so much inspiration as hard work that helps me end up with something bordering on, but never quite finished. Searching but not quite finding a resolution, so I guess you could say my work is always in process, always an experiment. Thought and theory. I have always been interested in life on the edges, and when I started my 3D work was looking for something that challenged, rather than absorbed the status quo, both in form and content. 3D offers me a bigger range of ways to try to tell the stories I want to. Narrative opportunities, a concrete comic book.
I like to work collaboratively at times and really appreciate sharing and gleaning ideas from others but it is not always easy to find someone else who doesn’t mind this way of developing work. Of course there comes a time when one is generally alone to make decisions, what goes here, why not there, and the starting ideas. I find these come mainly when I am collecting the materials, either from the human and geographical realities – the market, the beach on the borders, or from the materials themselves. This is when I think the hardest!
This 3D piece has shown on its own and as part of a scenario in the Borders of Illusion series. By the way, Borders of Illusion: Freedom-Bound was its full title. It is a symbolic narrative about the plight of refugees stuck outside our national borders, anarchic, brave, brimming with terrible mental health problems and, that amazing human characteristic, with hope too.
Julie: How would you describe a good day in the studio?
Mary Knight: I don’t have a studio so … a good art day would be to make progress, to end the day having solved some creative or structural problem that leads to progress the next day, or produces new ideas about the way forward (which can be a nuisance, but you have to listen to them unless you are time-led, in which case a good day is one where something resembling completion – that will be where I must stop sort-of completion, occurs). Sometimes, with 2D, I imagine a good art day would be to get anywhere further than an incomplete sketch, to stick with it rather than jump to something else. At present I am working out of doors and a good art day would be to hold back on rain and for the glue sticks, ordered some weeks ago, to arrive at Argos!
I am forced to work outside right now as I am working on a large steel sculpture that won’t fit through the doors. Otherwise I work at my living room table but at the moment it is inaccessible, or paint/sketch/print in classes or out of doors when the fancy takes me. Often I just look instead. Been staring at cow parsley for years and then another year flies past. Would love a studio, but wonder if I would be any more productive.
It is not all plastic or 3D. This is one of those unfinished sketches I mentioned, in watercolour. Next year I will capture the whole tree, that’s the idea anyway.
This is work in progress in my back garden. Hard steel rings, a metre in diameter, have been wired together and covered in chicken wire. This is in readiness for the next stage, applying the polypropylene vegetable sacking as a first layer of colour. I rather like this metal structure as it is but it needs to be ‘casting shadows on the borders’ as it will be a giant and unlovely sun, similar,to the smaller version shown above. You will see it is near to the bird feeders. I keep having to move so the adults can feed their young. Lovely to watch, not good for progress!
Julie: What challenges (if any) do you face in preparing yourself and your work for the Trail?
Mary Knight: In preparing work for the trail the main challenge has been to settle on what to make, what to show. I am co-curating the 3D show ‘On the Brink’ and it is easy to put time into the business of, say, publicity, rather than collect materials so that I can make anything at all. I am struggling with a little miscalculation of size at the moment. A metre in a straight line is VERY much smaller than a metre diameter in a sphere, it really is. Time is against me and now, on the brink is a very real concept as new ideas seem to rain down on my brain … and another confusion gets in the way. Should I focus on Teresa May’s washing line, something I suddenly wanted to do since last Sunday, and drop the ‘shadows of their former selves’ scenarios? Too much thought can get in the way of action. Is this what they call ‘procrastination’? And what about doing a participatory piece, to get the visitors involved? And then little bits here and there … you can see what happens!
This was the Borders of Illusion welcome mat (plastic sacking, beach rubbish, about 2m x 1.2). It has been exhibited independently of other pieces and within a more elaborate installation too. It was shown at the Red Lion pub in the Leytonstone Arts Trail in 2015. By then the barbed wire had been removed and flashing lights added, to replicate that tatty seaside feel. Ideally I’d like to have real broken ones, where one or two splutter more than the rest but I’m short of the electrical knowledge that could make it work.
Julie: Do you collect art?
Mary Knight: I don’t collect art, really. I come from a family of artists, mother, grandmother, great aunt, uncle, grandfather’s mistress’s uncle, cousins … and have a lot of their work which I don’t want to part with. I do collect the occasional piece of pottery but it’s more egg cups by famous potters than studio pieces, unless I get lucky in a charity shop one day. I’d love to collect old English pottery, slipware, but I don’t. I have friends who do so I can go and look at their collection instead.
Julie: Please tell us something you really like about Leytonstone.
Mary Knight: I like the green bits at the top, (Hollow Ponds and so on), along with the Central Line, good enough buses and easy access to the south east as well as east and north. For me it is a town of escape but OK to live in as well, a multi-cultural space with splendid front gardens dotted about.
Julie: Besides the Trail, what is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or on-line?
Mary Knight: Once the trail is over I would like to develop quite a lot of work or at least have ideas sketched out. I have several ideas that have yet to come to fruition. They are larger than the space I have, of course, so unless I know they are going somewhere, they cannot be made. I never find maquettes helpful, the scale change defeats me every time. However I would like to do more on my multi media ‘lost property’ project which has been rumbling for four years. My very large piece (working title: Casting a Shadow on the Borders) will need to be homed somewhere or collapsed. It would be good to start looking around for exhibitions and competitions that are up for a challenge. Set up a website too. Must see this task through. I have a temporary Facebook page – where some of my art can be seen, as a process (pictures and words) and finished work, though mysteriously, quite a bit of it has vanished from the page in a baffling, Facebook way. Have a look, it’s out there somewhere!